Repentance: Painful or Joyful?

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Repentance is a huge concept, both in Mormonism and biblical Christianity. But what it means differs drastically between the two.

Biblical repentance describes a change of mind. That is what the original Greek word literally means. As we delve further into biblical usage, it becomes apparent that the Bible uses it to describe two different changes of mind. Sometimes it refers to how the Holy Spirit works a change of mind in regard to sin. In that context, it is all about a person switching from delighting in sin to sorrow over sin.

But the Bible often uses it in a broader sense to describe the change of mind in regard to who people trust. The Holy Spirit causes people not only to despair of themselves as they see the damnable nature of sin, but he also works faith in their hearts. They change their mind from trusting in self to trusting in Jesus. This is the repentance that makes heaven rejoice. “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

This repentance brings joy, not just to angels, but also to the repentant person. Nobody exemplifies them more than repentant Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). He eagerly and joyfully welcomed the Lord. On top of that, without any prompting from Jesus, he immediately gave half of his possessions to the poor. I can just see him doing this with a huge smile on his face.

Joy, however, is the last word associated with LDS repentance. This is seen in how it is described in the LDS manual, True to the Faith. I like to quote from this manual because it is approved by the First Presidency of the LDS Church. In fact, right at the beginning there is a message from them that, among other things, states: “Use it as a resource when you prepare talks, teach classes, and answer questions about the Church.”

So what does it say about repentance? “Repentance is a painful process, but it leads to forgiveness and lasting peace.” (p. 133) Yes, this does mention forgiveness and lasting peace. But the thing that is emphasized is the painful process as it continues by listing six steps to repentance. I want to zero in on just a couple of statements.

The fourth step is entitled: Abandonment of Sin. It quotes D&C 58:43 which talks about forsaking sin. Abandoning and forsaking are two very strong words. And nowhere is the word “try” used. It doesn’t say try to abandon or forsake. To be truly repentant, according to official Mormonism, a person must not try to abandon or forsake the sin. They must do it! This is emphasized in the manual. “Maintain an unyielding, permanent resolve that you will never repeat the transgression.”

Imagine trying to live up to that. Imagine repenting of worrying and never worrying again. Imagine repenting of not treating your spouse lovingly and never doing that again. Imagine repenting of speaking evil about the government, and never doing that again. Imagine how you would feel if you repeated the sin? That meant that you weren’t truly repentant.

This thought of forsaking sin comes up again in the sixth step entitled: Righteous Living. “It is not enough to simply try to resist evil or empty your life of sin.” Empty your life of sin? Really? I am not fully repentant until I do that?

The reason I have gone into such depth is because talk of repentance is so common in Mormonism. Mormons bring it up quite early in conversations about spiritual matters. So it is essential that you know Mormonism’s doctrine of it.

When we point out the above, Mormons commonly respond by talking about trying. But, as I noted above, the idea of trying is not found in this official statement of their doctrine.  In fact, one of their living prophets, Spencer W. Kimball, said: “There is one crucial test of repentance. This is the abandonment of sin. . .The saving power does not extend to him who merely wants to change his life. . .Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin. To try is weak.” (Sharing the Gospel Manual, p. 94).

Instead of the painful process of LDS repentance, may we share with them the joy people experience when they realize Jesus came to do what we couldn’t do. Jesus lived a life empty of sin because we couldn’t.  Through faith, we receive all the credit for that. Then, because we couldn’t abandon sin, he paid the price for them all on the cross – as his gift to us. That type of repentance, when I trust in Jesus’ work and not my one work, is liberating and joyful. That is what puts a smile on our face.

May God help us share that joy so others can smile with us.