THE LOOKING GLASS SELF
In 1902, C.H. Cooley published a social theory that I believe holds up over a century later – “The Looking Glass Self.” The basic premise of the theory is that our behavior is shaped by our perception of how we believe others see us. In other words, perception of “society” is a mirror and we behave in a way that we believe makes us look the best.
You might not realize that you do this, but you do. We all do.
When you have a job interview, you consider what clothes to wear based on what YOU BELIEVE the interviewers would want you to. You do not know what they expect, so this is all based on YOUR PERCEPTION of what you THINK that others actually believe.
Have you ever wanted to say something to someone, then considered what you perceive their reaction will be and changed what you said? That is the looking glass self.
This chess match between our actions and our anticipation of perceived reactions is central to most, if not all of our interactions.
The more you consider this theory, the more merit you should give it. It is quite good.
However, for Christians, this SHOULD not be so accurate.
THE LOOKING GLASS GOD
2 Corinthians 3:18 – “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (emphasis mine).
Christians should not consider what society thinks, but what the Lord thinks. God should be our mirror, and we should only concern ourselves with what He thinks our actions ought to be. When we peer into the “Looking Glass,” the glory of the Lord should shine back to us.
Unlike with society, where we can only perceive what they want from us, we have a more sure word (2 Peter 1:19) – the Bible. We can KNOW how God wants us to act.
We KNOW that God wants us to be changed into the same image as the Lord.
We KNOW that we should be “not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16).
We KNOW that we must be “holy; for I [God] am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).
The Book is filled with principles for living a holy, shameless, Godly life. We must study the Bible to show ourselves approved (2 Timothy 2:15), because God’s word is “given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
When we do this, then we can begin to look more and more like Jesus Christ to God, to ourselves, and to others.
THE LOOKING GLASS SELF – THROUGH GOD’S EYES
What does this look like in practice? I am glad you asked.
I recently wrote an article on clothing in which I presented the argument that Christian apparel is derived mostly from cultural (society) than Biblical instruction. I mentioned the “slippery slope” argument that is often presented when I deviate from traditional beliefs on attire at my independent, autonomous, fundamentalist, Baptist church – that one day a woman will wear slacks, and the next there will be bikinis in the choir.
That is absurd, and this modified “Looking Glass Self” will help explain why.
Because I KNOW that the Bible condemns nakedness – including our undergarments (see the aforementioned article for more), I would never suggest such an absurdity as promoting swimwear in lieu of skirts.
That being said, I would suggest doing what my pastor once said he did with his own daughter – stand in front of the mirror (a physical one), and ask if the Lord would be pleased with the outfit. Knowing the principles about nakedness, I believe the Holy Spirit will help you discern the correct answer.
If you stand before the mirror and think, “no, the pastor’s wife will give me a dirty look if I wear this” – you are once again using the “Looking Glass Self” from the perspective of others, rather than God.
Because the Bible is not explicit on some things, like clothes, music, entertainment, humor, etc., the Christian who is actively seeking GOD’s approval through the Holy Spirit will more often make a decision that reflects God’s glory than not.
THE LOOKING GLASS SELF – THE INNER MAN
Another aspect of this is the concept that we have an inner and outer man (not gender specific). The outer man is the physical body, and the inner man is the spirit.
When we are born, our spirit is dead. However, when we accept Christ as savior, we are “born again” and the dead spirit within us becomes alive (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:1-5).
2 Corinthians 4:16 says, “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.”
It is our inner man that will live forever with Christ, and the Holy Spirit renews our spirits each and every day.
For the Christ-centered Christians, it is our inner man who should be contemplating the “Looking Glass” and adjusting our behavior until the image is like Christ’s.
That is why our churches need not be dogmatic about non-explicit traditions. “The man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful” is blessed (Psalm 1:1), and any man who does the opposite will stand out like a sore thumb whether or not they are peer-pressured into compliance by dogmatic church folk.
Your inner man and God should be interchangeable, because your inner man should see through the Holy Spirit’s eyes.
As I said before, if you are adjusting your behavior because of your concern for others, then you are staring at the wrong “Looking Glass.”
REFLECTIONS ON THE LOOKING GLASS
One way to gauge your progress as a human being is self-reflection. Understanding your own behavior and being empathetic when understanding the behavior of others is a difficult, but rewarding venture. That is why so many organizations are teaching “mindfulness” to employees.
Consider the “Looking Glass,” and how many decisions you make because of it. Consider how others do the same as we all try to interact in society.
One way to gauge your progress as a Christian is self-reflection through the eyes of God. Understand how God sees you. If you are unsaved, then God sees a potential believer whom He loves greatly and desires to see born again. If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior, then God only sees Christ when He looks at you.
That is a wonderful thought! No matter how sinful of a creature you are, God only sees His Son in you. Christ’s righteousness has been imputed (charged to our account) on those of us who call upon the name of the Lord to be saved (Romans 4:11).
“The Looking Glass Self” is a fantastic theory for understanding human interaction, and I do believe that my abridged theory is applicable to Christians.
The questions to contemplate are:
- Which “Looking Glass” do I want to use? Society or God?
- Whose eyes would I prefer to use? The outer or inner man?
I know my answers. What are yours?