Several years ago one of my favorite articles of clothing was a brown-colored pair of cotton pants my parents gave me one year for Christmas. I wore them almost every chance I got.
One afternoon I happened to have them on while working in the computer laboratory with the English class I taught. Sitting at the computer terminal, I had the misfortune of pressing my leg up against the underside of the computer table and feeling myself come into contact with something very sticky. As I drew my leg slowly away, I saw that my favorite pair of pants was attached to the table by a strand of freshly deposited, pink chewing gum.
Very upset, I pulled my pants from the sticky gum under the table and then did my best to clean off the mess. I succeeded in getting most of it off, but there remained, firmly fixed to my pants, a sticky gray-pink stain.
I quickly dismissed my class and, carrying my briefcase to cover up the stain, hurried to my car, and drove home for help. “My wife will know what to do,” I thought. And I was right. “You’d better take them to the dry cleaning store and hope they can get the gum out,” she said. “But don’t expect too much.”
I followed her advice and took the pants to the dry cleaners. At the end of a week I got my pants back with not even a suggestion that they had ever been in a gum fight. I was overjoyed. I had my favorite pants back again.
After my experience with the chewing gum, I have been much more careful with my pants, avoiding doing anything that might cause them a stain or a tear. I have taken particular care, before sitting down at any desk or table, to first check for any used chewing gum stuck beneath the surface. But I have found that no matter what I do to protect them, the pants still get a little dirty, and I have had to make sure they are cleaned regularly to keep them free from stains and looking good.
Recently, I realized that people are like pants; they are also likely to get stained or dirty, sometimes with an even more sticky and hard-to-remove mess than chewing gum.
No one is immune or safe from sin. The very nature of our world and the purpose of our existence upon it require that we each learn good from evil to prove ourselves worthy of returning to our Heavenly Father’s presence. We prove ourselves, it seems to me, in primarily two ways. First, we do our best to reject opportunities to sin. Second, when becoming unclean in moments of ignorance or weakness, we put ourselves in a position that allows us—through the principle of repentance made possible because of the atonement of Jesus Christ—to reinforce our commitment to keep the commandments. We do this by humbling ourselves and by following the prescribed steps to complete repentance.
As we can honor our Heavenly Father and our sacred covenants by remaining free from sin, so too we can honor our Father and our covenants by repenting when we do sin. Thus we can return, after our Heavenly Father’s forgiveness, to our former, sin-free state, just as my cotton pants were eventually returned to their formerly clean state.
Amulek teaches us in the 34th chapter of Alma that “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors” (Alma 34:32). He admonishes us not to procrastinate our repentance but to use this life to its fullest in taking advantage of the “great and last sacrifice” he speaks of earlier in the chapter (see Alma 34:14). He warns us that if we do not, we will become “subjected to the spirit of the devil” (Alma 34:35), cut off from the Spirit of the Lord. We are warned further by the Lord himself with a powerful and deeply moving reference to his suffering found in the 19th section of the Doctrine and Covenants:
“Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.
“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 19:15–19).
Clearly, then, the scriptures teach us that we must repent or remain stuck to our sins, sins for which we must ultimately suffer ourselves without the divine intercession of the Savior. The scriptures and modern-day revelation do not leave us ignorant of the repentance process—they give us both instruction and example regarding the steps necessary to make the atonement a powerful cleansing force in our lives.
In the Bible, for instance, there are many stories of repentance. In the Old Testament we can read about whole cities that were called by God’s prophets to repent of their sins. We can contrast the repentance of Nineveh (Jonah) with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah which lacked even ten righteous people (Gen. 18:20–33, 19:1–26).
The New Testament, with its record of Christ’s ministry and the subsequent ministry of his Apostles, is full of examples of repentance. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son, for example, all from the 15th chapter of Luke [Luke 15], emphasize the great joy to be found in repentance and in the return of the repentant sinner to a state of righteousness. In addition, the story of Paul’s miraculous conversion and repentance illustrates the great positive change that can occur in a man or a woman through the influence of the Holy Ghost (Acts 9:1–31, 22:1–16).
In the Book of Mormon the conversion story of Alma the Younger, along with the sons of Mosiah (see Mosiah 27, Alma 36), is similar to the story of Paul but includes much greater detail regarding both the pain and joy involved in the repentance process. The story of Enos is an example of the importance of sincere and mighty prayer in obtaining a forgiveness of sins (Enos 1:1–8). The accounts of Christ’s visit to America (3 Ne. 10:18–19; 3 Ne. 11–28:12) and the 200 years of peace and prosperity (4 Ne.), followed by a return to wickedness that eventually led to the destruction of the Nephite nation (see Morm. 1–8, Moro. 9), illustrate the need of staying in a constant state of humility and repentance.
In addition, the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price have their share of repentance stories, including an important record of the struggle the Prophet Joseph Smith experienced in his efforts to repent and overcome his sins. Further, we have many contemporary records that discuss the principle of repentance and the impact it can have on our lives: General Conference talks for example, and articles published in the Tambuli. Finally, we have the testimonies of one another, verifying the blessing of repentance in the lives of more or less ordinary people.
What these sources teach us is that repentance is essentially a six-step process. First, we must come to a recognition of our sin. Second, we must develop what Paul calls a “godly sorrow” for our sin. Third, we must completely abandon our sin. Fourth, we must confess our sin and make what restitution we can. Fifth, we must replace the negative action of the sin with the positive action of a recommitment to keep the commandments. And, sixth, we must receive a final forgiveness of our sin. Let me illustrate this process with a personal example.
When I was a freshman in high school, I developed the terrible habit of profanity. My friends used foul language and, while I resisted its attraction at first, I finally gave in to it. After about a year, just as I was turning 16, I developed the understanding that I had been committing a very serious sin. This understanding, inspired, I am sure, by the Holy Ghost working on my conscience, seemed to almost envelop me totally with a dark sense of guilt, and I decided to repent and put this sin away from me forever. Thus, I had fulfilled the first two steps toward repentance by recognizing my sin and, then, by feeling a deep sense of sorrow because of it.
I started an intense program of cleaning up my language, concentrating on steps three, four, and five of the repentance process. I began avoiding my especially profane acquaintances in favor of others, mostly Church members, and developed other words to express myself. I unthinkingly forgot occasionally, of course, but eventually got to where I could avoid speaking profanity altogether.
Then, after having successfully gotten the vile words out of my mouth, I went to work on getting them out of my mind. I prayed each morning for strength and reported my progress in my nightly prayers, always repeating my desire to receive a forgiveness of my sin. I told my friends of my efforts and asked their forgiveness of my former language. They were understanding and helpful.
And finally, having mastered my tongue and my mind, I felt I had completed every step necessary to be forgiven short of the final one, which is the forgiveness itself. But I had to wait awhile for that last step to be accomplished, just like I had to wait for my dry-cleaned pants. Then, one night, as I lay in bed after my prayers, the sweet sense of forgiveness I had been seeking came to me through the Spirit. I felt a great joy over my spiritual cleansing, far more profound than the relief I had felt over the physical cleaning of my favorite pants.
Now, about 15 years later, it is sometimes hard for me to believe that I ever used such foul language. I remember, certainly, that I did, but not with the pain I had felt earlier, because I know that I have been forgiven and that I have kept my forgiveness in force by never having fallen back into that same sin.
Not all sins, of course, can be dealt with in such a short time period, and very serious sins require the involvement of a bishop. But the repentance process is essentially the same and the forgiveness just as sure and binding. Some sins are not as serious as my sin of profanity and can be dealt with best on a daily or even weekly basis, as part of our preparations to partake of the sacrament and renew our covenants—an opportunity for regular spiritual cleaning.
The essential thing to remember is that we can keep ourselves clean from the sins of the world by taking advantage of the principle of repentance, which offers us hope in the midst of even deep despair. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18).
May this blessing be ours through our faithfulness in both righteousness and repentance, and may we finally realize through our faithfulness here on earth the ultimate blessing of returning to our Heavenly Father’s presence.