Contrition refers to remorse and sorrow for having done wrong. It stems from the word “crush” and suggests the “breaking of a hard substance”. it suggests a sincere and heartfelt sorrow.
Contrition is related to shame and guilt. In biblical usage contrition is contrasted with shame and guilt by virtue of the distinction that contrition (“Godly sorrow”) is pleasing to God and leads to repentance, while shame and “worldly sorrow” leads to death. Contrition leads to life because it is sorrow mixed with faith.
Contrition is also related to repentance. In fact, sorrow for sin can move a person to change. As the individual turns to God in their hatred of their sin, He helps them to make changes in their lives. God empowers repentance in response to contrition.
Many counterfeits of contrition add to confusion around this concept. For example, penance carries with it the idea that sin requires the person who sinned to suffer for their sins. Thus penance relates to punishment and payment for sin. At its worst penance degenerates into voluntary self punishment. Contrition, by contrast, is enhanced and deepened the more the individual recognizes the price that Jesus played to redeem the guilty. Love for God brings the purest and most powerful experience of true contrition.
Two great errors have plagued the free exercise of contrition. In some catholic traditions the reception of forgiveness has been thought to be dependent on contrition. That is, if there is no deep sorrow for sin then there can be no forgiveness. This leads rapidly to the notion that a person needs to earn God’s forgiveness. Conversely in some protestant traditions the reception of forgiveness by faith and grace alone has led to the notion that contrition plays no role in salvation and is unnecessary. This leads rapidly to a neglect of a serious and whole hearted turning from sin. Without any sorrow for sin and sincere desire to be free from sin the individual then fails to progress to mortification, repentance, sanctification and perfection.