In ancient times God required various sacrifices of His people. It was the way they showed God that they valued Him and His counsel.
Today God asks for one key sacrifice of us: a broken heart and a contrite spirit (D&C 59:8). It is the way we show God today that we truly want what He has to offer.
It is hard for most of us to know what a broken heart and a contrite spirit looks like. Are we to be dejected and downcast? Are we to be sober and self-deprecating?
Jesus did say that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who are starved for righteousness will inherit heaven, comfort, earth, and the Holy Ghost (3 Nephi 12:3-5). Yet it is hard to imagine that God wants us to be dismal. What does He want of us? What does it mean to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit?
What Does A Broken Heart Look Like?
I think the answer is simple. He wants us to recognize our total dependence on Him.
God is just subtle enough in His participation in our lives that we can maintain the fiction that we are self-sufficient. The reality is that we are dependent on Him for our lives and all that we have and are (Mosiah 4:21). He even lends us breath (Mosiah 2:21). If He removed His spirit from us entirely, I’m confident that thinking and breathing would stop; we would die immediately. But God does not make His support obvious. So we dance along feeling smart, capable, and self-sufficient quite unaware that we depend on Him for every movement, every thought, and every breath.
The Lord told Moroni very directly how to gain power: “Because thou has seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong” (Ether 12:37). That is one of the great ironies of life. When we recognize our weakness and dependence, we access the great Power. Those who focus on their strengths will find that they really can’t do anything that matters while those who recognize their limitations and imperfections will be blessed with His power-which is incomparable.
The Words of Our Exemplars
Notice the descriptions and self-descriptions of some of the Book of Mormon characters who were about to have great spiritual experiences (emphasis added):
Nephi: “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities” (2 Nephi 4:17).
King Benjamin’s people: “awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state” (Mosiah 4:5).
Alma: “Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:14).
A Different Approach
Does this sound different from our usual approaches to God? Maybe we usually say: “Okay Father, I’m trying really hard and I really need your help!” We trust that He is bright enough to recognize that He really ought to reward our earnestness by granting our desires. We want Him to feel indebted to us for our efforts at goodness.
But this is perfectly backwards. God does not owe us anything. We are everlastingly in debt to Him! I think that an appropriate broken-hearted prayer looks more like this:
“Father, I come to Thee asking for help. I have no claim on your goodness. You owe me nothing. I come to you not to claim my reward but to beg for mercy. I am desperate. Please have pity on me and grant to Thy child what I can never deserve.”
We all come to the Father as the prodigal son came to his: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (Luke 15:21, emphasis added).
Self Confidence vs. Confidence in the Presence of God
Consider the example set by the Brother of Jared: “Now behold, O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires” (Ether 3:2).
This spiritual giant knew that he was dependent on God. It turns out that self-confidence disqualifies us for His blessings while a broken heart is the key to accessing His power.
It is only when we humble ourselves and recognize our nothingness without Him that He can fill us with Him. As long as we lean on our ability, we are trusting in the arm of flesh.
“O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh” (2 Nephi 4:34).
Many in our culture today associate humility with passivity. That is a mistake. Humility is a very active effort to control the raging self. It is pulling ourselves off the throne of our lives and placing God on it. This is not passivity; it is the hardest thing a human ever does.
Our Offering and His Mercy
As we more explicitly recognize and acknowledge our complete dependence upon Him, we offer our humility-our broken hearts-and He offers His mercy.
Following the example of the Book of Mormon greats, I start the day every day by crying out for mercy. I am not asking for my wages–because He has already given me more than I have earned or can repay. I ask for mercy as Amulek directs (Alma 34). I try to genuinely FEEL my dependence on Him. I try to be mindful of the fact that He lends me breath, sustains my life, grants thinking, forgives my sins, and gradually changes my heart. I apologize for my substantial drafts against His sacrifice. I ask for an infusion of His goodness. I ask that He fill me up with Himself. I try to be conscious of my dependence on Him throughout the day. I try to have my soul fill with holy gratitude for His remarkable graciousness.
I’ve learned that this practice helps me to be more peaceful throughout the day. I am better able to handle whatever the day has in store for me. It also helps me to be confident that I can do what is required of me as I navigate through the day with God as my companion. This confidence is most evident when I am overwhelmed because of major demands or a multitude of demands on my time and capabilities. Instead of panicking, I cry out for mercy and then do all I am able to do. I don’t worry about my inabilities but rejoice in His abilities.
You can see the irony. When I have confidence in me, I shut out the One who has power. When I forget myself and have confidence in Him, I am peaceful. My confidence waxes strong in the presence of God (D&C 121:45).
What I have discovered over time is that even when the demands on me are reasonable and within my abilities, I am better at all my roles in life-husband, father, employee, friend, Institute teacher, neighbor, etc.– when God is my partner. I am trying to make my life more of a partnership with Him in the spirit of God’s recommended mindset (D&C 123:17): cheerfully doing all that I am able while constantly inviting Him to further enlighten and enable me.
A Sacred Exchange
While we should make the offering of a broken heart every day, there is a special time and place designated each week to ritualize the sacred exchange. Every week we are invited to come to the sacrament table bringing our broken hearts. We are met there by Jesus who brings His infinite and eternal sacrifice, His indescribably goodness. He offers to exchange His perfect holiness for our imperfect humbleness. We make ourselves humble and He makes us clean.
This is a sacred opportunity that should be anticipated, prepared for, and cherished by every disciple. Never is so much granted for so small an offering.
To help me prepare for the exchange, I make notes during the week of those times when His gifts of goodness and mercy were most plainly manifested. I go through those notes and reflecting upon His goodness. I try to savor the moments–to let the gratitude and awe well up within me. This is a very positive way of recognizing my dependence on Him.
“Behold, I would exhort you that…ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.” (Moroni 10:3)
May we joyously remember our dependence upon Him. May we show up weekly at the sacrament table filled with gratitude, emptied of ourselves, and open to His offer for sacred exchange-the sacrifice of our demanding, narrow selves in exchange for His divine nature.