(Part I here. Part II here. Note: Today's entry is longer than I had expected. I thought about breaking it up into two or three parts, but decided to charge ahead instead.)
Somewhere early in my time in the church (with my parents and siblings, I was a convert at about age 9) I learned the “Rs” of repentance. Today I can no longer remember them all, though Remose and Restitution were among them.
I had it in my head early on that repentance was to be a sin-by-sin experience. Maybe this was influenced by the teaching I received in Primary in those early days, maybe by my Catholic friends who went to confession each week and rattled off the week’s sins to their priest.
I was never quite sure that I was repenting right in those days. Sometimes I’d try to list my daily mistakes in my prayers, and finally as a teenager, laziness or efficiency got the better of me and I simply prayed to be forgiven of whatever mistakes I’d made that day. Once in a great while there was what I perceived to be a bigger sin for which I sought forgiveness and in those instances I spent more time on those items in prayer.
I served my mission in Germany just about the time a newer translation of the Book of Mormon was coming out (that translation has since been replaced by yet another one, I think). The translator spoke to us missionaries about how he translated the word repent, using a verb which mean “to turn” rather than the Catholic expression which had been in the original translation that was closer to “do penance.” Language issues aside, the notion that repentance was a turning stuck with me, and it’s influenced my thinking about repentance ever since.
I was teaching priesthood a number of years ago and the subject of the lesson was repentance. While I was teaching an example occurred to me: If I were one of those people holding on to the iron rod, moving toward the tree with the wonderful fruit, and somehow I lost my hold on the rod when I entered the mists of darkness, what would I do?
The first thing I’d do (I hope!) is stop moving. By stopping I would ceasing moving farther from the rod. Then I would try to find my way back to the rod. That might involve calling out for help. It might involve turning around and going back the way I came (assuming I could figure that out in the fog). But it would start with my stopping and standing still.
Repentance, as the second great principle of the gospel, is a key to having access to the atonement. It is for me not so much a one-for-one accounting for each sin of my life (though it may involve that) as a turning away from my natural man and turning toward the Savior as Moses (and three different Book of Mormon prophets) taught.
In recovery circles, there is a prescribed process that really works. Once one has (as we discussed in the last installment) admitted there are certain things he cannot do (that is, humbled himself), and that God can do those things and more, and that he’s willing to submit to the will of God, then he’s ready to begin the process of repenting.
It begins with a personal inventory of positive and negative qualities – of strengths and weaknesses, if you will. It’s more than a list. It’s really a personal examination of who we are. You don’t have to be a 12-step program to benefit from this kind of individual analysis. It can help anyone who wants to cleanse the inner vessel.
I remember my first Sunday home from my mission was our ward’s ward conference, and my father spoke in that meeting about the value of an occasional personal inventory in which we evaluate our lives compared to the expectations and standards our Father in Heaven has set. It rang true to me then as a great idea, and it still does.
Then write your part in the emotions. This is the hardest part. Did you feel resentment because you failed to communicate your need? Did you feel left out because you were too shy to join in? The point of this part is to identify not where we are victims (and sometimes we may be legitimate victims, though maybe not as often as we might think on the surface), but where we are actors contributing to our own state of well-being. If we do it right, this part can be remarkably liberating as we realize that, although there is a lot over which we do not have control, there are some things over which we do, namely how we act. Knowing which is which is really valuable.
Finally in our inventory, we can include what spiritual guidance we may have felt as we’ve considered each of these incidents in our lives. Doing so can invite the spirit as we prayerfully consider the scriptures and other material that might guide us.
(Doing the inventory might take months, but it also might take a day; each person is different. One person may be ready to tackle his whole life at once; another might choose to deal with one section of his life at a time. The first time I did such an inventory, I ended up writing my personal history of my first 50 years; it was an awesome experience.)
Once we complete this exercise, patterns are likely to emerge. We’re likely to see that in certain settings our reactions are similar. We’re likely to get a pretty clear view of our own strengths and shortcomings, and that’s just what we want to do.
Once we have that list, we ought to share it, certainly with God, but also with a trusted friend. There’s real power in sharing our inventory with another living and breathing person. Doing so shines light on our list of strengths and shortcomings; it really names those things and gives them weight for us.
ASK GOD FOR HELP
Having done an inventory and shared our list with another person, we’re ready to submit to God again by preparing ourselves and then asking God to remove our shortcomings. This element is really important, because I did not say we take our list of shortcomings and work on them by ourselves. That’s because it doesn’t work to try to do it by ourselves. The power to change is in the atonement, and the only way to have real, lasting, powerful change is to have the Savior do it. Look and live. We put ourselves in the position to ask for that help by honoring our covenants and doing our best to keep commandments. And then we ask God to remove our shortcomings.
Some he might remove quickly. Others not so much. But even if he doesn’t remove them completely, the process of asking puts us in the position as submitting to His will (which is what King Benjamin says we need to do to overcome the natural man). As we do our best (which does not mean “as we are perfect”) in keeping covenants and commandments, God blesses us with insight, understanding, compassion, charity, faith and all kinds of things.
God may not remove the shortcoming that we hate the most. He probably won’t remove all our weakness, because our weakness draws us back to Him. Remember the apostle Paul never had that thorn in his flesh removed, despite his intense desire and his submitting to the will of God repeatedly in his life.
Once we have done a real inventory and taken our list of shortcomings to God and asked him to remove them, then we are ready to seek to restore that which may have been lost because of our sin. In recovery parlance, we make amends. In my Primary Rs, we’re taking about restitution. Return the value of the chicken we stole. Rebuild the relationship we’ve harmed. Do whatever we can to make up for our shortcomings.
It’s a scary thing, trying to make amends. We may still feel that others owe US the amends because of what they have done to us. But if we’re repenting, we can’t make our repentance conditional upon someone else’s. So in the process of seeking forgiveness from others, we may have to forgive the very people from whom we are seeking forgiveness. Again, this is the time for the atonement to shine in our hearts.
Christ suffered every pain we suffer. There is no pain, physical, emotional, spiritual or of any other nature that he does not understand by his own experience. So he can comfort us as we try to make amends for mistakes we’ve made.
Amends or restitution or restoration is about much more than an apology, but it probably includes an apology. And some wrongs we simply cannot right on our own. We cannot return someone’s faith or someone’s virginity, for instance. But we can lead righteous and virtuous lives and offer as much comfort and support as the person to whom we seek to make amends will allow.
Sometimes that person does not want anything to do with us. That’s ok. Our amends are not about forcing ourselves on someone else. It’s our best effort to make up for what we did wrong. We offer the gift; if it’s not accepted, then we can move on. In some cases, the injured party may need to see a long pattern of new behavior before he or she will accept the amends we offer, and that’s ok.
So, in this installment, we talked about writing an inventory, sharing it, preparing to and then asking God to remove our shortcomings, and about forgiveness and making amends. These actions are, for me, the very key to unlocking the power of the atonement in our lives. I only know that because I have felt the power and blessings of the atonement in my life as I have done these things.
In the final installment, we’ll consider what King Benjamin called retaining a remission of our sins.