“Why don’t people just repent?” Sounds like a fair enough question. The problem with the question is the word “just.” It makes it sound like repentance is such a simple choice, and worse yet, simply or easily done. Repentance is not something that is done on a whim, nor is it accomplished without work and sacrifice.
To begin the repentance process requires at least two things, a recognition of need, and a desire for the repentance. If I have the desire to repent, but I don’t yet feel a burning need to do so (lack of urgency), chances are I won’t repent. If I really need to repent (great urgency), yet I still have no desire to do so, it still isn’t going to happen.
We all need to repent of something. If we did not need to repent then we would be living a spiritually perfect life. Whether our greatest sin is cutting others off in traffic or something far more serious, like breaking big commandments, we all have something that we have either done and shouldn’t have, or haven’t done that we should have. The need is there, but do we recognize that need?
Whether we have wandered away from the Church or we have never slacked in our activity in the Church, we all have a need to be better than we are. But recognizing we have that need is not a comfortable thing to do. If we choose to recognize and own the fact that we need to repent and change, so we can be better than we currently are, we are committing ourselves to a lot of work and a change in habits, lifestyle, and attitude.
Many of us profess we are afraid of change, but seem to find it easier to make changes in our lives when it involves neglect of duty and neglect of responsibilities, rather than the other way around. How often do you find people who are afraid they might actually slack off in their home or visiting teaching, so they continually improve their performance in that area?
How many times have you seen someone who is so afraid that they will lose the Spirit that they double up on their scripture studies and prayers to make sure they are always close to the influence of the Holy Ghost? It sounds more like I am describing the Savior here than it does me. It has been my experience that we, as imperfect sons and daughters are more likely to shirk responsibilities rather than embrace them. Somehow we are made to feel that life changes that are for the worse are okay and comfortable, but changes for the better are scary. (How does that even make sense?)
For people who claim to be afraid of change in our lives, we don’t seem to have a problem with the changes that come from disobedience. But for some reason we are far more likely to have a problem with the perceived changes that accompany being obedient. Both behaviors create a change in our lives.
We need to work on recognizing when we have gone off in the wrong direction and are therefore not as happy as we would like to be. We don’t want to change if we don’t feel a need to do so. This recognition of our need to change and improve our performance toward our Father in Heaven is something that normally happens over time.
Learning to recognize the choices we have made doesn’t happen overnight. As we live a life that brings us trouble and sorrow, i.e. any life that includes broken commandments, the Lord prompts us and points out to us that we are not as happy as we could be. With this recognition that we are not actually as happy as we want to be, He can stir within us a desire to be happier than we currently are.
Once we have established the need to repent we still must want to make the necessary changes in our lives. Mustering up the desire to make those changes is a whole different beast. It is like knowing that I need to change my eating habits because they are going to kill me earlier rather than later. The knowledge is there, but that isn’t enough to get me to make the necessary changes. So how do I develop a burning desire great enough to cause me to actually make the needed changes in my life?
The desire to change habits, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs is not usually something that happens quickly either. It happens on an incremental scale. Like the seesaw that you sat on as a child, you sit there with your bottom on the ground until someone of equal or greater weight sits on the other side. If someone much lighter than you sits on the other side, they remain in the air, and you remain grounded.
You can try to push yourself up into the air to get yourself moving, but you always descend with a rapid thump back where you started. You just have to have a sufficient counterweight to lift you up. Repenting requires that we begin to put on a counterweight to our sin. Without that added desire, our counterweight, we will forever be “grounded” on our side of the seesaw.
The goal in this example is to gain enough desire for change that once we obtain lift we will never again find ourselves with our bottoms on the ground. We want to spend as much time in the air as possible. As most analogies break down at some point, this is as far as the seesaw analogy can rightly go.
The last thing we want is “balance” between sin and our desire to commit the sin. That will cause us to go up and down as we find ourselves needing to repent again and again of the sin. In this case we want up in the air, never to come down. In other words, our desire to be free of our sin needs to permanently far outweigh our desire to commit the sin.
It Takes Time
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has wandered away from the Church for a period of time then came back? If you have you have probably also heard in their story of return a series of events that finally led them to come back. This is a process that does not happen quickly.
Remember that before the desire can become strong enough to initiate repentance we need to have a solid recognition of the need for that repentance. Neither the recognition of the need, nor the desire to correct our lives happens instantly. These things take time. This is a wonder in and of itself. The Lord is so patient as He works with us and leads us from situation to situation to help us recognize that we are not as happy as we can be or want to be. He then works on our desire, increasing the desire for that recognized change until we have enough to “achieve lift.”
So why don’t people just repent? I might as well ask, “So why are people so judgmental about those they think need to repent?” The Lord in His infinite patience works with us all, no matter where we are. He provides us with experiences that help us grow and find joy through obedience to His commandments. Both questions require tolerance. Both questions more than hint that repentance is needed by someone. We all need to recognize that each of us is in the process of change and growth. For some of us it happens faster than for others, but the Lord is working on all of us. We need to be patient with each other in that process.