The door to repentance and progression—opened by the infinite and eternal Atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ—is never closed.
Happy new year! I have a point in saying that, which I will return to in just a moment.
But first I would like to mention that our branch president, José Roque, asked me to find speakers for sacrament meeting this month. Being the one assigned to find speakers means that you’re always the backup. I couldn’t find speaker for today, so here I am.
So, back to the new year. This time of year we talk frequently of new year’s resolutions. If you can still remember what your new year’s resolution was, my words over the next few moments are not for you. Rather, they are for those of you—and I would imagine that’s many if not most of you—who, like me, think new year’s resolutions are rotten. Now, even leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have spoken of the value in setting (and keeping) resolutions, so I’m not trying to knock them. I guess you can call what I’m saying “words of comfort” to those of us for whom making resolutions just doesn’t work.
Here’s why I have trouble with new year’s resolutions.
- You procrastinate working on personal improvements late in the previous year, thinking that you’ll “clean up your act” with a resolution as soon as the new year comes. So, say on 15 November you realize something you need to improve, so you wait a month and a half until the new year comes—and a resolution with it—rather than working on improvement right away. It would be even worse if you realized something you can improve on today, 15 January, and you waited until the new year—11 and a half months from now—to work on it.
- If you’re like me, you can think of way too many things to try to improve, which makes it difficult to narrow it down to just one or two resolutions. So you establish a dozen or so resolutions—and set yourself up for failure.
- But let’s say you make it past all that and actually establish a new year’s resolution. Let’s say you even keep it for a while. But in the process of establishing a new habit or making some other improvement in your life you will eventually and inevitably mess up. If you mess up once—you miss a day doing a new habit you’re trying to develop, you sneak a piece of cake, whatever—and especially if you’re a perfectionist like me, a “doomsday scenario” plays out: it’s all over. You have to give up until next year. This year is ruined. It’s been especially bad for me, because my birthday falls 9 days after the new year. So, for example, I just turned 30. Does that qualify me as an adult now? So, I should be and act a certain way, right—closer to perfection than I’ve ever been? Well, as it turns out, it’s not so easy.
Now those of you who do a good job of making and keeping new year’s resolutions can start listening again. I think this entire process of trying to achieve new year’s resolutions mirrors the repentance process and its difficulties.
What is repentance? Though we probably all know the meaning of repentance, let’s review it one more time to make sure we’re all on the same page. An excellent definition of repentance can be found in Preach My Gospel, the guide full-time missionaries and all other Church members can use to review the basics of the gospel of Jesus Christ and teach them to others. There we read, “To repent, we recognize our sins and feel remorse, or godly sorrow. We confess our sins to God. We also confess very serious sins to God’s authorized Church leaders, who can help us repent. We ask God in prayer to forgive us. We do all we can to correct the problems our actions may have caused; this is called restitution. As we repent, our view of ourselves and the world changes. As we change, we recognize that we are children of God and that we need not continue making the same mistakes over and over. If we sincerely repent, we turn away from our sins and do them no more. We resist any desire to commit sin. Our desire to follow God grows stronger and deeper” (page 62).
The door to repentance is open 60/60/24/7. (That’s all 60 seconds of every minute, all 60 minutes of every hour, all 24 hours of every day, and all 7 days of every week.) Every moment—every time we realize that there is something can improve on, that something is amiss in our lives, that we have made a mistake—is an opportunity to repent. The door to repentance and progression—opened by the infinite and eternal Atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ—is never closed.
In the Book of Mormon is a passage that is often used among Church members to emphasize the importance of recordkeeping, but I believe it also illustrates the opportunity to repent and begin following the Lord’s commandments at any moment in our lives. At one point during his ministry among the people on this continent, the Savior asks his disciple Nephi to bring the records that the people had kept. When Nephi does so the Lord looks over the record. The Savior then reminds his disciples of the prophecy given by Samuel the Lamanite, “that at the day that the Father should glorify his name in me that there were many saints who should arise from the dead, and should appear unto many, and should minister unto them. … Was it not so?” The disciples reply that Samuel had indeed made such a prophecy and that it had been fulfilled.
Then the Lord gently but firmly chastises them in the form of a question: “How be it that ye have not written this thing, that many saints did arise and appear unto many and did minister unto them?” He commands them to record this prophecy and its fulfillment. And 3 Nephi 23:13 reports, “therefore it was written according as he commanded.” The Lord commanded, and his disciples fulfilled his commandment. It doesn’t say they waited until the Lord left, or that they waited until the new year when they could make a resolution to do what the Lord had commanded them. The disciples’ obedience to the Lord’s commandment was, as far as we can tell, immediate. (You can read the full account in 3 Nephi 23:7–13.)
So should our obedience to the Lord’s commandments be. The moment we realize that our actions are not entirely in line with the Lord’s will is the moment we should begin the process of repentance. There is never any reason to delay.
Repentance is a process, not a moment. And it is sometimes a very long process. Another story from the Book of Mormon illustrates just how long this process can take. Think back to the very beginning of the Book of Mormon, about 600 ʙ.ᴄ., as Lehi is leading his family away from Jerusalem because of the visions he had seen. While two of his sons, Sam and Nephi, believe in the prophecies of their father, two of Lehi’s sons, Laman and Lemuel, do not. In fact, they believe that God has nothing to do with it; that their father is just a crazy old man whose insanity, not prophetic authority, has led them on this quixotic quest through the wilderness toward a “promised land.” In 1 Nephi 2:11 we read, “[Laman and Lemuel] did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things, to perish in the wilderness. And this they said he had done because of the foolish imaginations of his heart.”
Now fast forward about 500 years, to sometime between 90 and 77 ʙ.ᴄ. Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah are missionaries among their enemies, the Lamanites, the descendants of Laman and Lemuel. For generations and centuries the Lamanites had been taught the erroneous beliefs of their parents: that Lehi had led his family away from Jerusalem “because of the foolish imaginations of his heart” and that Nephi—Laman and Lemuel’s younger brother—and his followers had wrested control and riches, such as the brass plates, away from Lehi’s rightful heirs—his eldest sons, Laman and Lemuel.
Let’s specifically look at Aaron’s experience teaching king Lamoni’s father. Aaron begins this missionary discussion using a method familiar to modern-day missionaries called “building on common beliefs”—starting with what your investigator already believes that is in common with the teachings of the Church and building on that foundation of knowledge.
“Aaron … said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? And the king said: I know that the Amalekites say that there is a God, and I have granted unto them that they should build sanctuaries, that they may assemble themselves together to worship him. And if now thou sayest there is a God, behold I will believe.
“And now when Aaron heard this, his heart began to rejoice, and he said: Behold, assuredly as thou livest, O king, there is a God.
“And the king said: Is God that Great Spirit that brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem?
“And Aaron said unto him: Yea, he is that Great Spirit, and he created all things both in heaven and in earth” (Alma 22:7–10).
Somehow and inexplicably—but surely through the guidance of the Holy Ghost—over nearly five centuries, the king of the Lamanites had gone from believing that their ancestors had been taken away from Jerusalem “because of the foolish imaginations of [Lehi’s] heart” to the knowledge that God—or the “Great Spirit,” as king Lamoni’s father called him—had brought their ancestors to the promised land.
Five centuries is a very long time. And while this story illustrates just how long the process of repentance can take, let’s hope that none of us ever takes five centuries to make improvements in our own lives, at the very least because I doubt any of us will have that long to make improvements.
Let me also note that repentance does not always involve fervent prayer. In the case of the Lamanites whose hearts were softened before Nephite missionaries even began to preach among them, their change of heart surely came as the result of gentle, virtually undetectable nudging from the Holy Ghost. The same can also happen in our own lives. Repentance can also mean meditating, or “pondering” as Latter-day Saints often refer to it—thinking about our actions, who we are as individuals, plotting a path forward toward perfection, and then acting.
All of which leads me to my next point.
Repentance is the process of perfection, not simply the process of overcoming our mistakes or even simply becoming better people. It is the process of becoming like our Father in Heaven and like our Savior, Jesus Christ. It should lead us to set our sights on eternity, not simply tomorrow, next month, next year, or even a decade from now.
Because of its lofty aim, we should avoid the tendency to feel overwhelmed with all the things we need to do and all the areas where we need to improve. These feelings of inadequacy are compounded by the fact that the process of repentance and perfection—and following the Holy Ghost—helps us realize additional areas where we need to improve. As the image of what our Father in Heaven wants us to become comes into sharper focus, we realize more and more how little we look like that image. Repentance—the process of perfection—leads us to greater knowledge of how imperfect we are and how great our need to repent. In short, repentance leads to ever more repentance.
But though our aims should be eternal in nature, the Lord is very aware that we arrive at eternity and perfection one small moment and one tiny step at a time. Nephi tells us, “For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more …” (2 Nephi 28:30).
As recently as this past general conference Brother Matthew O. Richardson, second counselor in the Sunday School general presidency, taught, “Please note that while the Holy Ghost teaches ‘the truth of all things,’ He does not teach all truth all at once. The Spirit teaches truth ‘line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little’” (Ensign, November 2011, page 95).
And the great king Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, in his sermon to his people taught, “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order” (Mosiah 4:27).
Repentance, once again, is the process of perfection, but the Lord does not expect us to become perfect in a moment. And neither should we.
The great gift of repentance leads to the greatest gifts the Lord has in store for us. True repentance is possible only in and through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His sufferings in Gethsemane and on the cross opened the door to repentance, improvement, progression, and perfection. In the latter days the Lord himself revealed:
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
“But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
“Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
“Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.
“Wherefore, I command you again to repent …” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16–20).
I am eternally grateful for the gift of repentance. I thank my Father in Heaven for the gift of his Son, whose Atonement makes repentance and overcoming mistakes possible in my life. And I pray that each of us will remember that that door—the key to which was bought at so great and infinite a cost—is always open, every moment of every day.
This text is adapted from a talk Dustin gave in the sacrament meeting of the Bushwick 1st Branch on 15 January 2012.
This article appeared on pages 21–23 of Issue 6 | April 2012.