Ch 17 The Blessings of Repentance REPENTANCE OR RATIONALIZATION? How does this change of heart occur? First, there must be an honest, unqualified recognition, not a rationalization, of our sins. Alma gave this wonderful counsel to his son Corianton: “Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins” (Alma 42:30). What a contrast to Korihor’s philosophy that “whatsoever a man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17), or to the belief of the Lamanites “that whatsoever they did was right” (Alma 18:5). One must ultimately choose between these conflicting doctrines. There cannot simultaneously be repentance and rationalization. Rationalization is the world’s answer to sin: repentance is the Lord’s. They are two different roads with opposite destinations. Robert Frost tells of encountering a fork in the road he was traveling. He debated the road he should take, and then writes of his choice as follows: I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.
Every time we sin we find ourselves at a spiritual crossroad. We may rationalize the sin away or repent it away. The road “less traveled by” will make “all the difference.”
In Book of Mormon times the moral laws closely paralleled the civil laws. That is not true today. The civil law does not punish many serious moral crimes, such as adultery and abortion. We hear excuses for such sins under the labels of “free agency” or “everyone does it” or “no one will know.” But there is no defense, no adequate excuse, no alibi for breaking the laws of God. That is what the Lord told Joseph Smith: “Thou art not excusable in thy transgressions” (D&C 24:2). When we honestly recognize that, we are on the road to repentance.
The principal barrier to repentance is always self. Thomas Carlyle put it this way: “The greatest of faults is to be conscious of none.” It was this warning that Alma was trying to give to his wayward son, Corianton: “Acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done” (Alma 39:13). Those who choose instead to live a life of denial, to defend themselves against God’s law, will discover the bitter truth: “Your sins have come up unto me, and are not pardoned, because you seek to counsel [rationalize] in your own ways” (D&C 56:14).
Rationalization is the intellectual drug that anesthetizes the sting of conscience. Mormon witnessed this deadly overdose at the time his people were “without principle, and past feeling” (Moroni 9:20). Nephi saw the danger signals in the lives of Laman and Lemuel when he noted, “[God] hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling” (1 Nephi 17:45). Contrast that with Nephi’s lamentation: “O wretched man that I am!...My heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (2 Nephi 4:17, 19). It is hard to imagine those worlds from a prophet of God. Nephi’s life was one of devotion and obedience, yet he was ever more conscious of the distance still to be traveled for perfection. The more spiritual an individual becomes, the more sensitive he becomes to his imperfections. The better he becomes, the worse he realizes he was.
Since all of us, like Nephi, have sinned, the issue is not just whether we have done wrong, but whether having done wrong we are now willing to repent. John Donne spoke of the efficacy of repenting: Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good/As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy [Christ’s] blood.
The purpose of this earth life is to serve as a probationary estate, to see if we will repent and follow Christ. The Lord appointed “unto man the days of his probation” (D&C 29:43). In fact, the Lord provided that Adam’s seed “should not die as to the temporal death, until I, the Lord God, should send forth angels to declare unto them repentance and redemption” (D&C 29:42). That is what Lehi clearly taught: “The days of the children of men were prolonged…that they might repent while in the flesh” (2 Nephi 2:21). Alma likewise taught that if there had been no “space for repentance…the word of God would have been void, and the great plan of salvation would have been frustrated” (Alma 42:5).
Wickedness alone seldom, if ever, has been the cause of man’s destruction: the greater tragedy is wickedness coupled with an unwillingness to repent. The predicted destruction of the wicked people of Nineveh was waived because they were willing to turn to God. The people of Melchizedek “waxed strong in iniquity” (Alma 13:17) but were spared because “they did repent” (Alma 13:18). Alma the Elder “did many things which were abominable in the sight of the Lord” (Mosiah 23:9), and the sons of Mosiah were called the “vilest of sinners” (Mosiah 28:4), yet each found the impetus to reverse his course. In each of these, the embers of repentance still glowed. For those who have let the embers die the Lord pronounced the consequence, “He that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man” (D&C 1:33). It was the same message the Lord sent to the wicked people of Ammonihah: “If ye persist in your wickedness” and “repent not” then “your days shall not be prolonged in the land” (Alma 9:18). IT was simple logic. The reason for this earth life was to provide a probationary period to repent; if a man refused to do so after every reasonable opportunity was offered, he forfeited his right to remain. At that point he was, as the scriptures term, “ripe for destruction” (Helaman 13:14).
At one point Oliver Cowdery had disassociated himself from the Church. Joseph was anxious that he repent and return. He instructed his clerk, “I wish you would write to Oliver Cowdery and ask him if he hasn’t eaten husks long enough.” Rationalization and procrastination bring the husks of life—repentance, the kernels.
Those who experience a change of heart will manifest sorrow, not just any sorrow, but godly sorrow. Worldly sorrow and godly sorrow are a chasm apart. Paul distinguishes between the two: “I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner….For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). Not all sorrows are twins. There is worldly sorrow, which is an intellectual recognition of our error. It is the sorrow of the criminal that he is caught. It is the sorrow of the immoral youth that she is pregnant. It is the sorrow of the wrongdoer that his evil designs did not come to fruition. The prophet Mormon was a witness of this sorrow. He was the leader of the Nephite armies. Due to their wickedness, many had been slaughtered in battle. His heart momentarily rejoiced when he saw their lamentation and mourning before the Lord. But the scriptures then add, “But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, …but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin” (Mormon 2:13). To the contrary, Alma pled with his son, “Let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance” (Alma 42:29).
Godly sorrow is of an infinitely transcending quality. There is no need for outside pressure. The transformation will come from within. The stream of tears may flow. There will be soul-wrenching, sometimes even exquisite pain. It may take us “down to the dust in humility” (Alma 42:30). Even the righteous, on occasion, may cry out, “O wretched man that I am!” (2 Nephi 4:17). The sons of Mosiah knew the process: “They suffered much anguish of soul…, suffering much and fearing that they should be cast off forever” (Mosiah 28:4). Alma acknowledged that his past history of misdeeds “caused me sore repentance” (Mosiah 23:9). There will be newfound reservoirs of compassion for those who may have been hurt, perhaps sore embarrassment, and finally and always a willingness to submit to whatever is necessary—be it apology, confession, disciplinary action, or any other divine requirement—in order to make amends with God. There will be an absence of excuses, alibis, and blaming of others. There will be a complete acceptance of responsibility for our attitudes and actions, and an unyielding commitment to be right with God. In essence, repentance brings us to a moment of total intellectual, emotional, and spiritual integrity—when we can say we have mastered the counsel of Polonius, “To thine own self be true.”
The Savior taught that if we do not repent, we must suffer even as he suffered. This does not mean, however, that there is no suffering if we do repent. In fact, President Kimball taught that personal suffering “is a very important part of repentance. One has not begun to repent until he has suffered intensely for his sins.” President Kimball then added: “If a person hasn’t suffered, he hasn’t repented….He has got to go through a change in his system whereby he suffers and then forgiveness is a possibility.” This suffering, intense as it may be, is nevertheless substantially less for the repentant soul than the unrepentant. The Savior “picks up” part of the burden for those who do repent. This principle is illustrated by a story B H Roberts loved to share:
“It is related of Lord Byron that when he was a lad attending school, a companion of his fell under the displeasure of a cruel, overbearing bully, who unmercifully beat him. Byron happened to be present, but knowing the uselessness of undertaking a fight with the bully, he stepped up to him and asked him how much longer he intended to beat his friend. ‘What’s that to you?’ gruffly demanded the bully. ‘Because,’ replied young Byron, the tears standing in his eyes, ‘I will take the rest of the beating if you will let him go.’”
The Savior takes “the rest of the beating” for those who submit their will to his. Isaiah prophesied that he would be “bruised for our iniquities” and then promised that “with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5; see also 1 Peter 2:24). Such a healing sprang from the medicinal roots of Gethsemane.
Elder Vaughn J Featherstone tells of a young man who came to him for a mission interview. Elder Featherstone inquired as to the young man’s transgressions. In a haughty manner the young man replied, “There isn’t anything I haven’t done.” Elder Featherstone inquired as to specifics—morals, drugs, and so on. Again he replied, “I told you I have done everything.” Elder Featherstone asked, “What makes you think you’re going on a mission?” “Because I have repented,” came the reply. “I haven’t done any of these things for a year.” Elder Featherstone then looked at the young man across the table—21 years of age—sarcastic, haughty, with an attitude far removed from sincere repentance. “My dear young friend,” he said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you are not going on a mission….You shouldn’t have been ordained an elder and you really should have been tried for your membership in the Church. What you have committed is a series of monumental transgression. You haven’t repented; you’ve just stopped doing something. Someday, after you have been to Gethsemane and back, you will understand what true repentance is.” At this, the young man started to cry. It lasted for about five minutes. There was no exchange of words, only silence. Then he left Elder Featherstone’s office.
About six months later Elder Featherstone was speaking to an institute group in Arizona. Following the meeting he saw this same young man walking up the aisle towards him, and the details of their interview flashed through his mind. Elder Featherstone could see that something wonderful had taken place in his life. Tears streamed down the young man’s cheeks and an almost holy glow came from his countenance. “You’ve been there, haven’t you?” asked Elder Featherstone. Through the tears he said, “Yes, Bishop Featherstone, I’ve been to Gethsemane and back.” “I know,” Elder Featherstone replied. “It shows in your face. I believe now that the Lord has forgiven you.”
A godly sorrow involves joining with the Savior in the sorrow of Gethsemane. It is a sorrow that fosters a new heart and a new spirit.