What does it mean to be contrite? What is contrition?
Contrite, in English, means feeling remorseful, expressing repentance, or being apologetic. In biblical usage, the original Hebrew word expressed this idea with words that mean to collapse mentally, to be crushed to powder, or to be dejected in spirit. Thus, when a person is contrite or has a contrite heart, it means he or she is grieved in his/her conscience and feels the crushing weight of his/her sin.
In Jeremiah 44:10, God told the prophet that the Judeans living in Egypt "have not become contrite even to this day, nor have they feared, nor walked in My Law or My statutes, which I placed before you and before your fathers" (NASB). In this example, the Judeans had been confronted about their sin, but did not feel sorry or repentant. They continued in their sin, so God vowed, "Behold, I will set my face against you for harm, to cut off all Judah" (Jeremiah 44:11). God wants people to know Him, turn to Him in humility, and receive forgiveness (2 Peter 3:9). The warning to the Judeans living in Egypt ended with God's declaration that "all the remnant of Judah, who came to the land of Egypt to live, shall know whose word will stand, mine or theirs" (Jeremiah 44:28). God desires to be known in His greatness, but that can only happen when human hearts are humble and contrite.
King David did have a contrite and repentant heart when the prophet Nathan confronted him about his sin (2 Samuel 12). He penned a psalm of remorse in Psalm 51. Some of it reads, "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight… Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities…For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Psalm 51:3–4, 9, 16–17). David understood the weight of his sin and felt true remorse. His spirit was grieved and he confessed to God because he knew that God welcomes contrite hearts.
God stated through the prophet Isaiah, "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite" (Isaiah 57:15). God's desire is to lavish forgiveness and revive the hearts and spirits of those who are humble and repentant. David expressed this truth in his psalm when he wrote, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me… Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit" (Psalm 51:1, 10, 12). David knew that "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
God declared to Isaiah, "this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word" (Isaiah 66:2). God turns His attention to people who humble themselves, recognize their sinful ways, and turn to Him with a repentant spirit. In fact, 2 Chronicles 16:9 states, "For the eyes of the LORD roam throughout the earth, so that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His" (NASB). God is searching for whole-hearted followers with repentant spirits.
The word contrition, then, is the noun form meaning the act of repentance or the state of feeling remorseful. God knows people's hearts and whether or not they are truly humble and repentant. There are also some practical ways people demonstrate contrition. God commanded His people to confess their sin to Him and others (Leviticus 26:40; James 5:16). God declared that, when possible, restitution should be made (Numbers 5:7; Luke 19:1–10; Romans 13:7–8). The Bible also teaches that true love for God will result in changed behavior (John 14:15; James 1:22; 1 John 5:2–3). However, there is no singular prescribed way in the Bible about how to repent, confess, or reconcile.
Ultimately, of course, forgiveness is made available through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because of His death and resurrection, our sins can be forgiven (John 3:16–18, 36). When we humbly recognize our need for Him and turn to Him, we are forgiven of our sins and made new (Ephesians 1:7; 2 Corinthians 5:17–21). All who put their trust in Jesus have the indwelling Holy Spirit who works in them to transform them to live more as God would have them live (Romans 8:28–30; Ephesians 1:3–14). And yet we still sin (1 John 1:8—2:2). When we do, we turn to God in contrition and repentance, knowing He is faithful to cleanse and restore (James 4:1–10; 5:16).
In David's psalm, he wrote, "Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you" (Psalm 51:13). May we learn from David's example of humility and repentance so that we, too, may express a contrite heart as we trust in the forgiveness, mercy, and grace of a faithful God.
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