Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. (Shakespeare, Hamlet,III, iii, 38-45)
The egregious nature of Claudius’s offense is highlighted by its comparison to a foul odor. His offense, like an odor, is invisible yet inconcealable. It “smells to the heavens” and invokes the condemnation not merely of men, but of God. Furthermore, Claudius underscores the gravity of his fratricide by alluding to Cain’s “primal eldest curse.” Like Cain, Claudius was driven by jealousy to murder his own brother. Can you relate to this? Unconfessed sins linger like a foul odor. You know that no one sees it, yet you feel as though everybody somehow “smells” it. Does your sin seem so odious that confessing to God, let alone confessing to other believers, is unthinkable?
“Though inclination be as sharp as will,” Claudius simply cannot bring himself to pray. He has resolved to pray, yet he cannot get himself to pray. The guilt simultaneously impels and impedes his confession. In the end, his guilt is greater than his desire to make restitution, since his “stronger guilt defeats [his] strong intent.” To illustrate this inner conflict, he likens himself to “a man to double business bound.” The chiastic consonance of the ‘b’ and ‘d’ sounds makes the syllables bounce off of each other, mirroring Claudius’s oscillating will and emphasizing the fact that he is “bound.” Immobilized by his clashing emotions, Claudius teeters noncommittally. He “stand[s] in pause” and neglects to act.
Do you ever feel paralyzed by guilt and shame by yourself? Do you want to deal with your sit, but fear people’s judgment and the consequences you might face? As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,
“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
A forgotten sin is not a forgiven sin, and as Proverbs 28:13 teaches, “whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” The instinct to preserve the status quo, your reputation, your job, whatever it might be, is misleading you.
And don’t fool yourself into thinking that a private confession between you and God is enough. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together:
“Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community. The more lonely people become, the more destructive the power of sin over them. The more deeply they become entangled in it, the more unholy is their loneliness. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of what is left unsaid sin poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and closed isolation of the heart. Sin must be brought into the light. What is unspoken is said openly and confessed. All that is secret and hidden comes to light. It is a hard struggle until the sin crosses one’s lips in confession. But God breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron (Ps. 107:16) Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of another Christian, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders, giving up all evil, giving the sinner’s heart to God and finding the forgiveness of all one’s sin in the community of Jesus Christ and other Christians. Sin that has been spoken and confessed has lost all of its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear apart the community. … Confession in the presence of another believer is the most profound kind of humiliation. It hurts, makes one feel small; it deals a terrible blow to one’s pride.”
It is that humiliation that makes confession to another believer particularly difficult, but though painful it may be, like the alcohol that stings yet sanitizes one’s wounds, confession is the prelude to healing. Jesus endured the shame of the cross and nailed our guilt upon it, so that we can die to our sin and live. It’s only in His presence, and in the presence of His people who dwell at the foot of the cross, that we can dare to be a sinner. By daring to be a sinner, we open the pathway for God’s grace and true community. Let not your courage fail when confession is needed!