True Contrition

In the season of Lent we hear, if we are listening, many words which may or may not mean anything to us. We hear about justification, sanctification, holiness, repentance, contrition, and penitence. Over the last couple of weeks I have given thought to these long-winded, often misunderstood words, and have spent some time reflecting on one of them in particular: penitence. Another word in the Lenten lexicon which we hear, but so often fail to understand, is the word “contrition.”

Contrition is “grieving about and being sorry for one’s sins.” Essentially, it is the state that our self-examination and preparation is supposed to foster in us. It is, however, a condition which is often misunderstood.

True contrition is the necessary prerequisite before God’s forgiveness can be received. In one of his more obscure addresses on the subject of confession, contrition, and forgiveness, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Revival movement, had an extraordinary insight on this point when he said,

The sinner comes unto the Father with a contrite heart not because he fears the fires of hell, but because he desires forgiveness. The weight of his sin hath bowed his head; the sorrow of his heart hath opened his soul; he is ready now for the forgiveness of God.

Likewise Father Benson, the founder of the Anglican monastic movement in the 1800s, also had a helpful observation on contrition:

Our sins separate us from God because they stop up our capacity for receiving. And however much God may give, until our sins have been taken away, the receptive power of our nature remains clogged. We cannot drink in the gift of God.

Both Wesley and Benson make clear that God does not withhold the gift of forgiveness, it’s just that we cannot receive the gift until we are ready. And we can only be truly ready when we experience a heart-felt contrition for our sins. This contrition -- being truly “sorry” for our sins -- indicates that we understand how we have separated ourselves from God, and that it is God alone who can bridge the gap.

“But what does contrition look like?” Contrition is not a simple bemoaning of how horribly we have failed God. If it were that simple, there would be nothing to it. In our feeble attempts to achieve contrition we may, and quite often do, find human elements of sorrow, such as anger and indignation; all of these feelings must be put aside before we can come to the true joy of true contrition. That’s right, joy. For, as Father Benson says in yet another sermon: “Contrition should result in the filling of our whole being with the joyous consciousness of divine love.”

In other words, being truly sorry for our sins should produce in us, through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, a substantial realization of God’s immediate, forgiving, and life transforming love. This divine love penetrates the darkness of our sin-sick souls, revealing the glorious gospel truth; even though we have fallen short of the Glory of God, God has given us the promise of forgiveness, through the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, so that we might enter into His heavenly Kingdom. This is the nature of true contrition: it is not an awareness of divine judgment, but rather of divine love.

© 1996, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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