It was just a fragment of white bread on the silver tray in front of her. It had been broken from the larger whole and blessed by that irrepressible sixteen-year-old who used to give her such a hard time when he was in her Sunday School class. But that didn’t matter now. Not really. The only thing she wanted to think about was that little piece of bread.
It had been a long time since she had partaken of the emblems of the sacrament—a year, to be exact. And it had been even longer since she had done so in good conscience. In fact, it was those awful, gnawing feelings of unworthiness during the sacrament one Sunday—followed by a thoughtful sermon that included the Savior’s warning that “whoso eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul” (3 Ne. 18:29)—that finally prompted her to make an appointment with her bishop to unburden her heart.
The year had passed slowly and, at times, painfully. During that time she even tried to convince herself that God didn’t love her anymore, that her bishop didn’t care, that her family and friends at church weren’t interested, and that the only thing that matters in life is to look good, feel good, and have fun.
Then one night she found herself face-to-face with the same sin that had put her in this precarious spiritual position in the first place. She realized that she had to decide right then if she was going to embrace the decadent life-style she had been flirting with or if she was going to return to the peace and happiness she had known at church. She knew she couldn’t walk along the precipice any longer; either she was going to go over the edge with both feet, or she was going to run for safety as far away from the cliff as possible.
Impulsively, she called her bishop, even though it was nearly one o’clock in the morning. Sensing the importance of the moment, he was able to talk her through temptation and into a pew near the back of the chapel the following Sunday. Open once more to the Spirit, she felt a gradual rekindling of faith and a sweet willingness to complete the disciplinary process.
And now here she was, partaking of the sacrament worthily. As she lifted the bread to her lips, she could still hear the bishop’s voice: “As the Lord’s representative in this ward, I have the privilege of telling you that your repentance is complete. You are restored to full fellowship and are entitled to every right, blessing, and opportunity available to worthy Latter-day Saints.”
The bishop was pleased to see the flame of testimony burning brightly in her eyes despite the flood of emotion that was cascading down her cheeks. “As far as the Church is concerned,” he told her, “the sin is gone.” For those who repent, he explained, Christ has taken their sins upon himself, and they no longer have any claim to them. He has paid for their sins with his own flesh and blood, and he asks in return that they “go and sin no more,” obeying the commandments and continuing in service to his cause.
Partaking of the emblems of his flesh and blood for the first time in a year, she found herself silently, solemnly pledging that very commitment to the Redeemer of her soul. As she did so, she felt something she hadn’t felt in a very long time: peace. And whole-souled happiness.
When he wrote the Articles of Faith, Joseph Smith identified the joyfully redemptive concept of repentance as the second principle of the gospel, with “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” as the first. Commenting on that placement, Elder James E. Talmage noted that repentance is, by nature, “closely associated with and immediately following faith. As soon as one has come to recognize the existence and authority of God, he feels a respect for divine laws, and a conviction of his own unworthiness.” (The Articles of Faith, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1977, p. 109.)
The seed of that respectful conviction was planted in the premortal existence, when the Father’s plan of moral agency, sustained by the Son, was followed over Lucifer’s proposed amendment of forced obedience. By allowing us the opportunity to choose right over wrong, Heavenly Father gave his children a chance to prove that “they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abr. 3:25.) When we choose the right, we remain pure and clean, and we are blessed with the incomparable joys and blessings that accompany righteous living.
But by accepting the opportunity to choose right or wrong, we also expose ourselves to the risk of making bad choices. And let’s be very candid about this: We have all made bad choices—even sinned—during our time on earth. Paul reminded the Roman Saints that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23.)
Which creates something of a paradox. We know that more than anything else, Heavenly Father wants his children to receive all of the blessings of eternal life in his presence. But we also know that “the kingdom of God is not filthy, and there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God.” (1 Ne. 15:34.) So if we have all become spiritually unclean because of sin, and if no unclean thing can enter God’s eternal kingdom, how can any of us even hope to live again with Heavenly Father?
Quite simply, our hope is in Jesus Christ.
“Behold,” Mormon proclaimed, “I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise.” (Moro. 7:41.)
We don’t know exactly how Jesus accomplished the Atonement. We only know that somehow during the course of the excruciating and agonizing hours in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, he became our Redeemer.
“Christ’s agony in the garden is unfathomable by the finite mind, both as to intensity and cause … ,” Elder Talmage wrote. “He struggled and groaned under a burden such as no other being who has lived on earth might even conceive as possible. … In some manner, actual and terribly real though to man incomprehensible, the Savior took upon Himself the burden of the sins of mankind from Adam to the end of the world.” (Jesus the Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 613.)
Of this awful-yet-wonderful scene, the Savior himself 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;
“Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
“Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” (D&C 19:16–19.)
Jesus has already accomplished the most painful and important part of the repentance process for us by suffering pains for all our sins. That which is left to us to perform to make his atoning sacrifice a vibrant, transforming factor in our lives is simple by comparison—unless, of course, we choose to make it difficult for ourselves by our inaccurate perceptions of him and his gospel or our unwillingness to change.
There is a man, a lifelong member of the Church, for whom it had always been important to maintain an image of personal worthiness. But for many years his testimony was unsteady. And without that solid foundation of faith, he didn’t have the spiritual resources to resist temptation when it came.
And boy, did it come. Again and again. Little by little he made room for sin in his life. Smaller sins turned into larger sins until he was regularly involved in major transgression, which was probably as surprising to him as it would have been to anyone who knew him. Each time he succumbed to temptation, he vowed to himself that he would never let it happen again. But he always did. He felt so hypocritical about asking Heavenly Father for forgiveness that he eventually stopped praying. Still he continued to portray the image of faithfulness, serving in a variety of callings. He had the idea that one day he would get himself under control, live worthily for thirty years or so, and then he would confess. And that, he was sure, would be an acceptable course.
Only it wasn’t. Once he had sinned, it became easier to rationalize additional sin. After all, he said to himself, thirty years from now, more instances of sin won’t be any different than what I’ve done already, would it?
Before long he was completely out of control. The more he sinned, the harder it became to stop sinning. At the same time, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the double life-style he was living. His cover-up lies to his wife and family became more frequent—and more convoluted. The stress of duplicity built up within him, affecting his professional life as well as his family. He could see only three ways out: divorce, suicide, or repentance. And quite frankly, all three options frightened him.
It was at about this time that he attended a fireside at which something finally reached him spiritually. It wasn’t new information or new insights or anything like that. It was just the warm, peaceful spirit he felt as the speaker quoted Matthew 11:28–30: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [Matt. 11:28–30]
Rest. With the turmoil he was feeling, nothing was more appealing than quiet, peaceful rest. As he contemplated the prospect of turning his burden over to Christ, he received a spiritual witness of the power of the Atonement for the first time in his life. When he finally decided that he wanted to experience “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Philip. 4:7) more than he wanted to sin, he knew it was time—indeed, past time—to make an appointment with his bishop.
“If only I’d known that instead of making things easier, I was really making things much harder for myself and my family by delaying my repentance,” he told the bishop. “It’s like the Lord was just waiting to bless me with an outpouring of love and peace, and I kept turning my back on him. Repentance isn’t the hard part; living with sin is.”
Of course, repentance can’t really begin until the individual recognizes that a sin has been committed. On the surface, that seems self-evident. None would question the need to repent of robbery, murder, or marital infidelity. But what about those everyday situations in which the decision is less black-and-white than gray? Concerned about helping us develop our moral agency, the Lord does not issue a “laundry list” of every possible infraction of his commandments. But he has given us a way to discern right and wrong for ourselves:
“For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.
“But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil. …
“Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ.” (Moro. 7:16–17, 19.)
Which means that it’s up to us to maintain a close relationship with the Spirit of Christ so that we’ll know when we’re in danger of straying from the straight and narrow path that leads us home to God.
And then there are those who know perfectly well that they are violating God’s commandments but who aren’t concerned about it. Bishops often encounter people who are willing to confess their sins but who aren’t willing to make a commitment to change their behavior.
“I know what I did was wrong,” one young man told his bishop. “But I’d be lying if I told you that I don’t want to ever do it again. In fact, if I’m ever in that situation again, I’ll probably do the same thing.”
Such people confuse confession with repentance. They don’t understand that confession is only one part of the entire process and that it doesn’t do any good unless it is accompanied by what Paul called “godly sorrow” for sin. (2 Cor. 7:10.) According to Lehi, Christ “offereth himself a sacrifice for sin … unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.” (2 Ne. 2:7.)
Real repentance, born of “godly sorrow” for sin and nurtured by renewed determination to do right, infuses sinners with the courage and commitment needed to repent. As with the people of King Benjamin, they are touched by “the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2.)
With that sweet, humble spirit, they are willing to confess their sins and to accept any consequences of their actions. And they are willing—even anxious—to make full restitution to any who have suffered because of their sin.
But more than anything else, sincere repentance requires change—changed thoughts, changed actions, changed relationships with God and man, changed patterns of behavior, changed attitudes, changed loyalties, changed priorities, changed motivations, changed lives. Alma referred to all of this changing simply as a “mighty change in your hearts” (Alma 5:14) which prompts all true believers to “sing the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26).
Of course, this change of heart isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Nor is it intended only for those who are guilty of major violations of God’s law. It can come every day of our lives as we prayerfully consider our commitment to the Lord and the sacred covenants we have made with him. In doing so, sometimes we’ll feel the need to repent and improve. Other times we’ll feel the confident peace of purity, which in this life only comes through repentance. Those are the times when we will feel most inclined to “sing the song of redeeming love.”
That gospel glow fairly radiated from one sister who came to her priesthood leader for an interview. It was clear that she was a righteous woman who, with her husband, was in the process of creating a celestial family. Touched by the Spirit, her priesthood leader asked her to share the secret of her success. Her eyes became moist and her chin trembled as she summed it up in a single word: “Repentance.”
She explained that she and her husband had married as teenagers because they loved each other—and because she was pregnant.
“That wasn’t exactly the best way to begin our family,” she said, her voice laced with understatement. “It was hard, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But Heavenly Father blessed us to make something good out of something bad. The more we struggled to be faithful, the stronger Heavenly Father made us. And the stronger Heavenly Father made us, the easier it was to be faithful.”
Sincere repentance made it possible for them to enter the temple and be sealed as an eternal family soon after their baby was born. Today they have several more children and a long history of dedicated service in the Church. Most people would see them as pillars of the Church and would be surprised to learn of the role repentance has played in fashioning this family. But make no mistake about it—repentance played a significant role.
Consider how their families must have felt when they first became aware of her pregnancy. Those must have been dark days for everyone involved. Tears were probably shed as parents and others agonized over what went wrong. Thankfully, they rallied around the teenaged couple and encouraged their desires to make things right.
“Now it just amazes me to think of how happy we are as a family,” the woman said. “The Lord could have given up on us. But he accepted our repentance, and then turned around and helped us make something wonderful out of our lives. Isn’t that amazing?”
Indeed it is. Almost as amazing as the peaceful, quiet happiness that can come from a fragment of white bread on a sacrament tray.