I love taking topics and exploring what the Lord has to say about them. Today we are going to be looking at a subject that probably wouldn’t feature in most people’s list of top-ten favourite biblical themes: contrition! The Bible tells us that The LORD is near to the broken-hearted, and that He saves the contrite in spirit. (Ps. 34:18) Great. But what does it mean to be contrite in spirit? It means expressing sorrow over our sinfulness with a genuine desire to change.
The Lord gave me the topic for this meeting several weeks ago, but it was only yesterday that a friend pointed out that we are in the period between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These are ‘The Days of Awe’ – and that makes me think of the fear of God – the very thing that David Pawson identified as being the missing ingredient of the Western Church. This is the time when Orthodox Jews everywhere try to face up to their imperfections and we are joining with them in spirit tonight. CMJ, the Church’s Mission to the Jews have released an excellent booklet to help us pray daily for the work of God amongst Jewish people worldwide.
It is lovely that the Lord’s been saying to us that we are gathered around His table and that He is with us in His tenderness. He is so tenderly with us even when He has to share difficult things with us, and to do deep surgery. He comes alongside us with compassion even as we become more contrite and as we mourn over things in this land and society around us.
Mourning and Contrition
A Jewish philosopher called Abraham Herschel has written a brilliant book called The Prophets, which I have long found helpful. He said that Greeks learned in order to comprehend, modern people in order to use, but Hebrew learn in order to revere/to be full of awe. We need all these qualities, but we are approaching the theme of ‘contrition’ here primarily with a Hebrew mindset.
Contrition means expressing sorrow over attitudes and actions which we come to realise are not helpful. It reflects a genuine desire to change, but this itself can stem from two different sources: the first is simply because we love the Lord and are sorry when we hurt Him or others; the second has more to do with fear of the consequences if we continue to do wrong. No wonder that is often referred to as imperfect contrition! No prizes for guessing which of those two we are going to major on.
Right at the start of the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us that those who mourn are blessed and we take it pretty much for granted that we know what this means: that the Lord is close to the broken hearted! The word pentheó means to mourn deeply over any loss, especially a literal physical bereavement, but it extends beyond this to embrace grief over any vision or relationship that comes to an end.
All of us will be familiar with this in one form or another, especially when it is related to unexpected loss, but there is also something else: an ongoing mourning that is quite different because it mourns over things around us in church and society that are wrong. I coined the name Lot’s Syndrome to describe those times when we feel distressed in spirit over what is going on around us, just as Abraham’s nephew Lot did right back at the dawn of recorded history. But for this to be of any use, we need to grieve in the Spirit, lest all we do is say Tut Tut and wring our hands – which does precisely nothing to advance the Kingdom.
We This is a willingness to identify with how the Lord is grieving over something that is hurting His body – and we need to find a way to express it.
Paul uses the same verb that Jesus did, pentheó when he writes of mourning and lamenting over people who have sinned and not repented of their impurity. (2 Cor. 12:21)
When we understand that that there is a mourning that comes from God, it releases the power of God in much the same way as experiencing the power of true compassion does. Mourning isn’t the natural language for those of us who are upbeat or even triumphalist in our outlook. It feels unenthusiastic, unfaithful even. But it is worth remembering that one quarter of the Psalms – the Church’s original hymnbook, as well as the Jews’ – takes the form of lament. And, bearing in mind that Jesus began His list of those who are blessed with those who mourn, we can be sure it is a language worth the learning!
Because many people associate mourning with sadness – and sadness with weakness – and because being around grief isn’t a very comfortable place to be, a lot of people keep their distance from those who are mourning – often, unfortunately, at the very time when they people might most have needed their support. You have probably known that feeling of being afraid you will have nothing to say, and that anything you do say might be totally tactless, in which case you would do better to keep away. Deep down, however, what we are really afraid of is often our own weakness. Or, we just don’t want to put ourselves out and so we hold back. Jesus isn’t like that. In his tender love, He doesn’t keep His distance.
I wrote Vale of Tears to help people come to terms with their own sadness, losses and griefs of many varied kinds, and to be the better equipped to help others who are experiencing them. Everyone experiences losses and we need both the tools and compassionate hearts to reach out with the Lord’s tenderness. http://ruachministries.org/valeoftears.htm
Washington Irvine, a late eighteenth-century American author, wrote that, ‘There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.’
So, grief we understand, and God’s love we have experienced in many ways and have heard so much about – but contrition? Deep contrition? It’s a rare word these days! You’ll be very familiar with these verses though from Isaiah and the Psalms, where the Lord says, ‘I dwell in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit . . . This is the one I will esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word . . . The sacrifices acceptable to God are a broken spirit, and a broken and contrite heart.’ (Is.57:15, 66:2b, cf Ps. 51:17)
Again, these might not be the verses you would have chosen if you were looking to summarise the process by which the Lord enables us to go deeper with Himself, but who among us would not want to have the Lord come and dwell with us? Which of us would not want to be one of those whom the Lord esteems? Let’s dwell with these scriptures, and allow them to penetrate deeply into our hearts, for the truths they embody have the power to release a deeper work of grace in us.
Born of deep repentance, contrition overlaps with, and depends on, a number of other essential qualities: humility to the fore, along with the ability to receive and value the Lord’s correcting and chastising. These are not topics for the faint-hearted, and they flag up the fact that the path to true contrition requires us to be willing to face up to whatever we come to realise is un-Christ-like in our lives. It can be a very sharp and sobering experience. It’s quite different from the pangs we feel when we are afraid of being caught out and exposed. That’s because a contrite spirit is born not of trepidation, but of the life-giving fear of the Lord – His rich Presence.
The Puritan divine Richard Baxter wrote that, ‘Other things may be the worse for breaking, yet a heart is never at the best till it be broken.’ Woo. That takes some thinking through. We normally associate things getting broken with the enemy, because he loves to break into pieces all that is good and godly, whereas the Lord Jesus came to heal the broken-hearted. So why was Richard Baxter looking on brokenness as being such a good thing? Because there are two very different types of brokenness! We are not talking here about something bad or dysfunctional, we’re looking at a quality which enables us to die to self in order to be made alive to Jesus.
The words that describe this process are challenging ones. Contristus, the original Latin word from which we derive contrite means ‘crushed or ground to pieces,’ as in ‘bruised.’ This matches what the Psalmist says: ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.’ As for the Hebrew words, all three that we translate as ‘contrite’ – dakka (pronounced dak-kaw’) in Is.57:15, nifal in Ps. 51:17 and nakar in Is 66.2b basically have the same meaning: crushed as to powder, stricken, smitten and even crippled, as well as contrite in the sense that we more normally associate it with.
The thought of being smitten sounds alarming and strange, but did Jesus not say that it was better to enter Heaven with only one eye than to have two but to be excluded? (Mark 9:47) Is it not better to walk with a limp and to be humble, than to run with the pride of our own achievements and in a spirit of self-reliance?
It is the same when we look in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Septuagint – and find the verb suntribo (soon-tree’bo) that means to shatter, shiver, break in pieces by crushing or rubbing. Strong images again. I am reminded of stones that have been worn smooth by the power of the water rubbing them together. Most of us have only too many rough edges that need to be rubbed smooth!
Many preachers rightly remind us that Jesus is not hard to live with. It is a delight to walk with Him, and to commit everything to Him. He leads and guides us by His Spirit, and teaches us by His Word, and in the process, He shows us things we could have said or done better! When the Lord shows something out of place, that’s fine because we have an advocate Who helps us get right with God again as we go along. But it can still be painful to face the many truths about the way we really are.
The contrite know that God has to break before He can truly use; all of us have to come to an end of our own sense of adequacy – repeatedly even. But He only breaks in order to restore to something greater. So, when God convicts us of sin, He is not keeping a score, as it were, to keep us on the right side of the ledger, He is opening the way to a new flow of His Spirit within us. And in the process, it becomes easier to consider and understand what it means to become dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 6:11) Such contrition is utterly different from the regrets and remorse so many feel at having failed to live up to their own or someone else’s standards or expectations.
Does a contrite spirit deny the finished work of the Cross?
You will almost certainly have heard the saying, ‘God buries our sins in the depths of the sea.’ It is derived from the verse in the psalms: ‘As far as the east is from the west, thus far has the Lord removed (the guilt of our seemingly inexhaustible) sins. (Ps. 103:12) Corrie Ten Boom, the great Dutch missionary, beautifully illustrated the reality of God’s forgiveness when she added, ‘And God puts up a placard above what has been buried saying “No fishing!”
He has cancelled the written code, with its many rules, regulations and reminders of our failings that was against us and that stood opposed to us. He has taken all this away, nailing it to the cross. We have died to what once bound us, and been released from the law so that we can serve in the new way of the Spirit.’ (Ps. 103:12; Col. 2:13b-14; Rom. 7:6)
So far from belittling the finished work of Christ on the Cross, however, or underplaying the work of restoration God is doing in our lives, the ‘lowly in spirit’ and the humble – as opposed to the proud whom the Lord keeps at a distance (Ps.138:6) – are concerned to do something about the many ways in which they have failed to exhibit the likeness of Christ.
The more we love Jesus, the more aware we become of our sins and shortcomings and the more natural it is to feel grieved when we hurt Him, and hurt each other by cutting careless and cutting words. Living in a contrite spirit means acknowledging ahead of time Jesus’ solemn warning that on the day of judgement we will be have to give an account for every careless word we speak (Matt. 12:36)
It means recognising that it is our own words that brought the whip across Jesus’ back, our own bitterness that drove the nails into His hands, and our wrong use of pressure and coercion that thrust the thorns more agonisingly down on His head. That is true contrition.
But these are layers and levels that some people do not have much time for, the sort of people who are inclined to say, rather truculently(!), “Well that’s the way I am; the Lord takes and blesses me as I am!” There are precious truths there: He does take us as we are – but He loves us too much to leave us as we are!
Let’s be absolutely clear about this: contrition in no way contradicts or constricts the freedom Christ has won for us. Grace is neither denied nor diminished by facing our heart’s true condition; it is free and undeserved and comprehensive, but – and how strange it seems to use the word but in relation to grace – grace remains conditional in one essential respect, that we have to humble ourselves and seek it, but rather than just take it for granted. It’s terrible to take God’s grace for granted.
It is in His light that we see light, and that light releases us to experience not only fullness of joy but also deep sorrow over how much we have hurt God and wounded others. The fuller we are of awe and the fear of God (and the fear of the Lord is what has been described the missing ingredient in the church in the west), the more concerned we will be to avoid grieving the Holy Spirit. (Eph. 4:30). God has not changed and He never will. He did not become a different deity overnight as a result of either the Resurrection or Pentecost. Yes, His Spirit came to indwell individuals in an entirely new way, of course, as opposed to resting on specially chosen people, but that did not mean that He did away with the promises we are looking at here:
I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit . . . This is the one I will esteem (to whom I will look): he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word . . .
One of many words used in Hebrew for praising God by making music and singing is zamar. That same word also means ‘to prune.’ God is pruning His worshippers and musicians to produce not just endless new music tracks to entertain the faithful, but to draw people to sing the songs and sound the music of Heaven itself where the worship is unending – and where the power of that sound changes atmospheres and brings healing and deliverance.
Father, You are the Gardener and Keeper of Your vineyard. We ask You to draw all of us toward these qualities of lowliness and contrition that are deeply pleasing to You, so that the sound that we make by our passing is a pleasing one to You, and one that brings healing and deliverance and Your Presence. Cut away all the many layers of undergrowth that tangle our hearts. For even though pruning can feel severe at times, You only get Your secateurs out to remove what is dead or diseased or in the way, and to take us back to where new buds can shoot.
We can look on Pentecost as being like the melody and harmony line that enables us to sing the song of the Lord and to serve His purpose from day to day. Contrition is like the bass line, that grounds us in the ways of God, even when that takes us into a very different place to that of most people around us.
John and Paula Sandford describe this beautifully when they say that when the saints are partying and whooping it up – perhaps a bit too much – the prophets of God are grieving because so much is missing in the heart of the Church. But when people in the body of Christ are repenting, the prophets are rejoicing because their warnings have struck home. That can feel awkward at times, but living in a contrite spirit often does. So long as we are in step with the Spirit, that is where we belong. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when God will do lovely, even powerful things through parties – but there are other times when He laments, ‘I’m always being invited to parties; but who is prepared to take the things that I am seeing and feeling seriously? My longing to reach out to those who don’t know me – to fill the empty places in My Kingdom – go out into the highways and byways.’
Standing in the light of God though it burns us
I once tried to type the phrase ‘The work of sanctification is designed to last a lifetime.’ Because I had spelled the last word incorrectly, however, my spellchecker suggested instead, ‘The work of sanctification is designed to last a lunchtime(!)’
When we read that ‘the Lord does not despise a broken and contrite heart,’ it would be easy to assume that all that means is that He is patient with us while we pass through some temporary stage on the way to greater wholeness – and that is certainly the case when it is a matter of repenting of some specific sin. But we are speaking here of something more far-reaching, and that’s why developing a truly contrite and lowly spirit is neither swift nor effortless; rather than simply facing up to some specific act of wrongdoing, it is about recognising our sinful nature at work.
Many of us are inclined to duck and flinch beneath the probing searchlight of the word of God, but it is not so easy to avoid. If we are concerned to bear the image of Christ and to grow in the humility the Lord esteems, then we must allow Him to pinpoint everything within us that isn’t of Him. He has many ways to show us these things. The humble and contrite will hear them from whatever source they originate.
As to the mistakes we make, both the super-spiritual – in a bad sense – or the underly spiritual may be inclined to dismiss these faults as being one-off, isolated lapses, and therefore don’t take them seriously. But the contrite are willing to entertain the possibility that our slips and failures may actually be the sign of a repeated pattern or habit. So, when some particular episode works out badly, it is good to look to see if it may be pointing us to some fundamental underlying structural weakness, or to some lack of awareness and sensitivity in us.
That’s why, when the Lord puts His finger on something, it is so important not to delay and that we face up to it swiftly, ‘confessing our sins to one another and [being] healed.’ (James 5:16). Otherwise, even seemingly small issues can cause major problems. You may remember the terrible events of 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up within a minute of its launch: a fuel leak occurred as a result of a washer failing. Something no bigger than a fingertip caused a fatal explosion that was seen on live TV by millions. Small leaks can indeed lead to so much destruction, just as a small spark can lead to forest fires.
Contrition not only unmasks the underlying sins and trends in our hearts, it causes us to pray for God to get us back on the right path. Look at what the Lord promises in Isaiah 1:25: ‘I will burn away your dross completely and remove all your impurities, and will purify you the way metal is refined.’ Wow again – that is hinting at serious refining.
A phrase I heard once that has stayed with me is that ‘Souls are tried in the Crucible.’ I am sure you will have had much experience of that! An image I often return to is from Isaiah, that of the blacksmith and the forge. (http://ruachministries.org/intimacyandeternity/theparableoftheforge.htm ) The Lord is like a skilled blacksmith who knows exactly how much heat and pressure is required to fashion what He has in mind. And yes, the work of contrition involves us being contristus: smitten, struck, broken even, to get back to the Hebrew meaning of the word, like a blacksmith hammering on his anvil; not shattering into useless pieces, but rather making our hearts soft so that the hardness in our hearts is made malleable through His refining. Lovely creative things then emerge then from the blacksmith’s skilled hands, latches and gates and all things nice!
It is so easy to spot blemishes and hard places in other people’s lives. We can be a whole a lot slower to notice the fences we have built around our own habits and prejudices – even fences that become like the fortified palisades we are so used to seeing in the old-fashioned Westerns, and which look nothing like the walls of the city of our God! None of us can see (discern) our own errors; deliver me, Lord, from hidden faults! (Ps.19:12)
We have a lot to repent of. You can probably think of many things the Scriptures urge us to put away and come free from – such as envy, bitterness, anger, self-pity – we know we are to put them ‘off.’ I would add in touchiness, which can be a major, but subtle, issue for many of us. It doesn’t sound like one of the bigger sins but it is so hard to work with someone who is touchy, because when you make a suggestion – they bristle and bridle and don’t like it.
Some of us need to repent because we have measured God by our own littleness, and made Him too small in our sight. We’ve forgotten how much it takes to run a universe. We should also keep from grieving Him by acting as though we run the universe! It is He who is God. And yet, He Who made the stars has made us His friends and invested everything in us. He is the pearl of great price, and yet He sees us as pearls of great price.
If our senses are still clinging to the desire for earthly approval and success, we will have a hard time growing in contrition. ‘How can you believe, Jesus asks, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?’ (John. 5:44)
All that which is not of God will ultimately perish – even those things we have worked so hard for and thought so important – but every single thing that we offer Him for love of Jesus, He sees and treasures. They are precious to Him and He endows it with eternal significance.
Some of us only become truly contrite after something really important has been taken from us, so that we are finally willing to face things that hitherto we had either not been aware of, or hadn’t been prepared to attend to. It may take the onset of serious ill-health, or something that happens at work, in our ministry or in our relationships to accelerate the process.
That’s when the Holy Spirit grasps the moment and brings people and episodes to mind that we may not have considered in years or even decades. He’s taking an inventory – we need to take an inventory. This is because He loves us! These moments of conviction are key points in our lives, beyond which we will not/may not be able to make progress if we don’t respond to them. They are to be welcomed without fear – even though they may well mean that we are in for a spell of cold weather for a while as we work our way through them.
The important thing is to make sure that in all this we are following the leading of the Lord and not heeding the voice of the ‘Swamper,’ who sends dark and unhelpful thoughts to sit on us – if we are not quick to throw them off can be very disconcerting and lead to condemnation, nor the ‘Swayer,’ who tries to propel us into all sorts of unhelpful influences. No, we rejoice that we know the voice we know and love above all others, the voice of the Good Shepherd. ‘My sheep know My voice but they will not follow the voice of a Stranger.’ Swampers, Swayers, Strangers – may we run from them all! (see John 10:3-5)
That beautiful vision someone had earlier in this meeting – of us coming to rest our heads against Jesus’ breast, to receive the life-giving flow of the Holy Spirit! I love the fact that He gives us to drink from the Fountain of life – the eternal springs. It is as different as can be as from a stagnant system where the water has grown rancid.
An example of conviction leading to contrition
I am thinking of a man who was approaching retirement who was listening to a sermon one day in church when the Holy Spirit suddenly began to convict him of the callous way he had treated many of the women he had known in his life. It must have felt like a foretaste of the final judgment, the Lord brought these women one by one to his mind’s attention, stretching back decades, he must have writhed inwardly as the Holy Spirit exposed the ugliness and the callousness of his attitudes towards them.
The revelation brought about profound cleansing. Remember our starting point: the Lord is seeking to develop a contrite and lowly spirit in us, and He is quite prepared to challenge us again and again as necessary, because He wants us to dwell with Him and He in us. I live in a high and holy place but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit.
The benefits of a contrite spirit
‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit.’
‘This is the one I will esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at My word.’
Contrition makes our eye simple and our heart single-minded. It changes our priorities and reminds us both that He has called us to incomparable depths and riches of fellowship with Himself, and that the Father has sent us, like Jesus, to be His ambassadors wherever we go. He knows all about the setbacks and the contempt we will experience along the way. He knows exactly what His lambs will face from the wolves that He sent us out into the midst of.
When we read of the everlasting arms underneath us, that can sometimes feel like a very remote safety net. And yet we have surely all known times when those arms are wrapped right and tightly around us in an utterly enfolding embrace. Contrition itself is a work of love not law, and therefore something to welcome.
The more we allow the truth of these things to penetrate to the depths of our hearts, and bring the deepest parts of our heart, mind, soul and senses under His direct control, the greater the measure of spiritual authority He is able to release in us, enabling us to share more and more of His insights and perspective with us. We tremble at His Word – and our priorities and outlook change to match His own. He comes to dwell with us, and we know that we are esteemed of the Lord. Wow!
What freedom, and what new levels of sensitivity this brings! And then, from this place of contrition we are able to impart things that are profitable to others. Isaiah speaks of the hearts of those who were once impulsive and hasty developing the ability to discern and make good judgements – and those who stammered, speaking distinctly and clearly.’ (Is. 32:4) Whereas before we might have jumped to hasty conclusions, or held back from even trying to discern what God was saying, now we are growing in the confidence that the Spirit of Truth can be and is at work in and through us, working in us in such a way as to bring forth true grace and wisdom.
All this is why the work of contrition truly really does last a lifetime rather than a lunchtime! It is so important to thank Jesus for His constant work of advocacy on our behalf before the throne of God. Any work of defence advocacy is a wholehearted and committed task. May we never become careless and complacent in taking His precious forgiveness for granted, but rather pray for the Lord to create in us a clean and contrite spirit. We underestimate and forget sometimes how much Jesus has had to do to protect us from the attacks of the accuser of the brethren and the ground that we have yielded through our recklessness, our foolishness, which has fuelled and fired the charges that the accuser of the brethren is able to bring against us. Jesus is our Advocate – praise Him.
Jesus, even though I have got so much to do from day to day, and even from hour to hour, find the time, Your time, not the Swamper’s time, to face me with my failings and ambiguities with honesty. I am not listening to the voice of the Swamper, nor am I going to heed the pressure of the Swayer – I am concerned to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Thank You that You love me enough to do this. Help me to discern the authentic conviction Your Holy Spirit brings, as opposed to the highly unhelpful over-scrupulousness that is so much part of the work of condemnation that the Accuser of the Brethren directs against me. Flush to the surface whatever You need to, and give me the determination to develop a truly contrite spirit, that refuses to accommodate and side with things that have no place in Your Kingdom.
Help me to turn and forsake that which is not of You. You are our High Priest and our Advocate. You know my weaknesses so well, and yet You intercede for me before the throne of grace, not only forgiving but also cleansing and leading. (Heb. 4:15, 1 John 2:1) so I can be a living witness for You.
You exchange my dross for something You count as gold. You bring the breath of eternity to my heart rather than the racing heartbeat that passing pleasures bring. You give rest instead of turmoil, and understanding and acceptance instead of striving. You fill us with awe and You fill us with joy.
Isn’t this what You were speaking of when You counselled us to ‘buy gold refined by fire?’ (Rev. 3:18)
Towards a wider repentance
Don’t forget, too, the power that contrition has, when it stems from humility. As Max Lucado put it, ‘Apologies can disarm arguments. Contrition can defuse rage. Olive branches do more good than battle axes ever will!’ That’s a thought to take with us as we move on to consider how we can apply and embed this teaching on contrition in our daily lives.
Because the Lord uses those who are contrite in spirit to be spearheads for praying into societal issues and issues affecting the Church across the world, I’ll doing a second part to this talk. Whereas this one has been for our benefit as individuals, the second part will take us beyond the personal to look at Identificational Repentance and Corporate Repentance. We will see the great value of certain apologies that we can make, and repenting that we can helpfully do – as well as recognising the limits of what we cannot do in this way. We really do need to know where those limits are! It will be a blessing to explore the whole concept with you.