Several years ago one of my favorite articles of clothing was a khaki-colored pair of cotton slacks 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 lab of the BYU Harold B. Lee Library with the freshman English class I taught. Sitting at the 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 sticky. As I drew my leg slowly away from the table, I saw that my favorite pair of slacks was attached to the table by a strand of freshly deposited, pink Hubba Bubba bubble gum. It stretched, like a suspension bridge, between the blob of gum beneath the table to the blob of gum resting just above the right knee of my slacks.
In near panic I tore my slacks from the offending gum and then did my best to tear the offending gum from my slacks. I succeeded in getting most of the Hubba, but not all of the Bubba, off. There remained, firmly entrenched in the intricate cotton weave, a sticky stain of an unmistakably gray-pink about the size of a quarter.
I quickly dismissed my class and, using my briefcase as a shield to cover up the stain, hurried across campus to my car, and raced home for help. “My wife will know what to do,” I thought. “After all, she’s had a lot more experience with laundry-related emergencies than I have.” And I was right. “You’d better take them to the dry cleaner and pray he can get the gum out,” she urged. “But don’t get your hopes up.”
I followed her advice and took the slacks to the dry cleaner. I was told they would be ready in a week.
It wasn’t easy waiting. I was always reaching for the slacks that weren’t there. I worried that they had been irreversibly damaged and that modern dry-cleaning technology might not be up to the task.
At the end of the specified cleaning time I got my slacks back, miraculously minus the Hubba Bubba, with not even a hint that they had ever been in a gum fight. I was overjoyed. I had my favorite slacks—the prodigal ones—back again. Had I a fatted calf, I would have been tempted to kill it, but settled, instead, on wearing my slacks to church the next day.
After my experience with the bubble gum, I have been much more careful with my slacks, 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 a Hubba Bubba booby-trap. But I have found that no matter what I do to protect them, the slacks still get a little dirty—with nothing as serious as the gum, of course—but dirty nonetheless, and I have had to make sure they are cleaned regularly to keep them free from stains and looking good.
Recently, it occurred to me that people are like slacks, also prone to get stained or dirty, sometimes with an even more sticky and hard-to-get-off substance than Hubba Bubba Bubble 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 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 returning, after our Heavenly Father’s forgiveness, to our former, sin-free state, just as my cotton slacks 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; Gen. 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, 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; Acts 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), parallels the story of Paul but includes much greater detail regarding both the pain and joy inherent in the repentance process. The story of Enos exemplifies 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. 1:1), 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, articles published in our Church magazines, and books such as President Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness. Finally, we have the testimonies of one another, verifying the blessing and efficacy 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 allure at first, I finally became seduced by its strains as it ran filthily, though I imagined it trippingly, off the tongue. After about a year, just as I was turning 16, I developed, for a number of reasons, a deep sense that I had been committing a very serious sin. This sense, 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 determined 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 deprofaning 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 slipped occasionally, of course, but eventually got to where I could avoid vocalizing the 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 reiterating 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 slacks. 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 that the relief I had felt over the physical cleaning of my favorite slacks.
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 the space of a few months, and very serious sins require the intercession 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, which partaking and recovenanting should function as a kind of regular spiritual laundering.
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).
Although we cannot go through life without getting our clothes or ourselves a little stained or dirty, we can seek the aid of soap, professional dry cleaners, and the principle of repentance, when faced with even a seriously sticky stain or sin.
We are greatly blessed to have the opportunity, the knowledge, the power, and the desire to repent. We get the possibility from the atonement of the Savior, according to the plan of salvation. We get the knowledge from the scriptures, both ancient and modern, which came to us through revelation. We get the power from the Holy Ghost, a special gift we were commanded to receive at the time of our baptismal confirmation. And, finally, we get the desire from our love of God and our commitment to keep our covenants with him holy.
We are also greatly blessed to know and experience the blessings that come to a righteous and repentant soul. Isaiah, I think, is referring to them as he describes the promises made to those who keep the commandments.
“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward.
“Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. …
“And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (Isa. 58:8–9, 11).
May these blessings 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.