Psalm 51: A Contrite Heart

In response to God’s call for “no bull” in Psalm 50, we hear Psalm 51, the most well-known of the Penitential Psalms where the writer prays for the removal of personal and social sin, a psalm commonly associated with Lent. Attributed to King David after being confronted about his affair with Bathsheba, David prays: “Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offense. Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me . . . wash me, make me whiter than snow … A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.” (3-4, 9b, 12) David’s sins were great indeed. First sleeping with another man’s wife, Bathsheba, then murdering her husband by placing him in harm’s way in the battlefield.

After confessing his sins, the writer goes on to offer God a contrite heart, “For you take no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (16-17) But what does it mean to have a contrite heart?

Contrite, according to Webster, is repentant. But what does it mean to be repentant? Is it enough to say I’m sorry and assume all is forgiven? Some may seek forgiveness, say the words, while feeling no true sorrow for wrongs done and having no intention of changing. Far too often we cheapen our admissions of fault by adding, but . . . But you did this or that, justifying our misdeeds or seeking to caste blame elsewhere. The writer of this psalm adds no buts to legitimate his wrongdoings. He accepts full blame, sincerely asks God’s forgiveness and offers God his very heart. Our politicians would be well advised to learn from this psalm how to make a true apology.

To be repentant isn’t just to seek forgiveness, it is to seek to change, to turn away from the error of our ways and turn to God. It is metanoia, a change of heart, and not just a change of heart, but according to this psalm, a whole new heart, “A clean heart create for me, God.”

Leonidas Proaño, in his book, Concientizacion, Evangelizacion, Politica, speaks of a three part process of conversion experienced by people who come from a first world environment to a third world. The first step is to leave your comfort zone in order to be open to a new way of thinking. Some who visit third world countries are touched by the sights and sounds of poverty and quickly rush to acts of charity to alleviate their conscience and the pain the encounter produces. Others though allow their interaction with the poor to sink deeply into their soul where they reflect further and seek out causes. They allow themselves to be transformed by their experience with poverty. Only then do they move to action to change unjust systems that create situations of extreme inequity.

While acts of charity are laudable, they can remain on the surface, producing no deep change. What God is calling for is change, metanoia, conversion, a total turning over of our life to God. This is the contrite heart God seeks.

Far too often we come to God, offering what we want to give, not what God wants from us. Are you willing to give God everything? Are you willing to come before God with a contrite heart? When you apologize do you add but . . .?

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