As part of my continual reading, I systematically include some classic literature. I have nothing against some contemporary writers, but I tend to be drawn to the older authors.
Nathaniel Hawthorne has been a favorite of mine for years. While revisiting his “Twice-Told Tales” some time back, I was struck by one of his short stories, “Fancy’s Show Box: A Morality.” He addresses the question, “Is a person guilty for sins contemplated but not acted on?”
The subject of the tale is one “Mr. Smith,” an elderly man who is well regarded by his peers and family. He has lived a good life, has an outstanding reputation, and a clear conscience. His family is out on their daily business, and he is left alone to enjoy the peace of solitude. As he sits, he envisions three figures enter the room. Fancy (imagination for you “youngsters”) enters as a traveling showman, carrying several pictures. Memory is in the guise of a scribe, and Conscience is concealed by the mantle she wears.
One by one, Fancy begins to show her pictures to Mr. Smith. Each one is a scene of some sin committed. His first love disgraced, his best friend murdered, children left homeless and destitute, all by his own actions. More follow, and with each revelation, he vehemently denies that he ever did such a thing. As Memory whispers in his ear the words from her pages, however, Conscience unveils herself and stabs his heart with her knife. Each picture was an action he had contemplated, but never acted on. He had committed these sins in his heart. When the three guests leave, he is left alone with the pain of their visit.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus answers this central question. Sin begins not with the hand, but the heart. He would later denounce the Pharisees along the same lines. The outside might be clean (whitewashed), but it’s the inside that matters (full of dead men’s bones.) Paul echoes this by saying“all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” and “there is none righteous, no not one.”
Hawthorne closes with a powerful statement about the deepest need of every human heart:
Man must not disclaim his brotherhood, even with the guiltiest, since, though his hand be clean, his heart has surely been polluted by the flitting phantoms of iniquity. He must feel that when he shall knock at the gate of Heaven, no semblance of an unspotted life can entitle him to entrance there. Penitence must kneel, and Mercy come from the footstool of the throne, or that golden gate will never open!
“Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”