There are few famous painting more disturbing than The Scream. It is a frightening piece of art, that leaves you wondering what was going through the painter’s mind or what is so distressing to the ghoulish, distorted figure on the canvas, hands grasping the cheeks, mouth gaping wide, looking as if they are literally melting in terror. Almost like it was yesterday I can remember seeing that painting and thinking, “I know the feeling that painting conveys.” It left me sick, scared, wanting to look away, and yet, I felt like it was a painting of my soul.
One day, as a young teen, something began to stir in my heart. A dread. I suddenly had a sense of the goodness of God, my failure to honor him, and the judgment I deserved because of that. Reminders of sins committed haunted my young mind, tears began to flow when no one was around. And then, one day early in that crisis, I saw that terrible painting while flipping through a World Book encyclopedia. Agony washed over me. I stared, riveted at the twisted, tormented creature on the page – it was me. I knew what the subject of the painting was feeling. I was dirty, I was twisted, I had a offended a good God, I deserved hell.
There was no self-justification, no seeking escape from reality. I was doomed and I deserved it. I felt that painting. Only the screams were bottled up inside of me. I remember crying alone, out on the farm, that painting in my mind, murmuring audibly, “I’m lost. I’m lost. Forever lost.” I wanted to claw at my heart, I would lay in bed and grind my teeth, certain my state was beyond saving. How could someone like me, who grew up with the privilege of knowing the truth, having sinned so egregiously, have any hope?
Then. One day, with a feed bucket for the livestock in my hand, eyes blurry, feet staggering, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a different feeling. I knelt down and began to thank God for the Gospel – the truth that though I deserved to be condemned Christ was condemned in my place. The burden lifted, the terror was gone. Appetites changed, love for God’s word gripped me, a desire to be with God’s people and to hear the Word preached possessed me. Over the next weeks as I continued my work on the farm, I started singing hymns passed the time. Especially precious to me was, “It Is Well” namely the lines:
My sin o the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise The Lord, praise The Lord
O my soul
I had a longing to depart and be with Jesus. I prayed and prayed for him to come so I could be with him. I was changed. As the years went by, my love would cool at times, I would fail often, my faith would weaken, but when I remember that day I felt that painting and I remember the sweet relief of the Gospel, the fire is kindled anew.
I praise God for that day I felt that terrible painting. I praise God for feeling about my sin the way I did, because I believe with all of my heart it was right. Indeed, I am certain my grief did not reach the point it should have – I was spared the depths of despair that one ought to feel when their depravity is compared to the all-surpassing perfection of God. It is my hope that we would all have that moment where we have a real sense of our wretchedness, for it is then that the glory of Christ overwhelms, and we are changed.
That painting is terrible, but I thank God for graciously letting me feel it.
I know that I fail and my love grows cold when I lose sight of what I was and now am in Christ. My love grows cold when the news that Jesus was my wrath-bearing sacrifice ceases to be to me the good news that it is.
My experience is not an authority, the word of God alone is that. But as I look at the word, what it tells us about God, ourselves, sin, and salvation, I am burdened that the church is apathetic and unholy because it is full of people who cannot identify with that painting because they have not seen themselves in the light of what God has revealed. They don’t know what it is like to stand in the light with all your filth, to sense the weight of impending, much-deserved, divine judgment, and to be appalled, lost, undone, broken.
The painting I felt is only a fraction of the despair that Christ bore for me when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the joy that followed the knowledge of mercy is but a speck of the joy that will wash over when I see my Savior in his glory and know from what wretchedness I came to what a state I have been lifted by grace.