With October General Conference fast approaching, I want to return to a talk given in April that I have continued to think about. Elder K. Brett Nattress addressed the church on a difficult and poignant question we will probably all struggle with at one time or another: Have I truly been forgiven?
The associated question with whether we’ve been forgiven is how will we know it? How do I know if I have been forgiven by the Lord?
Elder Nattress shares the story of a young man named Danny, who attended the ward where he was serving as a leader. Danny was “outstanding in every way. He was obedient, kind, good, and had a great heart”. But when he graduated from high school, Danny got involved with a rough crowd and soon got caught up in drug use, which led him on a path to addiction.
Danny became unrecognizable, and though Elder Nattress reached out to him several times over the years, it was to no avail.
“Then one day,” says Elder Nattress, “his miracle began.”
He attended a sacrament meeting where his younger brother shared his testimony prior to departing for a mission. During the meeting, Danny felt something he had not felt for a long time. He felt the love of the Lord. He finally had hope.
Although he had a desire to change, it was difficult for Danny. His addictions and the accompanying guilt were almost more than he could bear.
One particular afternoon, when I was out mowing our lawn, Danny pulled up in his car unannounced. He was struggling terribly. I turned off the mower, and we sat down together in the shade of the front porch. It was then that he shared the feelings of his heart. He truly wanted to come back. However, turning away from his addictions and lifestyle was extremely difficult. Adding to this, he felt so guilty, so ashamed for falling so far. He asked, “Can I really be forgiven? Is there really a way back?”
After he poured out his heart with these concerns, we read Alma chapter 36 together.
As you’ll remember, that chapter tells the story of Alma the younger and his astonishing transformation from being “harrowed up by the memory of his many sins” to coming to Christ and fully embracing the redemptive power of the atonement such that his joy was as exquisite and sweet as his pain had been bitter.
We discussed that Alma had been exceptionally wicked. However, once he repented, he never looked back. He became a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. He became a prophet! Danny’s eyes widened. “A prophet?” he said.
I simply responded, “Yes, a prophet. No pressure on you!”
We discussed that while his sins did not rise to the level of Alma’s, the same promise of complete and perfect forgiveness is made to everyone—in and through the infinite Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Danny now understood. He knew what he needed to do: he needed to begin his journey by trusting in the Lord and forgiving himself!
And so, Danny moved forward with faith and after many months, began working toward the goal of serving a mission. He submitted his papers with apprehension because of his past, but was called to serve. Elder Nattress received a call from Danny’s mission president a few months into his mission, who said, “What is with this young man? He is the most incredible missionary I have ever seen!” The president had “received a modern-day Alma the Younger”.
But not long after his honorable return from a mission, Elder Nattress had a knock on his front door. There stood Danny, his eyes welling with tears.
After a miraculous turnaround in his life and a mission filled with the blessed fruits of the Spirit, Danny was still haunted by one question: “President, do you think I have truly been forgiven?”
Now this surprised me as a listener, because it seemed to me that being able to serve the mission that he did already answers that question, but Danny wasn’t sure. And I’m certain many of us faithfully serve in callings and attend church and read our scriptures and still have something in the back of our minds that leaves us wondering if that past thing is fully in the past.
The Lord promised he would remember our sins no more. Sometimes, the hard part is for us to forget.
In the October 1995 General Conference, President Boyd K. Packer shared a compelling example of letting past things be past even when our mortal inclination would be to hang on to them forever. He said:
In April of 1847, Brigham Young led the first company of pioneers out of Winter Quarters. At that same time, sixteen hundred miles to the west the pathetic survivors of the Donner Party straggled down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the Sacramento Valley.
They had spent the ferocious winter trapped in the snowdrifts below the summit. That any survived the days and weeks and months of starvation and indescribable suffering is almost beyond belief.
Among them was fifteen-year-old John Breen. On the night of April 24, he walked into Johnson’s Ranch. Years later John wrote:
“It was long after dark when we got to Johnson’s Ranch, so the first time I saw it was early in the morning. The weather was fine, the ground was covered with green grass, the birds were singing from the tops of the trees, and the journey was over. I could scarcely believe that I was alive.
“The scene that I saw that morning seems to be photographed on my mind. Most of the incidents are gone from memory, but I can always see the camp near Johnson’s Ranch.”1
At first I was very puzzled by his statement that “most of the incidents are gone from memory.” How could long months of incredible suffering and sorrow ever be gone from his mind? How could that brutal dark winter be replaced with one brilliant morning?
On further reflection I decided it was not puzzling at all. I have seen something similar happen to people I have known. I have seen some who have spent a long winter of guilt and spiritual starvation emerge into the morning of forgiveness.
When morning came, they learned this:
“Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.”
“I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.”
“I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
“For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.”
Do we have the faith to trust a single brilliant morning? Is one bright witness of the Spirit enough to wash away the things that have eaten at us?
Enos seemed to think so. In fact, though he had prayed and wrestled all day and all night, after Enos had heard a voice saying, “Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed” (Enos 1:5), he did not doubt for a moment. Verse 6 says, “And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.”
How could he have such faith? I think the key is in that very verse:
Enos knew that God could not lie.
Enos knew that God could not lie.
As we become more familiar with the Lord and His ways and His nature, I think it is easier to believe Him when He says He will remember our sins no more. And the short and powerful book of Enos provides an interesting little instruction manual on how to approach the Lord in our repentance process. Verse 4 says:
- And my soul hungered
- And I kneeled down before my Maker
- And I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul
- And all the day long did I cry unto him and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens
In other words:
- I deeply desired forgiveness.
- I humbled myself before the Lord
- I prayed with real intent and all earnestness
- I kept at it, proving my commitment to myself as well as faithfully waiting on the Lord.
The Lord doesn’t delight in withholding forgiveness from us. If we have looked at our sins with godly sorrow, confessed them and forsaken them and then come before God as Enos, He offers His forgiveness.
As President Packer put it later in that same address,
Letters come from those who have made tragic mistakes. They ask, “Can I ever be forgiven?”
The answer is yes!
The gospel teaches us that relief from torment and guilt can be earned through repentance. Save for those few who defect to perdition after having known a fulness, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no offense exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness.
None of this is meant to imply that those other steps are easy, but when we have done our part, the Lord does not drag His feet in doing His part.
I experienced this personally on one difficult, early morning in college. The night before I had ended a relationship for which I’d made many uncharacteristic compromises. That morning, I had been confronted by someone with information that shone new light on the intent of the person I had been with, and it was suddenly very clear that the “compromises” I had made were just terrible mistakes. And I knew I was better than that.
I fled the place of that confrontation and bawled my eyes out on my drive home as the rising sun bathed my dusty dashboard in light. It was one of those gut-wrenching sobs that combined humiliation with loss and sorrow. I felt stupid but also so, so sorry that I had done what I’d done. A song was playing on the radio and suddenly the lyrics said, “I don’t blame you, dear”. And in that moment, it sounded like a message directly from the Lord. I felt such an overwhelming rush of the Spirit that I was forgiven for all that had happened and that I needed to let my part of it go right then.
I am still sometimes embarrassed for certain things that happened, but I have never felt a single moment of shame or worried about my standing before the Lord since that dawn. I have never had another experience quite like that one, but the witness that on the very next (brilliant) morning after a break-up, the Lord could see me in my woundedness and forgive my mistakes of the whole relationship and that I didn’t have to wait and wait and prove to Him my contrition over months or years—has never left me. He knew I would change from that hour, so He had no reason not to let it go.
The woman taken in adultery was taken “in the very act” (John 8:4) and yet, once she was brought before Christ and he reminded her that all of her would-be accusers were imperfect too, he frankly forgave her. But it came with the attached admonition to “go and sin no more.”
I’m not trying to say that repentance costs nothing, but I do think that the Lord doesn’t want us to make it cost more than it needs to. Jesus Christ’s atonement was meant to remove that burden. He paid so that He could be our relief.
As President Russell M. Nelson shared in his April 2022 address, “Please do not fear or delay repenting. Satan delights in your misery. Cut it short. Cast his influence out of your life! Start today to experience the joy of putting off the natural man. The Savior loves us always but especially when we repent. He promised that though “the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed…my kindness shall not depart from thee.”
We have a kind Father in Heaven. President Nelson admonished us not to delay the repentance process, but also that we cast Satan’s influence out of our lives and part of that influence is continuing to carry the weight of a sin when the Lord has already extended His forgiveness.
One of the ways I’m most able to recognize the Spirit is that I come away empowered. I come away hopeful and optimistic. Even when it has to do with changing habits or behaviors that are holding me back, the Spirit makes it feel possible. I’m not left feeling badly that I ever struggled.
If you continue to feel tormented by something that you feel you’ve already been through the repentance process on, you either 1) have some aspect that you haven’t fully forsaken or dealt with or 2) Satan is just delighting in discouraging you.
If you have searched your experience from every angle and come as Enos before God with soul hungering, involved Priesthood leadership where necessary, and done all that you know how to do, the answer to “Have I truly been forgiven?” is yes.
Christ forgave many grievous sinners of their sin in an instant during his ministry. The only use we could have for dwelling on what’s past is to remember never to return to that place. Otherwise, the Lord wants us to move forward joyfully and full of Spiritual hope.
If you haven’t had a witness that you’re forgiven, ask for one. The Lord loves when we ask. And He stands ready to give.
And if you’ve had your brilliant morning of forgiveness (or even just a spiritually uplifting morning sobbing into your dusty dashboard), you don’t have to keep asking if it’s enough. You don’t have to wonder if, despite your sincere repentance, what you did was beyond the reach of the atonement. The atonement is infinite. And the Lord loves us infinitely.