Editor’s Note: Beloved author Ted Gibbons recently passed away after a battle with cancer. We will continue to share his wonderful insights here periodically.
Some standardized tests come in clocked sections. When the time expires for one section, participants are not allowed to go back and fix mistakes or answer more questions, even if they have the opportunity and the inclination. The Test of Life operates on a different premise: you can correct any mistake at any time until the Test ends.
Test-takers do not typically return across the shadowy memories of decades to fix earlier mistakes, however. Truly successful students monitor their progress carefully, and fix flaws as soon as they are discovered. Otherwise, the mountain of mistakes that accumulates may be nearly immovable and attempts to displace it may cause almost unbearable anguish.
The Owner’s Manual describes Alma the Younger as being “numbered among the unbelievers,” and as a “very wicked and idolatrous man . . . a man of many words . . . and . . . much flattery . . . therefore he led many of the people of God to do after the manner of his iniquities” (Mosiah 27:8).
He was “a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God.” He stole away from the Teacher “the hearts of the people.” He caused “much dissension among the people,” and much confusion in the Testing Center. He became in essence a John the Baptist for Satan, “giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his control” over those in the Center (Mosiah 27:9).
He went about “secretly . . . seeking to destroy the church . . .” and seeking “to lead the people of the Lord contrary to the commandments of God . . .” (Mosiah 27:10). He “murdered many of [God’s] children, or rather led them away to destruction” (Alma 36:14).
Here was a man who had deliberately missed many of the problems on the Test, and had done so with enthusiasm. He was one day confronted by one of the Teacher’s aides, speaking the words of the Teacher with earthshaking power.
Alma the Younger was overcome by the realization of how many problems he had missed. The thought of having his Test graded nearly undid him. He said, “. . . the very thought of coming into the presence of God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds” (Alma 36:14-15).
For three days and nights he could not open his mouth or use his limbs. During that time he was “racked with eternal torment.” His soul “was harrowed up to the greatest degree” (Alma 36:12). He was “tormented with the pains of hell” (Alma 36:18); he was “racked even with the pains of a damned soul” (Alma 36:16).
But then Alma remembered the teachings of his father, who told him that the Teacher had made it possible to correct mistakes. He appealed to the Teacher for assistance and received it. When he was able again to stand and to speak, he was a changed individual. He said he had “wandered through much tribulation, repenting nigh unto death.” (Mosiah 27:28). He indicated that his soul had “been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss,” he said, “but now I behold . . . marvelous light . . .” (Mosiah 27:29). He really had in some divine, miraculous way, been enabled to mend all of his mistakes.
Nothing the Teacher has done for us in the Testing Center is more beautiful than this. We must try not to make mistakes, but if we do, He will help us correct them.
But the story of Alma the Younger teaches us that there is more to this process of fixing errors than simply going back over the Test looking for mistakes, erasing them, and supplying correct answers in their places. It is not sufficient to simply stop making mistakes. From Alma we know that unless our attitude changes, we change answers in vain.
The following story from Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone illuminates this verity by showing us the life of an Alma-like young man, who thought that changing the answers was enough.
“A few months ago, a little over a year, I had the opportunity of going to Mesa, Arizona, and there at a stake conference, I interviewed a young man.
“The young man had committed a major transgression and needed to be interviewed by a General Authority before going on a mission. . . . So I interviewed this young man.
As I got into the interview, I said to him, ‘Now, my dear young friend, there must have been something in your life that caused you to have this interview. Would you mind telling me what that was? I want you to be very honest and frank with me.’ And then he kind of laughed, and he said there was not anything he had not done. And I said, ‘Well, then, let me be more specific. Have you had sexual relations?’ Then he very haughtily said, ‘Yes, I told you I’ve done everything.’ I said, ‘How many times?’ And he said, again sarcastically, ‘Do you think I numbered them?’ And I said to him, ‘My dear young friend, I would to God you could if you can’t.’ He said, ‘I can’t.’ I said, ‘How about homosexuality?’ He said, ‘Yes. I told you I’ve done everything.’ I said, ‘Drugs?’ He said, ‘Everything.’
“So I said, ‘Why do you think you are going on a mission?’ He said, ‘I’m going on a mission because my patriarchal blessing says I’m going on a mission. I have repented. I don’t do these things any more. I haven’t done them for the past year. I’ve been living the law of tithing; I’ve attended my meetings; I’ve repented. And I know I’m going on a mission.’
“I said: ‘My dear young friend . . . Do you suppose we could send you out to have you brag and boast about the things that you’ve done? You haven’t repented. You’ve just stopped doing something.”’ And I said, ‘As far as we’re concerned, we just cannot permit you to go out in the mission field.’
“And then he started to cry, and I guess he cried for several minutes. Finally, when he finished crying (and I did not say a word while he cried) he said, ‘I guess that’s the first time I’ve cried since I was five years old.’
“I said, ‘If you had cried like that the first time you were tempted to break the moral code, maybe tonight you would be going on a mission, but I’m sorry; we just cannot send you out.’ I said: ‘You need to go to Gethsemane and back first. Once you have been to Gethsemaene and understand how the Savior suffered for those things which you so haughtily laughed about and sarcastically responded to my questions, after you have been to Gethsemane, you will understand what repentance is. You haven’t repented,’ I said” (Vaughn J. Featherstone, Area Conference Report, Stockholm, Sweden, August 16-18, 1974, pp. 71-73. Emphasis added).
Correcting the Test has only a little to do with fixing wrong answers. The requirement is not that we go back and correct all our mistakes, and it is not that we stop making mistakes. It is that we truly regret the mistakes we have made and that we stop wanting to make mistakes.
This story provides a meaningful insight into the time requirements for repentance. The young man In Elder Featherstone’s story had not accomplished in a year what Alma the Younger accomplished in a moment, and for this reason: Alma allowed the Teacher to change his life, his heart, his desires. The young man in the story had only changed his actions.
The Nephites of Zarahemla, responding to the final sermon of King Benjamin, realized that they had missed many of the Teacher’s problems, and they felt awful. They wanted to change. “And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified . . .” (Mosiah 4:2).
King Benjamin then spoke of salvation and the atonement; about how to receive and retain a remission of sins; about how to stop making mistakes on the Test and start solving the problems correctly. He then wanted to know if the people believed him.
“And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken . . . because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:1-2, emphasis added). The Teacher assisted the entire congregation to become free from evil and the inclination thereto, because they believed in “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth and all things . . .” (Mosiah 4:2). But it was not the belief that changed them. It was not their sorrow or guilt that changed them. The Spirit wrought the change in their hearts, a “mighty change!”
The event that matters most for those who take the Test with a desire to pass the course is that they allow the Teacher to change their hearts and take away the disposition to “do evil,” to make mistakes. In the Owner’s Manual, that change of heart is called a spiritual rebirth.
Alma, following his “harrowing” experience, testified that he was “born of the Spirit” (Mosiah 27:24). He said, “I am born of God” (Mosiah 27:28). Being born again is an inescapable requirement for those in the Testing Center who want to have an ongoing and eternal relationship with the Teacher. Alma said that “all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God . . .” (Mosiah 28:25).
In the Testing Center, we often talk about the “steps” of repentance, and lists are provided so that we can reduce our iniquity to manageable proportions and check our progress throughout the process. The final step in nearly every list is “forgiveness,” which is the moment when the Savior brings our lives within the scope of his atonement and makes us clean through his suffering. Numbered steps seem to imply that once we have been through the entire process, including such things as “recognition, remorse, reparation, confession” and so on, that we may then be forgiven for our incorrect responses to the problems of the Test. Such lists are valuable, provided they do not lead us to an incorrect understanding of what repentance really is.
Reflect again on the experience of Alma the Younger. When did he confess? When did he go forth to repair the damage he had done? Not before he was forgiven, but after. Following his three days and nights of pain and torment and repentance, he said, “I have been redeemed of the Lord.” In Alma 38:8, Alma said to his son Shiblon,
“And it came to pass that I was three days and three nights in the most bitter pain and anguish of soul and never until I did cry out unto the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy, did I receive a remission of my sins. But behold, I did cry unto him and I did find peace to my soul.”
How could he be forgiven without these crucial steps in the process? Simply because Alma was not repenting solely of his past sins. He was repenting of sinning–not of his sinful acts alone but of his sinfulness. It was not exclusively his actions that were being changed. It was his heart. He was not changing what he did so much as he was changing what he was. He had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). He really had been “born again,” as the activities of his future life attest.
The Teacher, having been allowed access to his heart, could pardon all of his incorrect answers, knowing that he would spend the rest of his life responding correctly to life’s problems and helping others do the same.
The confusion we sometimes feel about the indispensable necessity of the “steps of repentance,” comes from the incorrect assumption that they, in and of themselves, constitute repentance. Theodore M. Burton said:
“Just what is repentance? Actually it is easier for me to tell you what repentance is not than to tell you what repentance is. My present assignment as a General Authority is to assist the First Presidency. I prepare information for them to use in considering applications to readmit transgressors into the Church and to restore priesthood and/or temple blessings. Many times a bishop will write, ‘I feel he has suffered enough!’ But suffering is not repentance. Suffering comes from lack of complete repentance. A stake president will write: ‘I feel he has been punished enough!’ But punishment is not repentance. Punishment follows disobedience and precedes repentance. A husband will write: ‘My wife has confessed everything!’ But confession is not repentance. Confession is an admission of guilt that occurs as repentance begins. A wife will write: ‘My husband is filled with remorse!’ But remorse is not repentance. Remorse and sorrow continue because a person has not yet fully repented” (Theodore M. Burton, “The Meaning of Repentance,” Brigham Young University Devotional Talk, March 26, 1985, pp. 1, 2).
What, then, is repentance? It is not pain and suffering and punishment and anguish and sorrow and misery. Rather, it is
“forsaking or turning from evil and doing instead that which is noble and good. Not only must we change our ways; we must change our very thoughts which control our actions. Repentance is turning back to God!” (Burton, “The Meaning of Repentance,” p. 2).
People must somehow be made to realize that the true meaning of repentance is that we do not require people to be punished or to punish themselves; but to change their lives so they can escape eternal punishment. (Burton, “The Meaning of Repentance,” p.3.)
And it is repentance that makes us righteous.
“Who is righteous? Anyone who is repenting. No matter how bad he has been, if he is repenting he is a righteous man. There is hope for him. And no matter how good he has been all his life, if he is not repenting, he is a wicked man. The difference is which way you are facing. The man on the top of the stairs facing down is much worse off than the man on the bottom step who is facing up. The direction we are facing . . .is what determines whether we are good or bad” (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 9, pp. 301, 302).
The message here seems to be that direction is everything and distance is nothing. Where we are going is more important than when we will get there, especially since we are eternal beings. Repentance is turning around, it is changing. Turning and changing do not of necessity require a great deal of time, although they may. Getting ready to turn and change may also require a substantial investment of time and effort.
Alma the Younger suffered in agony for some portion of the three days and nights previously mentioned, but this suffering was not repentance. It was at the end of this time that he remembered his father’s prophecy “concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.”
“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 with the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:17-18).
It was at this moment that Alma was forgiven. When he was finally ready to surrender all his sins, all his rebellion, all his passion for incorrect answers, then he appealed to the Teacher for mercy, and received it instantly. He said, “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” (Alma 36:19, emphasis added). In that moment the pain and the guilt were gone. It happened in the space of a thought. This is part of the pattern. “You need not know everything before the power of the Atonement will work for you. Have faith in Christ; it begins to work the day you ask!” (Pres. Boyd K. Packer, Ensign, May 1997, p. 10). In further explanation of this principle, Elder Packer taught:
“In the battle of life, the adversary takes enormous numbers of prisoners, and many who know of no way to escape are pressed into his service. Every soul confined to a concentration camp of sin and guilt has a key to the gate. The adversary cannot hold them if they know how to use it. The key is labeled Repentance. The twin principles of repentance and forgiveness exceed in strength the awesome power of the adversary” (Boyd K. Packer, “Our Moral Environment,” Ensign, May 1992, p.68).
Over and over the scriptures show us this reality. Lamoni the Lamanite king from Ishmael was taught the gospel by Ammon and he believed. Using much the same language as Alma and the Nephites who listened to Benjamin, he also cried unto God for mercy. (Alma 18:41). Lamoni then fell to the earth, immobile as was Alma, for two days and two nights. (Alma 19:1). Ammon knew that during those forty-eight hours,
“Lamoni was under the power of God; he knew that the dark veil of unbelief was being cast away from his mind, and that the light which did light up his mind, which was the light of the glory of God, which was a marvelous light of his goodness–yea, this light had infused such joy into his soul, the cloud of darkness having been dispelled, and that the light of everlasting light was lit up in his soul, yea, he knew that this had overcome his natural frame, and he was carried away in God—” (Alma 19:6).
Lamoni’s forgiveness must have come at once, when he cried for mercy, and offered his heart to the Teacher.
Lamoni’s father had a similar experience. When he heard the words of Aaron and his brethren and realized that he was failing the Test of Life, he said, “What shall I do that I may have this eternal life . . . that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy?” (Alma 22:15). “Aaron,” he is saying, “how can I change my nature?”
And Aaron’s said plainly, “You can’t. But I can tell you how to get in touch with someone who can change you.”
Aaron said, “If thou desirest this thing, if thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and will bow down before God, and call on his name in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then shalt thou receive the hope which thou desirest” (Alma 22:16, emphasis added).
The father of Lamoni then prostrated himself upon the earth and cried mightily, saying,
“O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee . . . and now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead” (Alma 22:17- 18).
The queen was summoned, and when she came, she was disturbed. She did not understand, and tried to incite violence against the missionaries. Aaron, seeing the potential for a great contention and disturbance among the people there assembled, “put forth his hand and raised the king from the earth.”
He arose, only moments after his prayer, “and began to minister unto them . . . insomuch that his whole household were converted unto the Lord” (Alma 22:23). Again, how long did repentance and forgiveness take? How long does it take to rectify all the mistakes we have made while taking the Test? It takes as long as is necessary for us to be able to honestly say to the Teacher, “I will give away all my sins.”
Enos described the “wrestle which [he] had before God” (Enos 1:2, emphasis added). The wrestle was not with God, it was before God. He was not trying to get the Teacher ready to pardon his mistakes; he was trying to get himself ready to be pardoned. He said, “I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins” (Enos 1:2, emphasis added). The wrestling took place before the remission. When Enos was finally ready to give away all his sins, the Teacher said, “Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.” It is imperative to be aware of the fact that none of these people was seeking a marvelous manifestation. To a man, they simply wanted freedom from guilt and pain in whatever way they could obtain it. They wanted to be forgiven and to serve the Teacher.
The quantity and seriousness of the missed answers are not the prominent issues. It would be difficult to imagine men more wicked than Alma, Zeezrom, and Lamoni. What matters is the willingness of one who is entangled in sin to turn around and become susceptible to the Spirit and obedient to the commandments.
Nothing written here should be understood to mean that all of the steps of repentance are not vital. Recognition of error must precede any form or repentance. Remorse (godly sorrow) is indispensable. Confession is necessary; reparation of wrongs is essential. In fact they are all imperatives. But for some of them, the timing is negotiable. Alma and his fellow sinners, following their repentance and forgiveness, “began from that time forward to teach the people . . . zealously striving to repair the injuries which they had done to the church, confessing all their sins . . .” (Alma 27:32, 35, emphasis added).
None of this should be construed to mean that a person who labors a lifetime on this process is somehow less than worthy.
Ezra Taft Benson explained:
“That we must be careful as we seek to become more and more godlike, that we do not become discouraged and lose hope. Becoming Christlike is a lifetime pursuit and very often involves growth and change that is slow, almost imperceptible. The scriptures record remarkable accounts of men whose lives changed dramatically, in an instant, as it were; Alma the Younger, Paul on the road to Damascus, Enos praying far into the night, King Lamoni. Such astonishing examples of the power to change even those steeped in sin give confidence that the Atonement can reach even those deepest in despair.
“But we must be careful as we discuss these remarkable examples. Though they are real and powerful, they are the exception more than the rule. For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord, little realizing they are building a godlike life. They live quiet lives of goodness, service, and commitment. They are like the Lamanites, who the Lord said, “were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not” (3 Nephi, 9:20; italics added.) (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, October 1989, p. 5).
The Teacher has declared, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways” (Ezekiel 33:11, emphasis added). If we cannot pass the Test in the way we are going, we must turn around. We must find a new direction; we must undergo that mighty change of heart. We must be born again. To those who experience this the Lord has made three great promises:
“None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him . . .” (Ezekiel 33:16).
“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
“Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more” (D&C 58:42).
These promises show us the reach of the atonement, and the pathway to freedom.
“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” (Pres. Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign, Nov. 1995,p. 19).
Imagine this interview with the Teacher upon exiting the Testing Center.
Teacher: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Your Test paper is perfect!”
Student: “Perfect? No, not perfect. I made many mistakes.”
Teacher: “That may be, but there is no need to talk about them ever again. I will never bring them up.”
Student: “But certainly such answers must have been marked wrong.”
Teacher: “Look carefully. The paper has no red marks at all.”
Student: “Yes, I see that it is perfectly white. But you must be aware of the errors and lapses in my answers.”
Teacher: “As a matter of fact, I do not remember any of them. Not any at all. Congratulations on having graduated with honors.”