Several years ago a young man was caught in a serious act of theft. He was taken to jail. His parents were shocked and embarrassed. They assured him not to worry because they had “influence” in high places and were sure they could get him off. Their bishop, though well-meaning, told the boy that he would do all in his power to see that a good boy like him did not have to pay for his crime. The boy finally exploded: “Can’t you see what you are doing to me? I am guilty. If you get me off, you will force me to carry the burden of guilt all the days of my life. Please let me pay for my wrong-doing so that I might eventually be set free from guilt.”
Few gifts are more desirable than a clear conscience—a soul at peace with itself. Only the power of our Savior Jesus Christ can heal a troubled soul. But if we want him to heal us, we must follow the procedure he has given to us.
Confession is a necessary requirement for complete forgiveness. It is an indication of true “godly sorrow.” It is part of the cleansing process—the starting anew requires a clean page in the diary of our conscience. Confession should be made to the appropriate person who has been wronged by us and to the Lord also. In addition, the nature of our transgression may be serious enough to require confession to a legal priesthood administrator.
“Not every person nor every holder of the priesthood is authorized to receive the transgressor’s sacred confessions of guilt. The Lord has organized an orderly and consistent program. Every member of the Church is answerable to an ecclesiastical authority. (See Mosiah 26:29 and D&C 59:12.) In the ward it is the bishop; in the branch, a president; in the stake or mission, a president; and in the higher Church echelon of authority, the General Authorities, with the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles at the head.” (Spencer W. Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, Bookcraft, 1969, p. 327.)
Those transgressions requiring confession to a bishop are adultery, fornication, other sexual transgressions and deviancies, and sins of a comparable seriousness. President Kimball reminds us that “one must not compromise or equivocate—he must make a full confession.” (Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 170, 189.) Remember, it is complete deliverance from the tortures of a guilt-ridden soul that we seek. The Prophet Alma says he wandered “through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death,” feeling he was being consumed by an everlasting burning. Repentance is not easy. “Godly sorrow” brings one to the depth of humility. This is why the gift of forgiveness is so sweet and draws the transgressor so close to the Savior with a special bond of affection.
As a bishop I felt that the most frightening and yet sanctifying responsibility I had was to be a “common judge” over my ward family. I knew how difficult it must be for one to come and recognize the sacred role I occupied during a sincere confession. I knew that I was committed by covenant to keep confidentially locked in my heart the privileged information being revealed to me. And oh, how I prayed for wisdom that I would be able to discern by the Spirit the proper action to take. I learned that the kindest judgment would be to allow justice to be fully satisfied by a fair “payment” commensurate with the deed. To require less than the transgression merited would be to leave the debt only partially satisfied and would only remove part of the burden of guilt. Compassion often prompts a bishop to be lenient; but leniency without justice is not kindness.
Full repentance liberates the individual with joy unspeakable.
Alma said, “And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yet my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
“Yea … there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, … on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.” (Alma 36:20–21.)
I have been contacted by Church members who have carried a heavy burden on their hearts for many years, trying to serve and donate generously both time and money to pay for their sins rather than confess them to their bishop. They were not able to substitute good works for confession. As President Kimball illustrated, we must remove all the bad apples from the barrel and start afresh (see Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 179).
Let’s not try to substitute an easier course or shortcut for the Lord’s way. Let’s commit ourselves today to call upon the bishop and simply say, “Bishop, I have a problem. I need your help. May I come and see you?” He understands that language. Then he, who has been given special keys and inspiration, may help you to start a new and joy-filled life.