In retrospect, it’s almost miraculous that she was still around at age thirty-six. She had seen more than her share of the dark side of life in her quest for a life-style that could bring all the satisfactions of the world. When I first met her fifteen years ago, she told me there was no room for God in her life.
But now she wasn’t so sure. Her family had disowned her. Her friends had abandoned her. The men in her life had all disappeared—except for one, and he was in prison. Two of her children had been taken away because of behavior problems. Without so much as a high school diploma, she had been unable to support the son who lived with her. Eventually she accepted employment that was immoral, if not illegal. Life in the fast lane had slowed to a humiliating crawl, and she decided she had to make some serious changes.
Her comeback hadn’t been easy. It was tough finding a legitimate job with her limited background and that empty space on her résumé under “Employment Experience.” Friends from her former life tried to entice her back into their world.
Putting her spiritual life in order was a major undertaking. But when her son expressed a desire to go to church, she started wondering if it was time for her to return, too.
“That is, if you don’t think the walls will crumble when I go inside,” she said, only half joking, when I saw her on Temple Square during a recent general conference. She looked radiant in the modest pastel dress she wore. She left quickly after the session, but not before she glanced at me, grinned, and gave the rugged stone wall next to her a sharp rap with her knuckles.
Sure enough, the Tabernacle was still standing.
One of the best things mortality offers us is the chance to learn and grow from our mistakes. Few of us seize the opportunity as we should. But the possibility of change is always there, with its hidden promise of peace, happiness, and a better way of life.
Fortunately, few of us have to change as drastically as my friend did. Perhaps few parents will have children in so dire a moral predicament as she was. Still, it’s comforting to know that repentance, Heavenly Father’s plan for eternal change, is available to us. Isaiah wrote that “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isa. 1:18.) More recently, the First Presidency has taught: “The miracle of forgiveness is real, and true repentance is accepted by the Lord.” (For the Strength of Youth, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990, p. 18.)
The gift of repentance is possible because of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Everyone who has ever sinned—and that includes all of us—needs to remember this. Since “there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God” (1 Ne. 15:34), and since we have all become spiritually unclean because of sin (see 1 Jn. 1:8), none of us would be worthy of exaltation without benefit of the Savior’s intercession. Christ said, “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.” (D&C 19:16–17).
On the surface, repentance doesn’t sound like much to ask in exchange for eternal life with God. But based on some of the myths I’ve heard from otherwise well-informed teenagers, I’d say many of them don’t really understand what it means to repent. With so much misinformation about repentance floating around, concerned parents and leaders might want to debunk a few of these myths.
While it’s true that the need for repentance is usually manifest in our actions, improper conduct is generally symptomatic of deeper problems. For example, it’s difficult for someone who doesn’t have a testimony of tithing to live the doctrine. A young woman with poor self-esteem may have a hard time saying no to advances from a popular young man. One who doesn’t believe in God isn’t going to see why we shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.
Young people need to understand that repentance isn’t just changing what we do. It is closely related to what we are and what we believe. When we truly repent, we change our hearts and our minds, not just our behavior. Oh, we’ll be better behaved, all right, but it won’t be because we suddenly decided to stop sinning. It will be because we have been purified. We become like the people of King Benjamin, having “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2.)
A young friend of mine was struggling with a bad habit. It wasn’t critical, but the weakness made it difficult for him to feel good about himself. We discussed techniques he could use to fight the problem: thought substitution, situation avoidance, accountability, even memorizing the words to the song “I Am a Child of God” for emergencies. They were good ideas, and they helped—for a while. But soon we were back at the drawing board, trying to figure out why he couldn’t harness his good intentions. He wanted to change, but he couldn’t make it stick.
During one conversation, I asked if he had been going to Heavenly Father for help.
“You mean like a priesthood blessing?” he asked.
“I mean in your prayers. You’ve been praying about this, haven’t you?”
He paused. “Well, not exactly.” He hesitated another moment, then added: “I haven’t been praying much lately. To tell the truth, I’ve never really prayed much.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I’m not sure how much good it does.”
He wasn’t sure if there was really someone out there to hear his prayers. So for the next several weeks we largely ignored his problem and focused our attention on his testimony. I suggested several faith-promoting books and stories and certain inspiring audiocassettes and videotapes to review. I helped him become involved in service projects and other events where I knew he would feel something. Before long he was praying regularly and feeling better about himself and his relationship with Heavenly Father.
And his problem? As he grew spiritually, it became less … well, problematic. The title of President Spencer W. Kimball’s book says it: Faith Precedes the Miracle. In teaching our children, we would do well to remember that the most significant factor in repentance isn’t discipline, it’s faith.
There’s a certain devilish logic to this point. But while it’s true that young people may repent of sin and may still enjoy the blessings of missionary service and temple marriage, many others are denied those privileges because they are unable to escape patterns of disobedience established during their teen years.
When my brother was learning how to fly, it bothered him that his instructor so strongly emphasized landing the plane with the nose right on the white line that split the runway in half. Being something of a free spirit, he couldn’t understand all the fuss—the runway was so wide and the plane he was flying was so small.
“Someday you’ll understand,” his instructor said each time my brother complained about repeating the procedure.
“Someday” came several years later when my brother had to make an emergency landing on a narrow country road. He didn’t have much room to spare. He avoided potential disaster, just a few yards away from either wingtip, because he was so well-practiced at making steady, centered landings.
Parents can teach their children that it’s this way with any good habit; practice and consistent effort make it part of you. Similarly, the longer you cling to bad habits, the more difficult they are to eliminate.
That’s where the “I’ll-repent-when-I-have-to” argument breaks down. By the time procrastinators are ready to repent, it’s usually very difficult to change established patterns of living. Physical dependencies, such as those formed with drugs, tobacco, and alcohol, can take a lifetime to overcome. The emotional consequences of promiscuity, unfaithfulness, and dishonesty can be just as real—and just as debilitating.
Of course, we’re assuming that everyone will eventually want to change. Sadly, by procrastinating repentance, many young people drift so far away from the Spirit that they lose all desire to repent—even the desire to do it “someday.” And then there are those who honestly intend to repent but never get around to it before tragedy strikes—a horrible car accident while they are “under the influence,” for example, or an incurable sexually transmitted disease.
Many Latter-day Saint teenagers think repentance is like a “Get out of jail free” card in the game of Monopoly. We need to help them understand that while repentance is indeed a wondrous gift, it won’t save them from the mortal consequences of sin. Even the most sincere repentance won’t undo damage to the lungs from smoking. It won’t clear up a jail record, and it can never restore lost innocence; moreover, it can never give back to another person what they may have lost.
But it can help us turn negatives in our lives into positives, and it can purify us so we can receive God’s eternal blessings. The gift of repentance was given to us freely through the grace of Jesus Christ, but we must choose to take advantage of it. For the Strength of Youth reminds young people, “If you have sinned, the sooner you begin to make your way back, the sooner you will find the sweet peace and joy that come with the miracle of forgiveness.” (P. 18.)
There’s a lot of truth in this sentiment that needs to be protected, but as a whole, the statement is a good example of how truth is sometimes mingled with error in tempting us.
Forgiveness is, ultimately, the Lord’s to bestow, and His relationship with the penitent sinner is critical to repentance. But young people should know that the bishop’s involvement is important, too. For the Strength of Youth says, “Priesthood leaders can assist the transgressor in the process of repentance.” (P. 18.) Bishops can do this, in Christlike ways, because they are acting as agents of the Lord; and He wants us to have the opportunity to associate with our bishops.
There are at least five reasons why the bishop can do things for us no one else can do.
He loves us. One of the great gifts Heavenly Father gives his bishops is the gift of love. It fills their hearts and provides motivation for the long hours they spend in their callings. Yes, duty and testimony are also motivational. But most bishops do what they do because they care. And when you have sinned, you need all the caring support you can get.
He is our priesthood leader. The Lord has established an orderly way to deal with Church concerns. When we violate the laws of God, repentance requires that we report that violation to His representative. “Full repentance of some sins requires that we not only confess and resolve them with the Lord but that we also do so with the Church. The bishop and stake president have been appointed by revelation to serve as judges in these cases.” (For the Strength of Youth, p. 18.)
He is entitled to inspiration for us. Of course, we’re entitled to inspiration for ourselves, too. But sin dulls our spiritual sensitivity. At such times it’s comforting to have someone else we can turn to for spiritual counsel.
He knows how to keep a confidence. The bishop is someone young people can talk to about anything, knowing that no one else is ever going to hear about it. A teenager should be able to feel that confidence with parents, too. There may be few other people a young person can trust with painful truths.
He wants us to succeed. It’s not because he doesn’t need another problem. He wants us to succeed because he cares about us and because he loves the Lord. If he can help us return to Christ through repentance, then he is helping the Lord accomplish His work and glory: bringing to pass “the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.)
Just before I was released as bishop, I had the privilege of meeting with someone who had turned her life around. We had worked together as she sought to overcome sin, and I was proud of the changes she had made. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish my service as bishop than to be able to say to a humble, repentant soul, “It’s over. You’ve paid the price, and as far as the Church is concerned, your repentance is complete.” It was a sweet meeting, as it always is when God’s plan of repentance has been sincerely followed.
To those who repent, For the Strength of Youth promises, “You will feel and experience the power of the Spirit of the Lord, you will come to know the truth, and you will gain confidence in yourself and the Lord. The Savior taught, ‘The truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32). As you grow in that truth and freedom, you will experience the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ, a peace that brings great strength.” (P. 18.)
That’s the real miracle of forgiveness, for young and old alike—finding strength through practicing humility, truth through conquering error, peace through enduring tribulation. It’s the miracle of change.
And perhaps that is the greatest miracle of all.