Do You Know How to Repent?


Jay E. Jensen
Adapted from a May 6, 1998, devotional address at LDS Business College.
Sometime in your life you need to visit Gethsemane; and when you have been there, you’ll understand what repentance is.

Do You Know How to Repent?

Twenty years ago my bishop was interviewing me for my temple recommend. Because I was a member of a stake presidency, I knew all the temple recommend interview questions. I asked them weekly to other members, and I was prepared to answer each question that my bishop asked me. But following the formal questions, he caught me totally off guard with an additional inquiry about my understanding of the gospel.

He asked, “Jay, do you know how to repent?” My first thought was to say, “Yes, of course I know how to repent.” I paused for a moment to think about it, and the more I thought about it, the more uncertain I was of my answer. The standard five or six R’s of repentance (recognition, remorse, restitution, reformation, resolution, etc.) did not seem adequate. In fact, they were meaningless to me at that time. They seemed to be too trite, too compartmentalized.

I know there are some great doctrines and principles in those R’s of repentance, but I did not feel comfortable giving an immediate answer or using them in my answer. Finally I said rather hesitatingly, “Yes, bishop. I think I do.” I do not remember any other details of the interview because I was so struck with that one question. “Jay, do you know how to repent?” Since then I have thought a lot about that question and the associated doctrine.

The Power of Repentance and the Atonement

Some years ago I worked in the Missionary Department of the Church. We were developing materials to help missionaries be better and do better. One of the General Authorities shared this experience about repentance:

“A little over a year ago, I had the privilege of interviewing a young man to go on a mission. Because he had committed a major transgression, it was necessary for him under then-existing policy to be interviewed by a General Authority. When the young man came in, I said, ‘Apparently there’s been a major transgression in your life, and that has necessitated this interview. Would you mind telling me what the problem was? What did you do?’

“He laughed and said, ‘Well, there isn’t anything I haven’t done.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s be more specific then. Have you … ?’ And then this General Authority began to probe with some very specific questions. The young man laughed again and said, ‘I told you, I’ve done everything.’

“I said, ‘How many times have you …’ He said very sarcastically, ‘Do you think I numbered them?’ I said, ‘I would to God you could if you can’t.’ He said, again quite sarcastically, ‘Well, I can’t.’

“I said, ‘How about …’ And then the General Authority probed in another direction. He said, ‘I told you. I’ve done everything.’ I said, ‘Drugs?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ in a very haughty attitude. I said, ‘What makes you think you’re going on a mission then?’ He said, ‘I know I’m going. My patriarchal blessing says I’ll go on a mission, and I’ve repented. I haven’t done any of those things for this past year. I have repented, and I know I’m going on a mission.’

“I said, ‘My dear friend, I’m sorry but you are not going on a mission. Do you think we could send you out with those clean, wholesome young men who have never violated the code? Do you think we could have you go out and boast and brag about your past? You haven’t repented; you have just stopped doing something.

“‘Sometime in your life you need to visit Gethsemane; and when you have been there, you’ll understand what repentance is. Only after you have suffered in some small degree as the Savior suffered in Gethsemane will you know what repentance is. The Savior has suffered in a way none of us understands for every transgression committed. How dare you laugh and jest and have a haughty attitude about your repentance? I’m sorry, you are not going on a mission.’

“He started to cry, and he cried for several minutes. I didn’t say a word. Finally, he said, ‘I guess that’s the first time I have cried since I was five years old.’ I said, ‘If you had cried like that the first time you were tempted to violate the moral code, you possibly would be going on a mission.’

“He left the office, and I think he felt I was really cruel. I explained to the bishop and the stake president that the boy could not go on a mission.”

About six months later the same General Authority returned to that city to speak in a lecture series held in the evening. When he finished, many young adults lined up to shake hands with him. As he shook hands, one by one, he looked up and saw the young man that he had previously interviewed standing in the line about four back. The General Authority relates the following:

“My mind quickly flashed back to our interview. I recalled his laughing and haughty attitude. I remembered how sarcastic he was. Pretty soon he was right in front of me. I was on the stand bending over, and as I reached down to shake his hand, I noticed a great change had taken place. He had tears in his eyes. He had almost a holy glow about his countenance. He took my hand in his and said, ‘I’ve been there; I’ve been to Gethsemane and back.’ I said, ‘I know. It shows in your face.’ We can be forgiven for our transgressions, but we must understand that just to stop doing something is not repentance. If it had not been for the Savior and the miracle of forgiveness, this young man would have carried his transgressions throughout all eternity. We ought to love the Savior and serve Him for this reason and this reason alone” (Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone, Sweden Area Conference, Youth Session, Aug. 1974).

Conditions of Repentance

The words “conditions of repentance” (see Hel. 5:11; Hel. 14:11; D&C 18:12) have great meaning. I have studied and pondered the scriptures to learn what those conditions are and discovered that these conditions could also be called prerequisites to the five or six R’s. These R’s are important and much needed, but the following conditions need to precede them.

  • The first condition is that God lives. He is in heaven. He knows us by name. We cannot hide from Him. He has a fullness of divine attributes and perfections, including all knowledge. In order for repentance to begin, we must start with God and our relationship to Him.

    Elder Jeffrey Holland made a very insightful comment about repentance and God. “Someone once said that repentance is the first pressure we feel when drawn to the bosom of God” (Ensign, Nov. 1996, 83).

  • We are fallen, mortal, unclean and we need help. We are estranged and cannot live with Him being mortal.

  • We need to know the doctrine that one day we will die. Some die early, some late. But that day will come; it is absolute.

  • There will be a final judgment. An important condition of repentance is to believe that one day we will all stand before the judgment bar. That day will come.

  • Another prerequisite or condition to repentance is to know that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see 1 Ne. 10:21; 1 Ne. 15:34; Alma 7:21; Alma 40:26; and Hel. 8:25). You can hide sins from your bishop, you can hide them from your parents and friends, but if you continue and die with unresolved sins, you are unclean and no unclean thing can dwell with God. There are no exceptions.

  • We are saved only through the merits, the mercy, and the grace of the Holy One of Israel (see 2 Ne. 2:8). He is our only hope. As we find ourselves where we are, we turn to Him. I am so grateful for the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, a message of hope. There is hope and He can make us clean.

    I have worked with many, including my own self, and have seen the miracle of forgiveness, the miracle of cleansing, and I bear witness of Him, as one of His witnesses. I know that He lives. May you ever be blessed to stay on that straight and narrow path that leads you to God.

Painting by William Henry Margetson

Painting by John Scott