O repent ye, repent ye! Why will ye die? Turn ye, turn ye unto the Lord your God. Why has he forsaken you?
With the previous post in this series informing us about the required condition of the heart, we can now move forward and talk about repentance.
Do you remember Spencer Kimball’s book, The Miracle of Forgiveness? It’s now out of print and de-emphasized by the church, but for 4 decades it was the definitive LDS work on repentance and the go-to remedy for sin. If you ever went to your bishop with a burden to confess, chances are he recommended, or required, that you read this book as part of your “repentance process.”
Unfortunately, for all the good it did in urging repentance, The Miracle of Forgiveness also did immense damage to many. It taught things that aren’t true, set false requirements that didn’t come from God, and perhaps caused as much despair as it alleviated. It shattered and even destroyed lives by teaching falsehoods about the principle of repentance.
But my purpose is not to discuss the book, nor criticize the author. Rather, I’d like to talk about repentance in light of our discussion on seeking knowledge. I only mention the book because it helps illustrate some of our problems with repentance.
Our starting problem is the “process” of repentance. If you’ve been LDS past nursery age, you’ve been taught repentance requires some version of a “process,” with “steps” on a list similar to these:
- Recognize your sin
- Feel bad about it
- Confess to God and whomever you’ve wronged
- Confess to your bishop (if the sin is “serious” enough. Apparently, there’s some hierarchical list of sins somewhere, and sins that rank high enough on the naughty scale have to be confessed to your bishop.)
- Make restitution to whomever you’ve harmed
- Perhaps suffer a penalty imposed by the church, like loss of temple recommend, prohibition of sacrament, probation, or disciplinary action—including disfellowshipping or excommunication. This penalty will last for a certain minimum length of time (weeks, months or years) while you complete the “repentance process.” You can’t be forgiven until “sufficient time” has passed.
- Forsake the sin and demonstrate that you’ve changed by not doing it again.
And, at last, having completed this process, you will be pronounced “clean” from your sin and rehabilitated through your repentance. Assuming you meet the requirements, penalties will be lifted and privileges will be restored, though certain sins will be annotated in your permanent church record, and will follow you for the rest of your life, disqualifying you from certain positions in church leadership.
Now, I get that the church organization can set whatever requirements for membership it chooses, and it can also set policy and penalties for dealing with those who break the rules of the organization. That’s the church’s right. But let’s not make the mistake of pretending the above list has anything to do with actual repentance, as found in scripture, or receiving forgiveness from God. For that, we have to take a completely different approach.
Let’s Start by Defining Sin
The simplistic approach is too often just a list of naughty things you shouldn’t do. We like lists, after all, and we like it to be easy. Who wants to wonder, right? If you’ve done something on the naughty list, you have sinned. And if it’s on the really naughty list, you need to talk to your bishop. Then, we take it a step further by augmenting the list of bad stuff with the list of good stuff you really should do, but don’t. We call these lists, respectively, sins of commission and sins of omission.
Yeah, ok. But there are problems. What about the stuff not on the list? And where, exactly, is this list printed so we can study it? Who came up with this list? Even more troubling, what about when God has commanded really righteous people to do very naughty things, like killing other people. What then? What about actions that are completely righteous in one setting, and totally wicked in another?
OK, so the list approach isn’t going to work. Some stuff appears to be too fluid, and no list will ever be complete for every situation—thus leaving us in doubt as to our standing before God. So let’s take a different approach.
Sin and the Path
One of the treasures in the newly restored Testimony of St. John is a clearer understanding of Christ’s pathway. Over and over, our Lord speaks of the path He walks, which He was sent to reveal to us. In fact, whereas no form of the word “path” appears in the King James Version of John, the word “path” appears in some form 36 times in the new testimony. Here’s an example:
Then they asked him, What do we need to do to enter God’s pathway of endless progress? Jesus answered and said, The pathway is before you in me, I teach and display what the Father wants you to witness and believe. (p. 10; compare John 6:28-29)Christ openly and continually taught that He was sent to show us the path that leads to exaltation.
If you follow me, you will come to the Father’s Throne through me and will thereafter be like him forever. (p. 23; compare John 14:6-7)So there’s a path laid before us, taught and trodden by Christ, that leads to the destination of exaltation.
In the name of Father Ahman I testify to you, He who hearkens to my testimony, and trusts him who sent me, there is no end to his potential progression. His progress will not cease, for I demonstrate the pathway of eternal lives. (p. 8; see also John 5:24)There is a path, and there is a destination. The entry to the path is baptism. This path is often described as “strait” which means narrow. There is not room for deviation, because if you deviate from the path, you will not reach the destination. Only one path leads there, and all others lead elsewhere.
Above all, God’s goal, desire, joy, work, and purpose is to bring each of us along that path, back into His presence (Moses 1:39). He sent His Son to open the way and show us that path. By walking it, we learn what Christ knows and become what Christ is. (Lectures on Faith 6:9)
When we speak of religion, we invariably use words fraught with emotion, inside a paradigm of reward and punishment. The carrot and the stick. Heaven and hell. But for a moment, let’s just forget all that and re-frame it in terms of the path. Once we drain all the emotion from the words, everything we consider ugly or wrong, really just means deviating from the path. Likewise, all we consider good and holy, really just means following the path. All the emotion applies only because of what lies at the end of the path.
With this paradigm of the path in mind, we can discuss repentance. In the end, to “repent” really means to change course; to turn from whatever is distracting you or leading you off the path, and to instead face God, return, and follow His path.
That’s it. That’s what it means to repent.
There is no “process,” no checklist, no waiting period, no need to satisfy a man or an organization. The only steps required are to realize you’re following an incorrect path, and change course to follow the correct path in that thing. By following the correct path, your weakness will change to strength and your nature will change to be more Godly.
Remember, God’s work and glory consist of causing our immortality and eternal life, and he is able to do His work. Therefore, His will consists of everything that leads us toward that outcome. His commandments are really His directions how to arrive where He wants us to arrive, and the punishment of sin really consists of the exquisite agony of any other outcome, in light of a full understanding what He wanted to give us, but we refused to accept.
And so, we must have knowledge.
And this cometh unto you, O ye Gentiles, that ye may know the decrees of God—that ye may repent, and not continue in your iniquities until the fulness come, that ye may not bring down the fulness of the wrath of God upon you as the inhabitants of the land have hitherto done. (Ether 2:11)
It’s impossible to follow God’s path if you don’t know what it is—and we are all MUCH too quick to assume we know how to please God when in fact we do nothing of the sort. Ignorance really is our greatest “sin” or, to put it another way, it is the root of all our deviations from the path. Trying hard to “be good” or “stop sinning” is far LESS effective at changing our desires than learning and gaining knowledge of God’s ways. When we view things as God does, our desires match His, and we lose desire for any other path. Light is the cure for darkness. Knowledge is the cure for sin.
And therefore, in its most pure form, to repent means to obtain and obey knowledge.
Did Christ Repent?
Well, in a way, He did. He, like all of us, was born in a fallen world into a veil of mortal flesh. But He relentlessly sought, obtained and obeyed knowledge of his Father’s path until he comprehended completely and ultimately gained the Father’s fulness. He never deviated from His Father’s will and remained true to every bit of light and knowledge He gained. Therefore, I would submit that, though He never sinned, He repented perfectly. He truly is our example in all things—even repentance.
In the horrors of Gethsemane, our Lord—who never once deviated from the path—took upon Himself the results of all OUR deviations and rebellions. He took our filthiness, our ignorance, our infirmities and our darkness, and in that wretched condition nevertheless faced His father, and found the way to reconciliation by the power of His love. He knows how to return to the path from every deviation because he has done so. There is nothing hypothetical about His knowledge; it was gained by practical experience.
He can guide us on the path because He has walked every step of it. He readily forgives because He has the right and the power to do so, while rejoicing in our return to the path when we have wandered off. Think of the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son. His purpose is never to punish, but to guide, teach, bless and exalt. He’s all about the carrot, not the stick. Repentance is a word filled with hope and joy, not darkness and fear.
And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth! (D&C 18:13)
Just as soon as you show the desire to return to the path of His will—that quickly He will rush to your aid. And immediately upon your request, He will forgive without hesitation.
Yea, I would that ye would come forth and harden not your hearts any longer; for behold, now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you. (Alma 34:31)
Notice that word, “immediately.” What does this tell you about the repentance “process?” What about a waiting period or “sufficient time” required for forgiveness? How is the plan “brought about unto YOU?”
We all suffer from debilitating unbelief—which is to say we all believe things that simply aren’t true. When you gain knowledge of these errors and let them go, choosing instead to believe and obey truth, you have repented—and Christ can immediately free you from the debilitating effects of your former ignorance.
Therefore, the most effective way to repent brings us right back to the point of this series. Ask, seek, knock. Ask the Lord to show you your ignorance and replace it with knowledge. Ask to be freed from your unbelief and taught to believe truth. Admit your lack of understanding and open your heart to accept ANYTHING the Lord will teach you, no matter what it may cost you to obey Him. Set aside your guilt, shame and fear; they only inhibit you. The Lord, who is merciful, will teach what is lacking, repair what is broken, undo the damage, and immediately forgive. I have authority to state these things because I have experienced them; my knowledge comes not from theory, but from practice. If he will guide, teach and immediately forgive me, he will do the same for you.
A Starting Point
It’s quiz time. Answer the following questions; they aren’t difficult and aren’t meant to be tricky. If you don’t know the answer, just move on to the next question.
- What time is it?
- How do you know what time it is?
- Why is it expressed in hours, minutes and seconds?
- Why are there 60 seconds in a minute?
- Why are there 24 hours in a day?
Ready for some harder ones?
- Why are there 360 degrees in a circle?
- Where did trigonometry come from?
- Where does our current knowledge of astronomy find its roots?
- Who came up with the 12 main constellations in the heavens?
I could keep going, but I'll cut to the chase. The answer to nearly everything above is Babylon. And if you’re a fan of scripture at all, that should maybe set off some alarms. As you may recall, Babylon invaded and conquered the last remnants of Israel, destroyed God’s temple, and carried the remaining Jews captive back to Babylon. Seventy years later, when the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, the remaining vestiges of their religion and knowledge had become contaminated and corrupted by Babylonian ideas—many of which remain to this day.
Mathematics, science, medicine, astronomy, literature, government, religion, even the measurement of time—all these were corrupted by Babylon. Prior to the Babylonian captivity, parts of God’s knowledge—taught to Adam, and handed down through the ages to Abraham—yet remained. But Babylon saw to it that even these last vestiges were supplanted and corrupted with different systems devised by men to replace God’s knowledge.
Though Abraham was personally taught astronomy and the reckoning of time by God (Abraham 3) his knowledge was lost and replaced with something inferior. Fact is, we don’t know how Adam or Abraham understood the heavens. Heck, we don’t even know how they reckoned time. We don’t know Adam’s language that Enoch spoke with mountain-moving power. We know far less than they knew.
In the end, you and I may be experts in many things—and yet we can’t even tell time or read the testimony in the heavens. We can’t communicate properly, and we struggle to hear God’s voice. We are, at the most basic level, terribly lost. The systems we’ve devised to replace our lacking knowledge have no power to guide us to God. Forget about being smarter than a fifth grader; we are, quite literally, infants in the things of God. We don’t know who we are or where we are; unable to speak, read, write or comprehend, we are as helpless as babies. All our Babylonian knowledge amounts to almost nothing.
We simply do not know how to please God. We’ve lost all sight of His path.
Joseph’s Miracle of Forgiveness
In light of our deep and ubiquitous ignorance, then, we ought to carefully reconsider these familiar words:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. (James 1:5)
At the most profound, fundamental level, we desperately lack wisdom in everything. What’s left to us in this corrupt world is powerless to save us. The only solution, therefore, is to receive what we lack from God. The more profoundly you feel this deficiency, the more literally you will become as a little child, and the more powerfully you will cry to God for wisdom.
With that in mind, let’s re-examine Joseph Smith’s account:
During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties…but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.
My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant…In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know...
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God.
Did you catch what Joseph said was bothering him? What was causing all the “serious reflection and great uneasiness?” Causing his mind to be “greatly excited” while laboring under the “extreme difficulties caused by the contests” of ideas? He states it plainly. He needed wisdom from God because he didn’t know how to act. It wasn’t simply about which church he ought to join! It was rather about finding saving truth! He thought and hoped the religions of the day could point him to God’s path, but they could not. The idea that churches taught saving truth was an unbelief, and one of the extreme difficulties under which he labored.
Ultimately, he came to realize his overwhelming ignorance, and concluded the only rescue from gross darkness would be to ask God directly. This is a more powerful idea than we realize. Once we get past the children’s story that Joseph was merely curious about which church to join, we can start to understand how and why a 14-year-old farm boy broke open the heavens and elicited the Lord’s personal ministry. Joseph deeply, profoundly recognized he had lost the path and sought desperately to return to it. In a word, Joseph repented.
Aside from the Savior’s own example, I cannot think of a more beautiful, powerful, efficacious example of repentance and its results.
Now look at the example of Abraham:
And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers. (Abraham 1:2)
There it is. Abraham’s repentance and its results. Want another example? Look at Alma 36, which is a chiasmus centered around verse 18. Take note of how quickly the Lord forgave and healed Alma as soon as he repented. And there are others.
This explains all the scriptural injunctions to cry repentance, as well as the Lord’s identical commandments to both Oliver Cowdery and Hyrum Smith:
Seek not for riches but for wisdom, and behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich...
Say nothing but repentance unto this generation; keep my commandments, and assist to bring forth my work, according to my commandments, and you shall be blessed. (D&C 6:7, 9, see also D&C 11:7, 9)
The Nephite records cry from the dust; the revelations of Joseph resound with the testimony; the Lord himself calls out to us, and even the Father commands it:
Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son. (2 Nephi 31:11)
Time is short, but it is still possible to repent and return to the Lord’s path. I pray we all will do so before it is everlastingly too late. Our greatest sin is ignorance; the remedy is knowledge and repentance.
But if ye will repent and return unto the Lord your God I will turn away mine anger, saith the Lord; yea, thus saith the Lord, blessed are they who will repent and turn unto me, but wo unto him that repenteth not.