If you were ever to borrow my copy of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations, one hundred and sixty-seven pages into it—nearly at the end of chapter 19—you’d discover the following line underscored in pencil: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” Dickens scribbled those words into the protagonist’s mind. Pip is his name. Well, his nickname, that is. If you were to read a little further along, you’d find more of Pip’s thoughts underlined in pencil, leaving clues to his sadness. Riding along in a coach, he ponders, “I was better after I had cried, than before—more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” And then Dickens tells us plainly the avenue Pip used to discover his painful awareness: Pip was deliberating “with an aching heart.”
In other words, sadness was not necessarily Pip’s enemy, but instead, a tool for discovering something better, a more honest sense of “self.” And the honesty led to more sunlit possibilities. Less than a paragraph later, Dickens uses the last lines of the chapter to demonstrate this literarily. He concludes, “and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.”
Like Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured a similar aspect of sorrow in his poem “The Rainy Day.” In between a few short lines describing intense grimness, he hints at the winds and rains as useful for clearing away lifeless debris. Resting there, he knows something far better behind the clouds, something promising. And so, he ends the poem accordingly:
Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall.
Some days must be dark and dreary.
Dickens and Longfellow are onto something here. Being the season of Lent, their intuition is useful, even if only to describe the human condition relative to the hope God gives. For Dickens, sorrow leading to honest confession discovers hope. For Longfellow, a hopeful heart can see through the inevitable clouds and know something better is most certainly hovering there.
These are Christological things, and the scriptures speak very clearly to them.
For starters, Christians know the difference between attrition and contrition—that is, the difference between sorrow for getting caught and a heart that aches because we sinned against someone we truly love. Attrite sorrow produces shameful excuses intent on preserving what’s most important—the self. Contrition can’t bear the sadness it has brought to someone else, and its only aim is to fix it, while at the same time being willing to bear the consequences owed for the crime. Attrition is selfish sorrow. Contrition is sorrow born from love.
King David, a man who knew both forms, wrote by divine inspiration that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). But he didn’t jot those words before informing his readers that the “Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). In other words, God stands as close to the desolate sinner as anyone can. He is there. And He brings hope, the kind of hope that has a name—Jesus Christ. Through the person and work of Christ, hope takes shape beside us—for us—laboring to win our rescue from Sin’s despairing darkness, changing our attrite hearts into contrite ones.
God promised He’d do this. He announced, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). That’s incarnational language. That’s the heart of the God-man Jesus replacing our hearts of stone. With this Gospel-infused heart, we have ears to hear, know, and be comforted when the Lord says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27); or “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). We know what He means by these things.
He means He has won our salvation. The peace between God and Man that none of us could win has been accomplished by the Son of God on the cross. He has taken our sorrowful and burdensome yoke, placed it on His own shoulders, and given to us His yoke of righteousness. Recreated by this wonderful Gospel, as we face off with the winds and rains inherent to Sin, Death, and Satan—all sadness-inducing things they’d use to impose despair—a contrite heart is a hopeful one, and it stands ready to meet these turbulent accusations knowing that God stands right beside the confessor ready to give love as no one in this world ever could or would.
For the sorrowful, behind this world’s clouds, there’s always sunlight. Bearing the knowledge of forgiveness, the mists are lifted, and new life lay spread before us. Christ is its embodiment.
Again, today is the First Sunday in Lent. Whether the first or last Sunday, all of this is a part of Lent’s message. Listen carefully. It’s there. Know that in your penitential sorrow, a light is beaming. And even as it might appear to be snuffed out at Calvary, know it’s on the cross that it beams most brightly. Your hope is fulfilled in the death of Christ for you. And His resurrection—oh, the glorious resplendence of Christ’s power over Death—is the proof!