For most of my life, I’ve struggled with repentance. I knew it was important and that I should do it, but I didn’t fully understand it. And because it was something I didn’t do well, I felt discouraged whenever someone would emphasize its importance in a talk.
It got to the point where I even disliked hearing the word repentance because it reminded me of something I wasn’t doing. It seemed as though I was falling behind, and the longer this problem continued, the further behind I got.
Finally, I heard the following statement in general conference from then–Young Men General President Stephen W. Owen, and I began to think differently: “The joy of repentance is more than the joy of living a decent life. It’s the joy of forgiveness, of being clean again, and of drawing closer to God. Once you’ve experienced that joy, no lesser substitute will do.”1
Another general conference talk awakened in me a further desire to do better. President Russell M. Nelson said: “Whether you are diligently moving along the covenant path, have slipped or stepped from the covenant path, or can’t even see the path from where you are now, I plead with you to repent. Experience the strengthening power of daily repentance—of doing and being a little better each day.”2
As I did my best to follow this counsel, I found answers to concerns and gained a better understanding of the blessings of repentance. Yet I wondered what I still didn’t understand about repentance that was making it so hard.
One difficulty for me was that I couldn’t remember all the sins I’d committed on a given day. I felt sure there were some I’d forgotten. How could I repent of all my sins if I couldn’t remember them all?
This question had troubled me since I was a newly baptized eight-year-old. I knew I needed to repent, but what eight-year-old keeps a tally of every sin he commits so he can repent of them? I remember on one occasion kneeling in prayer and saying, “Heavenly Father, I repent of all my sins!” I doubted doing it that way was adequate, but I didn’t really know what else to do.
I later found an answer in the Book of Mormon. Alma 38:14 teaches: “Do not say: O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren; but rather say: O Lord, forgive my unworthiness. … Yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times.”
Acknowledging our unworthiness before God helps us to be humble, which is essential to repentance. In addition, we can ask Heavenly Father to help us see the things in our lives that need to be repented of, changed, or improved. He surely knows what we need to change to become more like Him, and He will prompt our minds and hearts if we ask with a sincere desire to change and repent.
The other difficulty I had with repentance was that I didn’t fully understand the concept of forsaking our sins. Doctrine and Covenants 58:43 says: “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.”
I believed that forsaking our sins meant promising that we wouldn’t ever commit them again. Did this mean that if I did commit them again, then I didn’t really forsake them in the first place? And when I knelt in prayer to confess and forsake my sins, did my awareness of my own weaknesses—the fact that I might repeat the sin again—mean I wasn’t really forsaking my sins? But I learned that forsaking my sins is more than just being sorry for them. If being sorry is all I do, then I probably haven’t forsaken them.
Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shared this insight: “The Christian writer C. S. Lewis wrote about the need and the method for change. He noted that repentance involves ‘being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right,’ he said, ‘but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.’ Changing our behavior and returning to the ‘right road’ are part of repentance, but only part. Real repentance also includes a turning of our heart and will to God and a renunciation of sin. As explained in Ezekiel, to repent is to ‘turn from … sin, … do that which is lawful and right; … restore the pledge, … [and] walk in the statutes of life, without committing iniquity’ [Ezekiel 33:14–15].”3
As I prayed for help with repentance, I expressed to Heavenly Father that I truly wanted to change and was willing to change. I knew the Lord would help me. And indeed, He did help me change.
At first, sometimes the change wasn’t permanent and I needed to try again. But the efforts we make matter to the Lord. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “With the gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the strength of heaven to help us, we can improve, and the great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed.”4
Since gaining this understanding of repentance, I have felt more confident in my ability to follow this counsel given by President Nelson: “Nothing is more liberating, more ennobling, or more crucial to our individual progression than is a regular, daily focus on repentance. Repentance is not an event; it is a process. It is the key to happiness and peace of mind. When coupled with faith, repentance opens our access to the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”5
When I made the decision to repent better, I had no idea it would have such a far-reaching and lasting influence on my life. The blessings that have come are real. I came to realize that the feelings of discouragement I had were from the enemy of my soul, who didn’t want me to repent. I also came to realize that I was not so much always falling behind through my failure to repent as I was sometimes simply forfeiting blessings I could have received if I’d made more of an effort to do the things I could be doing.
As I have continued to do my best to repent each day, I’ve felt God’s love and direction in ways I could have scarcely imagined before. I no longer feel weighed down by sin. I have come to recognize the privilege and blessing that repentance really is. I now understand what Brother Owen said: “Once you’ve experienced [the joy of repentance], no lesser substitute will do.”