The Bible speaks often of a contrite heart. In Isaiah 66:2, the Lord says, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” And in Psalm 51:17, David writes, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Contrition is spoken of as something God likes, and it is linked in these verses to humility, brokenness, and a healthy fear of God’s Word. So what exactly does it mean to be contrite?
According to the International Bible Encyclopedia, “A contrite heart is one in which the natural pride and self-sufficiency have been completely humbled by the consciousness of guilt.” The Hebrew and Greek words often translated “contrite” actually mean “crushed, crippled, or broken.” When contrite modifies heart, we get the picture of a conscience that is crushed by the weight of its own guilt. When a human spirit stops justifying its wrong choices, awakens to the depth of its depravity, and humbly accepts God’s righteous condemnation of sin, contrition is present. A contrite heart offers no excuses and shifts no blame. It fully agrees with God about how evil it is. A contrite heart throws itself upon the mercy of God, knowing that it deserves nothing but righteous wrath (Isaiah 6:5; Psalm 41:4).
The place of contrition is a blessed place to be. God says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). The contrite are promised a dwelling place with God. Their broken hearts will be revitalized.
Jesus illustrates what a contrite heart looks like in Luke 18:10–14. The humble repentance that God desires is contrasted with self-righteousness in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The eloquent prayer of the proud Pharisee did not reach the heart of God, but the humble cry of the repentant sinner brought forgiveness. They both needed mercy, but only the contrite heart was in a position to receive it.
Jesus also referenced a contrite heart in the Beatitudes when He said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The “mourning” here is a grief over one’s own sin. The mercy and forgiveness of God comfort those who see their sin the way He sees it.
A contrite heart does not take the forgiveness of God for granted. It is grieved over its own sin and what that sin cost the Son of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Contrition is a key factor in true repentance. Without it, we are like the proud Pharisee, going through the motions of religion but harboring arrogance in our hearts. Contrition agrees that a heart intent on following Christ must reject evil in all its forms. A contrite heart harbors no thoughts of repeating its sin; rather, it seeks the strength of God to overcome sin and move on toward holiness (1 Peter 1:15–16).