With Humble and Contrite Hearts


Perhaps among the greatest of Psalms is David’s 50/51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance. O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on thy altar.

The very core of this Psalm is its attention to the heart and its interior state before God. In this much, nothing has changed between Old and New Testament. The great field of battle, the very doors of heaven, as well as the gates of hell, reside squarely in the human heart. Its state before God is the state of any individual.

David, who was known as a “man after God’s own heart,” was also a man who was capable of both murder and adultery. How could the Scriptures give him such a title? The only sense I can make of such a thing is the character of his heart. When the Prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, his response, without hesitation, was repentance before the Lord. Though he had hardened his heart in such a way as to commit serious sin, He could not turn his back on God when confronted. I have always found this a tremendously hopeful story.

It is, as well, the very core of the Orthodox life. All that we do – praying, fasting, confession, the veneration of icons, keeping vigil – whatever the Tradition may ask of us – all of it is geared towards the condition of the heart. This is why it becomes so strange when people lose their way and begin to think that what is important is the prayer, the fasting, the icons, the details of the vigil, and even allow themselves to be angered when these things are not done as precisely as they might. It is a tragedy, of course. For someone has let the medicine become the focus of their life rather than the health which the medicine should bring.

By the same token, we should rejoice at a humble and contrite heart wherever we find it. If a non-believer extends us mercy, we should rejoice in God and give thanks for His mercies, rather than judging the non-believer. Such merciful men and women will enter the Kingdom before us all.

I have always had a question before me that addresses all of this: is my heart the kind of heart that God could do anything with?

If the answer is “no” then I am in serious trouble. Then I must redouble my efforts and pray more fervently for God’s mercies lest I become someone that He finds useless.

But men and women with humble and contrite hearts are the very stuff of which the Kingdom is made. With such men and women God can and will do anything. For them, nothing is impossible. They cannot be deterred from their appointed meeting with God and His kingdom. Before them earthly kingdoms fall, and the wise of this world become mute.

May God make of me such a man and give me such with whom to keep company.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


18 responses to “With Humble and Contrite Hearts”

  1. Fr Ronald Avatar
    Fr Ronald

    Glory to Jesus Christ!

    “I have always had a question before me that addresses all of this: is my heart the kind of heart that God could do anything with?

    If the answer is “no” then I am in serious trouble. Then I must redouble my efforts and pray more fervently for God’s mercies lest I become someone that He finds useless.

    Wow. I think many of us avoid asking ourselves the question in the first line because we know the truth and urgency of what you wrote in the second. And the danger of it all is that it is so, so easy to ignore the heart. Perhaps Christians are in the greatest danger of all of neglecting matters of the heart. We can easily pile on so much “Christian” activity, busy-ness, and service that we, like Martha, forget the “one thing needful.” A certain Holy Father (perhaps St. Issac the Syrian?) said that it is better to cut ourselves free from the bonds of sin than to release a slaves from their servitude. Hard words they are, but they bear cutting witness to the importance of the heart in the Christ-life. Thank you for another challenging and inspiring post, Father.


    P.S.- What translation of Psalm 50 did you post?

  2. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you for the comments. It was the RSV, for no particular reason.

  3. Yvonne Avatar

    The Velveteen Rabbi blog has a similar post, The master key is the broken heart which you might be interested to read.

  4. Margaret Avatar

    So when I believe and feel my heart to be genuinely broken and contrite, I feel totally useless. Is this human pride?

  5. Jake Avatar

    Thanks for this, Father Stephen. It was uplifting.

    I’m curious…why do Orthodox call this Psalm 50? I’ve always known it to be Psalm 51. What happens in the Psalms before this that it would be counted as 50, are two joined together somewhere or another one omitted?

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    Very perceptive. Yes, two are joined together earlier making the count different. We typically list them as 50/51 to cover both ways of counting the psalms. If I had my psalter with me I could refresh my memory as to where the count changes. Sorry.

  7. Death Bredon Avatar
    Death Bredon

    For those with hard heart, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus shoulcd prove cautionary. The Lord is merciful to the penitent, but test and him and taste divine justice.

  8. Fr Ronald Avatar
    Fr Ronald

    I believe the numbering changes at Ps. 9 Pss. 9 & 10 (Hebrew) are combined in the Septuagint (LXX). So Hebrew Ps. 11 is LXX Ps. 10

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Death Bredon,

    Indeed, it is a cautionary tale – but we know nothing of Divine Justice, only His mercy. I would look at the same story and note that every day the Rich Man walked past the poor man Lazarus, and did not recognize that here was actually the gate of Paradise. Had he shown mercy he would have found mercy.

    But our hard heart cannot make God change and show us anything but mercy. The danger of a hard heart is that the very mercy of God will seem like wrath. But the Good God who loves mankind is always that. This is very important to remember and is the teaching of the Fathers.

    This is condemnation, Christ says: That Light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the Light.

    But the darkness they seek is simply to turn away from God. Without God we can only find suffering and sorrow, because He is joy, Light and all good things. Why would we turn from Him? This is the danger of a hard heart.

  10. Irving Avatar

    A lovely post Brother 🙂 Here is an addition to the stew:

    “Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than be an oppressor. Be gentle, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.

    “This is the fruit of humility. And once a person has become humble, straightaway mercy encircles and embraces him; and once mercy has approached, immediately his heart becomes aware of God helping him. Then his heart is filled with faith, and from this he understands that prayer is the haven of help, the fountain of salvation, a treasury of assurance, a saving anchor in time of storm, a source of recovery at times of sickness, a staff for the weak, a shelter in time of trials, an illumination to those in darkness.”

    – Paraphrased from Daily Readings with St. Isaac of Syria (also called St. Isaac of Nineveh), edited by A.M. Allchin.

    Peace and Many Blessings!

  11. AR Avatar

    If we become something opposed to God’s moral nature, won’t we find him opposed to us? Not because we force him to change but because he hasn’t and we have?

    I don’t understand what seems an aversion to justice. How can any society have peace without it?

  12. The Scylding Avatar

    When I read about David being a man after God’s own heart, and about Jacob saying that God was with him all his life (before Pharoah), I contrast it with the perfectionism of the holiness movemnts (pelagian) I grew up in – and I thank God for His MERCY.

  13. Gina Avatar

    I sometimes wonder how niceness and mercy compare. I suppose the difference is that you would show the second even if it were undeserved, and not feel cheated if it went unthanked or even scorned. In which case, I require a lot of mercy.

  14. Fatherstephen Avatar

    We all require a lot of mercy.

  15. Jasmine Yedigarian Avatar
    Jasmine Yedigarian

    the coptic orthodox church and its believers, memorize that psalm and say it at the beginning of every hour, I believe… it’s a beautiful psalm

  16. Maureen Avatar

    How beautiful this Psalms is… Your first must give your heart and soul and mind to the lord… He is the captain of your ship.. Let him direct you to becoming more Godly.. You wouldn’t believe what he has done in my life, and the Blessed Mother what a magnificent woman to look up to.. What she must of felt watching her Son take all this suffering, for us… Wow what a gift, it is only to bad that no one really and truly excepts this gift whole hardly..It is the gift that keeps on giving… Thats LOVE in its ultimate form.. How greatful we should be daily, hourly…

    Your Friend in Christ…

  17. Brandon Avatar

    Father—firstly, thank you for giving the most cogent description of true reality throughout all your writings, ie how the world truly is. Is there any particular reading that you feel comprehensively addresses what it means to be human?

    Secondly, re: this article…would it be fair to say that the Orthodox way of life puts us in the best position to turn our heart completely to God? What about say a Protestant friend that has a great heart and full of “love”…and they say they don’t need the Orthodox way of life?

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Orthodox way of life is the normative path of the Christian tradition. But it’s not a mechanical thing – it’s a work of grace. As to your Protestant friend, trust God’s providence in their life.

    I can’t think of a single reading that comprehensively describes what it means to be human – probably because it’s such a large topic. Take it a piece at a time. The lives of the saints are one indication. St. Porphyrios’ Wounded By Love is a good book to start with – as are so many others. As much as possible, live a day at a time. Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims (google them) are about as good a summary of suggestions that I know. Paste them up somewhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. As a total aside: Henry Adams practically invented Social History with his efforts almost 200 years ago. A magnificent book…

  2. Sorry for typos. Meant to say nothing pollutes more than warfare, etc , and don’t want to tread over the…

  3. Regarding “green” policies and the discussion here, I want to add that nothing polltes more han warfare, weapons, and to…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast