Principles of True Repentance (Ezra Taft Benson Chapter 5)
In the Bible we often read about prophets like Noah and Jonah and Jeremiah who were called to cry repentance to the people around them. I was always a little confused as to how this was supposed to work. Some stranger in weird clothes comes to town and tells us all we’re evil, wicked people and that if we don’t do what he says, God will smite us. I don’t listen to the strange people who do that today, why would anyone expect to be heard back then?
Then one day I realized I was thinking about it all wrong. Their message wasn’t “You are horrible people.” It was “You can change. Things don’t have to be the way they are right now. There is a better way. Let me show you.” And suddenly I realized that instead of a message of condemnation, God sent a message of hope. If people would listen and turn to God, there was hope.
Shortly after being called to the apostleship, Ezra Taft Benson received counsel in a letter from George Albert Smith. “Your mission from now on is to find ways and means to disseminate the truth and warn the people that you come in contact with in as kind a way as possible that repentance will be the only panacea for the ills of this world.”
I love the gentle love that permeates this counsel--love for the new apostle, love for God, and love for all of us stuck in error.
God’s call for our repentance is motivated by his love for us. D&C 95:1-2 “Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you whom I love, and whom I love I also chasten that their sins may be forgiven, for with the chastisement I prepare a way for their deliverance in all things out of temptation, and I have loved you--wherefore, ye must needs be chastened and stand rebuked before my face.”
We are familiar with this idea from our lives. My daughter Eliza told me about learning gymnastics at recess from her friends. Each time she would try to do a round-off or a cart wheel, they would tell her which she did and teach her what to change to do what she wanted. They were criticizing her to help her. While our earthly parents and friends are flawed in their parenting and criticizing, our heavenly parents are not. They only chastise us to protect us and help us do better.
As President Benson says,
“...the gospel plan is the plan of happiness. Wickedness never did, never does, never will bring us happiness. Violation of the laws of God brings only misery, bondage, and darkness.”
God does not want us to live in misery, bondage, and darkness. And so he corrects us and teaches us a better way to be. The turning from wickedness to God is called repentance. Let’s learn more about how repentance works.
There are a few prerequisites to repentance. Because repentance is using Christ’s atonement to heal and change, we must believe in Christ.
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which sincere and meaningful repentance must be built. If we truly seek to put away sin, we must first look to Him who is the Author of our salvation. (Ezra Taft Benson)
Not only must we believe in Christ, we must believe that He can heal and change us. Not just other people. Not just us when we’ve already fixed our broken parts. But we must believe or hope that He can heal and change you and me today in our current brokenness.
Can human hearts be changed? Why, of course! It happens every day in the great missionary work of the Church. It is one of the most widespread of Christ’s modern miracles. If it hasn’t happened to you--it should. (ETB)
Without faith in Christ and the power of His atonement, we have no motivation to turn to Him for help.
Repentance is one of the key experiences that brings us back to Heavenly Father. Satan will do anything he can to stop it. What are some of the lies he tells us to interfere with our ability to repent?
- You are worthless.
- You will never be able to overcome this, so why even try?
- Don’t ever forget that you once sinned.
- You are damaged beyond repair.
- You haven’t yet paid a high enough price for the atonement to clean you. You aren’t good enough yet.
- Becoming like God is too difficult. You will never get there with the tiny progress you make.
- Avoid God because you aren’t worthy of his love or his help or his blessings.
Let’s compare these to what God and his prophets say.
Satan says: You are worthless.
God’s prophet says:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.~John 3:16
Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted. But Zion said, The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me. Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me. ~Isaiah 49: 13-16
Satan says: You will never be able to overcome this, so why even try?
If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. ~ Ether 12:27
Satan says: Don’t ever forget that you once sinned.
Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. D&C 58:42
Alma 36:19 Notice, he remembers his sin, but no longer feels the pain of sin.
Satan says: You are damaged beyond repair. (We sometimes hear a version of this in well-meaning morality talks involving licked cupcakes or pounding nails in boards.)
God’s prophet says:
For those who pay the price required by true repentance, the promise is sure. You can be clean again. The despair can be lifted. The sweet peace of forgiveness will flow into your lives. (ETB)
Satan says: You haven’t yet paid a high enough price for the atonement to clean you. You aren’t good enough yet.
God’s prophet says:
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
(My husband has experienced this in his scripture study. When he hasn’t done it as well as he could have, he has felt like he needed to do it right for a while before God would bless him with personal revelation. Yet when he sits down to do better, he usually has a rewarding experience right away.)
Satan says: Becoming like God is too difficult. You will never get there with the tiny progress you make.
God’s prophet says:
We must not lose hope. Hope is an anchor to the souls of men. Satan would have us cast away that anchor. In this way he can bring discouragement and surrender. But we must not lose hope. The Lord is pleased with every effort, even the tiny, daily ones in which we strive to be more like Him. Though we may see that we have far to go on the road to perfection, we must not give up hope. (ETB)
Satan says: Avoid God because you aren’t worthy of his love or his help or his blessings.
God’s prophet says:
One of Satan’s most effective strategies with those whom he has lured into sin is to whisper in their ears that they are not worthy to pray. He will tell you that Heavenly Father is so displeased with you that He will never hear your prayers. This is a lie, and he says it to deceive us. The power of sin is great. If we are to extricate ourselves from it, especially serious sin, we must have a power greater than ourselves. (ETB)
Change takes work. Change is disruptive and often scary. Many of us like things to stay the same. The gospel gives us motivation and direction for our efforts by showing us a better way to strive for. Seeing the difference between our choices and God’s commands helps us understand the need for change. It can also be quite painful to see how far short of our goal we are.
2 Cor. 7:9-10
For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
There is often pain associated with repentance. President Benson describes it as “a deep realization that our actions have offended our Father and our God.” The purpose of this pain is to lead us to repentance. It encourages us to be humble, to have the broken heart and contrite spirit necessary for repentance.
I want you to notice something. President Benson says, “Godly sorrow is defined as a sorrow that leads us to repentance”. Think about that for a minute. What kind of sorrow leads to repentance? Not any of those destructive lies that come from Satan.
It is impossible for pain and sorrow to lead you to repentance after you have repented. Once you have turned to God (and the bishop, if necessary) and done all you can and no longer want to return to your sins, guilt serves no purpose. There is no need to devalue yourself or beat yourself up for your mistakes. That is not God’s plan. Turn to him and trust his forgiveness.
I often view my weaknesses as obstacles keeping me from God, blocking my progress and my communion with Him. But I’ve noticed in my life that isn’t quite how it works. It isn’t my mistakes and inadequacies that keep me from God. It is my pride. Usually it is my inadequacies that humble me and bring me to my knees turning back to God. When I am ready to listen, when I am teachable, God is always there, teaching and empowering. When I think I have all the answers or that I am too broken for God to fix or that I just need to take care of this problem by myself first, that is when God has no place in my life, because I don’t let him in.
We saw this in Ether 12:27, but now I want to read about Paul’s experience. Paul was a devout Jew who persecuted the Christians in any way he found. He was instrumental in having them jailed and stoned, until Christ visited him and taught him a better way. He became a great missionary and apostle. His letters make up much of the New Testament. Yet he still struggled.
In 2 Cor 12:7-10, Paul tells us about his weakness.
And lest I should be exalted above measure (perfect description of pride) through the abundance of the revelations, there was given unto me a thorn in the flesh (isn’t that how our weaknesses feel?), the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. (Notice, his weakness led him to the Lord. Also notice, things didn’t get better right away.)
And he said unto me, (and you) “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
For a great personal description of repentance, please read Alma 36 where Alma describes one time when he repented.
A quick summary of repentance: First, have faith in Christ and his power to heal you and enable you become better than you could alone. Next, recognize your weaknesses and sins. Notice what you need to change. Then, get on your knees or go to the bishop and tell God all about it. Explain your desire to do better. Explain your successes and failures. Ask for help. Listen for ideas and answers about how to change. Then go about your day working to do better, listening for guidance from the Spirit and praying for help when you struggle. That night get on your knees and do it again.
I promise you that God is willing and able to help you. I promise that he is waiting for you to ask for that help. I promise that when you turn to him, he will immediately bless you and help you. It will still be hard. You will still make mistakes. But you won’t be alone. Over time, you will see the miracle that he works in your life.
President Benson’s testimony and plea:
No one is more anxious to help you flee from sin than your Heavenly Father. Go to Him. Acknowledge your sin, confess your shame and your guilt, and then plead with Him for help. He has the power to help you triumph.
Repentance is real. It brings joy. Each of us has areas in need of improvement. We each need Christ to show us the way and help us follow him. Please turn to him each day, for he loves you dearly.