Questions and Answers


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy.

Can a person repent through personal communication with the Lord, or must he see his bishop?

Jerry Taylor, bishop, Provo 32nd Ward, Provo Utah Stake

This question actually contains two parts, and the answer to both parts is yes. In his book The Miracle of Forgiveness, President Spencer W. Kimball (then of the Quorum of the Twelve) wrote: “Many offenders in their shame and pride have satisfied their consciences, temporarily at least, with a few silent prayers to the Lord and rationalized that this was sufficient confession of their sins. ‘But I have confessed my sin to my Heavenly Father,’ they will insist, ‘and that is all that is necessary.’ This is not true where a major sin is involved. Then two sets of forgiveness are required to bring peace to the transgressor—one from the proper authorities of the Lord’s Church, and one from the Lord himself. This is brought out in the Lord’s clarification of Church administration as he gave it to Alma:

“‘Therefore I say unto you, Go; and whosoever transgresseth against me, him shall ye judge according to the sins which he has committed; and if he confess his sins before thee and me, and repenteth in the sincerity of his heart, him shall ye forgive, and I will forgive him also’ (Mosiah 26:29; italics added.)” (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, p. 179).

To understand the second half of the question, it would be helpful to know the purpose of confession. We read in the Doctrine and Covenants that the spirit is much like the body, only that the matter which constitutes the spirit is “more fine or pure” (D&C 131:7). If we suffer major trauma to the body we visit a doctor, and he will prescribe a course to make us whole again. The same holds true for an injury or insult to the spirit. In order for the spirit to heal properly, part of the therapy is confession.

Recently our seven-year-old son, Wade, had his appendix rupture. The infection had spread throughout his abdomen, yet from outward appearances nothing seemed seriously wrong. Without proper medical care and attention he would have surely died. Like a person who has a serious physical illness, the spirit cannot heal itself after a major transgression without confession. The spirituality of a person can only remain weak, somewhat hesitant in fulfilling its immortal purpose, and could even wane and die.

Perhaps a point can also be made that as we do not visit a doctor for every little scratch, also we should not confess every “minor” sin to the bishop. President Brigham Young counseled, “Do not tell about your nonsensical conduct that nobody knows of but yourselves” (in Journal of Discourses, 8:362). The key is that we must be able to honestly differentiate between major transgressions and “nonsensical conduct.”

In The Miracle of Forgiveness, President Kimball has given us clear guidelines to help us in this decision: “The transgressor must have a ‘broken heart and a contrite spirit’ and be willing to humble himself and do all that is required. The confession of his major sins to a proper Church authority is one of those requirements made by the Lord. These sins include adultery, fornication, other sexual transgressions, and other sins of comparable seriousness” (p. 179).

If you are uncertain whether a personal transgression lies within this definition, you should discuss it with your bishop. He will give you wise counsel and keep confidences.

The very best time to talk to your bishop about a transgression is right now. Call and make an appointment to visit him in his office. He is always available to help and counsel ward members.

It is also the privilege of all young men and women in the Church to have a regular interview with their bishop. On these occasions he will make inquiries concerning worthiness. It is important that these questions be answered truthfully. There may be a strong temptation to lie about transgressions to avoid embarrassment, but President Kimball has issued a stern warning against such an action.

“Those who lie to Church leaders forget or ignore an important rule and truth the Lord has set down: that when he has called men to high places in his kingdom and has placed on them the mantle of authority, a lie to them is tantamount to a lie to the Lord; a half-truth to his officials is like a half-truth to the Lord; a rebellion against his servants is comparable with a rebellion against the Lord; and any infraction against the Brethren who hold the gospel keys is a thought or an act against the Lord. As he expressed it: ‘For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth my father.’ (D&C 84:36–37.)” (Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 183).

The scriptures repeatedly underscore the importance of confession to the proper authority in cases of serious transgression.

“Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.

“By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:42–43).

“And whosoever repented of their sins and did confess them, them [Alma] did number among the peoples of the church;

“And those that would not confess their sins and repent of their iniquity, the same were not numbered among the people of the church, and their names were blotted out” (Mosiah 26:35–36).

“But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord” (D&C 59:12).

In chapter 13 of The Miracle of Forgiveness President Kimball explored this question in greater depth.

“Confession brings peace. How often have people departed from my office relieved and lighter of heart than for a long time! Their burdens were lighter, having been shared. They were free. The truth had made them free” (p. 187).

What limitations are placed on Satan? Can he put thoughts into our minds? Can he perceive our thoughts?

Lawrence R. Peterson, Jr., former bishop of Butler 31st Ward, Salt Lake Brighton Stake.

One of the most impressive doctrines found in the Book of Mormon is that Satan’s power over a person increases as that person becomes more wicked, until eventually the person is “taken captive by the devil” and bound with the “chains of hell.” (Alma 12:11.) Satan’s method is to influence the thoughts of men, tempting them and enticing them, always working “in the hearts of the children of men.” (2 Ne. 28:20.) Nephi chillingly describes the method: “He whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.” (2 Ne. 28:22.)

But Satan’s power is not unrestrained. Joseph Smith taught that Satan has no power over us unless we give it to him. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 181.) And Nephi explained that the righteousness of a people deprives Satan of his power, “for he hath no power over the hearts of the people, for they dwell in righteousness.” (1 Ne. 22:26.)

Between the extremes of Satan’s power to captivate and his utter powerlessness stretches the spectrum of his ability to entice or tempt. As a being of spirit, he works in the realm of spirit, counterbalanced by the Spirit of God. In this way, free agency is preserved, giving us a choice between good and evil. As Lehi taught, “Man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.” (2 Ne. 2:16.) If Satan entices us to do evil, so the Holy Spirit “entices” us to virtue. (See Mosiah 3:19.) Free agency demands that neither the Holy Spirit nor the evil spirit have power to control the person against his will.

Each of these forces, being spiritual, works directly on the mind of man—or the heart, as the scriptures call it—until the individual willfully chooses to obey one and ignore the other. Then the balance of power shifts and the person begins to move upward to eternal life or downward to destruction and misery. A person who has elected baptism and received the gift of the Holy Ghost has shifted the balance greatly in favor of God’s influence, whereas a person whose wickedness has caused his conscience to be “seared with a hot iron,” as Paul says (1 Tim. 4:2), may have put himself wholly within the realm of Satan’s influence. The spirit of the Lord may cease to strive with such a person. (See 1 Ne. 7:14.)

In his effort to entice, Satan has great power. As Elder Joseph Fielding Smith taught, “We should be on guard always to resist Satan’s advances. … He has power to place thoughts in our minds and to whisper to us in unspoken impressions to entice us to satisfy our appetites or desires and in various other ways he plays upon our weaknesses and desires.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr., 5 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957–66, 3:81.) The temptations we all are subject to often take the form of whisperings and promptings to our minds and hearts.

The question of whether Satan can perceive our thoughts is not so easily answered. In a statement in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord says to Oliver Cowdery, “There is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart.” (D&C 6:16.)

Some have interpreted the statement to mean that God is the only being who can know another’s thoughts. As support, they point to Moses 4:6 in the Pearl of Great Price, which says that Satan does not know the mind of God. Others suggest that in D&C 6:16 (and D&C 6:24) the Lord may be referring to man’s inability to know another’s thoughts, and that Moses 4:6 doesn’t say anything about Satan knowing man’s thoughts. The question is thus not addressed as to whether or not Satan can directly discern the thoughts and intents of our hearts.

Whatever the answer may finally be, it is possible that Satan can at least determine our susceptibility to a particular temptation from our words and actions, which reveal our thoughts. As the Savior taught, a tree is known by its fruit and “of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaketh.” (Luke 6:45–46.) Satan can see our fruits as well as any person—and we can be certain that he’ll be quick to take advantage of the weaknesses we exhibit.

The question of Satan’s ability to know our thoughts is an interesting one. But in the end, it probably doesn’t make much difference what seeming opportunities Satan has. We’re promised that we won’t be tempted beyond our ability to withstand (see 1 Cor. 10:13); we can consistently choose to resist all forms of temptation, if that is our desire.

President Kimball has written, “Temptations come to all people. The difference between the reprobate and the worthy person is generally that one yielded and the other resisted.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, p. 86.)

By desiring to serve God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength, we can eliminate Satan’s power over us—which is the power to cause us misery. The battle for the souls of men is fought within every heart, and each of us has the power of victory. As we seek to follow the Savior, we should strive to have such pure thoughts that it will make little difference who knows them.