In the church it seems that we have formulized repentance: recognition, remorse, relating (confessing), restitution, resolution, reformation, realization (See William J. Critchlow, Jr., BYU Speeches, April 28, 1964).

I’m sure that, with modest resolve, we could find far more R’s to add to the formula. Regret. Rack (as in Alma racked with torment). Raise. Reconcile. Realign. Rebound. Reclaim. Recommit. Reconcile. Rectify. Redouble. Redevelop. Reduce. Reflect. Reform. Refresh. Refuel. Regenerate. Regret. Reject. Release. Remediate. Remember. Remit. Rendezvous. Renew. Renovate. Reorganize. Repair. Repel. Replace. Replant. Replenish. Repress. Reprimand. Reprocess. Reproof. Repugnant. Request. Require. Rescue. Resolve. Respect. Restrain. Resurgence. Retool. Retract. Retread. Retrench. Retrieve. Revaluate. Reverse. Review. Revise. Revival. Revolution. Rewrite. Right. Root. Rule out.

That’s only 67 R’s of repentance. There must be still others that could be pressed into service!

Each of these R’s can contribute to our repentance. But, despite our rigor in alliterating our repentance, it is quite possible to have a dead form—maybe even a destructive practice. Repentance is not like assembling IKEA furniture where we follow detailed steps to success. D. Todd Christofferson has taught that “attempts to create a list of specific steps of repentance may be helpful to some, but it may also lead to a mechanical, check-off-the-boxes approach with no real feeling or change. True repentance is not superficial” (The Divine Gift of Repentance, October 2011).

Repentance is fundamentally about a relationship. I believe that the most important R is missing from the list above.

Learning the meaning of repentance

When I was a child, repentance seemed like something you did (or pretended to do) when you got caught red-handed. Maybe you were teasing your sister and were unaware that Mother was watching. Maybe you said a naughty word after Primary—not realizing that Bishop was near at hand. Or maybe you got caught cheating on a test as the teacher observed.

So, repentance came to be the process by which a person tried to convince an authority figure that they had misperceived our misdeeds—or, failing that, that the misdeed was a momentary lapse, and we should not be punished. An able repenter developed tears-on-command, and miserable contrition as tools of the trade. This kind of repentance may have sidestepped my punishment, but it did not change my heart.

Even in adolescence and adulthood no one taught me how to repent. I was occasionally shamed but never renewed with repentance. It was not until my own efforts to reform myself had failed for decades that I was ready to learn the pattern from the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon pattern of repentance

As I studied the scriptures, I learned that the process of repentance was less about a rigid regimen of humiliation and new resolve and more about calling on the great Physician and allowing Him to heal our hearts, minds, and souls. One view is cold and hard. The other is loving and redemptive.

More than any other person, Alma taught me how to repent. Once he taught me, I saw King Benjamin, the brother of Jared, and countless others, teaching the same pattern. The pattern is also evident in the Bible. (See particularly Luke 18:9-14 about the Pharisee and the publican.) But somehow it was the great Book of Mormon repenters who taught me the pattern.

Alma the Younger: “Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought [concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world], 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.” (Alma 36:[17-]18)

King Benjamin’s people: “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).

The Brother of Jared: “Now behold, O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually . . . nevertheless, thou hast been merciful unto us. O Lord, look upon me in pity, and turn away thine anger from this thy people,” (Ether 3:2-3).

Amulek: “Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save,” (Alma 34:18).

Lehi: “And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies,” (1 Nephi 8:8).

Once we are sensitized to the “have mercy” pattern, we find it everywhere in scripture. It is the cry of the repenter. It acknowledges that there is simply no way to get from our mortal weakness to the Eternal completeness without the help of Christ. “There is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God,” (2 Nephi 31:21). Recognizing that fact and humbly calling on mercy opens the windows of Heaven.

Mercy works for only one reason: Jesus. Because of His infinite sacrifice, He is able to pay our debts, cleanse our souls, renew our spirits, energize our aspirations, and enable our progression. In the process of repenting regularly and gladly, Jesus becomes our best friend and faithful companion.

A more excellent way

Recently, I was talking with a dear and faithful friend who had been to his ecclesiastical leader to confess a serious sin. He went in great trepidation, fearing for his standing in the church. He had tried for years to conquer his addiction on his own. But the sin stubbornly clung to his soul. He went to the interview expecting to be reprimanded, released from his calling, and perhaps even have his standing in the Church challenged.

His meeting with his priesthood leader left him feeling quite different from what he expected. That inspired leader not only taught him about covenants but also taught him about the atonement of Jesus Christ. The leader taught the man that we all need Jesus’ help desperately. Fortunately, Jesus offers it gladly.

My friend left the repentance rendezvous with great joy. He still has much work to do but he reported feeling more hopeful than he had in years. He now knows and feels that there is hope for those of us who are so woefully human.

As President Packer taught us: “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. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ.” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, p.18).

One last “R”

His grace can reach each of us. So, the missing “R” of repentance might be the Redeemer—or rejoicing in our Redeemer. The opportunity to repent is a sacred, blessed, and welcome gift to mortals made possible by the loving sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, repentance is often portrayed as morose business. It is to be dreaded and avoided at all costs. It causes embarrassment and hopelessness.

This is a lie from Satan. Repenting may be hard work and may entail pain but is the mark of the righteous. Let us employ that blessed, if neglected “R” of repentance. Let us rejoice in Christ!

I appreciate the insight of my friend, Barbara Keil. “I have a whole new vision of repentance: the imagery of cleaning my house. In repentance, I go before God prepared to be very honest with Him, to create a deeper relationship with Him, and a more robust and authentic prayer life. That is the kind of essential “housekeeping” that repentance has become for me. Repentance is not just confessing the really big sins and asking for mercy. It becomes an ongoing personal interview with God about where I am, what I still lack, where I need to grow, the ways in which I have tried to go it alone without inviting Him in or accessing His grace and power to help me change. That goes way beyond merely acknowledging my biggest failures and offering penance. It is working with Him to create a new creature in Christ.” 

Ultimately, repentance is a relationship with God. Effective repentance not only cleanses our souls, it fills us with joy—as manifest by Ammon:

“Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state? Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel,” (Alma 26:17, 16).

I am grateful that the Book of Mormon has taught me to rejoice in our beloved Redeemer who makes repentance possible.

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Thanks to Barbara Keil and Annie Foster for their contributions to this article.

This article is adapted from an article in my series on Meridian Magazine, The Book of Mormon: A Latter-day Corrective.