- “May the gates of hell be shut continually before me, because that my heart is broken and my spirit is contrite!”
By Brother-Elder Ess
While the more common expression of “a broken heart and a contrite spirit” is heard from the Lord when he sets forth the new definition of “sacrifice,” it is Lehi who introduces readers to these words (which phrase, by the way, is NOT within the New Testament) when he is giving his final blessing to his son Jacob; and then Nephi inserts them as he gives his lamentation just after describing his father’s death. Again, they draw upon older texts, presumably found in the Brass Plates, namely the Psalmist and Isaiah:
Psalm 34:18 – The righteous cry and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart and saves those of a contrite spirit. None of them that trust in him shall be desolate.
Isaiah 57:15 – He that puts his trust in God will possess the land and inherit his holy mountain, and shall say, “Cast ye up, cast ye up, prepare the way, take up the stumblingblock out of the way of my people.” The High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy dwells with him that is of a contrite spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. God will not contend forever neither always be angry. He will heal and restore comforts to him and his mourners.
Psalm 51:17 – God does not desire sacrifice and does not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken heart and a contrite spirit. God will be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness.
Isaiah 66:2 – [Lord speaking] Where is the house that you build unto me, and where is the place of my rest? All those things has my hand made, but to the man who is poor and of a contrite spirit I will look. He who kills an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrifices a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck; he that offers an oblation, as if he offered pig’s blood; he that burns incense, as if he blessed an idol. They have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations. I will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them.
In our day, Mormon children are taught that “sacrifice” is some sort of quasi mix of the old Law of Moses and the mortification practices of the early Roman Catholic Church. Instead of beating our own flesh, though, it is self-flagellation of the soul. From the 1993 Aaronic Priesthood Manual:
“What does it mean to have a broken heart? (To suffer extreme sorrow.) What does the word contrite mean? (Repentant.)”
“The ‘broken heart’ spoken of in the scriptures is not the sorrow one feels because he has lost a close relative or loved one or suffered some other personal disappointment in life. Rather, the broken heart spoken of in the scriptures is the natural consequence of a person’s recognizing and admitting his own sins and imperfections.
Knowledge of the following truths should lead a person to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit:
- All of us in our natural, carnal, and fallen state on earth have sinned and transgressed the laws of God, for which a punishment is designated by the law of justice. 2. Jesus Christ is holy and pure. He lived a perfect life and was therefore the person least deserving of punishment for sin. 3. Because of his great love for us, Jesus Christ paid the price for all our sins. He suffered the punishment for the sins of all people.
We should realize that Jesus, the one who was perfect and had not sinned, has suffered awful punishment for all of us. Pondering the awful suffering of our Lord for us and our own unworthiness should be a heartbreaking experience.”
In other words, we are told that a broken heart and a contrite spirit is a heavy guilt on our shoulders for being unworthy sinners. And we should try to bring this about, through a sort of Protestant self-reflection magic.
Why have we settled for this reading? Perhaps because it is both something we can perform, and also something that seems to come from a “pool of sincerity,” as it were: namely, making ourselves feel sad. A lovely combination, right? The model of looking upon our own sins, and feeling ashamed is an old one, used by preachers for centuries to whip up their crowds and get them to the mercy seat, where they can offer absolution. But this reading fails to consider what is to come, after we offer up a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And, of course, presumes a sort of magic we ought to know better than to believe in, at this point.
When talking about the broken heart and contrite spirit, Lehi tells his son that “men are instructed sufficiently to know good from evil” and that “salvation is free.” One might conclude from Lehi’s words and his famous dream, that partaking of the fruit is a choice, and simply desiring it, asking for mercy and walking towards it is sufficient to receive. Lehi continues: “how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah…” No merits or performances warrant a soul to be with God, for those come solely from the Lord Himself.
Why can’t we perform “broken heart and contrite spirit,” and merit salvation? Ask yourself: Can we sorrow our way right into Heaven? Have we been sad enough, today? Have we felt bad enough about ourselves, today? Does that make you happy, to have felt so sad? Feel worse, then!
Does this sound like a path to glory, or to a bipolar disorder? Is Zion only filled with the most depressed and self-loathing among us, joyful in their sadness? If so, can we make ourselves more depressed, or loath ourselves more deeply? Is that why Moses raised the brazen serpent, in order to show people how rotten they really were, and thus, make them sad? Or did they need only look and believe in something?
I have come to believe that Nephi and Lehi had different ideas about mercy and forgiveness. As indicated in his dream, Lehi’s approach to the Tree of Life was based on desire after having cried out for mercy in the “dark wasteland.” Nephi, on the other hand, preached the necessity of holding tight to the rod while in the “mist of darkness” which would lead one directly to the Tree.
Nephi, elsewhere, speaks of how “wretched” he is, how his iniquities cause him grief, and the sorrow he experiences “because of the temptations and the sins” which so easily beset him. For this prophet, the Lord is his Rod in the Fog, and has filled him with mercy and love as he journeyed through the wilderness and over the waters of the great deep. He has given him something to hold onto through his dark travels: knowledge and visions and the ministering of angels. Yet Nephi still wonders if this is enough to redeem his soul. He equates a broken heart and contrite spirit with having the gates of hell shut continually before him. That is the shutting of the gates, it seems, suggesting that Hell’s Gates are to be opened in a proud heart and a boasting spirit, perhaps. The walk Nephi takes is “the path of the low valley,” being “strict in the plain road.” His prayer is to avoid these “stumbling blocks,” or at least to have the Lord clear the way so that he doesn’t encounter them.
Lehi and Nephi are not the only ones to use our much abused phrase:
Hel 8:15 – Nephi (son of Helaman) says that even as Moses lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness and those who looked lived, the same will be for those who have faith and a BH&CS might have eternal life. Also, Abraham who saw his coming, was filled with gladness and rejoiced. And not only Abraham and Moses, but many were shown to the people, a great many thousand years before Christ’s coming. Other prophets knew of this, too, including Isaiah (which seems to be the source of the expression for the Nephites).
Mormon 2:14 – The Nephites mourned and lamented, but their sorrowing was not unto repentance because of the goodness of God, but it was the sorrowing of the damned. They did not come unto Jesus with a BH&CS, but cursed God and wished to die. The day of grace was passed with them. Being sad because you are damned is not quite the sacrifice he is looking for, or else Hell itself is the doorway to heaven.
Ether 4:14 – Whoever believes the things which the Lord has spoken will be visited with the manifestations of his Spirit, (he will know and bear record). Whatever persuades men to do good is of Christ, and whoever will not believe his words will not believe that Christ is or that the Father sent him. Jesus beckons the Gentiles to come to him, and he will show them the greater things, the knowledge which is hid up because of unbelief. He will also show Israel what has been hidden. When the Gentiles rend the veil of unbelief which is founded in a hard heart and blind mind, then will that which has been hidden from the foundation of the world come to them. When they call upon the Father in the name of Christ, with a BH&CS, then they will know that the Father has remembered the covenant which he made to the fathers of Israel.
Moroni 6:2 – Elders, priests and teachers were baptized, but none were baptized unless they brought forth fruit showing they were worthy of it. And none were received unto baptism unless they came forth with a BH&CS, witnessed to “the church” that they truly repented of all their sins, and took upon them the name of Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end.
But perhaps the best explanation which we Gentiles should liken unto ourselves comes from Jesus Himself when teaching in Bountiful:
3 Ne 9:20 – The Lord appears to the Nephites and says that all sacrifices should be done away and that he will not accept them. He says that we should offer up a sacrifice TO JESUS a BH&CS. Whoever does, the Lord will baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, like the Lamanites, who received such and didn’t know it. The Savior came to bring redemption to the world and save it from sin. Whoever repents and comes to him as a little child, will be received by the Lord, for such is the kingdom of God.
3 Ne 12:19 – Jesus says that he didn’t come to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfill, and in him, all has been fulfilled. He gave them the law and the commandments of his Father so that they would believe in him, and repent of their sins, and come to him with a BH&CS. Unless they keep his commandments, which he commanded at THAT TIME, they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
OK…So, what does the phrase mean?
If we replace “broken heart and contrite spirit” in the above passages, with “heavy guilt for realizing we are unworthy sinners,” it does not make much sense. Indeed, it paints a picture of an oppressive god who demands we, too, contribute a pound of flesh in order to know what it was like for Jesus to be “punished.” A few revised examples:
And whoso cometh unto me with heavy guilt for realizing they are unworthy sinners, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost…
And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having heavy guilt for realizing they are unworthy sinners, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.
…yea, when ye shall call upon the Father in my name, with heavy guilt for realizing you are unworthy sinners, then shall ye know that the Father hath remembered the covenant which he made unto your fathers, O house of Israel.
Having a broken heart and contrite spirit appears to have more to do with an attitude of learning, as well as discernment regarding what is truth and what is not. Moroni tells the Gentiles that a BH&CS is associated with rending the veil of unbelief. Look and see how much more sense the examples make when we substitute “broken heart and contrite spirit” with “open heart and a childlike spirit, willing to sacrifice our false traditions:”
And whoso cometh unto me with an open heart and a childlike spirit, willing to sacrifice their false traditions, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost…
And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having an open heart and a childlike spirit, willing to sacrifice their false traditions, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.
…yea, when ye shall call upon the Father in my name, with an open heart and a childlike spirit, willing to sacrifice your false traditions, then shall ye know that the Father hath remembered the covenant which he made unto your fathers, O house of Israel.
This reading is perhaps more palatable, or reasonable. But. The problem, of course, in just inserting another phrase, as done above, is that the one phrase which makes sense is the one we currently believe. Should we come across people who believed God was a crocodile, we can imagine it being sensible to read, BH&CS as a euphemism for, “antelope hearts and human torsos.” Our theories of God render the interpretation reasonable or not. Moreover, given the importance placed on having a BH&CS, it is apt to become a fetish, whatever we think it means. If only I had that magic, I could be saved!
Are we left floating then, among our traditions, unable to lean toward a reading that really is correct?
Perhaps we cannot program ourselves into “getting” whatever is supposed to come of a BH&CS. Apparently, when we have it, the Lord sees it. We cannot seek out a BH&CS for ourselves, cannot look to become such; cannot sell another a way to this lowly place. It isn’t a thing, nor perhaps even a state. It just is, that it is.
This means that some passages in the Book of Mormon remain beyond interpretation, as a matter of words. The text has a power, and that power is not simply a key to another interpretation, more suited to our current beliefs. Can the text bring about a BH&CS? Is it a magical fetish? Should we read it in order to bring this magic upon ourselves? We cannot approach the BH&CS as a conscious end to some practice or magic. We are, or are not, and the one who sees is not impressed with performances, with our attempts to “be” BH&CS.
I’ll leave it to Nephi and the writers of correlated church material to be harrowed up in their sins and iniquities. As for me, I prefer Moroni’s confident approach, as he shared in his parting words:
Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.
PS – If you are wondering what is or isn’t “godly,” look no further than the words of our Lord and God Himself, found in 3 Ne 12-14.