In our contemporary culture, people tend to be uncomfortable with the notion that we are “sinners.” In an age when people perceive that good self-esteem and positive thinking are the keys to both happiness and human flourishing, the idea that we should consider ourselves a sinner seems like an outdated notion more tied to sexual and emotional repression than good living. Along these lines, some go to the opposite extreme and posit a spirituality of well-wishing and pleasant sentiments.

The problem is not that contrition is an outdated and repressive expression of a misguided piety, but rather that we do not understand what true contrition is. A healthy contrition is the foundation for good living because it frees us from our attachments to self and opens us to the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. The key to true human flourishing is not a kind of heroic self-determinism in which my perspective and will become my own personal God. Instead, the path of self-forgetting opens us up to the dynamic activity of the Holy Spirit, and in this in turn makes us more available to friends and family.

With that in mind, the following are 3 signs that we have a healthy contrition and not simply bad self-esteem.

1) Conversion

We have to ask ourselves, does our awareness of our weakness lead us to depend more on God and less on ourselves? At the heart of conversion is an other-centered focus in which our denial of self creates the opportunity to listen and respond to God and neighbor. Conversion is not so much an identification of sin (though that is certainly a component or piece of the puzzle), but rather a rejection of sin whereby we turn towards God in complete abandonment.

2) Greater Faith, Hope, and Love

Faith, hope, and love are not “one and done” aspects of the spiritual life; they are living virtues that must cultivated and deepened. We must constantly tap into the resources of these three theological virtues, and allow them to gradually take us up into the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. Contrition must lead to greater trust in God, greater longing for heaven, and a greater participation in the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. Contrition teaches us that deepening our response to these gifts is not about our isolated wills, but rather the extent to which we allow God to work in us.

3) Greater Freedom

Ultimately, we can see the extent in which our contrition is holy and good by the way it opens us to the rest, gentleness, and inner peace that are fruits of the Holy Spirit. Often, the counterfeit of true contrition will lead to the opposite, and instead of our personalities taking on the tender mercy of the Father, we can resemble a kind of pious dictator who is able to dissect the faults of others with precision. Such a precision is the negative fruit of a heart that has grown bitter under the weight of false contrition.

True contrition has the opposite effect. It frees creativity and leads to a kind of boundless potential that is the pearl of great price. The reason is that it dislodges the idol of the self and allows the Holy Spirit to build an altar to the living God in the heart of the penitent. Ultimately, true flourishing is not about an individual’s ability to master right conduct, but rather the convergence of God’s activity and initiative with our activity and response. Thus, our lives will become filled with light when we allow the grace of God to be the source of our vitality.

These 3 signs are important marks that we are embracing true contrition. Of course, the movement towards true contrition is an on-going path of transformation and healing, and in this way we must be patient with ourselves as we learn to cultivate it.