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Light for our path: What role does emotion play in contrition?

Sometimes after I sin I don’t feel very remorseful. I am afraid that the lack of emotional guilt within me following sin means I am not contrite. What role does emotion play in contrition?

James F. Pope

Humans experience a wide range of emotions. So your question is a valid one to consider, especially during this season of Lent, which emphasizes repentance. Phrases from some of our hymns will be helpful in answering your question.

Sorrow over sin

“My sin and guilt are plaguing me; oh, grant me true contrition” (Christian Worship 437:2). Our Lutheran Confessions define contrition as “terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin” (Augsburg Confession, Article XII:4). After his adulterous and murderous episodes with Bathsheba and Uriah, King David did what he could to distance himself from guilt and personal accountability. Eventually, the message of the law from the prophet Nathan broke down the impenitent king. “I have sinned against the LORD,” the king confessed (2 Samuel 12:13). While Scripture records the words of David’s confession, it does not supply any accompanying outward emotion. We hear only of the king’s heartfelt sorrow over sin.

God works similar attitudes in you through the message of his law. During the general Confession of Sins in worship services he leads you to confess your natural sinful condition and your sins of commission and omission. In daily life, God leads you to acknowledge your wrongdoing and seek his forgiveness. At the time of David’s confession we do not know what emotion he felt. We do know that his confession was sincere.

Sorrow on display?

“With broken heart and contrite sigh, a trembling sinner, Lord, I cry” (Christian Worship 303:1). Is that what contrition is all about: people wearing their hearts on their sleeves, giving evidence of inward sorrow by outward displays of emotions? Contrition can be like that, but we want to be careful that we do not prescribe what contrition is to be like. You and I might confess specific sins with varying degrees of emotions. Factors such as the nature of the sin, the frequency of the sin, and the person against whom we have sinned can have a bearing on how emotion-filled our confessions might be.

Keep in mind that, like any other part of our Christian life, our contrition will not be perfect. One man called out to Jesus, “Help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Faith can always be stronger. Another person could have called out to Jesus, “Help me overcome my impenitence!” Contrition can always be more genuine. And yet, Christian contrition and repentance point in the right direction.

Sorrow removed

“When o’er my sins I sorrow, Lord, I will look to you” (Christian Worship 109:1). When the prodigal son was ruminating over his lost condition, his thoughts turned to his father. The son recognized his wrongs and began to rehearse the confession he would offer his father. Putting his plan into action, the son traveled back home and said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21).

His father embraced him with a kiss and staged a celebratory feast. The father forgave his wayward child. Likewise, God responds to our confession of sins with the words, “Take heart . . . your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). That message cheers the contrite in heart and provides them with strength to fight against sin even more.

Author: James F. Pope
Volume 106, Number 3
Issue: March 2019

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This entry is part 52 of 67 in the series question-answer

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