The Scarlet Letter and Learning to Accept Mercy

Wishing You copyGod graciously extends His mercy to us, but we must be willing to accept it in order for the power to affect our lives. As we’ve discussed, Hester Prynne has confessed her sins to God and walks with new life in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. She accepted God’s mercy, whereas Arthur Dimmesdale has been unable to find peace after stumbling.

After Dimmesdale confides in Hester his torment of serving in the church and having this sin fester in his soul. Hester chides:

1“You wrong yourself in this . . . You have deeply and sorely repented. Your sin is left behind you, in the days long past. Your present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems in people’s eyes. Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works? And wherefore should it not bring you peace?” (Hawthorne, 131)

Dimmesdale responds:

“There is no substance in it! It is cold and dead, and can do nothing for me! Of penance I have had enough! Of penitence there has been none! Else, I should have long ago have thrown off these garments of mock holiness, and have shown myself to mankind as they will see me at the judgment-seat. Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret!” (Hawthorne, 131)

Dimmesdale cannot see past his sin. He cannot believe that God forgives him, because his focus is on how He views himself rather than how God sees him. When we don’t accept God’s grace, we put the emphasis of our Christian life on works rather than focusing on God’s gift. This is the opposite of what God wants for us. His desire is that we would understand we don’t deserve grace but receive it nonetheless, and from that grace God’s work is completed in us.

Ephesians 2:8-10 proclaims:

2“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

When we allow sin and its shame to devour us from the inside out, we are limiting God’s ability to work through us. God wants to use our shortcomings to show us how great His mercy is and to enable us to walk by faith in that grace to do His work.

Have you accepted God’s grace in your life, or are you focusing on earning God’s favor through an exemplary Christian walk?

I would like to challenge us to transform our thinking, and allow God to heal us of all self-deprecation. God loves you, and loves me, enough to extend grace when we don’t deserve it. We don’t have to earn his love. He is our merciful Father God, who sees beyond our blemishes and our imperfections to our hearts.

Allow this love to heal you so that you can walk in His love and do the work that He has called you to do.

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The Scarlet Letter and the Power of Confession

Wishing You copyWhile Hester Prynne bears the shame of her sin in a crimson emblem, there is more than one scarlet letter in Hawthorne’s tale. Comparing the lives of Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale, the other bearer of the scarlet letter, the reader learns of the power of sin to wreak havoc in our lives, and the greater power of confession to overwhelm the shadow of sin.

Hester pays daily for her sin in the form of her shame, the ridicule of others, and in watching her daughter grow up the scourge of society. Though Hester was forced to face public condemnation for her sins, her daily response to this sin is a decision that Hester makes of her own accord. When Governor Bellingham threatens to have Pearl taken away, Hester explains how her response to her sins can effect positive change in the future:

“ ‘I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!’ answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.

“ ‘Woman, it is thy badge of shame!’ replied the stern magistrate. ‘It is because of the stain which that letter indicates, that we would transfer they child to other hands.’

“ ‘Nevertheless,’ said the mother calmly, though growing more pale, ‘this badge hath taught me,-it teaches me,-it is teaching me at this moment,-lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself.’ “ (Hawthorne, 76)

Because Hester has confessed her sins to the Lord, she is able to look at her sin as an event of her past that she can learn from and teach her child. Hester is not bound to the shame of her sin, but through it is able to see truth.

Dimmesdale, however, harbors the shame of his sin because he has not confessed it. Daily, he wallows in his guilt, unable to realize the mercy extended to him by the Lord, nor the invitation to walk in new life. Dimmesdale expresses his misery while he meets with Hester in the woods:

“What can a ruined soul, like mine, effect towards the redemption of other souls?-or polluted soul, towards their purification? And as for the people’s reverence, would that it were turned to scorn and hatred! Canst thou deem I, Hester, a consolation, that I must stand up in my pulpit, and meet so many eyes turned upward to my face, as if the light of heaven were beaming from it . . . and then look inward, and discern the black reality of what they idolize? I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the contrast between what I seem and what I am! And Satan laughs at it!” (Hawthorne, 131)

Because Dimmesdale bears the scarlet letter of sin on his soul, he cannot walk in the light of Christ’s redemption. His focus is on the irreconcilable difference between what people perceive him to be and what is in his heart. Unlike Hester he has not learned to cope with the sin of his past, but instead bears it on his own soul, a weight not can bear.

God promises us that when we confess our sins to Him, he will take away the burden of our shame and give us the lightness of living in His light.

“This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:5-9)

Wishing YouGot knows that in our sinful nature, we will make mistakes. That is inevitable. But what He calls us to do is to recognize the gift of redemption He has given us in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sins to the cross so that we could have life. Refusing to give our shame over to Him limits our ability to recreate us.

Are there sins in your life that you’re still allowing to shame you? If you’ve confessed your sins to the Lord, He will forgive you and cleanse you. Pray that God would help you to realize that forgiveness and walk in the newness of His life.

Thanks for stopping by, friends. Happy Reading!

The Great Gatsby and the Elusive Light

4The more Nick Carraway spends time with Jay Gatsby, the more he realizes that there is some mystery, some deeply affecting mission which drives his neighbor to abandon reason and logic in pursuit of one thing: the green light on Daisy’s dock.

When Nick first encounters Gatsby, he sees him outside the mansion at night.

“He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.” (Fitzgerald, 20-21)

It is important to note that the first time the men meet, Gatsby is seen outside of his mansion, outside of the wealth and pomp that have defined him in West Egg. This is an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment for Gatsby. The man known for his extravagant displays of wealth, constantly surrounded by hundreds of important people, a man of mystery and poise is stripped of his material goods, alone, holding out trembling arms toward this distant green light. This image gives us a glimpse into what Gatsby is about, what he is really searching for. It also infers that his wealth and semblance of material and reputational success have little to do with it—an idea we will explore more next week.

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But what is this green light that has him transfixed?

As with any literary device, symbols such as these are up for debate. Many believe, rightfully so, that the green light represents the uncertain future. Others, that the light represents the American Dream. I do not disagree with these ideas, but I would like to explore another perspective in the following paragraphs.

For a time, I believed that the green light symbolizes Gatsby’s Idea of Daisy. He pines after this lady, this perfect woman on a pedestal of nostalgia, a person who no longer truly exists. His quest is to be reunited with her and to share the future together.

But why Daisy? Why now?

The romantic side of me would like to believe that Gatsby truly is in love with Daisy and that he has been waiting for the opportune moment to profess his intentions. The more logical side knows that there is something deeper going on here, something more engrossing than emotion and more compelling than obsession.

One layer of Gatsby’s mission is the need for power. Once jilted for his lack of wealth, he now seeks to prove his worth, both monetary and individual, by stripping Tom, Daisy’s husband, of that worth.

After Gatsby’s party, which Daisy and Tom attended, Gatsby and Nick talk about how she liked the party, her impressions, and the future. Nick relates:

“He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you.’ After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago.” (Fitzgerald, 109)

Certainly part of Gatsby’s reason for asking this of Daisy is to prove her love for him, but another purpose is to siphon power away from Tom. If Daisy says she never loved Tom, Gatsby can take the pride in having held her affection all those years, a position which asserts his worth above Tom’s.

We see another vulnerable moment here, when Carraway challenges Gatsby’s expectations of Daisy:

3“‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’

“‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’

“He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

“‘I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,’ he said, nodding determinedly. ‘She’ll see.’” (Fitzgerald, 110)

This gives us such a great insight into Gatsby’s character. After all these years of things working out for him, of meeting Dan Cody and obtaining the wealth he never dreamed possible, he believes he can go back in time and fix the one thing that was broken: his relationship with Daisy.

Here, we find that deep, psychological drive behind his pursuit. It’s more than love, more than power, and more transient than wealth.

Essentially, the green light is a search for identity and self-actualization. Gatsby believes that if he can gain the love of the woman who once discarded him, he will find peace within himself. He will also have proof, through marriage, to offer the world that he is a valuable human being.

Gatsby’s story reminds me of an Old Testament hero who also had fulfillment issues surrounding relationships with women. Samson, a man blessed by God with supernatural strength, seemingly has everything he could possibly desire. With God’s power, he defeats a lion and the Philistines. But Samson has some issues as far as women are concerned.

First, Samson insists on marrying a Philistine woman, even though the Israelites were constantly at war with them. His parents asked if there was anyone else, to which Samson declares, “Get her for me, for she pleases me well.” (Judges 14: 3)

If this woman did indeed “please” Samson as he believed she would, one would imagine that he would be content in that relationship. Not so with Samson. After getting into a heated argument over a riddle, Samson gives his wife to the best man from the wedding. Then, the author of Judges makes a point of sharing that Samson visited a harlot while in Gaza, and then that he “loved a woman in the Valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.” (Judges 16:4)

We all know how well that relationship went.

Samson, in a word, seems unsettled. Despite his good standing, strength, and valor, he needs to have a woman in his life to prove something. To prove his value, his allure, or maybe to curb loneliness. Sounds familiar to Gatsby’s need—a drive for fulfillment that can never actually be realized.

People have different goals, motivations, and dreams in life, but I think we all have some variation of Gatsby’s Green Light syndrome. There is this one thing that we fixate on, believing that when we obtain it, we will find purpose or meaning or affirmation.

We can learn from Samson’s shining moment in history; his most vulnerable hour—standing in the temple of the Philistines. Hair shorn, muscles weakened, eyes gouged out, Samson is led by a boy to lean on the pillars. There, stripped of all power, Samson calls out to God, recognizing that his strength and identity is in God and glorifying Him.

“O Lord God, remember me, I pray! Strengthen me, I pray, just this once, O God, that I may with one blow take vengeance on the Philistines for my two eyes.” (Judges 16:28)

God grants Samson’s request and defeats the Philistines. This only happens when Samson recognizes his mistakes and his desperate need for God, and God responds in a mighty way.

Are you looking for meaning in material things? In prestige, or wealth, or romantic conquests? I know I’ve been all too guilty of this. But the beautiful thing is, God promises us that we will have life in Him. Romans 6:20-23 says:

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were 2016free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What a hope we have in Christ. He gives us our identity, our purpose. We need nothing more, because there is nothing greater than that promise.

I challenge you to pray about whatever green light unsettles you in your life. Address this weakness, and talk to God about why you have these feelings. Seek wisdom from God. He loves you, and He wants you to live by His power, His strength, and most of all, in His love.