I remember reading the book in high school. I can't say that it made a big impact on me at the time. However, I often consider the underlying theme of this book as I reflect on the church of Jesus Christ today.
As one examines the health of the church, the statistics are not all that encouraging. The rate of divorce, suicide, addictive behaviors...most often the numbers are not all that different than outside the church. Although there are many reasons why this is so, let me suggest just one which I feel is most significant.
If someone comes to faith in Christ and perhaps they have a past of embarrassing sin. Maybe it was pornography or adultery, perhaps they struggled with addictions or depression (which often go together by the way). Now that this person comes to faith, the Spirit of God works in that persons life to reveal truth and shine light on error:
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you." (John 14:26, NASB95)
This is a good thing and its purpose is pure. Because of the compassion and mercy of God, He will gently lead a person to a ever deepening place of relationship with Himself as God and Father. And keep in mind...this is new to the person new in Christ. For before the Spirit of God was in them, they were lost in their sin, under the control of Satan and deceived beyond recognition. They did not accept this same work of the Spirit:
"But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." (1 Corinthians 2:14, NASB95)
So consider what has just happened. A person, new in Christ, having lived in sin apart from God, now sees the corruption of sin in a whole new light - the light of the Holy Spirit. All the emotions that one might expect are evident at this point including guilt, shame, insecurity, doubt. We may be new in Christ, but we are still human, and so these emotions must be experienced. This is where the church often fails!
God created those within the church to be His tools for restoration. He uses His people to guide their brothers and sisters in Christ through difficulties and struggles, to be a protection through trials and temptations. He tells us:
"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near." (Hebrews 10:23-25, NASB95)
Why "all the more as the day draws near"? Is going to get easier? Absolutely not. The more difficult the circumstances, the more (by God's design) we need each other within the community of faith. Yet all too often I see the opposite. The more ugly the sin, the more of an outcast a person becomes. We are often unwilling to help people walk through the difficulties and temptations they face as believers. Instead, we give them the Scarlet Letter. This is often the "gift" of the church to those who are dealing with difficult situations.
Why are the statistics of dysfunction so prevalent in the church? I suggest it is often because we do not demonstrate an environment of grace, a place for healing, and a willingness to let people "come clean" without fear of judgment. The Spirit will do its work to convict and expose, but will we do our part to be a tool for healing and restoration?
So when that man in the church confesses his struggle with pornography, a sin that has plagued his life for years. Or that woman expresses her guilt and shame from having had an affair and still struggling with the shame but yet the need to be loved. How will we respond? Will we treat them like the lepors of the Bible, cast outside the city until they are healed? Must they live in a community of "sinners" in order to fix their problems before they will be welcomed into the community of "saints"?
Perhaps we should not be so quick to judge. Perhaps we should promote transparency and authenticity with a willingness to allow people to deal with the deep issues in their life, however ugly they may be. Let's not expect people to deal with these issues internally, keeping it to themselves. This may be the very thing that cause so many Christians to implode.
By all means, lets strive for godliness. We shouldn't accept continued sin in this environment of grace (Rom 6:1). But we should destroy or Scarlet Letters and replace them with the robe of Christ's forgiveness, spurring eachother on to love and good deeds, even more as the day draws near.