While serving as ward mission leader, we had a 30-year-old man who married a ward member, took the missionary lessons, and committed to join the church. During the baptism, the missionary put this brother under the water and kept him there! The missionary said nothing, just looked at us and smiled. Finally, he raised him up, gave him a hug, and they left the font. The confirmation and conclusion of the baptismal service was wonderful.
After the baptism, while everyone offered congratulations and shared refreshments, I asked the missionary what happened while they were in the water. He said the new convert felt his sins were so many and so serious, that he needed to be under the water longer to wash away all of his sins. When he felt it was enough, he squeezed the missionary’s hand to pull him up out of the water. So the question is, who decides how much repentance is enough? Where is our faith in the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ?
One of the most powerful examples of repentance is the account of Alma the Younger when an angel called him to repentance. In Alma, chapter 36:16-21, Alma tells of his experience:
16 And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.
17 And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
18 Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
19 And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. 20 And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! 21 Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.”
The second principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ is repentance. We feel genuine remorse for committing sins, we go through the process of confessing our sins, asking for forgiveness, making restitution when possible, and turn away from or forsake our sins. We recommit to follow God and obey his commandments. By accessing the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ, our sins will be forgiven and we can feel that sweet, exquisite joy that Alma felt. We can feel peace as we rely upon His love, His grace, and His mercy.
While doing therapy in prison, I met a man who believed in Jesus Christ, but he felt his crime was so bad that he could never forgive himself. He believed that Christ had forgiven him. He knew that his wife and his family forgave him. Even his victims had forgiven him. But he still could not forgive himself. So, if he cannot forgive himself, is he denying the atonement of Christ?
Pres. Boyd K. Packer said, “… save for the exception of the very few who defect to perdition, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no offense exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness.” (The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness, Ensign, Nov. 1995, 19).
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “…I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines.” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” April 2012 General Conference)
How soon was Alma forgiven? As soon as he asked for the Lord to have mercy on him! Sometimes people continue to be troubled because they remember their sins. Alma remembered them, but those memories no longer “harrowed” up his soul, they no longer gave him pain. Having a memory of past sins helps us avoid repeating them. Satan wants us to feel continued shame so we are miserable like he is. Christ wants us to feel joy.
Our dear prophet, President Russell M. Nelson taught that “Nothing is more liberating, more ennobling, or more crucial to our individual progression than is a regular, daily focus on repentance. Repentance is not an event; it is a process. It is the key to happiness and peace of mind. When coupled with faith, repentance opens our access to the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”
“Whether you are diligently moving along the covenant path, have slipped or stepped from the covenant path, or can’t even see the path from where you are now, I plead with you to repent. Experience the strengthening power of daily repentance—of doing and being a little better each day.”
“When we choose to repent, we choose to change! We allow the Savior to transform us into the best version of ourselves. We choose to grow spiritually and receive joy—the joy of redemption in Him. When we choose to repent, we choose to become more like Jesus Christ!” (We Can Do Better and Be Better, General Conference, April 2019)
While serving as Area Mental Health Advisor for missionaries, I often talk with missionaries who feel like they have not repented enough even though they have worked with their bishop, went through the repentance process, and were found to be worthy to serve. Then they remember one more thing they forgot to tell their bishop and they tell their mission president. He helps them through the repentance process again and they feel worthy to serve again.
The booklet given to all missionaries, Adjusting to Missionary Life, can also provide each of us with helpful counsel on Learning to Repent. As we reflect on our own repentance, everywhere it says “mission president,” we can change it to “bishop or branch president.”
- Be honest with your mission president. If you need to repent of serious sins you have not dealt with, talk to your mission president openly and honestly. He will help you make these things right.
- Forgive yourself after repentance. If you have repented and still feel guilt and shame, remember we all regret past sins and mistakes. Trust that Christ’s Atonement is sufficient, even for you. Remember that repentance is not just the backup plan. Repentance is the plan of happiness for every person. Make sure the things you worry about most are things that really matter (for example, the progress of your investigators), not simply matters of personal pride (like what others think of you).
- Understand the role of confession. If you feel a need to confess less serious sins or to confess repeatedly, even after priesthood leaders have assured you that your confession is sufficient, you are probably taking confession too far. Continuing to feel regret and sadness about past sins is normal and does not mean you need to confess again. Distract yourself from such thoughts with other activities, and make the deliberate choice to believe in the Lord’s forgiveness. Ignore the temptation to become anxious or ashamed.
If missionaries still struggle, I suggest that next Sunday when the sacrament is served, maybe they should take six pieces of bread and six cups of water just to be sure they are forgiven or just like being held under the water longer at baptism. They realize that six is not necessary because the atonement of Christ is immediate and complete. In our October 2021 General Conference, Elder Bradley R. Wilcox taught that “worthiness is not flawlessness.” In the Doctrine and Covenants 58:42 the Lord gives us this glorious promise: “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.”
May the Lord bless us all to be freed from the pain of our sins and to feel the joy and love and peace that comes from His atoning sacrifice for us!
Elder Steve Kittelson is an Area Mental Health Advisor for the Africa West Area.