Cover image: “Saving That Which Was Lost”, by Michael T. Malm via Come Follow Me Manual.
When I was about eight years old, our ward sponsored a game booth at the city park during a 24th of July celebration. The reward for winning the game was a packet of peppermint Lifesavers, and I was put in charge of handing out the Lifesavers to the winners. Many people played the game, so I kept stuffing Lifesavers in my pockets to be ready to give them away.
When I got home that night, I realized I still had pockets full of Lifesavers. Not knowing what to do but vaguely aware that I had made a mistake, I hid them. Apparently, someone had been watching me at the park and told my mom that I was “stealing” Lifesavers.
When she asked me about the missing candy, I told her I knew nothing about it. But she could tell I was lying. Eventually I turned over the packets of Lifesavers to her. Then she said something I’ve never forgotten. “My heart is broken to think that you would steal and lie about it.”
I was crushed. The thought that I could break my mother’s heart broke my heart, too. For the first time I can remember, I felt the weight of a guilty conscience. I had done wrong, and I had disappointed the mother I loved more than anyone.
I don’t remember what happened after that. The incident was forgotten by everyone but me. I still see in my mind’s eye my mother telling me that she was sick at heart because of me.
Maybe you don’t know what a guilty conscience feels like, but I do. I have dealt with it many times, not so much over big nasty sins—mostly over things I’ve neglected to do that I should have done. I know what that crushing feeling is like. It’s spiritual claustrophobia, an aching to be free of the weight of it. To lose the trust of God and of our loved ones lays a leaden weight on the heart.
That’s why the message of Psalm 51 is so precious to me. David describes the feelings we have as we yearn to repent and be forgiven. Trapped by sin, he is almost frantic in his plea for escape.
“Have mercy upon me, O God,” he cries, “according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2).
I don’t know about you, but I have failed many times to take full advantage of the “tender mercies” the Lord extends to the repentant. I have often taken the sacrament unthinkingly. I have left sacrament meeting or the temple without feeling “washed and cleansed” as I should have.
That’s why David acknowledges to the Lord “thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering” (Ps. 51:17). A puzzling statement, since the Lord Himself instituted the ordinance of sacrifice to Old Testament Israel. But when we realize that those temple offerings were merely tokens of a deeper offering, then we understand.
For “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:18).
Without a broken heart and a contrite spirit, we cannot benefit from the tokens of the saving ordinances of the gospel. We can go through the motions of baptism, the sacrament, the temple rites—but they are dead works unless we make the true “sacrifices of God.”
The Hebrew word translated as “contrite” (dakah) literally means “crushed to pieces.” It refers to the ancient practice of pounding and grinding foods in a mortar; as in Numbers 11:8, when the Israelites gathered manna and ground it down (daku) like wheat into flour.
Unless our hearts are contrite—crushed, pounded, and ground up—the ordinances of the gospel have little meaning for us. If we are spiritually sensitive, we will feel the pressure of our sins and they will break our hearts.
Of course, we all experience heartbreak in this life, and not just because of our sins. We might lose a loved one or we’re abandoned by a loved one. We might fail in school or at work. We might struggle for years with loneliness or poor health or poverty. Our dreams are crushed, our hearts are beaten down. Few if any of us escape heartbreak. It seems to be the human condition.
But the gospel whispers that heartbreak is somehow necessary—that we must know pain, defeat, and dejection. We must struggle with wrecked hopes and failed yearnings. Suffering, said President Thomas S. Monson, “presents us with the real test of our ability to endure.” Joseph Smith told John Taylor:
“You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God, and God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God” (John Taylor, Deseret News, August 21, 1883, 1).
What God does for our souls is this: “He tries us, as silver is tried” (Ps. 66:10). In ancient times, silver was refined by heating and crushing the ore over bone ash until the pure metal melted out. Apparently, there is no other way to refine our souls for the celestial kingdom than to go through a purifying process that involves “heating and crushing.”
If we endure this process well, we will come forth as pure as precious metal, as the suffering prophet Job also observed: “When he [God] hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Perhaps this is why the Psalmist gives thanks that the Lord “breaks his bones”: “Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice” (Ps. 51:8). Again, the word “broken” here is a form of dakkah—more than just broken but crushed. He sees that his suffering is ultimately a blessing.
Once we understand why we must come to the Lord with a broken heart, the ordinances bring life and healing to our hearts. He “binds up the broken hearted” (Isa. 61:1). He washes us in the waters of baptism and the temple, and he “purges” away our sins.
The Psalmist pleads with the Lord to “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7). The temple priests would sacrifice a red heifer as a burnt offering, scatter the ashes in water, dip a spray of a bitter herb called hyssop into the water, and then sprinkle the water on repentant souls. The red heifer, of course, represented the Savior, indicating that He would give his life to purify us of our sins.
Today, the ordinance of the sacrament takes the place of the purging with hyssop. Again, however, the sacrament is effective only in the lives of those who fully “acknowledge their transgressions.” “Thou desirest truth in the inward parts,” the Psalmist confesses to the Lord, who requires nothing less than humbling ourselves and straightforwardly acknowledging what we really are and what we really have done (Ps. 51:6).
Only then can the Savior do His part and “throughly” (King James language for “thoroughly”) forgive us. “Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered” (2 Nephi 2:6–7). This is the good news of the gospel: When we present ourselves to Him as we really are, He can bind up our broken hearts.
“When our hearts are broken,” Elder Bruce D. Porter taught, “we are completely open to the Spirit of God and recognize our dependence on Him for all that we have and all that we are. The sacrifice so entailed is a sacrifice of pride in all its forms. Like malleable clay in the hands of a skilled potter, the brokenhearted can be molded and shaped in the hands of the Master” (“A Broken Heart and a Contrite Spirit,” General Conference, October 2007).
In the saving ordinances, a miracle occurs. The Psalmist pleaded, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). A prideful heart can’t be molded, but a heart warmed and softened by sorrow and travail is ready to be “created” anew—clean and true and refined as silver and gold.
The Lord delights in the repentant soul and is always ready to forgive. “Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God,” says Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” General Conference, April 2012). “According to the multitude of His tender mercies” He is eager to “blot out” our transgressions and create in us a clean heart. Then we can all “declare what he hath done for my soul” (Ps. 66:16).