As one of the first four principles of the gospel, repentance can seem overwhelming. Elder Neal A. Maxwell states, “Repentance is a rescuing, not a dour doctrine.” That is, it is a positive, not a negative principle.
Repentance can often seem like a negative principle because it means casting off sins caused by ignorance, weakness, and willful disobedience. Ignorance, weakness, and willful disobedience can be rather discouraging!
There is a process to help us deal with repentance: first, recognize the sin; next, feel sorrow for the sin (not merely the negative consequences of the sin but sorrow for the sin itself); then, forsake the sin, confessing it to Heavenly Father, another person (if necessary) and priesthood authority (if necessary); make restitution; forgive oneself and others; finally, continue to keep the commandments.
This is a good process. What is the purpose of this process? What are the different stages of the process attempting to achieve?
To illustrate the purpose of the process, I am going to compare events in the lives of two men: Joseph Smith and Alma the Younger.
Following the First Vision, during a three-year period, Joseph Smith states that he fell into “foolish errors and the weakness . . . and foibles of human nature” (JS-History 1:28). I’m sure we can all relate to that! Worried, he prayed that he might know of the state of his relationship with God.
Alma the Younger was persecuting the church when an angel appeared to him and commanded him to stop. The angel came to Alma the Younger in answer to the prayers of Alma’s father and members of the church.
These are two very different men. Joseph Smith was undergoing ordinary human failings. Alma the Younger, on the other hand, had actively turned his back on God.
However, both men underwent similar experiences. When Joseph Smith prayed, the angel Moroni appeared to him, and Joseph Smith was given a new mission: to locate and eventually translate the Book of Mormon.
After the angel appeared to Alma the Younger, he was unable to move or speak for two days. During that time, he had a vision. He explains what happened to him in that vision in Mosiah 27: 24-26.
24 For, said he, I have repented of my sins, and have been redeemed of the Lord; behold I am born of the Spirit.Both Joseph Smith and Alma the Younger experienced a restart of their spiritual progression. Joseph Smith just needed to be revved out of stall while Alma the Younger actually needed to turn the car around—still, both of them underwent a renewal, a regeneration of their relationship with God.
25 And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;
26 And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.
This renewal or regeneration is referred to often in the scriptures. It is frequently compared to being reborn or receiving a new heart. Jeremiah 24:7 states that the Lord “will give us a heart to know him.” Ezekiel 18:31 states that we should “cast away transgressions . . . make [us] a new heart and spirit” while Ezekiel 36:26 includes a promise from the Lord: “[A] new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you an heart of flesh.” An “heart of flesh” is a heart that is whole and responsive and can appreciate the love of God.
More examples! In Alma 5:26, Alma the Younger gives a sermon in which he wonders if his listeners have “experienced a change of heart and . . . felt to sing the song of redeeming love.”
And, of course, there is the famous passage in the New Testament when Nicodemus comes to see Jesus, and Jesus tells him that to enter into the kingdom of God, he must be “born again . . . of water and of the Spirit” (John 3:3,5).
Rebirth/a change of heart/softening heart: all these images have to do with renewal, regeneration, transformation. The purpose of repentance is not to just follow a list of instructions but to undergo a process that involves progression. Through repentance, we can lose our cynicism; we can gain optimism and feel renewed.
Another story about repentance takes a middle road in comparison to the earlier stories. Joseph Smith in the earlier story was suffering from ordinary human failings while Alma the Younger had actually turned away from God.
We often make mistakes that fall between these two points. One example comes again from Joseph Smith’s life. About the time he finished translating the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith became friends with an older man, Martin Harris. Martin Harris was not only older but wealthier and better educated. He convinced Joseph Smith to give him the 116 pages to show to others. Joseph Smith agreed DESPITE several warnings through the Spirit that it was not a good idea.
The pages were stolen. Joseph Smith was devastated. He took the responsibility for the theft on himself, saying, “I . . . tempted the wrath of God. I should have been satisfied with the first answer which I received from the Lord; for he told me that it was not safe to let the writing go out of my possession” (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, "Section 3"). Doctrine & Covenants 3 tells us that Joseph Smith ignored the promptings of the Spirit because he feared man more than God. This is understandable; we all often do things that we know aren’t wise out of fear of disappointing a boss or friends or people who seem wiser in the ways of the world.
For a time, Joseph Smith lost his ability to translate, and he experienced a heavy heart. However, he repented and Doctrine & Covenants 10 tells us that he was forgiven. He regained his ability to translate and was commanded to continue in the work, to not run faster or labor more than he had strength, to be faithful and diligent, and to pray always.
Repentance brought Joseph Smith a renewal of his relationship with God; he was encouraged to keep going in the same direction.
Likewise, when we repent, we should accept and applaud the change of heart that comes with the process. In a March 1993 Ensign article, Joseph Walker writes:
Of course, this change of heart isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Nor is it intended only for those who are guilty of major violations of God’s law. It can come every day of our lives as we prayerfully consider our commitment to the Lord and the sacred covenants we have made with him. In doing so, sometimes we’ll feel the need to repent and improve. Other times we’ll feel the confident peace of purity, which in this life only comes through repentance. Those are the times when we will feel most inclined to “sing the song of redeeming love."(“Singing the Song of Redeeming Love”)The purpose of repentance is to encourage renewal, so we feel like singing. The joy that accompanies the repentance process is one of its gifts.
I think we often have difficulty accepting the gifts of the repentance process. We go through the process, then immediately think, “Time for a break!” or “Got to start over, work on getting rid of another sin!”
I think we feel this way for several reasons--we are afraid of change; we feel we aren’t good enough to accept God’s gifts; we know we aren’t perfect (and we aren’t!). Finally and I think more profoundly, it can be difficult for humans to accept how truly forgiving and generous God is.
The story of Jonah from the Old Testament is a good example of this. We’ve all heard of Jonah and the whale, but AFTER Jonah got out of the whale, he did what he was supposed to do in the first place: he went to the city of Ninevah to tell the inhabitants there that they would be destroyed for their sins.
Surprise! The inhabitants repented. Instead of being pleased, Jonah was upset. He left the city and sulked instead of rejoicing with those he helped. He actually sat outside of the city, hoping it would be destroyed. While he did this, God sent a vine to shade him from the sun, and Jonah was content to sit in the shade. But then God destroyed the vine, and Jonah started sulking again. At which point, God rebuked Jonah for being happier about the shade than about the city being saved. In other words, Jonah was rebuked for not taking pleasure in the process of repentance.
We need to be willing to participate in the gifts of repentance, to be optimistic and positive, because those gifts make future repentance easier. Just like it is easier to exercise when we feel upbeat, it is easier to repent when we have a positive attitude.
In contrast to Jonah, the Book of Mormon tells us of Ammon, one of the sons of Mosiah. He repented of his sins at the same time as Alma the Younger, and he and his brothers went on missions to the Lamanites. After their missions, they met up again, and Ammon spoke to his brothers about what they had been through:
Now have we not reason to rejoice? Yea, I say unto you, there never were men that had so great reason to rejoice as we, since the world began; yea, and my joy is carried away, even unto boasting in my God; for he has all power, all wisdom, and all understanding; he comprehendeth all things, and he is a merciful Being, even unto salvation, to those who will repent and believe on his name. (Alma 26:35, Kate’s emphasis)What about that for a positive attitude?! Can’t you just feel his excitement?!
Now, we don’t always feel excited about repentance; many times, we have to do what Joseph Smith did and push ourselves out of stall. But if we keep the example of people like Ammon in mind, the process will be easier. If we remember that repenting means enjoying the gifts of repentance, we can use those gifts to help us through the process.
Repentance is happiness.