#31 of a Series on Psalm 50
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
There’s a vibrant biblical theme that is often ignored if we have a juridical view of the righteousness of God, the Law, and sin. That theme is delight! How odd that this highly personal, emotional term would be used to describe Almighty God! God delights, takes pleasure, treasures in personalized way, in response to human actions. This sentiment is not reserved to the thought and experience of the prophet David. The prophet Zephaniah says this,
“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. “ Zeph. 3:17
Zephaniah’s verse express powerful sentiments like ‘rejoice’, ‘gladness’, ‘(peaceful) quiet’, ‘exult’, ‘loud singing!’ In a similar spirit, David’s words explain to us what brings delight to God, or maybe more accurately, what doesn’t bring delight – namely a mere external obedience to some command or precept. While at first this might seem strange, that God is not pleased with the sacrifices He commands (!) as we observed in the previous reflection, but rather in something else – in the broken spirit, the broken contrite heart. This He will not despise. The broken heart will be the acceptable sacrifice to God – if it is offered to Him in humility.
A broken heart is not sufficient in itself to please God. Does God delight in our brokenness in and of itself? I think not. God’s will is not that people be broken. Sin breaks people’s spirits and destroys their souls. But, within the soul is the capacity of the will toward contrition, which is a sorrow that saves the soul.
St. Paul, as a wise pastor, knew that the believers in the Corinthian community had fallen into sin and they needed correction which he delivered forcefully in his first epistle to them. He also knew that that correction would bring sorrow to them – but didn’t let the emotion of fear proceeding from correction keep him from speaking what was necessary to them.
As I’ve reflected about this, I’ve come to believe this is a rare commodity today – to entrust the Truth to people and not be afraid that the emotional climate would sweep them to despair. It was a sign not only of his love for them (to speak the truth and nothing less) but also his trust of them, and trust in God. It was a verbal therapy that they needed desperately – correction. With no correction, there is no understanding of the truth, no repentance (and sorrow) and no improvement.
In his second letter to the Corinthians (2Cor.7:8ff) he follows up saying this,
For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while— I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.
As we’ve mentioned before, sorrow itself does not save. Judas was torn with sorrow but his sorrow did not lead him back to the Lord. Contrition is when sorrow is mixed with faith that God loves us. The Corinthians were moved to that saving sorrow that led to repentance. The truth, however, can also lead to the sorrow of despair – like that of Judas, from which there is no recovery.
Are you sorry for your sins?
On occasion, while making a Confession, the priest will ask me, “Are you sorry for your sins?” I remember how striking those words were, and have been when asked. When we say our prayer of Contrition (in our UOC usage), we say, “For these, and for all the other sins I have committed….I am heartily sorry…” But these words can be empty – easily spoken with NO real sorrow. It can just be words, a formula, a ritual. This sorrow is necessary for the Confession to be acceptable to God, as a sacrifice.
Confession as Life Improvement
There is a second aspect of the sorrow of the Confession – it must mean a change in life orientation[i], back from the brink of egotistical living, to obedience to God and following His way. Traditionally, this was described as a firm purpose of amendment – an act of will and the engagement of the person in actions that reflect a new, holy and different way of life.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of confession being just a counseling session – akin to talking to a life coach about ways to improve one’s life. A coaching or counseling relationship can be very helpful in identifying patterns of thinking and behaviors that are self-destructive or limiting in many aspects of one’s personal life. This self-improvement focus isn’t bad in and of itself, except that the focus often only remains on the self – it’s all about me. Most such sessions don’t have a place for dealing with deep, soul-level sorrow when these patterns are identified as sinful, and an offense to God, and are ways of living that are not pleasing to Him. In fact, some secular counseling considers the idea of sorrow as negative, unhelpful, self-destructive and to be avoided.
The Christian way of authentic repentance through Confession of sins centers on three fundamental elements or movements, the awareness of one’s sins as offense to God and others, sorrow for one’s sins in the heart leading to Confession, and the willingness to take action to restore justice toward others and amend one’s life. This threefold action becomes an act of sacrifice – and God-oriented – which is pleasing to Him as the scriptures.
We’ll have more to say about the actions that proceed from repentance in future reflections. Ω
[i] While it’s common in some circles to ridicule self-improvement books popular in our culture, especially those that speak to improving relationships or management skills, I often find a wonderful kernel of truth in a number of such books and when oriented toward a fuller set of principles that govern our (Orthodox) Christian way, can be of great help. There’s a reason why they are found in best-seller lists, because they can be simple, well written, thought-provoking and practical. If you’re interestedin finding which ones have been helpful to ………………………