“Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins… Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51: 1,4).

It is important to distinguish between two kinds of sorrow for sin. The one has to do with feeling sorry over some wrong or sin we have committed. This kind of sorrow is a sort of compensation or atonement for the wrong, however there is no real repentance, no true sorrow for sin. It is merely wounded self-love. It is sorrow over weakness, over the fact that when we were put to the test, we found to our chagrin that we had failed. This is nothing but wounded pride—sorrow that we did not do better, that we were not so good as we and others thought.

There is a vast difference between divine and human sorrow. True contrition occurs when God turns and looks upon us. Human sorrow is turning and looking upon ourselves. There is nothing wrong in us turning and looking at oneself—only there is a danger. We can miss the most authentic experience of life in the imitation. For genuine repentance consists of feeling deeply our human helplessness, of knowing how God comes to us when we are completely broken.

In the end, it is God looking into the sinner’s face that matters. Luke brings out the distinction between divine and human sorrow in the prodigal son’s life. “He came to himself,” and then “he came to his father.” So we are always coming to ourselves. We are always finding out, like the prodigal, the miserable bargains we have made.

We misunderstand God altogether if we think he seals coarsely with our souls. When God speaks, he speaks so softly that no one hears the whisper but you. Today, perhaps, the Lord is turning and looking at you. Stay right where you are. Don’t return into the hustle and bustle of life until the Lord has also turned and looked on you again, as he looked at the thief on the cross, and until you have beheld the “glory of the love of God in the face of Jesus.”

Adapted from Bread and Wine (Henry Drummond)