The word ‘contrite’ appears numerous times in the Bible, but what does it really mean? Contrary to popular belief, contrite isn’t just another word for ‘sorry’. In the Bible, contrite refers to a profound and heartfelt sense of guilt and sorrow caused by wrong-doing. It is accompanied by true remorse and sincere repentance.
Contrite is defined as ‘feeling or expressing sorrow and remorse for a fault or wrong-doing’. The Bible speaks of God’s capacity to forgive, but He expects a genuine, contrite heart as a prerequisite. When one remains stuck in their sin, though they may regret it, real contrition is impossible as long as there is no desire for change.
The main theme of the Bible is God’s gracious willingness to forgive us despite our wrong-doings. That’s why it’s impossible for us to be fully saved by anything we do, apart from our faith in Jesus Christ. But, contrite first requires acknowledgement of our wrong-doings, and forsakes any culpability on our part. We see this in Exodus 34:6-7:
“And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, mercifull and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty.”
This verse shows us that God will forgive us and clear the guilty, provided we are contrite. We can understand more about contrition if we consider the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. In this parable, the son, after wasting his possession among sinners, returns home with a contrite heart, full of remorse and regret for his disobedience.
The father in the parable is a clear example of God and what He expects from us. Though the son had strayed far from his father’s side and forced him to suffer greatly, the father still ran out to greet him in love. This illustrates the importance of having a contrite heart before God – it is the only sure path back to His side.
Not only does contrite denote sincere sorrow for our wrong-doing, it also represents a readiness to change. Contrition makes humility, repentance and faith possible which are, in turn, the only conditions God takes seriously when judging us. In Psalm 51:17, we read:
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
When is Contrition Necessary?
The Bible makes it crystal clear that it is only out of contrite hearts that God will forgive us. That’s why, whenever we go astray, humbly and sincerely appealing to Him for forgiveness is the only way out. True contrition cannot be bought, or substituted for anything else. It is only through being truly broken-hearted and sorry for our transgressions that we can hope to be forgiven.
This was clearly illustrated in the biblical story of the repentance of Pharaoh in Exodus 9:27-28. He pleaded with God for His forgiveness, fully accepting his blame for his evil actions. This is exactly what it means to be contrite – allowing ourselves to feel the full weight of the consequences of our actions, and repenting from the depths of our hearts.
What Does Contrition Lead To?
The realisation of our guilt is at the centre of contrition, and must lead us towards effective action. It cannot be a static emotion, because if we remain unmoved and unchanged nothing has really been done. Our acknowledgement of our sins must be complete, accompanied with a heartfelt commitment to make amends.
We can see this in Luke 3:8: “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance”. This means that genuine contrition should always lead to positive change and transformation. We essentially implore God to help us reconstruct our lives as we pursue a new life of holiness.
Is Contrition Possible?
Having recognised our sins, the next step is to be contrite about them. This is where some will struggle, because contrition is harder to come by when feelings of guilt and shame have taken root in us. This can lead us to believe that since we can’t seem to be contrite, we can’t hope to gain forgiveness.
However, it is important to understand that contrition isn’t something we can muster up on our own. It is entirely predicated on the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, who is willing to accept us back despite our wrong-doings. It is only when we seek Him that we can receive His grace and mercy, so that our contrition can be a reality.
What is a Contrite Heart?
Having a contrite heart is to realise and accept one’s liabilities to God and to His laws. It is to feel the sorrowful truth of being out of harmony with Him and to accept the full weight of one’s sins without any excuses or defences.
It is a shift in our thinking, where we understand that our fallen nature causes us to struggle with sin, and that it takes the blood of Jesus to cleanse us. This understanding radiates holiness in our hearts and inspires us to turn towards Him and to obsessively seek His restoration.
Examples of Contriteness in the Bible
We see true contrition through the example of Job, as he laments his sinfulness before God in Job 42:6: “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” This is a perfect example of the sorrow, guilt and remorse of a contrite spirit.
We can also observe contrition in the lives of David and Peter. After having sinned greatly, both men were deeply sorrowful in the face of God’s justice yet grace-filled mercy. They embraced the full truth of their wrong-doings but still pursued forgiveness and a new start.
Contrite comes from a Latin root word which means ‘to grind’ or ‘to tread’, which suggests a breaking down of something. In this case, contrite entails a breaking down of our pride and defences, so we come clean before God and seek His forgiveness and grace. When we do this, we open ourselves to God’s grace and the hope of starting anew.