[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.
Does every prayer get answered? What does it even mean for a prayer to be answered?
Matthew 7:7 suggests (rather clearly) that every prayer is answered. Arguably, it even suggests that every prayer is answered favorably and might even imply to some that all prayers are answered immediately. At least, it says nothing about answers ever being “no” – nor about our having to wait for them. The Savior said:
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”
This same passage is similarly repeated in Luke 11. However, before going there, I would like to state one emphatic belief of mine: every prayer is answered.
However, I do not believe that every prayer is answered the way we want. We do not believe that God is like the genie in the bottle, there to grant us every wish exactly when and how we like – or even at all in some cases. Some answers are “yes.” Some answers are “no.” Some answers are “not right now; let’s hold off on that one.” And some answers are “you need to struggle through this one on your own for your own benefit; I’m going to let you do that.” You could come up with your own variations on those themes, but that’s how I see it. In fact, it troubles me whenever I hear someone say their prayer was answered, when they say it in a way that suggests that the proof of it being answered is that they got what they wanted – which in turn suggests that their prayer would have been unanswered if they didn’t get what they wanted. I think we need to be careful to never suggest that “answered” prayers are comprised only of those whose answers we like.
Back to Luke 11. This is an interesting chapter! It begins with one of Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them to pray. The Lord responds with what we know as The Lord’s Prayer and eventually gets into words similar to those in Matthew 7, quoted above. But, interestingly, between those two things he asks his audience a question involving “importuning,” which, according to Google, means “to ask someone pressingly and persistently for or to do something.”
“Keep asking, keep searching, keep knocking…”
Let me quote Luke 11:5-10. However, I’m going to quote the International Standard, rather than the King James, version. (The everyday language of the ISV may be startling to some Latter-day Saints, but I find it insightful sometimes to review other translations of the New Testament.) It says:
Then he told them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, let me borrow three loaves of bread. A friend of mine on a trip has dropped in on me, and I don’t have anything to serve him.’ Suppose he answers from inside, ‘Stop bothering me! The door is already locked, and my children are here with us in the bedroom. I can’t get up and give you anything!’ I tell you, even though that man doesn’t want to get up and give him anything because he is his friend, he will get up and give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. So I say to you: Keep asking, and it will be given you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened for you, because everyone who keeps asking will receive, and the person who keeps searching will find, and the person who keeps knocking will have the door opened.”
The part I italicized is rather interesting. It is a completely different translation than the KJV because it adds in the “keep asking/searching/knocking” part, which doesn’t seem to exist in the Greek text at all. I’m definitely not suggesting the ISV is a more literal translation of the text. Nevertheless, isn’t it expressing what we believe? And isn’t that, in fact, what the Savior is teaching? Verse 8 in the KJV says, “I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity [his “pressingly and persistently” asking] he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.” (Emphasis added again.) The Savior is teaching that receiving doesn’t always immediately follow asking; nor finding seeking.
That teaching might remind us also of a parable the Savior teaches seven chapters later – a parable which begins with an instructive preamble!
“And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily.”
Now that last word is a little confusing, as is the comparison of God to an “unjust judge.” Nevertheless, the teaching seems unmistakable: men and women ought to pray repeatedly over the long term and never give up praying, because, even though answers will come “speedily” when they do come, they won’t come necessarily immediately. Some answers take time. And sometimes the answer is “no” and sometimes the answer is “wait” and sometimes the answer is “you’re on your own.”
Blessings, in real but not pre-specified forms, always follow obedience quickly (see Mosiah 2:24 ). Prayers, however, are not always answered the way we wish. Nor are they always answered the way we wish without consistent “importuning.”
What, then, should we do about our frustrations over our prayers not being answered when and how we want? The same thing we should do when our prayers are answered exactly when and how we like: be humble and submissive; maintain a broken heart and a contrite spirit; trust in the Lord and wait on Him. Getting impatient and angry with God will not result in happiness. Waiting on Him with faith and submissiveness, however, is critical to living after the manner of happiness!