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 Casting Stones

Wishing You copy

The Scarlet Letter is a fascinating exploration of the impact of sin and confession in our lives. It is not difficult to draw numerous parallels between this text and what God says about sin and our response to it, and to learn a great deal about ourselves in the process.

Because this story is set back in the 1700’s, some of the shock of the story is lost on us modern readers. A woman who has a child outside of marriage is not scorned as she once was, though perhaps a woman who is married and has a child by another man receives some public disgrace.

Even if we cannot relate entirely with the circumstances of the time period, the fact remains that we are prone to pass judgment on others, belittling them for our own benefit.

Though Hester Prynne is publicly shamed for her actions, repents, and is yet compelled to wear the emblem of shame on her breast, the Puritan townspeople cannot dismiss her past and allow Hester to live in redemption from sin.

Looking on as she leaves her prison cell, the townswomen converse:

“ ‘The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch . . . At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madam Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she,-the naughty baggage,-little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!’

“ ‘Ah, but,’ interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, ‘let her Wishing Youcover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.’

“ ‘What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead? . . . This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statue-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thanks themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!’ ” (Hawthorne, 36)

Through these voices, we hear judgment on Hester. Though the second shows a modicum of mercy, the others come from women who believe they are in a position to pass judgment, distancing themselves from Sin in order to feel better about their own conduct. Further, they believe that they are in the position to suggest what Hester’s punishment should be.

In the book of John, we see Jesus’ response to very similar circumstances. The Pharisees bring a woman to the temple where Jesus is teaching, a woman caught in the act of adultery. They refer to the law transcribed by Moses calling for the woman to be stoned, trying to maneuver Jesus into a corner where they wished him to either refute Jewish law by letting her go or to refute Roman law which did not allow Jews to enact their own executions.

Wishing You copy 2“But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when the continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’

“And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

“When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers or yours? Has no one condemned you?’

“She said, ‘No one, Lord.’”

“And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’”

“Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.’” (John 8: 6-12)

Jesus’ response is perfect. He acknowledges that while adultery is sin, as outlined in scripture, there is redemption in Him. The woman was not defined by her sin, rather, she was permitted to start anew walking in the light of Christ.

Jesus’ focus is not exacting punishment for sin. Jesus’ focus is on breathing life, his life, into the woman. In telling the woman to sin no more, He shows that his focus is on her future.

God has given us great grace and mercy, and by His example we ought to offer the same to our fellow man. This does not mean we don’t know sin for sin, but that our focus is on the future rather than the past.

What if we treated people with the same love? What if we, rather than chronicling some sinner’s past deeds, considered the potential they have in Christ.

This week, the challenge for us is to second-guess ourselves when we think and talk about other people. Are we gossiping as the townswomen did about Hester Prynne, distancing ourselves from Sin to appear more righteous? Or do we show mercy to others as God has shown to us, by allowing us to walk free from the sin of the past?

Thanks for stopping by, friends. Happy reading!

The Great Gatsby and God, the Spectator

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.06.31 AMScott Fitzgerald’s novel of love, obsession, and the American Dream tells the story of the Great Gatsby through the eyes of Nick Carraway. In a tumultuous summer, Carraway is swept into the drama of adultery, deception, and the rendezvous of star-crossed lovers when he moves next door to a mysterious millionaire in New York, a man once known by his cousin, Daisy. As Carraway spends more time with the elusive Jay Gatsby, he discovers that there is much more to the man than his illustrious personage, and that there is a grim fascination with wealth and comfort that pervades Long Island, even those people closest to him.

Fitzgerald uses setting and various symbols throughout the novel to illustrate themes such as class, obsession, and greed. Today, I would like to focus on one of those symbols, one which I believe speaks volumes about how Fitzgerald viewed God’s role in day-to-day life, a perspective that still pervades society today.

As you may recall, the layout of the New York landscape is described as being two eggs: East Egg and West Egg. The characters traverse these realms numerous times in the novel, often traveling between West Egg and New York. This area, called the valley of ashes, is surveyed by an oppressive billboard depicting the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. Carraway describes:

“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.” (Fitzgerald, 23-24)

As you know, reader, these eyes overlook a terrible incident later in the novel when Myrtle Wilson is run over by a car which belongs to Jay Gatsby. Though many witnesses can attest to what they saw, only the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg truly saw what happened, and the events leading up to that fateful day.

Lamenting the loss his late wife to Michaelis, a witness to the events, George Wilson considers Myrtles actions in life:

“‘I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window’—with an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it—’and I said “God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!”’

“Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.

“‘God sees everything,’ repeated Wilson.

“‘That’s an advertisement,’ Michaelis assured him. Something made him turn away from the window and look back into the room. But Wilson stood there a long time, his face close to the window pane, nodding into the twilight.” (Fitzgerald, 159-160)

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 11.08.36 AMDifferent readers and literary theorists have different ideas about what the optical sign represents. In the second passage, it is clear that Fitzgerald wants the reader to make a connection between the optical sign and God, even if the idea is only coming from Wilson. That symbol provides the perfect perspective the novel gives on God: an omniscient being who sits back as a spectator to the events below.

I’m struck by this image of a distant, apathetic God, and I get the impression that this was Fitzgerald’s view, one which many after him share: God is not part of the day-to-day trivialities of human life, but watches from a distance—judges from a distance. How cold and depressing that seems to me for several reasons, all of which we find completely refuted in scripture.

First, the symbol of the optical sign as God’s presence in the world suggests that God’s purpose in creating mankind was to sit back and watch it destroy itself. We read in Genesis, after creating the earth, light and dark, creatures of all shapes and kinds, God chooses to create another being.

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-28)

This passage is so important because it shows us firstly that we were created in His likeness—meaning His ethical, moral, intellectual likeness. We are not just like any other created thing in the universe; we are created by God with the ability to think, empathize, comprehend, question, and love. These are all actionable qualities given to us by an actionable God.

Secondly, these verses show us how active God is in our world. Apart from creating the universe itself, God creates us as imperfect but beloved creatures in His likeness, and gives us dominion over all other facets of creation.

Finally, God blesses us. In that blessing we see touches of that loving Father who wants the best for us but gives us the latitude to make our own decisions. Blessing infers goodwill, favor, and devotion, all qualities that cannot be genuine unless they are embodied in an active, present God.

The second issue with this apathetic view of God is that God is depicted as only a pair of eyes—not feet to follow, nor hands to direct, nor lips to speak wisdom, nor arms to hold us.

Doesn’t the very idea of God being distant fill you with sadness? I can’t imagine living life thinking that God doesn’t care for me deeply, that He doesn’t desire relationship with me. God shows us how much he desires relationship with us by sending His Son, God in the flesh, to the earth.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17)

We know these verses so well, but the concept, I believe, is woefully foreign to many. These verses show God in action. God coming down to earth to spread hope, to breathe life, to offer salvation. This is the reason that the symbol of God as the billboard sign is flawed: God is not static. God is not distant. God is with us.

But like Fitzgerald, many people today believe that God—if He indeed exists—only desires to watch our failures and tell us what terrible sinners we are later.

If you find yourself feeling that way, feeling that God has no desire to be part of your life, I challenge you to reconsider. God tells us in Isaiah 9:6 that with Jesus’ birth, we have hope. “For unto us a Child is born, Unto as a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” God is our Father. Our peace-giver. Our Counselor. He wants to help us through life as we seek Him in prayer, reflection, and worship. He knows we will sin, but that is simply part of the journey of life and it doesn’t define who we are or His love for us.

If you understand that God wants to be part of your daily walk, I encourage you to thank God for His Presence, and to think of someone in your life who doesn’t believe she has a loving Father. Ask God how you can be that love to her, how, in His likeness, you can walk in love.

What are your thoughts? Did you view the symbolic meaning of the optical sign differently, or perhaps connect this symbol with other scriptures? Please share your comments, ideas, and questions below!

Thanks for joining me, dear reader. Check back next week and we’ll look another symbol from The Great Gatsby—the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

Hope to see you then, kindred spirit!