How Can We Embrace a Contrite Heart and Spirit?

In Psalm 51:17, David is crying out to God for forgiveness. He says that his sacrifice to God is a "broken and contrite heart." But what exactly does this look like, and how can a contrite heart help us grow in our spiritual walk? And do we have a biblical contrite definition we can know as Christians?

Stephanie Englehart
woman peaceful eyes closed hands on heart

Standing at my kitchen sink, I heard the screams from down the hall. “No, mine!” my youngest yelled. Another little voice quickly followed, “Oww, you hit me! I don't want to play with you.” Stomping neared as I turned around to address the inevitable tattle-telling heading my way.

My two littles stood before me as we talked through using kind words and hands. At the end of our discussion, I had my girls face one another and apologize. They both quickly murmured, “Sorry, sissy” and went their separate ways. Although resolved, the encounter left me wondering if my discipline was taking root at all.

Seeing myself in them, I know I am often the same — walking away from my sin with apathy. Just as I desire to see my kids feel true remorse over hurting one another, God desires to see my own heart broken and contrite over my sin. Psalm 51:17 points us towards what it means to have a contrite heart and spirit, and how we can apply this Scripture every day.

What Does Psalm 51:17 Mean by a Broken Spirit and a Contrite Heart Definition?

To have a contrite spirit means we feel guilt or remorse over our wrongdoing and seek repentance in place of our sin. This is exemplified in Psalm 51 as King David laments and repents over his sin in 2 Samuel 11-12:14. David wrote this Psalm just after Nathan the prophet confronted David about sleeping with another man’s wife (Bathsheba), impregnating her, and arranging her husband Uriah’s murder. David’s sin was great, but as Psalm 51:1 states, Gods mercy is abundant.

The confessional prayer of this Psalm is deeply personal for David, but its instructional elements provide a framework for how we, as believers, are to have a broken spirit and contrite heart. The Psalm is best read as a whole, not focusing solely on verse 17, but taking all 19 verses into context. As you read through the Psalm, you will find a few key elements that explain what it means to have a broken spirit and contrite heart.

A Broken Spirit and Contrite Heart Means We Are Humble Before God

The Psalm opens with an appeal to God for mercy and forgiveness. David’s plea for God’s steadfast love points to our need for humility before God. As David openly admits his sin, he confesses God’s mercy is not something that He deserves, but desires. David does not spend his time looking inward for the answer or solution to his problem but humbles himself by looking outward towards God and His promises.

A broken spirit and contrite heart means that we come humbly before God acknowledging our sin and proclaiming God’s goodness. This form of humble spirit expresses our need for God and His salvation alone. It does not blame God or others for our sin, but rather takes full responsibility for the actions we took. As we humble ourselves before God, we recognize and become dependent upon His mercy. This both kills the pride that God opposes within us and maximizes the mercy of God as the one who deserves the glory.

A Broken Spirit and Contrite Heart Means We Remorse Over Grieving the Lord

David did not treat his sin like my preschool aged children and their indispensable sharing shenanigans. Psalm 51:3 describes David as having his sin ever before him. He feels such guilt over what he has done, and places responsibility on the proper party—himself. In verse 4 David continues to proclaim that he has sinned only against God. He is fully aware that his actions have hurt others, but points to the idea that God is the ultimate judge of all sin, and that sin grieves the Lord (Ephesians 4:30).

A Broken Spirit and Contrite Heart Means We Turn Toward God

David may have experienced a guilt-ridden heart, but he didn’t sit in the guilt and shame of his sin, past repentance. David found the correlation between being satisfied in the grace of God and rejoicing in his salvation. Psalm 51:7-14 describes the process of repentance clearly. David acknowledges his sin and asks God to hide his face from his guilt. He asks God for a renewed spirit, and clean heart, and asks God to restore the joy of his salvation. In his quest for deliverance he describes the response of a redeemed sinner. A broken spirit and contrite heart means we repent of our sin by turning away from our disobedient actions, admitting our mistakes, and turning towards God.

Repentance does not end with us sitting in guilt and shame over the sins we have committed forever. Repentance is the act of remembering who our salvation comes from and turning towards God’s steadfast love and mercy. The goal of true repentance is not shame based fear or self-deprecation, but to be restored into the joy of salvation. As we see the mighty hand of mercy saving us, we can have no other response than great joy.

Why Does God Want Broken Spirits and Contrite Hearts?

In Isaiah 57:15 God states that He lives at peace with those who are humble in spirit, those who are lowly and have a contrite heart. When we see our sin for what it is, and come to God in true repentance, He removes the mask from our eyes and shaves the callouses off our hearts. When we acknowledge our sin, we are humbling ourselves before the almighty hand of God and offering ourselves to Him. This act of obedience provides a renewal of the heart and gives way for us to exalt grace and imitate Christ.

The more we understand our sin, the more we can revel in and understand the depths of God’s grace. In Psalm 51:13-17 David describes the implications of a contrite heart as teaching sinners about the glorious grace of God, rejoicing in God’s righteousness, and declaring His praise. These things take place when we humble ourselves before God in true repentance. This kind of repentance fuels regeneration within us, making us more and more like Christ. Isaiah 66:2 says:

“’Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?’ declares the Lord. ‘These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.’”

There is such hope for those who humble themselves before God and tremble at His word. God not only creates in us a clean heart and gives us eyes to see His good grace—but when we come to Him with a humble and contrite spirit, He looks on us with favor.

How Should Christians Apply Psalm 51:17 to Their Lives Today?

Psalm 51 is rich with the attributes of God, and vast in its reference of Scripture from Leviticus, Exodus, and Samuel. However, Psalm 51 doesn’t just reference the Old Testament, but it so beautifully foreshadows the long-awaited mercy from Christ the King. For Christians today, we should apply Psalm 51:17 in light of the cross of Christ.

Psalm 51:17 is primarily a call for humble, true repentance. In light of the gospel, we can come to the Lord knowing that there is no condemnation for those who find refuge in Him (Psalm 34:22).

“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:1).

When Christ came and lived a perfect sinless life and died for the penalty of sin that we deserved, He enacted everlasting mercy and steadfast love for those who love and honor Him. As He rose from the grave, He blot out our transgressions for good. His sacrifice finally and officially cleansed us from our sin and reconciled us to God. Through belief in Christ, we can no longer be cast out of His presence. He has sealed us with His Holy Spirit. We are given a clean heart, and forever have a new identity and renewed spirit within us.

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

Bearing this in mind, let us look to the cross. When we look to the cross, we are no longer slaves to sin, for we’ve already been set free. Let us run in that freedom that has been so graciously gifted us.

My four-year-old loves running through wild grasses, running against the wind on the beach, and climbing everything in sight. There is something about the freedom of open space and nature that wakes her up, makes her feel alive and free. In Christ we always have that form of freedom (Galatians 5:1). It is the kind of open, wild space that wakes us up and makes us come alive.

Look to the cross, revel in His grace, praise His name, and walk in the freedom from sin that you already have. As you do this, you will both feel the weight of your sin against God more, and experience more of His unending abundant mercies.

Other Sources:

Broken Heart and Contrite Heart Biblical Meaning Explained

Contrite Definition & Meaning

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/AaronAmat

Stephanie Englehart is a Seattle native, church planter’s wife, mama, and lover of all things coffee, the great outdoors, and fine (easy to make) food. Stephanie is passionate about allowing God to use her honest thoughts and confessions to bring gospel application to life. You can read more of what she writes on the Ever Sing blog at stephaniemenglehart.com or follow her on Instagram: @stephaniemenglehart.


Originally published June 23, 2020.