Instead of starting with terms that haven’t been defined, I’m going define the terms then use them to describe the repentance process.
What does it mean?
Our word “repent” has been around in English since the 1300’s. The words “regret” and “repent” were synonymous for a couple hundred years before that time. In the 1300’s a distinction entered into the language that separated the two words. Both mean to be sorrowful about an action taken or words spoken, but “repent” took on the added connotation of being sorrowful enough about that regret to actually do something to change yourself to fix the problem. So instead of just regretting what we do or feel, repentance means we feel bad enough about it that we take steps to change our life so we no longer feel this way.
The English word to repent is a superficial and misleading concept, for it has a negative connotation, and that isn’t what repentance is supposed to be at all. My first thought was to wonder what was used for the concept of repenting before the English version of the word. For example, what did the Hebrews use for the concept of repenting back in the Old Testament days? A number of words were used to express the concept to express those times when we feel a need to change our life and go in a different direction. There was the idea of consolation, but most of the words I found had to do with the idea of turning in a different direction.
Remember that words are meant to express feelings, actions, and situations. How we express those things change with time, and with those changes sometimes the original intent of the expressions originally used get lost over time. Currently most people attach images of suffering and sorrow to the word repentance. It is that whole concept that regret is what rules our feelings and actions. That isn’t what the word is supposed to be conveying. Repentance is supposed to be a thing of joy, for it heals our soul by doing it.
There are a number of ways to describe the older concepts of what it means to repent, but the basic idea is that all of us have a part of or a spark of God within us. As Latter-day Saints we would say we are children of God, who is our heavenly parent. As such, the idea is that we don’t usually reject Him outright so much as wander away from that spark of divinity, that purity that is a native part of us as His children. If we wander far enough from Him we begin to forget what it feels like to feel His peace and the joy that comes from being in His service.
The process of repenting brings us back to that state of connectedness with God. It reintroduces peace we felt before the days when we wandered away from His commandments and chose poorly. Repentance is a process of reintroducing relief and peace back into our life. It is supposed to be looked upon as a blessing and privilege, not a punishment. Yes, we often don’t think of repenting until we feel awful about something, but the act of repenting is the joyful cure for what ails us, not a cursèd punishment for the kind of person we think we are.
Why do the prophets tell us that repentance should be a daily thing? I believe it is because repentance is not a one-time action taken on our part, but a process of trying to stay in God’s good graces on a daily basis. Our natural tendencies to lose our temper, speak out of turn and hurt someone’s feelings, or any one of a thousand other things that can hurt others or lead us away from our dependence on God, is the reason why we need to maintain a constant attitude of repentance.
Two kinds of repentance
As I researched how others described the act of repentance, someone made an interesting distinction. They pointed out that there is a difference between repenting for something we have done to another mortal and the repentance we do for things we may have done against God.
Mortal repentance requires restitution for what we did. If I stole from you I can’t rightly say I have repented of that act until I have restored to you what I stole, or at least paid its equivalent. When I slander your good name or hurt your reputation I must apologize and do what I can to restore in the minds of others the name or reputation I hurt. That is more difficult to do, and ultimately it is up to the person I hurt to decide if I have done enough to repair the damage I have caused.
There are many ways to injure one another, and many things we can do to fix what we have done wrong. Most of these efforts take thought, heartfelt emotional commitment, and genuine sorrow to really change the person we are today as opposed to the jerk we may have been in the past. Look in the scriptures at what the Lord says about how we treat one another. We shouldn’t borrow from one another, but if we do, we need to return what we have borrowed. If we hurt our neighbor, we are required by God to recompense them for the damage we did.
But what about God? When I break one of His commandments I cannot “fix” that. When I am willful or disobedient how do I make restitution? Repenting with an immortal being is a whole different category, since I can’t directly “make things right”. The laws God gives us are eternal, and as such they have eternal consequences. I am mortal or temporary. I have no way of paying for an eternal law that I have broken.
In this section we begin looking at eternal law and what it takes to fix things when we mess up. So let’s start with the definition of the word “sin”. James 4:17 defines sin this way.
17 Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.
This means there are both sins of commission and sins of omission. If we ignorantly or deliberately break an eternal law/commandment we have committed a sin. It is a wrong we cannot fix, since we have no way of repairing that which is eternal in its nature. If we are supposed to do something, but we ignore it, choosing to do something else then we have a sin of omission, for we have omitted keeping that commandment that was necessary for our happiness. In either case, commandments are meant for our happiness, and violating those commandments in favor of other choices qualifies as a sin.
Sin only really applies to eternal things. We may offend one another, but we haven’t really sinned against each other. I know that the expression is sometimes used, but realistically sin is reserved for things outside our ability to repair once broken or violated.
Nature of God
God, our Heavenly Father is the great law giver. As such He cannot directly show us any mercy when we break one of His laws. The intent of all His laws is to maintain order and to elevate His children to His own status so they can live the kind of life He lives. God is perfectly aware that many of His children will not want to come back and live the life He lives, and to that end He has put into place in His plan for our salvation multiple kingdoms and many mansions so that all will be accommodated for their choices to receive as much of the joy He has to offer as we are willing to receive.
Our problem is that we have come to view God as stern, and at times unloving, for we read in the Old Testament how “hot” His anger burns against the wicked. We are always reading about what a jealous God He is. What we forget is that the God of the Old Testament is actually Jesus of Nazareth in his premortal state. Much of what we read in the Old Testament is probably being misconstrued by the translators of those texts, and hence by us, the readers of those translations. God has always been loving and merciful, always seeking what is best for God’s children, even in their worst state of rebellion. God’s love never waivers or wanes.
We see the true nature of God in Christ’s ministry. Over and over again Jesus tells us that he is only doing what His Father would do if He were here. Jesus does God’s will at all times. So when we think of the mercy and kindness of Jesus we need to realize that he is only imitating those qualities he learned from God, Himself.
As I mentioned before, God’s love does not waiver or wane. He tells us all the time that it is the nature of eternal beings to be consistent. The expression they use is that their course is one eternal round, with never a waiver from left to right and never a shadow of changing. It doesn’t matter how obedient I am or how disobedient I am, God loves me just the same. Unfortunately if I am disobedient He cannot be as generous to me as he can be to the me who is obedient. His own eternal laws prevent Him from blessing me when I ignore or willfully disobey Him.
This is where repentance comes in. Since God’s love doesn’t change, and His desire for my happiness never waivers, He is just waiting for me to return to Him and receive all the blessings He has in store for me. It is that word “return” that we call “repentance”. Repentance isn’t so much about the misery and sorrow of our lives as it is about the turning back to God to get rid of that misery and sorrow. This is where we need to place our attention and focus, our return to joy.
The need for Christ
God knows we cannot fix the eternal laws we violate. It is for this reason, in all His compassion and mercy, He gave us a Savior. A Savior is one who saves, and that describes Jesus precisely. The atoning sacrifice Jesus made in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross paid for the sins of every child of God who ever has or ever will come to earth. The scope of his payment is beyond our ability to comprehend. He suffered in all things and in all ways so that he can more perfectly know how to succor us or tend to our needs as mere mortals. He was also tempted in all things. I’m sure Satan took Jesus as his personal client in that department. He wanted to see Jesus fail his mission.
Now that Jesus has paid for all our sins, we stand reconciled with God. But that is not the end of the matter. We still have to pay for our violations, whether of commission or omission. Now we receive our forgiveness from God based on the recommendation of Jesus who also acts as our intermediary between us and God. This is why we pray to God, but do so in the name of Jesus. When we keep the commandments Jesus gives us he pleads for us to be forgiven at the throne of God. Because of the worthiness of Jesus, not us, God grants us forgiveness for the sins we bear. We owe everything to Jesus, and this is exactly how it is supposed to be. This is how God, Himself designed His plan for our salvation and exaltation.
The atoning sacrifice was the act of Jesus making payment to God for all the sins and transgressions of God’s children. For many accessing Christ’s atoning sacrifice seems like something mysterious and difficult to do, but it’s not. We sometimes forget that God’s love for us never diminishes, no matter how badly we behave. As soon as we turn to Christ and begin to keep his commandments he will begin to plead our case before our Father in Heaven. We don’t have to fill a goodness quota first or suffer a particular penalty before Jesus begins to be merciful to us. Their mercy is always ready and available for us to access.
Let me be clear about something. Yes, if I break certain laws that affect my happiness, either in the here and now or in the eternities, I will have to suffer the consequences of my actions. But nothing I do effects the level of God and Christ’s love and mercy for me. For example, Christ has told us not so use tobacco. If I go out and smoke for 20 years then sincerely repent, that is turn to Christ for support and help in quitting my addiction to tobacco, he will help me, willingly. I may still get cancer of the lungs later on, but at least I will have been forgiven by God before then. Christ takes us where we are at this moment in time and helps us from the moment we turn to him and plead for his help and apologize for our less than stellar behavior of the past. This is the general rule of thumb. There are always some exceptions and qualifications in certain circumstances, but this is the general rule we can all count on.
When we talk about accessing Christ’s atoning sacrifice it involves little more than a sincere desire on our part to give up our sins, those behaviors that violated the commandments of God that naturally bring us happiness. Once we start keeping those commandments and seeking Christ’s forgiveness by living a better life, the power of his payment on our behalf comes into play and God will forgive any sin we commit for which Jesus intercedes on our behalf. I state again, it is not our personal worthiness that wins our forgiveness, it is the worthiness of Jesus, the only child of God to ever make it through mortality without a single mistake or sign of willfulness. Only Jesus is worthy of making the requests of God that we make of Him all the time. So when we do, and we have Jesus’s endorsement, God grants Christ’s request and answers our pleas. God does it for the sake of Christ, not us, for Christ alone has obeyed all the laws, and of all God’s children is the only one deserving.
The beauty of repentance
Isn’t it amazing that we, who are weak, fickle, and often lazy and cowardly in our obedience to the laws of happiness God has given us can still turn, at a moment’s notice, and serve God, and Christ will intercede for us at the throne of God on our behalf? Repentance requires action. We can’t just feel bad about how we have behaved, ask for forgiveness and have it granted. Christ has to see that we have truly turned from our old ways and returned to him. He has to see that we are doing all in our power to live a different, better kind of life. Repentance is our road back to happiness here and happiness in the eternities. All the commandments of God are designed to bring us into alignment with the principles and laws that create personal happiness. God doesn’t want obedience for the sake of being the one obeyed. He wants our obedience, because our obedience makes us happy in the end.
It may be difficult to imagine, but God really does want our company for the rest of eternity. He sorrows for those who choose not to be with Him. Moses 1:39 is his own statement of why He does all that He does, it is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” He wants us to be obedient because He wants us to be happy, and that happiness can only come by repenting or turning to Christ and keeping the commandments Christ has given us.
While it is true that repenting requires a degree of sorrow, regret, or even suffering, the end result is joy. And the suffering we endure while in mortality in order to repent is nothing compared to the price we will have to pay if we wait until we are put in hell to pay for our own sins, because we weren’t willing to accept Christ’s payment for those same sins. Like I said before, the sins still need to be accounted for whether we are paying God or Christ, someone has to “pay the piper” (who is God). If we accept the payment Christ made for our personal sins and keep his commandments then he shoulders the bulk of the suffering on our behalf. Only those who reject Christ’s payment, though it was paid anyway, will have to spend time in hell paying as much as they are capable of paying on their own. And when they get out of hell they still couldn’t pay the full price of their sins, so they receive a lesser eternal happiness than those who accepted Christ’s payment for their sins and were obedient. Either way, all of us, the wicked and the righteous, owe Christ for his charity and mercy because he paid the eternal price for our sins that allows even the most vile sinner to be released from hell in the end.
As you think about why you should repent, that is turn to God, think about how you can show that you have, in fact, turned away from your willful or disobedient practices and can prove to God that you value His gift of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Remind yourself that repentance is yet another opportunity given by God for each of us to find joy in His service and happiness in His lifestyle. The sacrifices or suffering we experience as we clean out the clutter of our lives should pale in comparison to the happiness the opportunity to repent of our mistakes and wrongdoings affords us.
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