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What are you like?

A reflection for Ash Wednesday


Have you ever used the expression, “What is he/she like?”  Or perhaps someone has used it of you?  This rhetorical question is asked of someone who has done something stupid or outrageous.  The question needs no answer, because it is abundantly obvious what the person is like.  “Of course Emma's only worry was whether her lipstick had smudged.”  “Emma! What is she like?”


The question, “What are you like?” probes beneath the surface of our lives to demand deeper answers about who we really are.  Such questions are traditionally linked with today which is Ash Wednesday, a day when each of us is invited to a recognition of the true realities of our lives before God.


In his classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde tells the story of a man who ends up deeply compromised in a double life.  As a young man, Dorian attracts the attention of an artist, who paints his portrait.  The picture perfectly captures the beauty of Dorian’s youth.  So much so that, in the presence of the artist and another friend, Dorian rashly utters a wish before the picture:


“I am jealous of everything whose beauty does not die.  I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me.  Why should it keep what I must lose?  Every moment that passes takes something from me, and gives something to it.  Oh, if it were the other way!  If the picture could change, and I could always be what I am now!  Why did you paint it?  It will mock me some day – mock me horribly!” (Page 28)


What Dorian wishes before the portrait becomes reality; Dorian outwardly maintains his appearance of eternal youth, while the picture alters to portray the true state of his life, both outwardly and inwardly.  Though Dorian does not realise this until the first time he notices a change in the portrait.  It comes in the wake of him cruelly rejecting the love of an actress to whom he was engaged.


“In the dim arrested light that struggled through the cream-coloured silk blinds, the face appeared to him to be a little changed.  The expression looked different.  One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth . . . The quivering, ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing . . . It was not a mere fancy of his own.  The thing was horribly apparent . . . But the picture?  What was he to say of that?  It held the secret of his life and told his story.  It had taught him to love his own beauty.  Would it teach him to loathe his own soul?  Would he ever look at it again?” (Page 87-89)


Unable to bear what the changing portrait discloses about the true state of his soul, Dorian covers the painting with a large purple coverlet and locks it away in an upstairs room where no one else can gaze upon it.  Yet he feels compelled to keep returning to look upon the picture as its changing features continue to depict the true state of who he is.


“What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas.  They would mar its beauty, and eat away its grace.  They would defile it and make it shameful . . . His own soul was looking out at him from the canvas and calling him to judgement.” (Page 115-116)


Dorian’s life descends more and more into degradation, yet outwardly he retains the same visual appearance of a youthful young man.  His life becomes a form of mirage; a respectable exterior masking the ruin of a decayed inner life.


“There were moments, indeed, at night, when, lying sleepless in his own delicately-scented chamber, or in the sordid room of the little ill-famed tavern near the Docks, which, under an assumed name, and in disguise, it was his habit to frequent, he would think of the ruin he had brought upon his soul, with a pity that was all the more poignant, because it was purely selfish . . . He himself could not help wondering at the calm of his demeanour, and for a moment felt keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life.” (Pages 124, 167)


Eventually, Dorian recognises the need for his life to be transformed.  He performs what he believes to be a selfless action, hoping that his image in the portrait will start to alter for the better.  But instead, all he witnesses is the further deterioration of its depiction of his features.  In desperation, Dorian tries to destroy the picture, but the truth of its inextricable link to himself, leads to tragic consequences.


Oscar Wilde’s tale highlights the reality that at times each of us can experience the tragedy of a double life.  We do our best to portray a good side to others, but inside there’s a mess going on which we’d rather not front up to.  Jesus puts his finger on this very issue when he said these stinging words to the Pharisees:


“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Matthew 23:27-28


If someone were to ask us, “What are you like?” there are times when we will feel like Dorian Gray.  That no matter how respectable we feel we are on the outside, there’s an objective truth (like Dorian’s portrait) that shows us what we are really like on the inside.  Like Dorian, we probably do our best to hide the portrait away, so that other people can’t see who we really are.  Like Dorian, we hope the portrait might get better if we try harder to live a reformed life.  Like Dorian, we might despair when our best efforts make us realise we still struggle on the inside whatever we do outwardly.


One of the Bible readings traditionally appointed for Ash Wednesday is Psalm 51.  It is the prayer of someone who is prepared to recognise that all is not well on the inside of their life, yet they choose to look to God for hope and healing.  How does this psalm offer encouragement to us when we face the struggle of a double life?


Be real about our struggles because nothing is hidden from God

For I know my transgressions,

    and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned

    and done what is evil in your sight;

so you are right in your verdict

    and justified when you judge.  Psalm 51:3-4

The psalmist is going to be real before God about the true state of their inner life.  They connect their actions with a sense of God’s knowledge and justice.  The starting place of hope for our double lives is an honest assessment of what we are on the inside.  Dorian Gray came to a realisation that he could not allow the corruption of his soul to continue.


“Was it really true that one could never change?  He felt a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood – his rose-white boyhood . . . He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives that had crossed his own it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame.  But was it all irretrievable?  Was there no hope for him?” (Page 209)


Tragically, Dorian did not know where to take his honest evaluation of the state of his life.  His own attempt to obliterate the portrait was a futile and ultimately ruinous example of how we try to act as saviour for our own lives.  In contrast, the writer of Psalm 51 knew what to do about the brokenness of their own soul.


Recognise that the transformation we need is from the inside out

“Create in me a pure heart, O God,

    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10


Notice where the psalmist knows his transformation must begin.  In his heart and “within me”.  Dorian Gray believed that his only hope was the destruction of the external portrait.  But external alterations will not change the place from which our disorder originates.  Jesus was very clear about the origin of our corruption:


“For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” Mark 7:21-23


The degradation of our lives comes from within, therefore hope for a better life also begins with the transformation of our hearts.  But the only one who can change our hearts is the One who created them in the first place.  The psalmist places their full hope in God as the One who can create a pure heart from one that has been ravaged by sin.


A restored life needs our on-going commitment to purity

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.  Psalm 51:12


The psalmist recognises two important truths about the transforming work of God.  First, the forgiveness that God brings really can transform our despair into joy.  Sadly, Dorian Gray did not have a belief in God to deal with his sense of despair at the ruin of his life.  Haunted by the portrait’s depiction of the corruption of his soul, Dorian spiralled downhill into a hopeless self-loathing.  But the despair of the psalmist in verse 1 is set against the hope of joy in verse 12.  With a trust placed in the mercy of God, the writer fully expects to experience cleansing (verses 2 and 7), the blotting out of their sins (verse 1), new faithfulness (verse 6), a sense of the presence of God (verse 11) and joy (verses 8 and 12).  Sounds like a transformed life to me.


But a healed life needs to stay healed and there’s a part for us to play in this process.  The psalmist asks God for a willing spirit, to sustain them.  There is the recognition that hard-fought gains can so easily be lost if we are not vigilant.  Dorian Gray had an inkling of this truth, as he grew in awareness of the need for his life to change.  When he tries to amend his life by performing a selfless action, a friend scoffs at him.  Dorian tells him:


“Don’t let us talk about it any more, and don’t try to persuade me that the first good action I have done for years, the first little bit of self-sacrifice I have ever known, is really a sort of sin.  I want to be better.  I am going to be better.”


At least Dorian recognised how his friend was trying to drag him back into the corrupted life he had known.  Dorian wanted to resist this, but his lack of trust in God meant that his efforts to be “better” would flounder through self-reliance.


In contrast, the psalmist knew that the strength of spirit required to maintain a life that has been renewed by God must come from God Himself.  Only the One strong enough to change the human heart can empower us to live according to the Maker’s instructions.


What are you like?  If we are honest, we can feel like Dorian Gray, experiencing a double life.  We do our best to hide away what represents the true nature of our soul and we somehow hope that it will change for the better.  But trying to change our hearts by ourselves will always be a fruitless exercise.


This Ash Wednesday and across Lent, why not use Psalm 51 as a prayer of hope to God for the transformation of your life?  For when we receive the mercy of God and our deepest regrets are healed by His forgiveness, then our inner world becomes aligned with the person that others see and know.  And when there is no conflict between our inner and outer worlds, then there’s only one answer to the question, “What are you like?”


The page numbers in this blog refer to the 2008 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, published by Penguin Books. It was first published in 1891.



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