Which is the contrite heart?

This week I’m teaching Psalm 51 at our women’s Bible study at church. This paradigm of prayers was recorded and preserved for us so that we’d know what to do with our sins—big and small.

It’s a two-fold process: seek forgiveness and seek restoration.

The psalm reaches its climax with these words:

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.” :16-17

We understand that God doesn’t want meaningless sacrifices. He’s looking for something more. The question becomes: if what God wants from me is a broken and contrite heart, what does that look like?

First, the terms broken spirit and contrite heart are synonymous. They’re not intended to be two separate things. In Hebrew, the word contrite means crushed.

If you can get past these cheesy pictures from the internet, there’s a purpose behind them. The heart on the left looks like a broken heart—it’s cracked and split down the middle. But this is not a contrite heart—it’s a divided heart. It wants to please God, but it’s still fighting for its own agenda.

The heart on the right is a crushed heart. It has been pulverized into a thousand pieces. There’s no fight left in it. It is completely broken of self-will and pride, and completely dependent on God to mend and restore it. This is a contrite heart.

So how do you know which heart is you? We’d all like to believe that we have a contrite heart, but if we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time we’re still fighting for our own agenda. We may feel sadness over our sin, but we’re equally disappointed that our desires were denied. We may grieve that we have offended God by our poor choices, but we’re also trying to figure out a way to make our situation work for us. I see that in my own heart.

Your heart is contrite when you’ve stopped fighting or resisting what God is doing in your life. This includes God’s discipline, his refining process, his agenda for your life today. When God’s will and God’s agenda are more desired than your own, you have a contrite heart.

Sounds wonderful, but how do we get there? If a contrite heart was only a matter of human determination we could all get there. I know I don’t have it in me to willingly forgo my own agenda day after day, in favor of God’s. Even David, who wrote this psalm, knew he had no power or resources to change his own heart. He cried out,

“Create in me a pure heart O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” :10

David uses the same word create, found in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” David asks God to do what only he can do—take a sinful heart and make it pure.

If it seems ironic that God would ask something of us that can’t be accomplished without him, we need only remind ourselves that Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” John 15:5. The Christian life is Jesus living his life in and through us. He displayed a contrite heart during his earthly ministry and his submission to the cross. Because he lives in us, our own contrite heart is possible.

We’d all benefit from hearing your thoughts on these issues of the heart.

6 comments to Which is the contrite heart?

  • Chérie

    Girl? That was seriously, insanely awesome?
    My only sin (at this very moment I mean,..gimme 5 minutes…ahem…) is being so jealous I can’t be at that Bible Study where you are teaching. Ha! Thank you God (!) that I can listen to the recording once it’s posted. Love you my gifted friend. Such wonderful insights—as always, which I can apply not only to my own sinful little self, but teach to others. That cheesy picture, BTW, was perfect for me to understand….. maybe I’m cheesy..?

    • Hi Cherie, so great to see you on the blog. I prayed for you this morning. I think the audios will be ready soon. We’re all a work in process falling on God’s grace over and over.

  • Chris Gray

    The teaching was so rich on psalm 51 and glad it will soon be offered on audio too! Keep On Janet in making Jesus’ truth known, bringing glory and honor to His name as you operate in that teaching gift the Lord has so graciously given to you for the building up of the body of Christ 🙂

  • Audrey

    Amen! Lord give me a contrite heart and then make it new.