The Portrait of a Soul
In the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde describes an exceptionally handsome young man so captivating that he drew the awe-stricken adulation of a great artist. The artist asked him to be the subject of a portrait for he had never seen a face so attractive and so pure. When the painting was completed, young Dorian became so enraptured by his own looks that he wistfully intoned how wonderful it would be if he could live any way he pleased but that no disfigurement of a lawless lifestyle would mar the picture of his own countenance. If only the portrait would grow old and he himself could remain unscathed by time and way of life. In Faustian style he was willing to trade his soul for that wish.
Oscar Wilde 1882 studio portrait by Napoleon Sarony.
One day, alone and pensive, Dorian went up to the attic and uncovered the portrait that he had kept hidden for so many years, only to be shocked by what he saw. Horror, hideousness, and blood marred the portrait.
The charade came to an end when the artist himself saw the picture. It told the story. He pled with Dorian to come clean, saying, "Does it not say somewhere, 'Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow'?" But in a fit of rage to silence this voice of conscience, Dorian grabbed a knife and killed the artist.
There was now only one thing left for him to do; he took the knife to remove the only visible reminder of his wicked life. But the moment he thrust the blade into the canvas, the portrait returned to its pristine beauty, while Dorian lay stabbed to death on the floor. The ravages that had marred the picture now so disfigured him that even his servants could no longer recognize him.
What a brilliant illustration of how a soul, though invisible, can nonetheless be tarnished. I wonder, if there were to be a portrait of my soul or your soul, how would it best be depicted? Does not the conscience sting, when we think in these terms? Though we have engineered many ways of avoiding physical consequences, how does one cleanse the soul?
Today we find a limitless capacity to raise the question of evil as we see it outside ourselves, but often hold an equal unwillingness to address the evil within us. I once sat on the top floor of a huge corporate building owned by a very successful businessman. Our entire conversation revolved around his reason for unbelief: that there was so much darkness and corruption in this world and a seemingly silent God. Suddenly interrupting the dialogue, a friend of mine said to him, "Since evil troubles you so much, I would be curious to know what you have done with the evil you see within you." There was red-faced silence.
We too, face Dorian Gray's predicament. Sooner or later, a duplicitous life reveals the cost. The soul is not forever invisible. But there is one who can cleanse and restore us. The Christian way gives us extraordinary insight into this subject of our soul-struggle, as God deals with the heart of the issue one life at a time. Indeed, in the words of the prophet Isaiah to which Oscar Wilde alluded: "'Come now, let us reason together,' says the LORD. 'Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red as crimson, they shall be like wool" (1:18). God upholds the solution asking only that we come "willing and obedient," ready to "come and wash" (1:19,16). So come, willingly and obediently, and find God's rejoinder to the marred portraits within. The greatest artist of all speaks even today.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.