Elder Neal A. Maxwell, one of the past leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, once said, "Repentance is a rescuing, not a dour doctrine. It is available to the gross sinner as well as to the already good individual striving for incremental improvement. Repentance requires both turning away from evil and turning to God."
I think repentance is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I will be the first to tell you that for much of my life I didn't understand this principle very well at all! I always saw repentance as a painful, scary thing not as the liberating process that it really is! I still don't really understand why I always saw it that way but I still held that view going into my freshman year of college. At the beginning of the first semester something happened that helped begin the shift in my view point towards understanding what Elder Maxwell way saying. Then, during my second semester at college, I took a class to help me prepare for my time as a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
In this class we learned a number of things about being missionaries, how we could prepare ourselves for when we would eventually go on our missions, and we developed a greater understanding of the things we would teach as missionaries so that we could teach them better! During one class, we spent the time talking about repentance and how important it is to help people understand the cleansing and forgiveness that comes though repentance which is only available because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. That is the purpose of this blog post, to help you readers understand what repentance is all about! :)
The first step is to know why we need repentance. What is the purpose of it? One of God's greatest gifts to us is that of agency--the ability to choose. We have all been given this wonderful gift which, as the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi explains to his son, allows us to choose for ourselves either "liberty and eternal life" or "captivity and death". Those are the two options that we are faced with numerous times a day--to either follow God and His commandments or not to!
We are faced with the choice to obey and remain clean or disobey and become stained with sin. God has said a number of times throughout the scriptures that no unclean thing can dwell in His presence. When we sin we become unclean, thus disqualifying us from living with God again. From a very young age we have all made mistakes on a daily bases which has caused us to become marked up, tarnished, and overall just dirty. It is like when you use a chalkboard. You write on it and try to hide it by erasing it, but even still there are remnants of what was done and you can see the smears of the chalk left over on the board.
If that is the case, how can we even hope to return to live with our Father? Since we have all be stained from such a young age, how can we ever expect to live with the One who says He can't dwell with those who are dirty? This is where repentance comes in! In Isaiah 1:18 we read, "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." This is how we can hope to return to live with our Father again! Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, through repentance, we can have these sins and blemishes taken away, just like washing that chalkboard!
So what in repentance? In the scriptures we learn that repentance is having a "broken heart and a contrite spirit". Repentance is a turning away. Repentance is turning from our own carnal and selfish desires and towards what God wants us to be. When we repent, we recognize that what we have been doing is not in harmony with the way God wants us to do things. We recognize that God knows what is best for us and that we have not been following His commandments. As mentioned above, repentance is the process through which our sins and stains are able to be swept away and cleansed through the Atonement of Jesus Christ!
Now the question is "How can I repent?" The good news is that there are some easy steps to repentance and an easy way to remember them! They are known as the ABC's of repentance!
Acknowledge that you made a mistake and Admit it
Be sorry for disobeying the commandments of God (this is known as godly sorrow)
Correct the behavior
Don't do it again
That's it! Through doing these few steps and having a sincere desire to be forgiven for our sins and a resolution to do better and more fully follow God, we can be cleansed of those blemishes that come to us when we sin!
This is a pretty simple process but, at least to me, it can still be hard! The hardest part for me has always been the last step. I am usually good about recognizing when I have done something wrong, feeling sorrow for disobeying God's commandments, and correcting it, but it can be really hard to not do it again! I have often wondered what I can do to be better at stopping those bad things. Then I read a great story in the Book of Mormon about a group of people who have a great solution to this!
As I read this story a few months ago, I realized that was the key to complete repentance! In order to fully forsake our sins, we need to "bury them deep in the earth" and not dig them back up! Ever. As we do so, our repentance becomes complete and our sins are entirely washed away from us!
As we do these things and take these steps, however hard they may be, we receive a great blessing in return--being able to return to live with God again! One can only describe how liberating this feels when they have been through it themselves! The great Book of Mormon prophet, Alma, is one who knows all about it! He went through one of the deepest most discouraging yet most exemplary repentance processes we know of! His experience can be found in two places in the Book of Mormon! It is in both Mosiah 27 and Alma 36!
We get a little more detail in Alma 36 as Alma is explaining his experience to his son, Helaman. In his recounting of the tale, Alma describes perfectly the feelings that are produced within the repentant sinner. As he explains the feelings of remembering all of his sins and his wickedness, he explains that "the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror." These are the feelings that come to the heart of those who have broken the commandments of God! This is what it means to experience godly sorrow!
But notice the difference between that and how he felt once he had repented! He continues, "Yea, methought I saw...God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there." How great that must have felt! To go from being racked with horror at the thought of being in God's presence to longing to be there! That is the feeling that comes through repentance! That is the exquisite joy that comes through repentance! That is the promised blessing to everyone who seeks forgiveness through the Atonement and suffering of Jesus Christ!
Now, the story of Alma is a great one and a wonderful example of the feelings involved with repentance! But I'm sure some of you are thinking "I am trying to repent. I am doing my best to seek forgiveness for my sins, but I haven't had an experience like Alma! What is wrong with me?" The answer; nothing! A modern-day prophet, Ezra Taft Benson explained "Most repentance does not involve sensational or dramatic changes, but a step by step, steady and consistent approach towards godliness." So if you are trying your best to become more like God and follow His will more, you are doing the right thing! Continue on that path until you feel as Alma did. After being in that situation, I promise it will come! Through small steps your soul will long to be in the presence of God!
I know that repentance is a very real process. I know that it does work. I know that only through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and our efforts to become like Him and bury those weapons that we carry around which distance us from God, we can become cleansed and forgiven for all of our sins! I know that through repentance, we can all feel, just as Alma described, a longing to be in the presence of God, singing and praising Him!
It is no wonder, then, that President Boyd K. Packer said "Repentance, like soap, should be used frequently." I testify that as we are always striving to become who God wants us to be by following the example of Jesus Christ and repenting when we make a mistake, we will that same joy that Alma felt. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.