Teaching the Gospel of Repentance

Picture this scenario: You’re in Sunday School, and the teacher has just given a passionate lesson, full of scriptures and quotes from the prophet and personal testimony, about the importance of keeping the Sabbath day holy. Throughout the lesson, she repeatedly invites members of the class to think of ways they could do better at making the Sabbath a holy day for them and their family. At some point, towards the end of the lesson, someone raises their hand, and says something like this (probably in different words, but to the same effect): “This is all true, but we need to remember that we can’t run faster than we have strength. Also, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we aren’t perfect. God will accept us as we are, and we should remember that. Let’s remember that most of us are probably doing alright.”

Have any of you had this experience? I have, and I suspect many others have too. In fact, I suspect most of us have been in a position where we’ve wanted to make a comment like this. This is because all of us can probably think of ways we could do better at keeping the Sabbath, fasting, missionary work, home teaching, scripture study, loving, praying, or whatever the specific topic of the day is. And since we all know that there are things we can do better (since there always are and always will be), teachers, leaders, and bloggers who remind us of the disparity between our ideals and our practice often incite a hidden guilt within us, a guilt that calls out for reassurance. We realize how truly inadequate we really are, and we want so badly to hear instead that we are doing ok. We sometimes experience these invitations as accusations that we aren’t doing enough. And we all know family members, friends, and neighbors who daily berate themselves for their inadequacies, and live in fear that they’ll never be as worthy as their [perceived] worthier brothers and sisters. And so we instinctively want to add a caveat to remind ourselves and those we know that we aren’t less worthy of God’s love, of fellowship in the church, and of salvation if we don’t do what the teacher is inviting us to do. We might think, “Someone has to stand up for those who are struggling and feel accused every time they attend church.”

The teacher often struggles with remarks like this, because although they are well-intentioned, they sometimes undermine the direction of the lesson. The teacher has likely prayed that the Spirit will reveal to members of the class ways in which they can be better Sabbath-keepers. The teacher herself has likely made personal commitments to live better and do better as a result of what she has learned while preparing the lesson. To hear members of the class undo the invitations she has extended, by reminding people that there really is nothing to worry ourselves about, can be frustrating. What is wrong, she might ask, with simply inviting people to think of ways they could live the commandments better? We are, after all, teaching the Gospel of repentance, and the message that saturates nearly every page of the Book of Mormon is one of repentance. Constant, continual self-evaluation and improvement is a mainstay of gospel living, and why must we abandon that for fear of making people feel inadequate? Apostles and prophets never shy away from inviting us to do better than we are currently doing. Must we walk on eggshells every time we extend invitations when we teach, for fear of shaking someone’s self-esteem?

I’ve been on both ends of this process. I’ve had times where I’ve felt inadequate, and being reminded of my inadequacies seemed to exacerbate my feelings of hopelessness. I’ve also had times when I just wanted to invite people to do a little better, to stand a little taller, but others have taken the edge off of my invitation for fear of adding to the self-imposed guilt of many among the congregation. Both experiences can be frustrating and discouraging. How do we reconcile our personal insecurities with the relentless demand to stand a little taller and be little better?

I’ve searched for a way to make sense of all of this, and I probably always will. However, I was recently reading James Ferrell’s book The Holy Secret and stumbled upon a fascinating perspective that may help. The truth is, we really are inadequate. We really can do better than we do. We really are insufficient. And so in some ways, our deepest insecurities are true. We are really never doing enough, and we really just can’t do it all. But one of the purposes of the commandments is to remind us of this fundamental truth. James Ferrell explains:

As I read the scriptures, I find there are two main purposes for the commandments. … The first is that the commandments teach us the standards of heaven. They prepare us for heaven by teaching us to live and be refined by heaven’s law in the here and now, a law lived by Christ and by all who will live with him in the eternities. …

Here’s the part that’s not so well understood: Because the commandments teach us the standards of heaven, they also awaken us to the realization of how we are failing fully to live those standards. And since forgiveness for such failures cannot be found in the commandments themselves, the commandments therefore drive us to Christ with broken hearts and contrite spirits. This, Jesus taught, is one of their primary purposes. To the Nephites he said, “I have given you the law and the commandments of my Father, that ye shall believe in me, and that ye shall repent of your sins, and come unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Ne. 12:19).

… These commandments expose our remaining, ample, and damning brokenness, every one of them inviting us to view ourselves in our own carnal state and to contritely fall to the ground in fear of the Lord. If you and I are not completely clean and pure, and we’re not, then the commandments compel us, just as they compelled the commandment-keeping people of King Benjamin, to our knees. And not merely to our knees, but to our knees before Him, which is the difference between despair on the one hand and hope on the other; for the Lord can change us.

What is the purpose of the law? To bring us unto Christ. Paul told that Romans, “The law entered, that the offence might abound … and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 5:20; 3:19). The law condemns us, for “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and compels us to turn to the Savior for redemption. Alma said to his son Corianton, “Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment? Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man” (Alma 42:17–18). Our remorse of conscience is what humbles us and leads us to seek redemption from the Savior Jesus Christ. Ferrell interprets the biblical story of the fiery serpents this way. We often assume that the fiery serpents represent sin. However, Ferrell asks, what if the fiery serpents represent the commandments themselves? They are what bring us to our knees, point out our inadequacies, and remind us of our absolute need to rely on the Savior.

Lehi explained: “Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered” (2 Nephi 2:6–7). We often read this legalistically, as if it said, “Behold he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the demands of the law.” But it doesn’t say that. It says, “to answer the endsof the law.” The word end is synonymous with purpose, intention, objective, etc. Christ is fulfilling the purpose of the law unto those whose hearts have been broken by the law’s relentless demands. Because the law is designed to bring us unto Christ, it is by striving to keep the commandments that we discover our weaknesses and find a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Ne. 9:20). Unto none else can the purposes of the law be answered. Boyd K. Packer’s allegory of the debtor illustrates this point point well. The creditor, who represents the law, cannot extend forgiveness and mercy, because redemption cannot be found in the law. Rather, it was the creditor’s unrelenting demands that humbled the debtor and brought him to the Mediator. Ferrell continues:

It is the law that brings us to the One who can straighten our crookedness and justify us before God. Another way to say it is that while the commandments prepare us for heaven, they do not on their own make us heavenly, nor do they qualify us for heaven. Rather, they awaken us to our imperfections and thereby invite us to come humbly to Christ. It is then the Lord “makes weak things strong unto [us]” and transforms us into beings whose dispositions have been changed in such a way that the heavenly law becomes “written in our hearts.”

We will often be reminded of our inadequacies when we are invited to stand a little taller and be a little better. But that doesn’t mean we should stop extending those invitations, or feel threatened by those invitations. I’m teaching class this fall, and I plan to invite my students to put their fears about their grades aside, and to simply not worry about them. I want them to simply dedicate their time to learning and improvement. Perhaps we can think of ourselves as students in a classroom with a teacher who is passionate about learning, and therefore assigns far more reading assignments than we can possibly have time to read. When we approach him and express our fears about failing the class, he says, “There’s no need to fear. Since there’s no way anyone can possibly complete all the assignments, if anyone gets an A, it won’t be because of their own efforts. And because your grade is no longer in your hands, you are free to just read and learn as much as you possibly can without fear. Every book, every chapter, every assignment, is an opportunity and an adventure. Treat it as such.”

In the same way, I think we can put our salvation in the hands of the Savior, set our fears aside, and then self-evaluate and find ways to improve without worrying that our salvation hangs in the balance. We can let Him work out our salvation on our behalf. Yes, you and I are inadequate, and yes, the process will remind us of that, because that is what it is supposed to do. Because at the end of the day, we’ll be new creatures and we’ll know that it wasn’t our doing, but Christ’s. In other words, the solution to our current plague of self-disparagement and discouragement is not to stop teaching repentance and improvement, but to put our trust in Christ and in His ability to save us, and to then put our shoulders to the wheel. Perhaps this will help us to pause before adding too many caveats onto our simple invitations to live better and to do better. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the way to help those who are struggling to shoulder the burdens of Gospel living, and who may feel accused by incessant invitations from teachers, leaders, and bloggers to do more than they are already doing, is not to shield them from those invitations, but to invite them to place their fears, insecurities, and their salvation in the hands of Christ.

This does NOT imply that we’re supposed to sin. Sin is sin, and it’s wrong. We are never justified in sinning. In other words, the exact wrong response to this perspective would be for me to commit sin and excuse it by saying, “I need to remind myself I’m not perfect and need the Savior.” That’s prideful, because it implies that if I didn’t deliberately commit sin, I wouldn’t have any inadequacies to speak of. It is all we can do to do our very best, and no matter what our best is, we will still need to completely rely on the Savior. In fact, the more we self-evaluate and try to improve, the more we realize the need for the Savior in our lives. Also, this does NOT mean that we should phrase our invitations to do better and live better as accusations. We do teach the gospel of repentance, not self-esteem—but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be gentle with people. We shouldn’t be afraid to straightforwardly extend appropriate invitations in our Gospel teaching, but we can do so lovingly and invitingly.

I hope this perspective offers insight into the perplexing conflict between our personal insecurities and the relentless call to stand a little taller and be a little better. This perspective may help some people, it may not help others. Your mileage may vary. But I think it’s possible that many of our insecurities are well-founded: we really are incapable of doing this alone. We really aren’t measuring up to the instructions we’ve been given. But none of us do. That’s why we need Christ, and we’re reminded of our inadequacies to remind us of our need for Christ. As the Savior said, “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness, and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me—the fountain of all righteousness.” (Ether 12:27-28). And the miracle of the Atonement is that when we turn our salvation over to Christ, we can then respond to the invitations we receive as adventures and opportunities, rather than as accusations and burdens, and at the same time fully acknowledge that they reveal ways in which we are far, far from perfect.

7 thoughts on “Teaching the Gospel of Repentance

  1. I like to take the approach (at least in my own life) of “What is one thing I can do/give up to know God better?” Recently, it was giving up video games on the Sabbath. It turned out to be much more difficult than I had thought it would be, but it has freed up time for me to pursue other, better Sabbath day activities, such as family history and reading about the lives of the Prophets.

    Guilt is always the wrong approach. We should be seeing things as an inspiration to do and be better than we are, rather than as yet another part of the dreaded obstacle course of life.

  2. Interesting point on the fiery serpents being the commandments. The more I think about it, the more it seems that’s a very appropriate interpretation of “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weaknesses.” I think this helps me make sense of the proverb, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7)–knowledge of the atonement, of my place in God’s plan, of his mercy toward me, of a lot of things. But I have to recognize my need for humility before the Lord, and fear/respect/reverence him.

  3. Coming to understand that my weaknesses and inadequacies can be handed over to the Lord helped me heal.

    As I have written, I frequently struggle with feeling like a burden on the people around me. In the past (and sometimes even now) I withdraw, caught in a spiral down into self-loathing. It takes constantly reminding myself that the awful parts of me belong to Him to change or not. And as much as I succeed in remembering that, I am freed to focus on serving Him and His children.

    I think that THIS is the Gospel. You did an excellent job of expounding it. Thank you.

  4. Excellent post LDSP. When we preach obedience to the commandments, we should focus on calling the Saints to repentance and the Savior, rather than calling them to greater efforts of self-discipline and willpower.

    I love it when I am called to repentance by a powerful preacher speaking in love and spirit. When I can submit to that, humble myself in sackcloth and ashes, and kneel at the feet of the Savior, it is so real, so powerful. That is the Gospel of Christ.

    But this is rare. Most teachers don’t call to repentance. They just tell you to work a little harder on your own.

  5. Just wanted to say also to SilverRain, I love how you said “the awful parts of me belong to Him to change or not.” What a beautiful and rare truth that is.

    We spend our days scrubbing and scrubbing at that big black stain in the living room carpet, to no avail, when maybe God wants it there. Maybe he wants us to live with it and struggle with it, to make it part of the furniture, till the moment that He removes it Himself by His grace.

  6. I have been in lessons when this has happened, and it does ruin the lesson. However, I do get where that kind of comment can come from. For me and my husband it’s temple attendance. I’ve finally come to the point where I KNOW it’s between us and the Lord and I really don’t worry about what anyone else thinks I should be doing. And I know we’re going as much as we can, and that the Lord is ok with that, even if the Stake President is not.

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