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Developing a Broken Heart and a Contrite Spirit

The Savior teaches that we need to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit. (See 2 Nephi 2:7; 3 Nephi 9:20, 12:19.) I grew up in the Church, and consequently I have heard this phrase over and over. It seems that I even used to take it for granted in a yada, yada, yada ? type of way.

Like most gospel principles, my understanding of this principle has evolved over the years as I have matured in gospel knowledge. However, it wasn ?t until 2005 that I had an epiphany that transformed the way I view, understand, and attempt to live with a broken heart and contrite spirit.

In 2004, we became the guardians of a young man who is a family friend. (For a frame of reference, he was baptized at eight but was not raised in the Church.) His background is one I wouldn ?t wish on my worst enemy (and I don ?t know the full scope of his challenges). His grandmother needed help beyond what she could do; she knew our family and hoped that a change would be beneficial and help alter the course of his life. After prayer, fasting, and discussion, we decided it was the right thing for our family to do. He voluntarily came into our home and ten months later, he voluntarily left to return to his biological mother.

In many ways those ten months were a living hell, especially for me. I spent a great deal of time struggling to understand where our new son was coming from, trying to accept him for who he is, attempting to give him the benefit of the doubt, wanting to see him the way Heavenly Father sees him, being so angry for his seeming contempt, disregard, and disrespect of us, our family, and our rules.

It was a trial of my faith, and a time of heartache, confusion, and anger for the challenges I had not expected to be part of the package. ? I spent an inordinate amount of time working through these issues, crying on my husband ?s shoulder over what I perceived to be our failed attempts to help, and wondering if we ?d made a mistake to have him join our family (but always knowing deep down that we hadn ?t).

Yet as challenging as this situation was, it was also a season of growth, strengthening, understanding, and love which forged a bond within our family that has had far-reaching consequences and which has led to our home being known as the Hotel, with our kids ? friends dropping by frequently to spend time away from difficult situations and other boarders ? living with us for weeks or months. I learned some invaluable lessons during this difficult time, including:

  • I am far stronger and more resilient than I ever dreamed I could be!
  • I have a greater appreciation of the Father ?s and Savior ?s love for each one of us in spite of our weaknesses, struggles, pride, rebellion, or even refusal to acknowledge Their love.
  • I am more vocally aware and grateful for my blessings particularly for my husband and kids, my ability to hold onto faith and hope, and my testimony of the gospel.
  • I have a deeper understanding of the atonement of how much the Savior has given to help each one of us, that His suffering and grace is for each of us individually, and that He knows it was (and still is) worth every drop of blood regardless of our acceptance of His sacrifice for us.
  • I have gained a deeper and more personal knowledge of what it means to have a broken heart and contrite spirit.

My epiphany in early 2005 and my resulting change of heart came about as my husband and I were driving to the temple (a one-way, 1.5 hour drive for us). We were discussing various aspects of our family, my personal reactions and feelings (some legitimate; some over-reaction), and my frustration with the situation that had seemed to spiral out of our control. I was telling my husband about my hurt and anger, and the physical, emotional, and spiritual effects of those negative feelings. I told him I couldn ?t do it alone and needed Heavenly Father ?s help to break through the anger and pain that had a vice-like grip on my heart. In the midst of that, I stopped mid-sentence as a lightning bolt of enlightenment of the reality of the phrase broken heart and contrite spirit ? truly became pertinent and applicable to me and my life at that very instant. No words can convey just how astounding and absolute that recognition was and how vastly it transformed my thinking and my life.
Having a broken heart and a contrite spirit is not just being humble. It is not simply being willing to submit to God ?s will. It is allowing the Redeemer ?s atonement to change and transform not only your life but also your heart. It is letting go of the attempt to control your life and accepting what the Lord wants you to do. It is being willing to say, I don ?t understand why I have to go through this challenge right now, but I will continue to trust in Thy love and knowledge of my needs. ? It is understanding and feeling to sing the song of redeeming love. ? (See Alma 5:26.) It is all this, and more.

When I finally, truly began to understand and apply this gospel principle, I was able to start letting go of my anger. I was able to begin seeing our foster son as he is, instead of how I wanted him to be. I could see the baby steps of progress that he was making. I could see that even if we failed ? to help this son of ours in the ways we had hoped, we had still succeeded in planting a seed and making a difference. I was able to feel the peace of the Savior ?s love, even as the turbulent challenges continued.

This situation was not magically fixed. ? However, my shift in attitude (and my willingness to start letting go and allowing the Savior to take care of everything) enabled the Spirit to help soften my heart and became the catalyst for my personal and genuine broken heart and contrite spirit ? transformation. I still have to work on living and applying this principle for it is a life-long process but I am closer to exemplifying a disciple with a broken heart and a contrite spirit than I was previously. I also have been able to see, understand, and find gratitude for the time this son spent with us and the difference we truly were able to make in his life.

The most important thing I have learned is that developing a broken heart and a contrite spirit inevitably leads us toward becoming more Christ-like which aids us in our journey homeward bound.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Ray January 5, 2008, 7:43 pm

    See why I married her?

  • facethemusic January 5, 2008, 8:15 pm

    Wonderful, Michelle!
    I’m actually very acquainted with what I’m sure your family must have gone through.
    Our family brought in a foster child when he was 6 years old. The situation and abuse was so bad, and the attempts to heal the family over a 5 year period were so unfruitful (and actually seemed to make the kids regress in their therapy), that parental rights were severed and we ended up adopting him when he was 11.
    But even a combination of love, professional care, eventual baptism into the church and spiritual nourishment didn’t have the desired effects to really help him. (And I’m sure much of that was a subconscious decision on his part). Things never really got better at all– by the time he was 18 he was just as angry, rebellious and oppositionally defiant as he was they day he came into our familyonly now he was strong enough to really hurt my mother physically. So when he wanted to leave and be out on his own, it was actually a relief even though we were constantly worried about him.
    He spent the next 6 years stoned out his mind and homeless. Literally. He went back and forth between temporarily staying with “friends” and sleeping under bridges in Provo, under trees in Orem City park etc, until a police officer would find him and take him down to a shelter. Most of the time we had no idea where he was (until an officer would call and tell us they found him under a bridge). The only time he was actually sleeping in a bed and eating 3 meals on a daily basis was the time he spent in jail, and the 6 weeks he spent in the hospital after being found unconscious and not breathing on the side of the road, the result of a drug overdose. His organs shut down, and he was on life support for 4 weeks. Did that make him quit? For a short while. Then he got right back on the wagon. There were a few occasions when my mother or brother tried to let him stay with them for a few days– but he’d break his promise (of course) not to do drugs while staying with them, and he always had people after him, looking for money he owed them. His life was being threatened– and you just can’t have drug users living in your house, with drug DEALERS banging on your door threatening your 5 little kids, right?
    Between that and other very serious issues my mother has had to face with 2 of her other boys, she nearly fell apart– in every way. She’d pretty much lost all hope– and faith in God, too.
    Until she got to the point where she finally realized that He WAS her only Hope. It was all so much harder to bear WITHOUT the spirit in her life. And when she started to let go– of the bitterness (for having tried so hard to raise her sons in the church, with the gospel, even when her husband went inactive and left and she had to do it on her own, only to see their lives fall apart through sin) –when she finally let go of the feelings of betrayal by God (“why didn’t You stop them?” “How could they do this?” “How could this happen to me– I served faithfully in all my callings, I paid my tithing, I went to the temple, I had faith, etc, etc– what good did it do me–look at my family– it’s fallen apart.”) –and when she finally went to the Father, recognizing her inability to cope without Him, her NEED for Him– and when she finally recognized that He hadn’t turned his back on her, but that when things had gotten really, really bad, SHE turned her back on him out of anger– she eventually gained that broken heart and contrite spirit, and has finally found peace and solace– even though things still haven’t really turned around.

  • Alison Moore Smith January 6, 2008, 1:33 am

    Michelle, I didn’t even really want to get on the site for the past bit. Just kind of warn out. But I came on to put up your post and there it was, in all it’s glory.

    Thank you so much, both for writing and posting. It’s just wonderful. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

    When I was eight, we adopted a boy who was almost ten. My brother and sister and I, now had another brother. We were a matched set. Like your son, his life had been through the wringer. Knowing that, however, didn’t make it easier. This boy we had prayed for for YEARS, turned our home from a safe, loving place, to one of constant contention. And it was stuff that was impossible to explain or predict.

    Just as with you, there was no magic in love and opportunity. Not even the gospel could seem to reach through what had built up. He lived with us until he was 16–when another birth sibling (who was also put up for adoption) searched him out and convinced him the “free life” was much better–and then went back to live with his abusive, drunken birth father (who kicked both of them out only a few weeks after that).

    I still see him on rare occasions. He’s been married at least four times, has kids with at least seven women, care for none of his children in any way, has been arrested multiple times (usually alcohol related), he was declared mentally incompetent by the state a couple of decades ago (which means he gets welfare forever without ever having to apply), he is 45 years old now and looks like he’s in his mid-60’s.

    It is so, so sad. It’s sad that his birth parents (I hate to even give them the title “parents” I’ll think I’ll stick with Dr. Laura and call them “egg and sperm donors”) so damaged this innocent child. It’s so sad that the foster system is so bad that the damage was extended. It’s is so sad that the love we gave him, couldn’t get in. It’s so sad that the opportunities before him to have a family, to be educated, to be loved, to be successful were thrown away by his choices. It’s so sad that he will likely die far too young, with no one in his life and nothing to show for his years here.

    He left when I was 14 and as much as I hate to say this, it was a relief to me. It broke my parents’ hearts, though. They gave him everything they had.

    My sister and her husband had seven children, five living, when they adopted a sibling group of three kids. I thought they had lost their minds. As much as I have sympathies to this (I AM adopted, as is my other brother) and even though I have spent hours and hours scouring sites with the older, hard-to-place kids, crying my eyes out, and asking God if I was supposed to give them a family I also know the REALITY of this and was scared to death for them.

    I’d love to say it was a miracle situation, but it hasn’t been. It’s been amazingly tough.

    As you said though, Michelle, in both cases there is this one, wondrous truth. When these very lost children are beyond earthly healing, and even when no miracles occur here, these good families made their lives BETTER. BETTER than they WOULD have been without the families. And that IS something.

  • bb_pierced January 6, 2008, 9:54 am

    Growing up, my siblings and I were removed from the home and placed in foster care several times. I was separated from the others as I was older and the only girl…they were both under 2. I will never ever forget the family who took me in and made me a part of their family.

    I have overcome many~many obstacles in my life. I definitely consider myself a survivor of many trials and tribulations. I am very~very protective and nurturing to my children because I know what it is like to lack the sense of security and love.

  • Michelle D January 6, 2008, 3:09 pm

    My focus started out as the broken heart/contrite spirit angle, but there are so many who have had similar experiences. Thank you all for sharing your stories! There is more I would like to say but I am short on time, so I will come back to this later. Please know, though, how grateful I am for a safe forum to share these hurts and learning experiences!

    My oldest son posted something on his facebook this morning and gave me permission to repost it here. He had no idea I had written this article, but the timing is amazing. The influence we have on those in our families and on those with whom we associate is tremendous and more far-reaching than we tend to realize!!

      20 things about 20 people, modified greatly

    Well I tried the 20 people thing but that didn’t pan out… got to about 12 and pitched everything >_< . I decided to cut/paste this one instead and post it solo. Most people tagged will know this person already... If not chances are you just haven't had a chance. If it's choppy of anything keep in mind I had 19 other things to write in mind at the time and I haven't gone through to rewrite it as if it were standing alone. 20. I don't know how to say everything... and I'm sure I will end up blogging in more detail at some point. You'll never read either so I really feel no need to be as vague as others on the list. I don't think there has been one other person I've been more proud of, happier for, been more disappointed in, and more frustrated with. You are the only person I can remember genuinely crying for, even now. This is last on the list but I "wrote" it long before I sat down at a keyboard. You have been an incredible influence in my life, and have overcome challenges I wouldn't wish on the basest, most degraded filth of the earth. You are the strongest person I know just based on the fact that after everything you are still breathing. That being said, you are probably the most infuriating person I know and I know it's not intentional at all. I can understand and empathize background, environment, influences, and everything else endlessly but at some point there is a line where it has to stop. Too many times coming upstairs at night and seeing that you hadn't come home yet and knowing how much Mama would blame herself, doubt her ability to continue being absolutely fantastic, and knowing how much you were hurting everyone around you who actually loves you and would do almost anything for you. You have no idea how much it hurt all of us to sit helpless after everything we had done, trying, begging, fighting with every inch of us to give you a place in your grandma entrusted us to give you and watch you turn your back on all of us... and you never will. I think the reason I'm crying as I write this is that I don't have much faith in the next sentence which is all I could bring myself to say to you in person given the chance...Please, for us, don't get yourself killed.

  • mlinford January 6, 2008, 5:52 pm

    Michelle, this was beautiful. Thank you.

    I am learning similar lessons about a broken heart and contrite spirit through chronic illness and that illusive physical healing that I ache for (and the more babies I haven’t been able to have because of it all). But healing can come in strength and understanding of spiritual truths. Faith means a lot more to me than it did five years ago. It’s about a dig-to-the-core-of-my-soul, cling-to-the-rod-with-white-knuckles kind of trust that is something all I have to keep me going in spite of the grind, the constant drain, the discouragement of what I can’t change in my physical world. I personally believe that our trials are all designed to help us turn to the Lord and understand His atonement — if we will choose to turn in trust and faith.

  • Michelle D January 6, 2008, 7:19 pm

    First, I need to say how proud I am of our oldest son. You get a sense of his character when you read his words about his “brother” – but even that doesn’t do him justice. He infuriates me sometimes, but we truly are blessed to be his parents.

    mlinford, As I read your comment, I was reminded forcefully of an amazing experience I had years ago when we lived in another state. I got a phone call late at night from a friend asking for a blessing. Her husband didn’t tell me what was wrong – just that she needed a blessing. A summary of the blessing that was given to her:

    “You will never be healed of the condition that is afflicting you in this life. However, if you endure it well, the joy you will experience in the next life will be much more exquisite than the despair you feel now.” There was much more, but that’s the gist of the message.

    I usually don’t remember a lot of what is said in blessings I give, but I remembered this one clearly – since it was such a wonderful promise. I walked away grateful to have been the voice. Years later, when I mentioned this experience to her, this woman told me that she had not heard the last half of the blessing (that contained the wonderful promise) – that she had been so devastated by hearing that she would never be healed of the depression from which she was suffering that she had tuned out completely and been upset about the blessing. She had spent years holding onto that frustration – never realizing the blessing she had been promised.

    There are so many lessons embedded in that experience, and I’m not sure exactly why I felt inspired to share it, but there it is.

  • Ray January 6, 2008, 7:22 pm

    Obviously, that last comment was mine, not Michelle’s. Sorry if it threw anyone for a loop.

  • kiar January 6, 2008, 8:48 pm

    I was about to start screaming “Apostate, Apostate!” honestly women holding the priesthood!LOL!
    I am very touched by this post! My whole life my parents “picked up strays” as I called it. I was one too. I have always wondered what my life would have been if they had not come and gotten me. I would have grown up in a home of alchoholic grandparents, and a 15 year old mother. I hope that I have the strength to go and get a child in need of me if the opprotunity ever presents itself. More power and especially comfort to you who are experiencing heartache and trials because you answered when the Lord called. I thank the Lord every night for people like you!

  • agardner January 6, 2008, 9:08 pm

    Wonderful comments everyone. I know this isn’t really the topic of the article, but it has made me reflect on my own family’s challenges with similar situations. My parents took in foster children (mostly teenage boys) after most of us had left home. Some experiences they had were positive, and others were a nightmare. I just want to say God bless those who try to make a difference. Sometimes the efforts pay off in visible ways (one foster son my parent’s had ended up serving a mission and marrying in the temple) and other times the efforts are in vain (more often than not, these boys are in very similar situations as some of those mentioned above), but I’m so grateful that some are at least willing to try.

  • Michelle D January 7, 2008, 5:47 pm

    Read jendoop’s related article “Just one more.. (more on broken heart and contrite spirit).” This is a copy of my comment there, but it’s applicable here as well.

    My most basic advice, based on what I learned: Pray for miracles, but don’t expect the miracles to happen immediately. Chances are, you won’t see them for some time. Be flexible, oh so very flexible! Pray for His guidance in how to try to help these children. Realize that the wonderful blessings and bitter heartache are a tangled web that are inexplicably intertwined and cannot be separated.

    With our guardian son, about 1.5 years after he left us, he texted and asked if he could please come spend a weekend to see us and his friends from here. The simple fact that he ASKED and said PLEASE were visible signs of improvement!! It took him some time, but I think he has come to realize just how good he had it here despite all the differences and challenges, and that he was not thinking long-term when he chose to walk away from it.

    The other thing we learned is that despite wanting to treat him as “one of our kids” — his life experiences and background precluded most realistic applications of this ideal. Our family rules are a great example of this. It would have been setting him up for persistent failure to expect from him in a few short months what we expected from our kids who had lived this way since birth. We compromised on many of our family rules… church attendance, curfew times, you name it.

    One of my greatest achievements in life is not kicking this son out of our home. I know that sounds strange, but there were so many little and huge things that I never wanted to put up with in my home. The first incident happened after he had been with us for about 2 months. The very next day we were at the temple, and I prayed for help. The answer that came was so clear, it was almost a voice… “try to see him the way I see him.” I clung to that over the months as I struggled to accept him for who he is. I was very angry about much of what happened. I had to learn to let it go. I still find it challenging not to hold onto grudges for some of it. But I find a great deal of peace in knowing that to an extent I learned to accept him and let God take over. When he left, he chose to go. We did not make him leave. For me, having spent most of the previous 8 months *wanting* to kick him out, it was huge to endure this patiently and continue my best to try to reach and help him.

    As far as effects on our kids, one of our blessings was that there weren’t many far-reaching negative effects on our other kids. I know that doesn’t always happen. Most of the “visible” ones are fairly minor — like my oldest son forgetting to turn off lights in the basement or leaving dishes down there (never a problem prior to this); like my 9 yo and 5 yo daughters not liking mustard because they were “threatened” with being squirted with it straight from the bottle (from another foster son and friend who were tending for us); like my 9 yo daughter being frightened of sharp knives, to the point of not even emptying them from the dishwasher, because our guardian son had once thrown a sharp knife at her. (If I had known that before he left, he *would* have been gone! I am still infuriated by that!)

    Overall, hindsight shows that we did a pretty good job when faced with a difficult and unexpected situation. We did a good thing. It has helped us understand the atonement and love of our Savior more completely than most other experiences we’ve had. We have been able to open our home and our hearts to others who need a place to “land” (for a night, days, or months)… our kids and their friends call our home the Hotel! We have become more compassionate, less judgmental, and more Christ-like. I am a better person for the opportunity to face a challenge that surpassed my ability to handle on my own. I had to rely on the Lord. I have a more willing broken heart and contrite spirit. It was worth it!

  • Ray January 8, 2008, 8:55 pm

    A friend of ours sent this to us via e-mail and gave me permission to post it here:

    Your thoughts made me stop and think of how I’ve reacted to difficult situations – with my children and grandchildren and health issues over the years.

    I have to consciously focus on recognizing and remembering (that important word again) the “tender mercies” when they come. Learning to do that is a journey not a destination–at least for me.

    One example: When we were given custody of two children, we had mission papers all but ready to turn in, After much prayer and soul-searching, I knew down deep that everything would work out for us. But, not wanting to take that step
    into the darkness, I kept pestering the Lord with my wanting to see the end from the beginning. One evening in the temple (during a break) while randomly reading scripture verses on “peace.” I found my answer: D & C 6:22-24: “. . . cast your mind upon that night that you cried unto me in your heart. . . Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God? . . . you have received a witness. . .”

    “Be still and know that I am God” and “Let go–and let God” are concepts I’ve had to fall back on numerous times when I’ve found myself slipping from the end of my rope.

    (I’m not sure how all that relates to what you said–but that’s where my mind took me.)

  • Charles Hepburn II May 16, 2011, 8:50 am

    This article and the comments that follow have been a tremendous help and beam of truth for me. I am writing so many notes in my faith journal from this webpage!

    I am a recent convert from agnosticism to the LDS church. I had to choose to humble myself to recognize our Heavenly Father as God. Then I had to embrace a broken heart and contrite spirit in order to accept Jesus Christ’s Atonement into my heart and mind. I did this before I know what the term meant. When I heard the phrase afterwards I was compled to find out its meaning, which led me to a google search, and this webpage.

    Heavenly Father works in astonishing ways.

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