Gospel Principles 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)

  1. What were Alma’s sins? He was actively trying to destroy the church of God, among other things. (see Alma 36:6)
  2. How did Alma learn he needed to repent? An angel appeared to him and struck him dumb, for three days. (see verse 6-10)
  3. 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.

  1. What are my sins? Well, personally, I’m kind of a jerk sometimes.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.

Note: This lesson was originally written for the Relief Society audience in 2010-2011, when the Gospel Principles manual was temporarily used as curriculum for Relief Society, Elders Quorum and High Priest classes. The lesson may require adaptation for Gospel Principles classes, which are mixed gender and primarily serve new members and investigators of the church.


Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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17 Responses

  1. TA says:

    This outline gives a wonderful perspective on repentance, and has that often elusive potential to be a truly phenomenal lesson with a little class participation. How I wish I could look forward to being in your RS class on Sunday!

  2. Kara Henry says:

    I think you’ve done a nice job here.

    I’d like to add a few of my thoughts. I think the most important part to emphasize when we talk about repentance is hope. Hope through Christ. The act of repentance is constant process. It’s never over. It doesn’t have a beginning and end. It is a constant choice to put our hope and faith in Christ. It is an act of choosing him, in believing in his grace. Through that, he makes us more than we can ever be on our own. If we go through the steps of repentance over and over and we don’t have that, we are missing the key ingredient that makes it all work. Sometimes we focus on what we can do, but it’s not about what we can do, it’s about what Christ can do. Without him, we are powerless. He suffered that we might not have to. Sometimes we think that we have to suffer over and over so that we deserve forgiveness for out sins, but I don’t think it has to be like that. We don’t deserve forgiveness, but he offers it anyway. It is his great and wonderful and glorious gift!

    And if I was teaching this lesson, I would want the sisters to catch that vision and that love! Forget about the steps of repentance. It all pales in contrast to his great love and atonement!

  3. Lisseth says:

    I want to thank you both for being so wonderful and sharing your thoughts and ideas. For keeping ideas in line with the lessons, so that I can also share them with the class! I love the gospel and especially the gift of repentance… As mortals we need this gift daily. As we strive to do what is right Our Heavenly Father sees our efforts and will always provide a way for us to be better children, so we can return to Him…. Thank you again!

  4. Robin says:

    Thank you for sharing your outline and thoughts. I am a newly called RS teacher assigned to teach this lesson. I will be using many of these ideas!

  5. Tam says:

    There are also many talks from this General Conference that talked a lot about avoiding the ‘little sins’ that lead to greater sins. I’m glad for me that this lesson falls on the week after conference.
    Thanks for your ideas, as well.

  6. rachel says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your great ideas. I teach 2nd Sunday GP each month and I’ve found your site so helpful! Also, for anyone else interested in more ideas – the Feast Upon the Word blog always does an outline too. Here’s the link for the thoughts on this lesson: http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2010/10/03/rs-mp-lesson-19-repentance/

    I did feel differently than you on the James scripture!

    “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”

    I’ve found that scripture to be comforting and super helpful to both my intellectual and life-appying understanding of sin . It’s comforting because I think growing up I thought that every time I broke one of God’s commandments (which means every time I didn’t do or feel what He would do or feel in a situation) I was sinning. I think this is a common teaching/misunderstanding in the church. (Just ask a church member if someone could have sex outside of marriage without it being a sin and boy howdy I bet you’ll have a fight on your hands if you suggest they could.) But the older I get the less I believe this definition of sin. I’m not fully accountable – I’m still learning. And so is everyone else, so it is super helpful for me in laying down my judgment as well. I tend to look at other’s poor choices or attitudes and assume they’re sinners. With this scripture I get to be reminded that I have NO IDEA how much they “know/how much light and knowledge God has given them” so I have no idea how much of their negativity is sin and how much is simple ignorance that needs no repentance and certainly needs no judgment from me. That’s also why I disagree with the manual that we can sin because of ignorance. This scripture clearly states that we have to KNOW we’re doing wrong for it to be sin. Might we still need to change because of ignorance? Sure, but it won’t need repentance to change. That to me is a big difference and one that has significant implication in my life.

    • alyssa says:

      I think what the manual means is, we may not know we need to repent of it until that light and knowledge has been given to us. Someone who has not grown up or been taught that you don’t live with someone until you are married and then finds out it is wrong will still have to repent and get married to live with Heavenly Father again. There repentance process may not be as long and hard as someone that has been taught that but they will still have to repent before they are aloud to be baptized and move forward to becoming closer to Christ. I agree it is not our place to judge someone else because we don’t know at what level they are at and we are all learning at different levels. When they do get to that level and there ignorance turns to light and knowledge they will have to repent of it.

    • Jessica says:

      I think the right word for what you’re looking for is more naiveity… (I mean I don’t know if I spelled that right but still) I think of ignorance more of you assume you know right, or you know or a principle but think you know better. Being naive means you don’t know it at all.

  7. Debbie says:

    I am teaching this lesson on Sunday and have loved preparing for it. It has helped me focus in on my “bad habits and character flaws” that need some attention. I agree that most of the sisters we will be instructing do not need the focus on the major sins, hence a split focus including the refinement that must take place for each of us.
    I have a little different take on the James scripture than the above comment. It looks to me like this scripture deals with the sin of omission rather than comission. When we know to do good, and don’t, there is the sin. If I know I should stand up for someone who is being gossiped about, and don’t, that is a sin.
    I don’t think the manual that the church has recently republished to be used for RS and Priestood would have incorrect definitions. If we sin ignorantly, it is still a sin. When we come to realize it was wrong, we should still feel sorrow and go through all the steps of repentance. I believe these steps may be simplified because of our state of ignorance, the accountability may be a little different, but dishonesty, stealing, anger, fornication gossiping, etc. are all sins either way. (And there is the possibility of being held accountable for our ignorance, were we not at church or studying the scriptures like we knew we should be doing?) Thank goodness we don’t have to be making all these judgement calls about others! I certainly know I am sinning every day and hope others who are more knowledgable aren’t judging me.
    Thank you all for your comments and insights!

    • Jessica says:

      I agree completely, we may not know it’s wrong now… or other’s may not. But as stated earlier we all have to repent of those sins. They are still sins. If you’re not baptized and do not yet have a knowledge of the gospel it does not give you a free ride into the Celestial Kingdom. It merely allows you the chance to learn, and repent for yourselves. Ignorance is not the same as innocence. When we find out something is wrong we are still expected to go through the repentance process, although it would not be as harsh (I do not think) as if you already had a knowledge of those things and then KNOWINGLY chose to make a bad choice.

  8. Mist says:

    I am playing the song, There Is A Green Hill Far Away” to conclude my lesson. This will help to solidify what was mentioned about tying in the love of the Savior.

  9. Aly says:

    Thank you for all the info you all gave. I love the idea of playing the song “There is a green hill far away” That will definitely tie it all together! Thanks ladies for all the comments!

  10. Jesika says:

    staryfox- in the last bit of your outline you mentioned “but various scriptures seem to point to the idea that it is easier to make those changes before we die”. I was wondering if you happen to have those scripture refferences? I am intereested in reading them. Thanks.

    • Starfoxy says:

      I was thinking of things like:
      Alma 34:33-34
      Alma 42: 4-5, 13
      D&C 130:19
      I understand that there are various ways to interpret scriptures, but I understand those to mean that it is best to make our changes/repentance while mortal, not just because we’ve been told to, but because it is actually easier.

  11. C.L. Moore says:

    I am using the story of Lot’s wife and Elder Holland’s talk at BYU….it was wonderful…..We don’t continue looking back….but forward……we don’t dig up the pass we leave it buried when we have repented…..We don’t always know our sisters as well as we might think…..or the face they put on when they come to church……I have been RS President and at our times I have been very surprised…..so even if you don’t think they need some of the lesson on Repentance …..they absolutely do….This is a beautiful story on the love the Savior has for us

  12. Janis Stonehocker says:

    Thanks to all of you who have contributed to this lesson. I want to especially thank Starfoxy and C.L. Moore. I loved this lesson and you made me see things in it that I might have otherwise missed. I had never heard Elder Hollands talk “Remember Lot’s Wife” so I looked it up on the internet and read it just now. What a wonderful wonderful talk! I loved it! I think I will also end my lesson tomorrow with this example that we should never look back, always looking forward! Repentance is a wonderful gift!

  13. Lucy Owens says:

    Oh my gosh. Thank you for all your comments and ideas. I am so inspired to teach this lesson now. I’m always nervous because I don’t think that I am a good teacher, but thank you so much for all your thoughts and wonderful remarks.

    Have a very safe and Happy Halloween everyone. Thanks again for all your help.

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