an act of contrition


I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I first sat down to watch The Witch, and it still managed to catch me off guard. A creepy 17th-century period-piece monster movie, I thought I could at least assume that the witch herself would be a continuous menace, and yet most of the time she was nowhere to be found.

While the titular villain certainly had a presence, the film eschewed typical tropes to instead dwell on a theological horror – damnation to hell. The family at the centre almost never fears physical attacks or ailments that come upon it, not even aware that a witch is in the woods until the third act. Rather, the source of their terror is their own sin and the eternal consequences of its filth being upon them.

It’s a far more personal fear, though intangible, and it was fascinating to observe how the family processed it. When a baby is stolen by the witch early in the film, the mother is not angered nor fearful of what may have taken it but is instead bedridden in anguish, crying out to God to forgive her sins and to not cast her away, to allow her to remain His child. Later, as a boy helps to hunt in the woods and gets lost, he frantically repeats a rhyme begging God’s forgiveness for his trespasses. Every character is seen in some way coming to terms with their own sin, and they fully believe that whatever curse has been brought upon them is the direct result of their own unholiness, agonising at the very thought that God may well have cast them from His sight.

As someone who bears less puritanical theological standards, my initial sentiment toward the characters might have been questioning whether they’ve stopped to read Romans 8. However, I instead found myself enraptured by their attitudes towards their grievances against the Lord. While I might not stand in agreement with their ultimate reactions, these people on the screen in front of me had a remarkable understanding of the gravity of their sin, of how putrid and vile of a thing it was.

I haven’t felt that way about my sin in a long time. Not that I should feel guilt beyond on all measure or that I will be cast out of God’s presence forever, as that’s not healthy either. But simply to be able to acknowledge the weightiness of the wrong I do every time I defy God – it seems like it’s something that’s lost on me unless I stop and try. Surely I notice my sin, and then I pause and ask God for mercy, but the whole thing is so commonplace, so rote. I’m so locked in to the mindset of grace, of my sin being ineffectual in removing the bountiful blessings that have been sealed for me, that the actual cost of my actions has oft been lost on me. Should I be feeling more guilty?

I had a conversation with some friends on a rooftop in Seattle recently about the culture of guilt and shame we live in. While far more understated than the Puritans, we still, perhaps unintentionally, drive ourselves toward holy living by way of guilt-tripping. Part of my desire even for writing this is that I feel guilty for not always feeling guilty. Our motivation is our sin rather than our God, and the result is feelings of shame, both public and private. We are reluctant to confess our failings to one another because of fear of judgment upon our character, even from our closest friends, while things like purity rings make our “holy” behaviour a matter of public knowledge, and likewise our potential shortcomings, creating an added pressure that stems not from a desire to honour God so much as a desire to not be openly humiliated.

Surely it’s all done with the best intentions, but guilt and shame are not things that the Christian should bear anymore. It drives us away from the truth of our status with God, united to Christ, that there is no more condemnation, no more shame. Yet we are also instructed not to treat our sin lightly and simply do what we like while grace covers us. Sin is an abomination, and it must be recognised as such. I must recognise it within me and weed it out, but every time I allow myself to I descend into a spirit of self-loathing and fear that I am hopelessly repugnant before God.

The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, but it does not weigh us down with the burden of condemnation. We do that to ourselves. Perhaps I’m getting caught up in semantics, but there is a difference between contrition and guiltiness, between understanding the wickedness of our actions and feeling shameful. That difference is so subtle, so precise, but the balance it delivers is something I believe to be essential to the healthy life of a Christian. I want so badly to be able to see both sin and grace as does the mind of God while they endlessly war inside me and finally be able to walk in that centre of comprehensive remorse and spiritual invincibility, but I’ll likely spend a lifetime searching for that place and still miss the mark.


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