Years ago while serving on my mission I recall one night in companion prayer asking the Lord to let us have broken hearts and contrite spirits. When I finished the prayer my companion said, “what is a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” I did my best as a 19 year old to suggest what I thought it meant, and then my companion replied with something I’ve thought about ever since that day. He said something like, “I just wondered if you could explain it because sometimes I hear people pray for things and I’m not sure if they have any idea what they mean.”
Although my understanding of these things has improved since then, I’ve never taken the time for a deeper dive into what the scriptures and prophets teach about these terms. So this week I’m repenting of that.
To get started, I did a search in scripture notes for:
(brok* +heart*) or (contrite* +spirit)
This is a more complex search which is super convenient. You can chain multiple searches together by wrapping them in parenthesis and putting ‘or’ between them. That way you get all the results in one set of search results. The asterisks are wildcards to pick up variations.
This search yields 39 results in the standard works.
During my searches I discovered another word I should have included so I do another search for:
This finds two more verses which I drag into the collection note. I could have added “or brokenhearted” into the search above, but sometimes you’ll do many searches during a study session and anything related to your topic you can add into the collection.
Now in the master note I write my initial list of questions I’d like to find answers for.
This is loosely following my guide for how to study the scriptures (https://scripturenotes.com/how-to-study-the-scriptures).
Step 1 is done because I have selected my topic of study. Step 2 is to define the terms and consider related searches. So lets get into Websters 1828 and Strong’s Concordance and see what we find.
From Webster’s 1828 dictionary we find these definitions:
Broken: parted by violence, rent asunder; infirm; made bankrupt
The definitions for heart are extensive. I have a lot of admiration for Noah Webster. He’s come up with 15 separate meanings. I will just replicate a few parts here that stand out as most relevant and repeat the process with the other words.
Heart: seat of the affections and passions; the seat of the understanding; the seat of the will (secret purposes, intentions, or designs); character; courage or spirit; secret thoughts or the recesses of the mind; disposition of mind; real intention; conscience or sense of good or ill; strength and power of producing; the utmost degree.
Contrite: broken-hearted for sin; deeply affected with grief and sorrow for having offended God; humble; penitent
Spirit: Animal excitement or the effect of it; life; fire; courage; vigor of intellect; genius; temper or disposition or state of mind; the soul of man; an immaterial intelligent substance or being; sentiment; eager desire; something eminently pure and refined; that which hath power or energy
Reading these definitions, I’m now going to add this to my list of questions:
Now I turn to Strong’s concordance using the Blue Letter Bible website. Broken, heart, and spirit yield similar definitions as above, but contrite adds a little to what Webster has above. The Hebrew for contrite means crushed into dust in a literal sense. It’s a form of destruction. It references Psalms 90:3 as a use:
KJV: “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.”
However, the Hebrew translation from the Gesenius Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon shows the word “dust” replaces the word “destruction.”
This brings to mind the verse in King Benjamin’s speech where he declares we are not as much as the dust of the earth because the dust obeys God. (Mosiah 2:25; 4:2)
Christ was crushed for the sins of the world in the “olive press” of Gethsemane. I think what he’s asking us to do when he tells us we must have a contrite spirit is we must not be casual about sin and repentance. Are we crushed by our mistakes? Do we “acknowledge [our] unworthiness before God at all times?” (Alma 38:14)
I just did a search for “dust” in the scriptures. There are 147 occurrences of the word and I feel led to believe many of these references are directly related to being contrite. Over and over we are told we are less than the dust of the earth. When Alma is speaking to his son Corianton, he warns him not to deny the justice of God but let that justice and mercy “bring you down to the dust in humility.” I think that captures the meaning of a contrite spirit. For now, my visual is being ground to dust.
Now I start going through the 39 verses from the original search. There are a few irrelevant to the topic so I remove them as I go.
After going through a dozen or so verses I started wondering what is a broken heart really? I reviewed the definitions above and couldn’t quite get a solid image of what it might be. I had read the verses in Jacob 2 where the men who had started unrightously practicing polygamy had broken their wives hearts and wondered if that was equivalent to the self-imposed broken heart the scriptures speak of. It didn’t seem like the same thing. Then I started thinking about marking all the instances of broken heart and contrite spirit and returned to the first verse in the results: Job 17:11.
“My days are past, my purposes are broken off, even the thoughts of my heart.”
Could this be it? The idea that my purposes, my will, my thoughts, have all come to naught? My way has never worked when it came to spiritual things. True humility sets aside our personal agenda. At some point we all have to say, “Lord, I’m tired of doing things my way. What is thy will? You are the way.”
It’s not that God doesn’t want us to use our agency in making choices about what to pursue and accomplish, but righteous goals have to be pursued by righteous means. We can have good goals and seek to do the Lord’s will as we accomplish them. Zion can ONLY be built upon the laws of the Celestial kingdom (D&C 105:5).
For now, my definition of broken heart is having the humility and submissiveness to do things according to the Spirit, similar to how a broken horse follows where the reins pull it.
When our lives are so full of activity, even church callings, our direction seems to be predetermined or maybe programmed. We think to ourselves, “I have to do A then B then C today” and we don’t take the time to pause and let the Spirit, holding the reins, give us direction. I know I get caught up in lists and if I’m not careful to pause and feel for direction, there’s a chance I’ll miss the still soft voice nudging and pulling me to accomplish greater good than I originally planned for.
Conversely, when we have too much free time and haven’t set goals for ourselves and just fill our time with meaningless activities, we aren’t looking for direction so the Spirit has nothing to prompt us to do. In those circumstances, we need to be asking for direction and the things we should be doing. Set a goal that stretches our faith. Ask who we can reach out to and help.
Thinking about these concepts brings to mind when the Savior carried his cross to Gethsemane. He literally had a broken heart. He had been shamed (unjustly of course). He was being led like a lamb to the slaughter, totally submissive. In those difficult circumstances, he completely released his will to that of the Father’s to do this ultimate difficult task he’d been called to perform.
In a similar way, Christ asks us to take up our cross and follow him, recognizing that our sins have crushed us to dust and humbly following him through being fully broken. When fully broken, the scriptures tell us we are then prepared to be bound up by Christ. He came to bind up the broken hearted (Psa. 147:3; Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:18; D&C 138:42), the meek and lowly followers.
There is a beautiful representation of this in a Japanese art form called Kintsugi (“golden joinery) or Kinsukuroi (“golden repair”). A plain bowl has little value except to put in your cupboard and use it to eat from. However, when it is broken, it can be repaired in a beautiful way, binding up the cracks with golden sealant such that it becomes a work of art worthy of display instead of eating from. The flaws and imperfections are brought to life in a way that exemplifies the transformation from the natural man, to the man or woman alive in Christ. It’s a beautiful transformation.
You can find more pictures of this art online, but if you’d like to try it, here’s a how-to I found if you want to try it out. One of my daughters has done this before and it’s a beautiful piece of art.
This tutorial tells you to only repair one piece of broken pottery a day so it has time to cure before applying pressure to other pieces, but you may be able to do several pieces depending on how your bowl broke.
Here’s a great quote from a conference talk that summarizes this article pretty well. I found this by looking up 3 Nephi 9:20 in the BYU LDS citation index.
“True worship begins when our hearts are right before the Father and the Son. What is our heart condition today? Paradoxically, in order to have a healed and faithful heart, we must first allow it to break before the Lord. “Ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit,” the Lord declares. The result of sacrificing our heart, or our will, to the Lord is that we receive the spiritual guidance we need.
With a growing understanding of the Lord’s grace and mercy, we will find that our self-willed hearts begin to crack and break in gratitude. Then we reach for Him, yearning to yoke ourselves to the Only Begotten Son of God. In our brokenhearted reaching and yoking, we receive new hope and fresh guidance through the Holy Ghost.
I have struggled to banish the mortal desire to have things my way, eventually realizing that my way is oh so lacking, limited, and inferior to the way of Jesus Christ. “His way is the path that leads to happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come.” Can we love Jesus Christ and His way more than we love ourselves and our own agenda?”
Sister Neill F. Marriott, “Yielding Our Hearts to God,” October 2015 General Conference
As always, the purpose of this blog is to help people see ways to study the scriptures better. Hopefully this article demonstrates that and provides some insight. I encourage you to follow your inspiration and dig deeper into the scriptures. Scripture Notes is the best tool to dig with. In our upcoming release, these tools I’ve used above will be included as links tied to the verses so you get quick click access to them.
(Featured Image by Marco Montalti @123rf.com)