This is a written musing caused by my going to Church today. The topic in Priesthood meeting was repentance. What I was feeling was not matching up with my knowledge of repentance. That is what got me thinking. Why do I have a built-in aversion to repenting? What is it about repenting that causes so many of us to shrink and retreat emotionally?
I want to make a comparison, but to do that I have to explain the comparison. When I was younger (up to the age of 60) I was terrified of throwing up. I would do anything to not throw up. I am absolutely amazed at how sick you can allow yourself to be before you no longer have an option and just do it. When I was really green I could last for hours in my attempt to avoid the inevitable, and the whole time I just kept getting sicker and sicker to my stomach. I was convinced that there was nothing worse than that gagging sensation and the taste left in the mouth when you threw up.
What surprised me recently was that I ate some food that got “stuck” and wouldn’t go down as it was hoped to do. I showed all the signs of needing to throw up, but instinctively started into my dance of avoidance to prevent the dreaded deed. After about 15 minutes of this, I suddenly found myself in the bathroom thinking to myself, “This is stupid. Just one deliberate gag and it will all be over with within five seconds.”
After 60+ years of being the kind of person who shut down an entire doctor’s office waiting room over one throat swabbing because of my excessive gag reflex, here I was deliberately forcing a gag to make myself throw up. And I wasn’t even flinching! What had happened to me?! My mother had said for years that when you are that sick, there is nothing that feels so good as to get it out of your system. And she is right. I guess I am just a slow learner.
Back to repentance
While sitting in our lesson about repentance, I found myself feeling that same type of desire to flee that I used to feel when I got sick to my stomach. My watchcry was always “Anything but that!” Why would I feel such avoidance at the thought of repenting akin to the aversion I used to feel over something so unpleasant as throwing up?
One of the most universal lessons I have learned in my life is that if I feel anything negative about the gospel of Christ it is ALWAYS because I have bought into a lie of some kind. It is the lie I have adopted as “truth” that causes me to mistrust God and His desires and purposes for me. And it isn’t until I come to recognize the lie for what it is that I am able to rewrite my thinking to accept God’s love more unconditionally. Note that I said MORE unconditionally. I seem to have accepted a lot of lies over my lifetime, so I am a work in process.
In the case of repentance, I seem to have bought into the lies that repentance is a miserable experience. I have always believed, that like throwing up, any excuse is better than having to face it and deal with it, because it hurts too much. So I would go for years and years, pretending to have changed, when I really hadn’t. My habits kept saying, “You haven’t really changed yet,” but my mind would pretend I didn’t hear what was being said. After all, subjecting myself to the humiliation and pain of true repentance will hurt too much. I wasn’t sure I could actually produce the humility (read that as humiliation) needed to fully make the change required to never need to repent again.
That’s right, one of the lies I adopted was that if you repent properly then you never need to do it again, because sin disappears from your life. And I knew my life was too riddled in sin for it to completely disappear. That was another lie I accepted, that all sins are connected to each other, and that to get rid of one you have to get rid of all of them at once. Too overwhelming for words!
Does any of this sound familiar? Is it just me? What else was I afraid of? Well, I was afraid of talking to the Bishop for fear of everyone knowing of my sins. Yet I wasn’t even sure my Bishop even needed to know about my sins. But if he did need to know about them then I was afraid of them getting loose in the ward and being the shame of my family, neighborhood, and community. Don’t get me wrong here. It wasn’t like I had robbed a bank or had committed adultery. Some of what I was afraid of was more along the line of whether or not I had paid an honest tithing, had paid enough of a fast offering, wasn’t praying like I should, or that I was still holding a grudge against someone who had wronged me in a cruel and terrible way.
I was being controlled on all fronts by fears, unaccountable, and indefinable fears. No one ever sat me down and taught me to fear these things, they just grew out of my own imagining and from my own sense of guilt. I taught them to myself by listening to the wrong voices in my head.
What my studies have taught me
The apostles and prophets teach us that repenting needs to be a daily process. For someone controlled by a multitude of fears about repenting, that is like someone telling me I need to make myself throw up every day and like it. Obviously that is not going to happen. First I have to get past all the fears I have accepted about repentance and how much it hurts or causes shame.
Let’s look at what king Benjamin teaches us about our relationship with God. This is the most hope-filled passage on repentance I can think of at the moment. Mosiah 2 is where we find Benjamin’s description of our relationship with God. For brevity’s sake I will describe what he is saying, but not quote the verses as I normally would. It would take too long.
In verses 20-21 he tells us that “if ye should serve him with all your souls yet ye would be servants.” Why? Because God is loaning us breath to stay alive from moment to moment. How does one repay God for such a privilege? He has created us, preserved us from day to day, allowing us to live in peace with each other. What could we possibly do to repay Him for that?
What is the expected payment for this massive kindness to us? In verses 22-24 he tells us that all we are asked to do is to obey His commandments. So he has created us, given us the breath we need to stay alive, and has given us our agency so we can choose how we want to behave from day to day. And all he asks is that we keep his commandments. This means we are still indebted to Him, even before we keep His commandments.
So what happens if we obey Him and keep his commandments? Are we free of our debt? NO! For no sooner do we obey His commandments than He blesses us for that obedience, so we are still indebted to Him. Every time we obey Him He pays us in blessings. This means we are indebted to Him forever, for we can never wipe the slate clean or get ahead of his blessings to us. There is no way for us to make Him indebted to us or to break even so we are free of our need for his help. We truly are reliant on Him and His mercy and kindness to even continue breathing from moment to moment. We owe Him always and forever.
One of the repentance lies some of us fall into is that in our pride we resent feeling indebted to God. We somehow feel we must be able to do everything on our own. We stand on our own two feet and should be beholden to no one. This is pure pride talking. Our Father loves us. We cannot even live in mortality without his constant and ever-present help just to breath, for our bodies are animated through the light of Christ, which is in and through all things. It is his light that allowed our spirits to live out our time in mortality. There is no way to pay Him back for that gift and kindness. It is given out of pure love for us.
Lest we begin to think we are more than nothing before God, Benjamin continues in verse 25 to ask the people what they are made of. He points out that all of us are made from the dust of the earth. That is true. And who owns the dust of the earth, but the one who created it. And that would be God. So again, we have nothing to boast about or be proud about, for we don’t even own our own bodies. They were created for us by God so we could experience this time in mortality.
Our relationship with God
Where does this put us in relationship to God? What is our relationship supposed to be with Him? We can’t live independent of Him. We can’t ever pay Him back for all He has done for us. His mercy and love resulted in Him giving us Jesus as our Savior and Redeemer, who opened the door to allow us to repent and change, to become like God, so we can live for eternity with and like God, Himself. We are forever and ever beholden to Him for His unending love for us.
But where does that leave me with my need to repent, my aversion to the pain and suffering, the humiliation and assumptions that anything is better than having to suffer what will be required of me? Well let’s look at the truths about repentance.
- Repentance is a privilege, not a punishment. Wow! That is a lot to wrap my head around. Without the atoning sacrifice of Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross, repentance would not even be possible. If God really loves us as much as He appears to then repentance is another example of this unending string of kindnesses. By definition a kindness is a good thing, not a bad thing. If repentance is a good thing then it should leave me better off afterward than I was before, right?
When someone does a good thing for us it brings us joy or happiness, right? So repentance is designed to make us happy. That means that repentance is like when I got really, really sick and threw up, it may have been unpleasant for a few seconds, but I felt so much better when I had purged from my system what was making me so sick. Repentance is how I purge my spirit of what makes me spiritually sick. I am only able to repent because God loves me. That should make me happy.
- Repentance makes us happy. Why does something that is uncomfortable, and so full of icky things, make me happy? It is because repentance taps into the atonement of Christ, which causes a change in our attitudes, our desires, our dispositions, and our feelings. In short, it changes our heart. When we truly seek to make changes in our lives that will get rid of those habits and attitudes that cause us misery (those things that cause us to sin) God’s grace enables us to experience changes we could not make on our own. We are able to forgive the most horrible things, love the most unlovable people, and serve with humility where we loathed the thought of that service before.
Our lives change for the better when we repent. Sin, by its very nature causes misery of every sort and description. Repentance provides relief from the effects of sin in our lives. It opens the doors to happiness and lasting joy, for we are held down less and less by our repressive habits and attitudes that caused us to sin and be miserable. It is a process.
- Repentance brings spiritual clarity. As we begin to eliminate those parts of our lives that have been binding us down and making us suffer with fear and regret, we begin to see truth and error more clearly. We begin to recognize parts of our lives that need changing that we never realized needed to be changed. One of the Apostles said, and please forgive me because I can’t remember where he said it, that when we first begin to repent we are repenting of sins of commission. These are sins we deliberately did. As we repent and eliminate those from our lives, we begin to see that we have also been committing sins of omission, those things we should have been doing, but haven’t been.
He compares the sins of commision as being telestial, sins of omission as being terrestrial in nature. But then when we have eliminated enough of these first two types of sin we can begin to focus on refining our characters in ways we never even thought of before, and these are the things that require daily visits to the atonement to make our souls more celestial in nature. The apostle didn’t say that last part. That is just my observation.
What will it take for each of us to identify the lies in our heads that prevent us from seeking the privilege of repenting? I don’t honestly know the answer to that. I assume that what it takes for me to identify the lies I have accepted about my sins and my aversion to repenting will be different from your lies and aversion. But the journey to identify those lies, and the need to learn to find joy in repentance is universal for every child of God.
Our Father in Heaven isn’t balancing a ledger on our souls. He isn’t concerned about whether He has done more for us than we have for Him. I think he is all too aware that there is absolutely no way for us to ever put Him in our debt. But He doesn’t care about that. All He cares about is our individual happiness. He will continue to do for us day, after day, after day, as long as He needs to until we begin to catch on that we have been given this wonderful gift of change and improvement that will bring joy to our souls and life eternal, until we learn to repent with joy.