Relief Society Lesson 19: Repentance
While reading through the manual and trying to apply the lesson to myself and imagine sharing the lesson with the Relief Society sisters in my ward, something felt off about it. I think it was because of the parts that said this:
if we have stolen something, we will steal no more. If we have lied, we will lie no more. If we have committed adultery, we will stop. (pg 110)
In addition, we must confess serious sins—such as adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, spouse or child abuse, and the sale or use of illegal drugs… (pg 111)
Maybe I’m a starry-eyed idealist but I don’t think that the majority of the sisters in my ward are drug dealers or similar. Certainly there are people, probably people in my ward even, who are committing serious sins and do have need of the sort of heart wrenching, life changing complete turnaround sort of repentance that the woman on pg. 108 appears to be working through. I’ve had to do that and it was bitter, but worthwhile work. The people who are, or one day will be, working through those sorts of sins would almost certainly benefit from the lesson as written.
That said, I don’t think a lesson on repentance that only focuses on the big serious sorts of sins will be helpful to the majority of active church goers. Most of us tend to think we’re doing more or less okay. Yet those of us who do think we’re doing okay are the very ones that need to be knocked out of our complacency.
All of this is a round about way of saying that I think the lesson can be taught on one of two levels. One, the level dealing with serious sins- the sorts of sins that require heart wrenching, complete turnaround sorts of repentance. Or two, the level dealing with bad habits and character flaws- the sorts of sins that require ongoing, low-level changes continuing for the rest of our lives. Which level would be best for your situation is up to you.
Now that I have that out of the way here is my outline.
What is sin?
The manual brings up the story of Alma the younger, which makes sense as it is THE scripture story about repentance. (write these questions on the board and discuss the answers)
- What were Alma’s sins? He was actively trying to destroy the church of God, among other things. (see Alma 36:6)
- How did Alma learn he needed to repent? An angel appeared to him and struck him dumb, for three days. (see verse 6-10)
- How did Alma repent? While he was ‘dumb’ he went through the entire repentance process, and when he woke he was a changed man (17-21).
While Alma’s story is great to read, and very illustrative of many important things, it isn’t exactly representative of how repentance works for most of us.
So lets start with this “What is sin?” James 4:17 says
Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.
Ouch- there are a lot of good things I know about but aren’t doing. I don’t know if it useful to call all those things ‘sins,’ especially if that would make us think of ourselves as bad people. We’re not bad people, but we can be better by repenting. Pg 109 of the manual says
Repentance is the way provided for us to become free from our sins [or our bad habits, character flaws, weaknesses etc] and receive forgiveness for them. Sins [bad habits] slow our spiritual progression and can even stop it. Repentance makes it possible for us to grow and develop spiritually again.
So lets go back to those questions we asked about Alma and put ourselves in there.
- What are my sins? Well, personally, I’m kind of a jerk sometimes.
- How do I learn that I need to repent of being a jerk? I’m certainly never going to get an angel appearing to me and saying “Hey, you’re kind of a jerk sometimes. You should work on that.” (at this point I would brainstorm ways that we can learn what bad habits and character flaws would be most worthwhile to work on. Things I thought of are: prayer, scripture study, selecting character traits of people I admire, sources of conflict)
- How do I repent? (it would be really easy to get bogged down in this section so try to move along at a fair pace)
- Recognize- An important part of this is to not make excuses. See Alma 42:30
- Feel sorrow- I think this is less about tears and guilt and more about having a real desire to change. To want to act differently, and be a different sort of person. Genuine desire for change becomes the fuel for actions.
- Forsake- The manual says that you should stop the offending behaviors. Most people who’ve tried know that offending behaviors must be displaced rather than simply removed. In order to not do the bad things you were doing before you must actively replace those things with good behaviors.
- Confess- For serious sins this often involves going to the bishop. I don’t think we need to be telling the bishop about all our bad habits, but rather we can make use of friends. Telling others about our goals is a good way to motivate ourselves to follow through. I also think that confessing can be as simple as praying about it, admitting to God that we have a problem and need help with it.
- Restitution- I think that this also follows naturally from the genuine sorrow and desire to be better. Trying to repair situations we’ve created is also an important way of allowing ourselves to put our bad behaviors behind us.
- Forgive others- I don’t have anything to add to this one other than that forgiving seems to be it’s own commandment that we should be working on repenting for anyways.
- Keep other commandments- see ‘forgive others’
So what does this look like in actual practice? I know someone who started out as kind of a big jerk and now, years (almost decades) later he is actually a very nice man. The change was almost imperceptible day to day, but looking on a larger scale there is a clear change, and he’s not done yet. So really, this process of repentance and change is life long. And to me that is exciting! I have my whole life to work on being the sort of person I want to be. Once you’ve moved past being actively bad like Alma was, the repentance process can be fun. We get to decide what sort of wonderful person we want to be and get Christ’s help in making it happen. How wonderful is that? See Alma 36:20
The manual ends on kind of a downer- The dire warning that “now is the time.” Rather than be doom and gloomy I would point out that there is something special about being mortal that makes it easier (or makes it possible) to make changes to our very nature. It’s easy to think that it will be easier to be better after we die (and are on the other side of the veil), but various scriptures seem to point to the idea that it is easier to make those changes before we die. We are living in this unique state where we can do so much so fast that we would be foolish to let it pass us by.