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Reading the Hymns: The Contrite Heart

December 11th, 2010 | 5 min read

By Kevin White

This hymn is a new favorite of mine. It’s by William Cowper (1731-1800), and first appeared in the Olney Hymns collection, which he co-published with John Newton.  Fred Sanders recently highlighted Cowper and the Olney collection. He introduces them so well that I actually have very little to add to it!

As Dr. Sanders says, Cowper lived with chronic depression. His first major spell came in 1763, cutting off a promising legal career at its peak. He began to despair of his salvation. In time, he recovered somewhat and retired to the country town of Olney to live with friends. Newton was the parish priest and soon became a close friend. Newton and the others urged him to write so as to steady his mind. Still, the despair periodically recurred, and during those spells he lost all sense of assurance of salvation. He wrote most of his works when that dark cloud loomed more distantly, during the times of relative calm and happiness.

Which brings us to “The Contrite Heart.” Its superscript references Isaiah 57:15:

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

This is a very comforting text, but it presents a challenge. Consider the Jeremiah passage from my previous post: who can know their heart? Right when this comfort is most needed, it is the most subjectively difficult to grasp. Sure, grace is not a feeling. But how do you know it’s there when you don’t feel it? This is a hymn for those times:

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart or no?

Cowper sets the question in bald terms. Yes, God gives divine comfort and happiness to the contrite. That’s the problem, hence he asks, “Then tell me…?” How do you break into the circle of happiness? When your heart seems dead, how do you know you are contrite before God? How do you claim his promises?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain,
Insensible as steel;
If aught is felt, ’tis only pain,
To find I cannot feel.

We can hear the words of even the best of preachers. We can sit at the feet of John Newton, who knew deeply the wonder of God’s forgiveness. But the heart is not always moved like we would want it to be. Here Cowper puts words to that often inarticulate sense of insensibility, when God seems distant.

I sometimes think myself inclined
To love Thee if I could;
But often feel another mind,
Averse to all that’s good.

A great challenge in the Christian life is that emotions are often so fleeting. Cowper and his friends were part of the 18th century evangelical revivalist movement. Modern evangelicals are heirs of that movement. Like them, we put a strong emphasis on the need for conversion. On walking with God. That Christianity is about more than the external trappings of religion. It must involve the heart. That emphasis has always been a great strength of evangelicalism and also its Achilles heel. Because the heart is deceitful above all things, who can know it? As Cowper shows, our own feelings can betray us.

My best desires are faint and few,
I fain would strive for more;
But when I cry, “My strength renew!”
Seem weaker than before.

Cowper continues to give voice to this common struggle of the heart. When we really consider the weight of sin, when we consider the high bar that Jesus sets in his teachings, we know we fall short. That is the point. We fall short, and that is why Jesus rescues us. That is why we have the Holy Spirit to strengthen and support us. But sometimes we do not feel an immediate response to our cries to God. Sure, as Paul says, the Spirit prays and intercedes for us when we lack the ability. But we cannot hear those “groans too profound for words.”

Thy saints are comforted, I know,
And love Thy house of prayer;
I therefore go where others go,
But find no comfort there.

Cowper further explores the gap between what is known and what is felt. He uses “saints” in the broad sense, meaning all Christians. All the ones who have been declared holy by the merits of Christ. We really do see these saints all the time. They do go to our churches. We see all kinds of people come in and receive God’s comfort. Sometimes we are even one of those people! But other times, it’s quite different. We go to the same place. We do the same things, say the same words, sing the same songs. But we do not seem to get the same results. That is when it is easy to blame our church routine. To blame the pastor, to blame the order of worship, to blame the seemingly happy people around us, to switch churches. But none of those are (usually) the answer. So what is?

Oh make this heart rejoice or ache;
Decide this doubt for me;
And if it be not broken, break —
And heal it, if it be.

Cowper offers only one answer to the conundrum that he takes five verses to build up. He submits to God’s decision, to the One who can see and weigh the heart. Cowper has us pray that God end the hour of indecision. Give joy, or pain. Joy really is his first choice. He says, “If I am already contrite, give me the blessings of contrition.” But if the joy will not come, then honest pain is a better state than spiritual limbo. Why? Because if God breaks our hearts, that will bring our hearts to genuine contrition. Proper spiritual brokenness leads not to the morbid introspection of the early verses, which Cowper finally rejects, but to real contrition and lowliness of heart. And guess what God has promised to the contrite and lowly of heart?

(I want to thank the people over at Red Mountain Music, who included an excellent adaption of this in their album “Help My Unbelief.” They title it “Decide This Doubt for Me.” They are one of several groups out there who are doing good work at recovering old hymns and introducing them to a new audience. They also just released their final album. Full disclosure—I have no affiliation with RMM at all. I just like their stuff.)

Kevin White