Psalms of True Sorrow

Scripture tells us to have sorrow for sin, but warns about going to excess.

This article was originally published as part of Ad Cenam Agni, a 2023 virtual Lenten Retreat hosted by the Abbot's Circle.


No one can be truly repentant, truly sorry for past sins, unless that sorrow finds close companions in joy and hope.

God calls us to the heights of holiness. Those who seriously try to imitate and follow Christ, who aim high in the spiritual life, always run the risk of either falling low or feeling low when they fail. And nothing so poisons Christian effort as unchristian despair. St. Bernard of Clairvaux writes that Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary, but it should not be an endless preoccupation. You must dwell also on the glad remembrance of God’s loving kindness because, he warns us, “sadness will harden the heart and lead it more deeply into despair.” Scripture tells us to have sorrow for sin, but warns about going to excess: “For sorrow results in death, and sorrow of heart saps one’s strength” (Sir 38:18). There is a difference between holy grief that leads to life and a sorrow that debilitates. “I rejoice,” St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting . . . For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor 7:9–10)

While the true sorrow “drains” the soul, it is so God can replace the emptiness with hope, promising recovery of what was lost, life where spiritual death had reigned. If the Parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us nothing else, it shows us the joy-giving nature of repentance in God’s eyes. The finest robe, family ring, and sandals indicate reinstatement in the family—recovery, welcome, and encouragement for the future. Where you expected punishment, a party is thrown in your honor. The Psalms are our God-given script for right repentance, with contrition always wedded to hope:

Here: Restore to me the joy of thy salvation” they read, “and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee. (Ps 51:12–13)

And again: Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in thee. Deliver me from all my transgressions. (Ps 39:7–8)

And again: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. (Ps 42:5–6)

And again: O God, thou knowest my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from thee. Let not those who hope in thee be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek thee be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel. (Ps 69:5–6)

These verses show two inseparable things: total honesty about your state of soul—sinful, depressed, ashamed—joined to indefatigable confidence that God not only can but wants to pull you out of this state.  Without at least that much faith, you’ll stay stuck in the mire the psalmist begs to be delivered from: “I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold” (Ps 69:2). One of the keys to psalm prayer is not only taking the words on your lips, but allowing the spirit of trust and confidence to penetrate the heart. No matter how bad things get, the psalmist cannot suppress a final confident cry for rescue: In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. To thee they cried, and were saved; in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed. (Ps 22:2–5)

We share this same confidence today.

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