True Contrition

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal


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, but it is not rooted in the fear of death and an eternal punishment in "the depths of hell." Repentant sinners come to God with contrite hearts not because we fear the fires of hell but, rather, because we are ashamed of how our sins have separated us from God. It's not sorrow over having been caught; it's remorse over not having lived with the integrity that God calls forth from us all. Until we have this measure of contrition, we cannot truly or fully receive forgiveness.

Father Benson, the founder of the Anglican monastic movement in the 1800s, had similar remarks about the nature of 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.

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 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.