The Tell-tale Heart and God
What does our guilt tell us?
I am sure that most people are familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” For those of you who have never read the story, you should really take the time to acquaint yourself with Mr. Poe’s short masterpiece about a murderer who learns in a very real way about guilt. For those of you without much time, here is the nutshell version: An unnamed man describes how he had lived with an old man eventually deciding to kill him. On the night he kills the old man, his hyper-sensitive ears hear the pounding of the old man's heart in his bedroom where the old man lay awake. As he waits by the door to the old man’s bedroom, the story tells how the beats become faster and faster, louder and louder. The narrator then kills the old man (silencing his heart), dismembers him and buries him under the floor boards of the bedroom.
When three policemen arrive to investigate the noise that came with the murder, he is very confident and invites the three policemen to search the apartment. The policemen find nothing, and being friendly, stay to chat awhile. But then the trouble really begins for the narrator. As he stands listening, he begins to hear a sound. As the story reads:
My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: - It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness - until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.
No doubt I now grew very pale; - but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased - and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound - much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath - and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly - more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men - but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed - I raved - I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder - louder - louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! - no, no! They heard! - they suspected! - they knew! - they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now - again! - hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! - tear up the planks! here, here! - It is the beating of his hideous heart!"
(Thanks to bookrags.com for part of the language of the summary.)
There is a very important lesson to learn from this story and it has to do with guilt. You see, all of us have guilt. According to the Gale Encylopedia of Psychology’s article on guilt:
Guilt is both a cognitive and an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes that he or she has violated a moral standard and is responsible for that violation. A guilty conscience results from thoughts that we have not lived up to our ideal self. Guilt feelings may also inhibit us from falling short of our ideal again in the future. Individual guilt is an inner reflection on personal wrongdoing, while collective guilt is a shared state resulting from group-such as corporate, national, or community-wrongdoing.
Guilt serves as both an indicator and inhibitor of wrongdoing. Healthy guilt is an appropriate response to harming another and is resolved through atonement, such as making amends, apologizing, or accepting punishment. Unhealthy guilt, sometimes called neurotic or debilitating guilt, is a pervasive sense of responsibility for others' pain that is not resolved, despite efforts to atone. Healthy guilt inspires a person to behave in the best interests of him- or herself and others and make amends when any wrong is done. Unhealthy guilt stifles a person's natural expression of self and prohibits intimacy with others.
Guilt is a concept that is taught in the Bible as well, but it does not lay the reason for guilt on such things as sexual drive or aggressive impulses (as Sigmund Freud did). Instead, Christianity teaches that each of us has guilt in recognition of the fact that we have fallen short of what we were meant to be by God. (According to the Blue Letter Bible, Sin as used in the Bible means “missing the mark.”)
Look at the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. There, the serpent temps Eve into eating the apple thereby disobeying God’s direct command. Adam then does the same (although it is not clear from the text whether Adam also heard the serpent’s lies or whether Eve convinced him to disobey God). Immediately after, they both experienced guilt:
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. Gen. 3:7.
This is was the first case of guilt in man’s history. They knew God’s law (thou may eat of any tree in the garden except one), and they willfully and deliberately broke the law making themselves less than they should otherwise have been. They “missed the mark.” They were guilty before God and they knew it (which, according to the Gale Encyclopedia definition, caused them to suffer “guilt”). As a result, they tried to cover themselves up in fig leaves and hide their guilt, but God knew what they had done and there was no hiding from Him.
All of us have feelings of guilt. We all have “fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) which makes us all guilty. That is why we all have feelings of guilt—because we’re guilty. In some cases, we are able to suppress those feelings. We bury them under the floor boards of the bedroom with the evidence of our crimes, and we don’t hear the beating heart of guilt for a time. But it is there. Ultimately, God appears (in the Poe story, in the form of three policemen, i.e., the Trinity) and the situation changes. Like the account of Adam and Eve and the Poe story, God comes and asks us to tell Him what happened. In both cases, the guilty ones found that they could not hide their guilt in the presence of God.
We should all remember that people feel guilt. They may be covering it up, but it is always there lurking in the background. The existence of that guilt can be used as an apologetic tool. Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason points out that he can know that every person has a low self-image as the result of our fall. In doing so, he uses the guilt which he knows from the Biblical teaching that everyone feels to demonstrate how the Bible makes sense of who we are and how we feel. My friend, Rick, uses guilt to pound home the necessity of a savior when he asks people “what do you do with your guilt?” God takes away that guilt which gives Christians freedom. Although we continue to know that we are guilty, we are able to know that God has forgiven us our sins (or, as stated by the Gale Encylopedia, our “cognitive and an emotional experience that occurs when [we realize that we have] violated a moral standard and [are] responsible for that violation”), and that we are free from those past sins.
We should recognize guilt for what it is. It is not some psychological disturbance, but rather it is a correct realization that we have failed God’s law and are really guilty. Knowing that, and recognizing that everyone feels guilty, we can now tell people how guilt helps prove the truth of Christianity.