This is the 7th and last of a series of posts called “Lessons from the Jail”. (Links to the other lessons are provided at the end) Beginning in late 2006, I began an assignment for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in which I ministered to men in the Salt Lake County jail. In the summer of 2009, this service was interrupted in favor of a full-time senior couples’ mission. Upon our return in January of 2011, I was re-assigned at the jail, and I served there until my release this past December. I was ready to be released – it had frankly become a bit of a burden – but I also miss the assignment. Each week brought conflicting emotions, but no endeavor in my life has consistently made me feel appreciated and valued as this one. There were times when I would walk out of the jail as if I were walking a few inches off the ground, because I knew that I had truly made a difference to someone. No matter how I felt walking in, I always felt uplifted when I walked out. Quite an interesting observation – that I would be continually uplifted by men who were incarcerated – who society views as outcasts or undesirables. I was lifted because I knew I lifted them. It never mattered to me that the things I taught might not be fully applied in this life. It was enough to know that they felt better about themselves on that day; that on that day, they had hope. I knew that someday, whether in this life or the next, these men would remember; they would hear some portion of the truth and think “Oh, yeah – I remember that teacher in the jail telling me that”. It was also enough to simply treat them like men rather than as convicts. They really appreciated that essential courtesy among men.
This final lesson is entitled “Repentance is your friend”. It usually went something like this:
Gentlemen, repentance gets a bad rap. Most of the time, when we hear the word “repentance”, we figure we’ve done something wrong, and we’re going to have to swallow our pride, confess to someone, admit we were wrong, and follow someone else’s direction on how to get “back on the path”. Well, this is often part of repentance, but that’s the bad rap I was referring to. There’s actually so much more to it. Repentance is actually a part of life. I live my own life in a constant state of repentance. I find myself repenting multiple times per day – it has become part of the way I think, the way I act, and especially the way I grow. Let’s look at these commonly accepted steps in the repentance process:
- Acknowledge the Sin
- Feel Sorry (Godly Sorrow)
- Confess the sin
- Ask Forgiveness (of the person you wronged, of God, and especially of yourself)
- Make amends (when possible)
- Forsake the sin (resolve not to do it again)
Let’s discuss these individually and see if we can understand how this process is so beneficial for us:
Acknowledge the Sin
First, we have to admit that we did something wrong. This may sound like a simple thing, but it’s really very, very important. As a matter of fact, we’re going to spend the lion’s share of this lesson on this single step, because once we have done this, the battle is largely won. Consider this – when we admit that we did something wrong, we acknowledge that we are subject to some sort of standard, and that we fell short. What standard did we violate or fall short of? There are many possibilities:
- Man’s Law or Society’s Law
- God’s Law
- The rules of a society, club, or a game of some sort
- Our own Standards ( The most important – I will talk more about this later)
We don’t really need to talk much about what happens when we violate man’s law, now do we? You’ve all obviously experienced the result of that. You’ve all even heard that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”. This is true of man’s law, because man, in his imperfect knowledge, must apply the law rigidly. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to apply the law fairly. Now, I know some of you feel like you’ve seen the law applied unfairly, and you probably have, but that just makes my point. If it’s already applied unfairly, imagine how much worse it could be if it were applied even more “subjectively”, or without rigid rules and guidelines.
God’s law is just the opposite. Let me quote you a scripture. This is from the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 9:25-26:
Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.
For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel.
I’ll bet that’s a surprise to you, isn’t it? I’ll bet you didn’t know that, in God’s eyes, ignorance is very much an excuse! Of course, you can’t lie to God, and I am sure that you all know the difference between right and wrong, so, while you may be able to claim ignorance of some things, what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong, and you pretty much know the difference. Am I right?
Now, there’s another scripture that I want to share with you that sort of completes the puzzle. It’s in the Doctrine and Covenants, 130:20-21:
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
See, ignorance of God’s law may be enough to escape “punishment”, but we must learn of God’s law so that we can abide by it if we want to reap its blessings.
The most important standard of all, though, is your own personal standard. We talked in the last lesson, I am a Child of God, about how important it is to live a life of integrity. Well, repentance is the way you develop and enhance your personal integrity. You see, first you must acknowledge your own standards. You have to understand what they are. I remember the time when my step-daughter came to my wife and me and said that she didn’t believe in the church. I just said, “Well, what DO you believe in”. She said, “I don’t know”. I said, “Well, then you’d better figure it out, and then you need to live by it”. She just walked away, but I know she heard me and, knowing her as I do today, I have no doubt that she pondered what I said at length. If you haven’t identified your standards – your own personal moral code – you have nothing upon which to base the decisions and choices that make you who you are. Your life will be like chaff in the wind. On the other hand, if you can identify your standards, and really take ownership for them, you have given yourself a base from which you can grow. This is how repentance is your friend. Repentance is the tool that helps you continually raise the bar of your own personal standards. In other words, by repenting privately every time you violate your own standards – you are practicing integrity. The more you practice, the better you get at keeping your standards – the more you maintain your integrity. Once you get really good at maintaining a certain standard, your natural tendency is to start to raise the bar. You’re now able to see over the horizon. Then, once you’ve raised the bar, the whole process starts over again. Do you see how this is the way you “become” – the way you become that “someone special” that you always wanted to be?
Ultimately, the result of this process is that your personal standards will become one with God’s Law. The exercise of faith (see Lesson 6), which we will talk more about next week, unto repentance, will eventually lead us to where our personal law, our personal standard, is in line with God’s law. This is the process of “sanctification”, and whole books could be, and have been, written on this topic.
Feel Godly Sorrow
If you don’t feel godly sorrow when you violate your own standards, then you don’t own them. I don’t mean that you need to beat yourself up because, if you start doing that, then you’ll run away, and nobody wins. The more you own – the more you “cherish” – those standards of yours; the more you prize our integrity; the more you’ll grieve when you trash them. There’s a fine line, though. Give yourself a break. Don’t be afraid to admit that you blew it. Then get back on the horse and try again. How do you do that? Repentance. See – repentance truly is your friend.
Confess the Sin
Here’s the booger bear about repentance, right? “What! You mean I have to go sit before some dude in a suit act all humble and submissive and acknowledge his authority over me?” No, most of the time that’s not what I mean – not at all. Most of the time, the only person you’re confessing to is yourself, and, of course, God. He’s really interested in your progression, too. Of course, sometimes, if the sin is grave enough, and you’ve sinned against covenants that you made with God, then you probably should confess to your bishop or clergy. They can help you through the repentance process – but it’s not about getting right with them. They’re helping you get right with God. It’s still between you and God. Hopefully that’s the exception. Is this type of repentance easy? Of course not! You have to swallow your pride. You have to admit that you were wrong and that you messed up. My advice? Try it sometime. It’s really therapeutic. Pride is a tough load to carry around all the time, and by my experience it just keeps getting heavier and heavier, because usually the only way to maintain it is to pile more on. You guys know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? Yeah, you know!
Ok, who do you ask forgiveness of? God? Yeah – sure. If you sinned against God – again, if you have made covenants, even if they’re informal, personal covenants between you and God, and if you violate them, then you need to ask His forgiveness. Will you receive it? Of course you will. What are the conditions? They’re nothing more than your sincerity. Now, who knows how sincere you are? Yep, that’s right – only you and God. Do you know the meaning of intimacy? Isn’t that when you share something only between two people? So, sincere repentance – confessing your sins before God and asking His forgiveness – is a pretty intimate thing, isn’t it? – Only between the two of you. I kind of like that.
Now, what about others? Well, the rule here is pretty simple. You ask forgiveness from the person that you harmed. It’s not your problem if they don’t forgive you – you just need to ask, and that, again, sincerely.
Ok – now the most difficult task of all. Yes – that’s right – asking yourself for forgiveness. That’s the hardest form of forgiveness to receive, isn’t it? It’s hard to ask, and it’s hard to receive. But the answer is simple – just do it. It does no good to dwell on the past, except in that it helps you to refrain from doing the same thing in the future. Another thing the past is useful for is in helping others. Remembering our past helps us to have empathy for others who have made the same mistakes, or similar mistakes, that we did. You don’t necessarily want to forget your own sins, but you must forgive yourself. I know the Lord says, “…I remember them no more”, but for us, it helps to remember, if only so we can avoid them in the future.
Finally, the Lord has promised that He will forgive us. If we fail to forgive ourselves, we are basically saying we don’t believe Him. Asking forgiveness and giving forgiveness are critical to the power of repentance.
Sometimes, gentlemen, making amends – restoring that which was lost – is simply not possible. There are some things that just can’t be undone. I won’t go into detail, but you all know what I’m talking about. However, if you can, it is necessary, as part of the repentance process, to pay it back.
Forsake the Sin
This aspect of the repentance process must be considered gingerly. I say that because we really do need to resolve not to continue committing the same sin, but we will run into problems if we are so unsure of ourselves that we don’t even bother repenting. Far too often we say to ourselves, “I’m just not in control. I can’t guarantee that I’m going to be able to refrain, so I’m not even going to bother”. This shuts off godly sorrow. It is demeaning and dis-empowering. Basically, it brings us down. Remember what I said before – repentance is the way we “become”. It may involve little steps at first. We may stumble repeatedly, but I assure you the Lord understands. He doesn’t really want you to be perfect – he wants you to be in the process of “becoming” perfect, and that process must be driven by you exercising the repentance process.
A Parable of Repentance
I’m sure most of you don’t know that I used to play third base for the New York Yankees. Yep – this was back in the mid to late 70’s. I knew Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson – they were my buds. Anyway, it was in the 1977 World Series, game 7, bottom of the 9th, and we were up by one run. There were 2 outs and runners were on 2nd and 3rd. The batter hit a routine ground ball to third. Hah! Here it is! We’re world champs! I scooped up the ball, took a hop step toward first and let it fly…about 4 feet over Chris Chambliss’ head and into the dugout. Both runners scored, and we lost the game – and of course the series – on my flub up.
Ok, what was all a personal fantasy, except in my real fantasy, the throw was right on target. While the Yankees did play in the 1977 World Series, it only went 6 games, the Yankees won, and Graig Nettles was their regular 3rd baseman – and a pretty darn good one at that. But that’s not the point. Let’s run this through the repentance process:
- In this parable, I violated two standards – the rules of the game, and the unspoken contract between the baseball world and the starting 3rd baseman for a world champion team that he should be able to make a routine throw to first base.
- I acknowledged the sin, although it wasn’t really necessary. It was there for all the world to see in living color. However, in the press conference after the game, I would have readily admitted that I cost us the series and took full responsibility.
- Boy, did I ever feel godly sorrow!
- Confession? See “acknowledgement” above. I suppose I could have claimed the sun was in my eyes, but it was a night game, so that wouldn’t have gone over very well anyway.
- Almost immediately, in the press conference, I humbly asked everyone in Yankee nation to forgive me.
- While I couldn’t guarantee that I would never again make an errant throw to first base, I fielded thousands of ground balls, accompanied by thousands of throws to first base, during the off-season. In other words, I did everything humanly possible to forsake the sin. As proof, I won a gold glove the next 5 years straight!
Of course, I went on to become a legend in my own mind, the greatest Yankee who never actually played a game!
Gentlemen, repentance is a cornerstone of almost every religion, especially Christianity. However, religion aside – it is a cornerstone of life. It is the way we become who we want to become. By establishing our own standards, we define ourselves. We place our stake in the ground and we establish our personal boundaries. Then, we must measure ourselves against those standards. When we measure up, we gain strength, and we experience peace. When we don’t, we must have the courage to acknowledge that, the integrity to confess to ourselves and whomever we might have harmed, and the guts to do what it takes to fix it. This is how we “own” our personal standards. Don’t beat yourself up when you fall short. It’s ok, as long as you don’t just start accepting it – as long as you don’t give up. Frankly, if you stop repenting, you may as well go sit in a corner and die, because you’re done in this world. Repentance is a source of power – the very fountain of hope that keeps us all going. Having the opportunity and the courage to say, “I’ll do better next time” is what will eventually make us gods. As I said at the beginning – repentance gets a bad rap. Do you understand why I said that? I hope so, because I promise you, repentance is your friend.
I testify that these things are true (well, all except the baseball story) in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.