What if sin wasn’t just that happened internally, but we could see it physically? What if sin was a monstrous dragon that devoured children in the night, or a painful disease that scabbed the skin and stiffened the joints? What if we could see sin on a portrait, one that changed and deformed to reflect the wrongdoings of the person pictured?
The last, of course, as many of you have doubtless realized, is the situation in Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. I read that book in high school and shuddered at the final lines, which I won’t quote here for the sake of those who haven’t yet read it. A shallow, hedonistic young man lives without regard to morals or decency, yet remains unchanged and ageless. The only testament to his wickedness is the portrait of himself, hidden away deep in the recesses of his house, that grows increasing “loathsome of visage.” It faithfully records the ravages of every excess, every foul deed, every fit of rage. Its hands, rather than Dorian Gray’s, are stained with the blood of those whom Dorian tramples in his unending quest for selfish fulfillment.
And so Dorian traipses merrily through a foul underbelly of a life, blissfully unaware of the reckoning that must take place.
Because, in the end, a reckoning is always required.
And that’s the crux of the matter, really. Sin will out. Ultimately, we can hide nothing. The deeds we perform alone in the dark behind closed doors only seem secret. One day, the light will shine bright and strong it will drive the darkness, revealing all that was hidden. And even before that, we can never hide from ourselves. We all of us climb the recessed stairs and enter the room that us cut off to all but ourselves. We all of us stand before our portraits and stare deep into the eyes of the man or woman staring back at us. We all of us see ourselves for what we truly are.
And what do we see? Is our portrait young and fresh and beautiful with the glory of truth and love? Maybe its eyes are bright and lively, a hint of a compassionate smile around the corners of the mouth. Maybe its face glances upward and outward, eager for a glimpse of the One who gave it life. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it looks rather more like Dorian Gray’s. Maybe its old and haggard, eyes pitiless and lips pulled into a sneer. Maybe its body is weak and scrawny with years of use and abuse, years rife with mistreatment and hatred. Maybe its forearms are marked with the tiny marks of needles that provide the conduit for our drugs of choice: crack, alcohol, entertainment, money, fame.
That is the true power of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It makes us pause and consider. It makes us mount the stairs and fling open the door and examine our most secret selves.