Over the years, several people close to me have left the Church. Some have simply stopped their formal activity with it; others have formally cut ties. A few of them have shared their stories and a pattern has emerged: each of them seems to misunderstand doctrine because of the teachings or examples of active members of the Church who are close to them. My friends correctly see that these incorrect doctrines cannot be true. Then, other influences have eventually pulled them away.
Although my friends are, of course, responsible for their own decisions, it seems clear to me that if they had been taught the true and living gospel of Jesus Christ, they would have had roots that could have held them fast. In other words, I believe the root of the problem is in active members of the Church who teach and live incorrect doctrines.
Accordingly, I have written this article (based on a talk I gave in church in July) about the doctrine of repentance and my intended audience is active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My hope is that Latter-day Saints, armed with a better understanding of our doctrine, will find joy and freedom as they repent constantly &endash; and that the people around them will be inspired by the joy and freedom that they see and choose the same joy and freedom for themselves.
Let's consider a fictional Latter-day Saint named Joe, who typifies a set of frequently-occurring misunderstandings about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Joe understands the importance of the "big" commandments, such as the ones that come up specifically in temple recommend interviews. He obeys these laws but the gospel doesn't seem to affect much of what he does in the rest of his life. He's uncomfortable around people who don't live the same laws and especially struggles to forgive people who have the same values but whose behavior falls short. He sees repentance as an escape plan for fallen people or as a punishment. There are times, if he's honest, when the commandments he believes in feel restrictive &endash; especially when he sees people doing things he wishes he could do &endash; and he struggles a little bit but ultimately decides to soldier on. Joe is a good man and is genuinely trying hard.
Unfortunately, Joe's well-intentioned interactions are hard on the people around him. He is sometimes overly forceful as he teaches his children to live these commandments, which they learn to do to comply with his will, not because they believe in them of their own accord. He doesn't realize it consciously, but he's proud of his righteousness and looks down a little on people who live their faith in a different way. He occasionally shares the gospel with his friends, but they never seem interested. He sometimes meets people the missionaries are teaching but the friendships always fade away when the missionaries stop teaching them.
Joe's beliefs and practices are almost true, but they're based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He will certainly be rewarded for the good things that he does, but he is not experiencing the full "joy of the saints" (Enos 1:3), nor the freedom that Christ gives us (2 Nephi 2:26-27). Additionally, his incorrect understandings harm his most important relationships and the people in those relationships.
Every one of us understands some doctrine incorrectly. While this is inevitable, it is our duty to continually refine our understanding and allow that refinement to change our actions and bless the people in our lives.
Our own prison
God's commandments are for our benefit. He gave them to us to teach us how to enjoy happiness and how to develop the fullness of His power to act. These commandments, however, are insufficient; in D&C 56:26-29, our Father teaches us that there are things we should do that He has not and will not command us to do. One of the primary reasons for this is that God's goal has never been obedience. As Elder Renlund put it, "God is not interested in His children just becoming trained and obedient 'pets' who will not chew on His slippers in the celestial living room. No, God wants His children to grow up spiritually and join Him in the family business" (Choose You This Day. Oct 2018). As a result, we necessarily experience uncertainty about whether or not our actions are correct.
What's more, each of us fails to obey the laws that we do clearly understand (1 John 1:8). And when we do, we find that even our best and most sincere efforts cannot undo all of the harm we have done, nor can they absolve us of our guilt. Worse still, many sins create a feedback loop: we act poorly, shame ourselves, believe that we are unworthy of love, and from that spiritually weakened stance sin again. To summarize, each of us struggles with the following things:
- We have sinned and cannot redeem ourselves,
- We are sometimes uncertain about what is right, and
- Our sins imprison us in a feedback loop.
The atonement of Jesus Christ addresses each of these problems and more. First, He redeems us unconditionally from the effects of the fall: we will all be resurrected, never to die again and all of the pains we suffer on this earth because of the earth's fallen state or the actions of others will be made right (Alma 7:11-13). Second, He offers us the joy of repentance. If we are willing to turn away from our sins and towards Him, He will not only accept us but cleanse us from our guilt. Additionally, He offers us His grace to change our natures so that we no longer desire to sin. The joy of repentance is freely offered but not forced upon us; we must choose to accept it. However, it is always available to any of us if we will make that choice (Rev. 3:20).
The liberty that Christ offers us extends far beyond simply being cleansed once. Because His grace is inexhaustible, it applies to future actions as well as past actions. This means that while we honor and accept His sacrifice by trying to do what is right, we needn't live in the paralysis of fear, terrified that our imperfect understanding might lead us to a poor choice.
All of this freedom actually leaves us free to be ourselves: we are not forced by sin or by circumstance to choose what is wrong, nor are we forced to choose what is right. The brilliant reality of mortality is that all of its trials and difficulties actually give us the opportunity to choose what we truly desire, whether or not our desires align with God's will. Naturally, choosing God's will invites blessings into our lives that He is willing to give but that He cannot justly give to those of us who choose other paths.
With Christ's liberty, we still obey His laws; however, our purpose has changed. Instead of trying to achieve salvation through obedience (which was always beyond your capacity and mine), we now obey out of gratitude for His gift and out of a desire to become like Him. In fact, His grace gives us an even greater gift: if we choose to repent, He will gradually change our nature so that we, like Him, have "no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2); His image will eventually become "engraven upon our countenances" (Alma 5:19).
This transformation offers us the most transcendent freedom of all: it will free us of the conflict that can arise between our desires for good (in both our actions and their consequences) from our divine heritage and our desires for evil. The more His grace transforms us, the more aligned we will become with our deepest and most eternal desires. As we engage in the process of repentance, obedience will increasingly be a joy instead of a chore.
How we repent
Repentance is not universally well-understood, even among people who have been taught about repentance since their childhood. Part of the problem is that we fixate on the steps of repentance, which are the actions we can take to engage in the process, instead of on the grace of Christ that enables it and on our intent. The steps (summarized briefly as confession, restitution, and better behavior) are important, but we misunderstand if we think that repentance is how we set things right. We don't set things right because it is light years beyond our capacity. Repentance is how we show to our Savior that we want to be more like Him and welcome His grace into our lives. Absolution of guilt and change in our nature are both gifts He offers us; the best we can do is accept His gift and try to use it.
In this light, it is clear why insincere or incomplete repentance is ineffective: the point is for Christ to change us but He won't change us unless we wholly desire to change. Nothing short of our entire will is sufficient to invite the "mighty change of heart" (Mosiah 5:2) that He offers us. In other words, Christ saves us from our sins, never in our sins (Hel. 5:10).
The materials that missionaries study and teach define repentance as the process of "[changing] our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that are not in harmony with His will." I prefer to rephrase it positively: to repent is to change our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to be more in line with God's will. This definition frees us of misconceptions about our role and responsibilities. It also shows us that there is much more to repentance than addressing the things that we typically think of as sins. That is, any thought, behavior, or belief that needs to be changed in order to harmonize with God's will is sin and any correction to thoughts, beliefs, or behavior is repentance.
To illustrate, I'll point out that you may have learned something doctrinal as you read this article. I know that I learned things as I studied and worked to articulate these ideas. As we learn, the Holy Spirit teaches us that these things are true. His voice is not condescending or condemning; rather, He rejoices with us as we learn. There is good reason that the scriptures abound with examples of people who repent and immediately feel joy (Alma 36:18-21, Hel. 5:28-31,45-47).This joy that we feel as our thoughts and beliefs (and behaviors) become better aligned with God's will, which is inseparable from truth, is the joy of repentance!
When John Wentworth asked Joseph Smith what it is that Latter-day Saints believe and what makes them unique, Joseph responded with a letter that includes the Articles of Faith. It is the closest thing the Church of Jesus Christ has to a definition of the beliefs and behaviors that make someone a Latter-day Saint. These Articles of Faith are the only part of the Wentworth Letter that has been formally canonized. There are thirteen articles, twelve of which are single sentences. The last has two sentences. As a result, there are fourteen sentences. In twelve of these fourteen sentences, the principal verb is "believe"; for example, the first article asserts that "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost." The twelfth article claims religious liberty for everyone.
The remaining sentence is the final sentence of the final article. In contrast with the other assertions about belief, the thirteenth article of faith concludes with the sentence "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things." I find it compelling that the first article of faith asserts a belief in God and the last asserts that we strive to learn, do, and become everything that is like our Father in Heaven. In other words, truly being a Latter-day Saint includes repentance. It does not require repentance as a single event or as an occasional practice; instead, repentance is a character trait that defines Latter-day Saints.
I believe that repentance is the source of "the joy of the saints" (Enos 1:3). I believe that repentance inevitably leads us to greater freedom (2 Nephi 2:26-27). Whether or not you identify with the fictional Joe, I invite you to study the doctrine of repentance and learn to find joy in constant repentance. I invite you to seek after everything that is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy and to discover heretofore unknown peace and joy. And I invite you to share the gospel in the only way that can work: to live it and to let other people see your life and gospel living for what they are.