I remember my father awakening me one cold night in early February when I was about sixteen. I remember feeling startled; I had only been asleep about an hour. He explained that a steer from our small farm had gotten through the fence, wandered onto the highway, and been hit by a truck. The animal was dead, and to save the meat we would have to act quickly. The task ahead would prove to be an experience I could never forget.
After we dragged the steer from the road to an open shed with our old tractor, our next task was to hoist the animal up. We tied its hind feet together and then threw the rope over a beam. I remember struggling to get my arms under the animal’s hindquarters and lift as my father pulled. To lift with any effect required wrapping my whole body around the slippery animal. By the time the body was hung, the mud and stench had become ingrained in my clothes. I felt miserable, but our work had only begun.
Together my father and I cleaned the dead animal. We didn’t finish until about three in the morning. The smell, the slime, the dirt, and the filth clung to me.
I went back to the house. Although it has been twenty-five years, the events of the next hour are very vivid in my mind. I remember clearly the satisfaction of removing my shirt. Peeling off each layer of clothing brought relief. I began washing—first my hands, then my arms to the elbows. It was not the kind of dirt that would disappear quickly. Then I showered, first washing the ears, then the hair, back to the hands and fingernails, and to the hair again. It was some time before I felt satisfied that the cleansing was done.
Slipping into a clean pair of pajamas, I lay awake in bed for a while reliving the experience. It was four in the morning. I was exhausted, but the feelings of tiredness did not approach the sensational satisfaction of being washed and clean.
Yet as memorable as that experience was, there are wonderful feelings far surpassing the physical feelings I felt on that cold winter night. I speak of marvelous spiritual feelings that come through the gift of the Savior’s atonement as the layers of sin are washed away and we come to feel spiritually clean.
Jesus taught forcefully of the joy of this redeeming power. One of his most poignant parables is that of the prodigal son. Humbled by the emptiness of his “riotous living,” the son “came to himself” (Luke 15:13, 17). He realized his wrong; he knew he must change. He said, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee” (Luke 15:18). He was repenting.
The scriptures then report: “And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
Do we understand our Heavenly Father’s anxiousness at our every effort to return to him? Even when we are still a great way off, he welcomes our return.
We experience joy as the love of our Savior assures us that we can yet be clean, that we will one day be home again. This happiness comes only through repentance.
As we leave wrongdoing behind and exercise faith in Jesus Christ, we receive a remission of our sins. We sense that our Savior is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Remember his words to the Nephites:
“Will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?
“Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me” (3 Ne. 9:13–14).
Remember Alma’s feelings as he felt his sin and guilt lifted:
“I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
“And oh, what joy … ; yea, my soul was filled with joy. …
“Yea, I say unto you, … there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy” (Alma 36:19–21).
This is the Savior’s promise to us. I know these feelings of joy. It is a happiness that can come in no other way. Oh, to be clean!
While for some the process of repentance can happen dramatically, as it did for Alma, this is more the exception than the rule. Most of us move step by step, inch by inch toward more goodness, more exactness in our covenants, more service and commitment. President Ezra Taft Benson said: “For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord” (Ensign, Oct. 1989, p. 5).
Repentance is powerful spiritual medicine. There are few spiritual ills it will not cure. Each sin we leave behind through our faith in the living Christ—both those of commission and those of omission—opens spiritual doors. As we feel the potency of repentance, we better understand why Christ admonished the early missionaries of this dispensation to “say nothing but repentance unto this generation” (D&C 6:9; D&C 11:9; see also D&C 19:21).
We must become converted to daily repentance. President Benson taught us that many of our troubles sprout from our pride, which he defined as a selfish pitting of our will against God’s (see Ensign, May 1989, pp. 4–7). We repent as we follow the Savior’s example in doing “not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). As we garner sufficient faith and trust to meekly surrender ourselves to the Lord’s way, we are repenting.
Daily, as we are humble, the Lord will reveal our weaknesses to us. Remember this promise in the Book of Mormon: “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness” (Ether 12:27). As we seek earnestly to know ourselves, to make honest assessments of what we are and of where we are, the Lord will reveal, in answer to our prayers, where our repentance should be focused.
Honesty in assessing ourselves allows us to more clearly hear his voice. But it is so easy, in those times when we feel the changes the Lord wants us to make, to close the heavenly curtain, to say, “I don’t want to do that!” or to hide and discontinue our honest communication. Sometimes we rationalize that the feelings we felt were not from the Lord.
Where do we begin, then, to assess ourselves truthfully?
As we honestly listen during our prayers, we will each know what it is we need to do. Maybe it’s beginning to pray earnestly again. Maybe it’s loving a spouse. Maybe it’s turning off the soap operas or controlling our tempers. Maybe it’s being honest at school or always telling the truth. Maybe it’s paying our tithing or sharing more of what we have with others. Maybe it’s being more careful about wearing the temple garment. Maybe it’s casting out our unbelief or finding more time to attend the temple.
As a prophet of God, President Harold B. Lee explained:
“The most important of all the commandments of God is that one that you’re having the most difficulty keeping. … Today is the day for you to work … until you’ve been able to conquer that weakness. Then you start on the next one that’s most difficult for you to keep.
“That’s the way to sanctify yourselves by keeping the commandments of God” (“Californians Hear Pres. Lee,” Church News, 5 May 1973, p. 3).
If we wish to return to our Father, we absolutely must learn how to feel the power of our Savior’s atonement through the remission of our sins. Lovingly, the resurrected Christ told his disciples on the American continent:
“No unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.
“Therefore, if ye do these things blessed are ye, for ye shall be lifted up at the last day” (3 Ne. 27:19, 22).
We may not always succeed as quickly as we would want, but as we make repentance a constant part of our lives, miracles occur. This is what happens as we see that we really can overcome our sins: Our “confidence [waxes] strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45). We kneel in humility before our Father. We tell him openly of our progress, and also of our fears and doubts. As we draw near to him, he draws near to us. He gives us peace and encouragement. He heals our souls.
As we continue inch by inch to repent, we determine that nothing will hold us back; we will do our part. We come to feel like that great Lamanite king who cried, “Oh God, … wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee” (Alma 22:18).
With this commitment to who we can become, the spiritual doors swing open. There is a new freedom to feel and to know, a freedom to become. Individual inspiration blossoms, and we receive compensatory personal revelation to help us handle the temptations of an increasingly wicked world.
Oh, to have faith unto repentance! “May God grant unto you … that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you” (Alma 34:17).
Oh, to be clean! This is the great challenge of our mortal probation. It is also the only way to the indescribable joy of truly knowing our Savior. He has promised us, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has written a poem titled “Washed Clean”:
In ancient times the cry “Unclean!”
Would warn of lepers near.
“Unclean! unclean!” the words rang out;
Then all drew back in fear,
Lest by the touch of lepers’ hands
They, too, would lepers be.
There was no cure in ancient times,
Just hopeless agony.
No soap, no balm, no medicine
Could stay disease or pain.
There was no salve, no cleansing bath
To make them well again.
But there was One, the record shows,
Whose touch could make them pure;
Could ease their awful suffering,
Their rotting flesh restore.
His coming long had been foretold.
Signs would precede His birth.
A Son of God to woman born,
With power to cleanse the earth.
The day He made ten lepers whole,
The day He made them clean,
Well symbolized His ministry
And what His life would mean.
However great that miracle,
This was not why He came.
He came to rescue every soul
From death, from sin, from shame.
For greater miracles, He said,
His servants yet would do,
To rescue every living soul,
Not just heal up the few.
Though we’re redeemed from mortal death,
We still can’t enter in
Unless we’re clean, cleansed every whit,
From every mortal sin.
What must be done to make us clean,
We cannot do alone.
The law, to be a law, requires
A pure one must atone.
He taught that justice will be stayed
Till mercy’s claim be heard
If we repent and are baptized
And live by every word.
That is the never-ending gift
That came that Christmas day
When Mary first held close her son
And shepherds came to pray.
If we could only understand
All we have heard and seen,
We’d know there is no greater gift
Than those two words—“Washed clean!”
(Boyd K. Packer, A Christmas Parable, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993, n.p.)
I promise you that as you peel off the layers of sin, even a little at a time, you will feel the loving kindness of our Eternal Savior. Even when you are “yet a great way off,” he will reach out to you, bringing a peace that surpasses understanding. He will heal you, and as you complete your repentance, he will wash you clean.