Joy and Repentance

[Given by Chris Juchau at the Saturday evening of Stake Conference, October 2016.]

The Saturday Evening session of Stake Conference always brings together a wonderful group of people.  I am saddened by the absence of those who are not here and I hope that all of us will reach out in appropriate ways especially to those who are not here for no other reason than it just not interesting them.  But I am delighted to be with you tonight.

I once heard it said that spiritual maturity can be measured by the number of contradictions—or apparent contradictions—we are able to reconcile.  Like the fact that I am, as the scriptures say, “less than the dust of the earth” and, at the same time, as the scriptures also teach, a child of God with potential to become like Him.  I don’t know if it’s true that that’s how we should measure spiritual maturity, but it’s an interesting thought.

One of my concerns for the members of our stake is that we don’t reconcile very well the reality of our fallen state and carnal natures with the reality of the Atonement and its impact on us.  We can get too sad and discouraged by our shortcomings, inadequacies, and imperfections and not take enough joy in the blessings of the Atonement, in the promises of our covenants, in the effectiveness of the Plan of Salvation, and in the myriad reasons for us to be joyful and at peace, even during a mortal experience that includes tragedies and great disappointments.

Yesterday I found myself singing along in my car with the Tabernacle Choir.  Not to make light of life’s real tragedies but I often turn to the Tabernacle Choir following a close BYU football loss. I got curious about the song titled “This Is My Father’s World,” which I was singing along with and I googled it when I got to work.  It’s a popular Christian hymn, included in a Methodist Hymnal and, I would imagine, many others.  Let me share with you the last two stanzas:

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.

This is my Father’s world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad! 

Tonight I would like to speak about a great source of joy and peace that we sometimes think of in unjoyful terms, but it is, in fact—or at least can be—joyful and that is repentance.

What is repentance and what is joyful about it?

I remember learning as a child, both at Church and at home, that repentance is a process with a number of discreet steps or aspects to it which can be specifically named and which all start with the letter R.  How many of these steps or properties are there?  I googled the “R’s of repentance” this week also and found a number of lists:  I found 3 R’s, 4 R’s, 5 R’s, 6 R’s, 7 R’s, and 8 r’s.  I may have found more than that if I’d looked harder, but I got tired of looking after I could find 9 R’s.

In my youthful mind, I saw these as sequential steps.  First I needed to recognize, then I needed to experience remorse, then I need to recommit, and so on…  I would need to go through this process for every sin of commission.  Then I would need to recognize all my sins of omission and do the same.  If I ever completed the steps for a particular sin but then committed the sin again, I would have thereby proven that Step 5, Reform, had not adequately happened after all, and then I would have to start again at Step 1.

Logically, to succeed at all that, I would essentially have to land at a place of perfection—where I never again repeated any sin and had paid at least some price for every sin I had committed.  It almost seems like I wouldn’t even need the Savior in such a scenario, because I would repent myself into becoming just like Him in the end!

While the various R’s of repentance are all more or less present in genuine repentance, I no longer think of repentance in those terms.  Nor do I think that Judgment Day will consist of me standing before the Lord while He reviews a very lengthy list of my debits and a short list of my credits.

When Enos and Alma the Younger received forgiveness of their sins in the Book of Mormon, had they gone through 4 or 6 or 8 discreet steps for every sin in their past?  When Jesus declared forgiveness to the paralyzed man lowered through the roof or to the woman who bathed his feet in her tears and washed his feet with her hair, had those people gone through these steps?

Let me mention something else from my childhood that I now think of differently.  I grew up around a lot Evangelical (or “Born-Again”) Christians who, thankfully, had a large impact on me.  Two of my Jr. High School teachers used to try to convince me that I wasn’t a Christian because Mormons place so much emphasis on “works.”  That introduced me to the whole debate about faith versus works and what saves us and what doesn’t and I learned to look down upon the protestant emphasis on faith and their downplaying of works.  After all, “faith without works is dead,” I learned.  We cannot be saved by faith alone.  Our actions matter.  I might have even thought at one point that our works will save us.

My views on this have matured since my youth. I now believe my protestant friends understood some things better than I did.  Do my works matter?  Of course they do.  I have covenanted to be obedient.  And the Savior said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”  But if my works are going to save me, I’m doomed—even in spite of good efforts—and even if I can remember every step of repentance for every sin I commit.

Faith in Jesus Christ, however, is the first principle of the gospel and to love God is the first commandment.  I believe more than ever today that the good works, the obedience, and the commandment-keeping that matter most are the ones that emerge from sincere faith in the Savior and genuine love for our Father in Heaven.  I believe that our good works and efforts are more of a reflection of the depth of our faith in the Savior who will save us, than they are the things that will save us, themselves.

It is because of the value of our faith and love that Elder Holland’s recent teaching makes most sense to me.  He said, “The great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed.”  Where our works fall short, our faith and love can still qualify and validate our effort.  Six times—in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants—the Lord refers to the “thoughts and intents of the heart.”  Because many times the sincerity of our hearts will trump the failures of our efforts.

But back to the question of “What is repentance?”  The LDS Bible Dictionary says “repentance” means “a turning of the heart and will toward God and a renunciation of sin.”  It also alludes to a change of mind and a new view about God and ourselves.

Sin is when we willfully disobey God or fail to act the way we know He wants us to.  Just as righteous actions reveal faith in God and love for God, sin reveals a heart that is not turned toward God, that is not soft toward Him, that is not sufficiently broken and contrite.

Repentance occurs when our hard hearts soften, when they break in a sense, and seek to realign themselves with God—followed by our behavior and/or our valiant, sincere attempts to change our behavior.  As Elder Holland indicated, God is patient with the sincere heart which earnestly strives, even when the desired result is not yet accomplished.  To repent is to turn—our hearts, our wills, our minds, our behaviors.

As I’ve gotten older and learned more, there are three interesting things I’ve come to believe about repentance and forgiveness.

One is that we cannot really repent of just one sin at a time.  We may focus on changing a particular behavior, we might even change one behavior at a time, but repentance includes a broken heart, a contrite spirit, an effort to realign my whole self with God.  Seeking to give God part of my heart while holding back another part doesn’t make the first part very sincere.  Perhaps this is why we remember hearing the Savior declare people’s sins forgiven, as in all of their sins; we don’t hear him saying that just some of their sins are forgiven them.

Another is that God is patient with the serial sinner who keeps on trying.  In Luke he instructed his disciples, “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.  And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”  Similarly, I believe that as many times as we sincerely turn our hearts again toward God, He extends forgiveness to us.  Satan will seek to discourage us by tempting us to think that we will not be forgiven and to shrink with discouragement.  The Godhead, however, whisper to us to get up and keep going and they will stay with us while we continue forward.

The third is that I believe God’s forgiveness comes at the speed of a changed heart.  Our attempts to reform our thought and behavior patterns may take a little time even with great effort, but the Lord requires—and judges—the heart even while he allows our behaviors to demonstrate the sincerity of our hearts.

Is there joy in repentance?  Of course!  Enos and Alma experienced joy!

That’s like asking whether it is good to return to a home we love after an absence.   It’s like asking if lost sheep are glad to be found.  It’s like asking if the prodigal son felt the warmth of his father’s embrace.

It might seem strange that a process filled with “godly sorrow” can also be joyful.  But where does the joy come from?

The joy comes from completing the process.  If I made a list of R-words to describe the repentance experience, I would end with “receive,” as in “receive the love and forgiveness of the Lord through faith in Him and His atonement.”  You see, faith and repentance are completely intertwined.  My faith in God motivates me to turn and re-turn my heart to Him again and again.  My faith drives me to repent.  And it is that same faith that allows me to receive the blessings of the Atonement and of forgiveness and of standing clean before the Lord (even now and not just “some day”) because I believe now and trust now in the good news of the Gospel.  Our joy is in the Savior and it is both present and future.

Now one more point before I close…

Some sins are bigger than others and sometimes our sins are particularly egregious, making the repentance experience particularly acute with regards to personal sorrow, even pain.  At the same time, our joy from those experiences can also be particularly specific.  Many people experience a joyful sense of relief when confessing an egregious sin to their bishop.  Joy continues in such circumstances as people progress with behavioral changes and efforts to make restitution.  It culminates when a person exercises faith to believe that they have truly demonstrated a heart changed toward God and that God has responded.

But what about you and most of us most of the time when we are dealing only with myriad personal shortcomings and smaller-ish mistakes?  What about the soul—like most here tonight—who is generally and quite constantly striving to the do the right things and is not rebellious or willfully neglectful toward God?  Do we repent?  And do we experience joy?

My purpose tonight, knowing that I am speaking to many such people, is to invite you to a lifestyle which practices and experiences both a constantly broken and contrite spirit which constantly and over-and-over-again turns itself toward God—and simultaneously experiences the joy of knowing that the Lord accepts your sincerely humble and submissive heart and does, in fact, just as our baptismal covenant with Him indicates, cleanse us through the Holy Ghost, and forgive us of our sins.  I am inviting you to experience both contrition and joy at the same time, which may seem like two contradictory things, but they’re not.  They are more “cause and effect.”

Let us not understand repentance merely as the string of steps we go through when we have done something particularly bad.  Let us live repentance as a lifestyle, with a heart that is constantly contrite, with a consistent love of God; and while we do that, let us enjoy the promise of an ongoing cleansing of our souls by the Holy Ghost and with complete faith and trust that the promises of the Atonement apply to us both now and in our futures.  Let us live joyfully contrite, at least comforted, if not ecstatic about the reality of the Atonement and the reality of its effects on us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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