I tend to think that, as a church, we don’t understand repentance very well. We have the 5 Rs down, but we still have the wrong attitude regarding it. It is viewed too often as distasteful or as unfortunate, instead of taking on the role that I think it has in the scriptures and in the Gospel. That role being the engine of the Atonement in our lives; the primary means for our becoming like the Father. I think that the reasons that we see repentance primarily in a negative light are, first, that we are ashamed of our sins (and we should be) and, second, we just don’t think repentance is powerful enough. My purpose today is to argue that the second of these reasons is based on unrealistic and unscriptural ideas about what repentance can do.
The comparison between insurance and repentance is a problematic one, but I’m going to make it anyway. I’m going to have to limit it, though. Insurance is, of course, the pooling of resources by a large group in order to better manage risk for the group (and to make a bit of money for the managers of the pool). More relevant than the reality of what insurance is, in my opinion, is the feeling that insurance gives us. It gives us a feeling of security, the feeling that if things go horribly wrong, they can be repaired. If your house burns down, you can build or buy a new one. If your car is wrecked, you can have it replaced. That which is broken, shall be fixed; that which is lost, shall be restored.
We have a tendency to view repentance in this manner. I’m not certain exactly how this came to be, but I’m going to lay the blame on a couple of scriptural passages that we may be misreading. The first is from Isaiah chapter 1.
16 Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land:
20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
The problem here is, I think, a tendency to emphasize verse 18 to the detriment of the rest of the passage. For the most part, our traditional understanding relies on the idea that our sins were white to begin with and that repentance restores them (and us) to a pre-Fall status. As if, whenever we repent, we are thrust back into the pre-mortal existence or, more likely, returned to our childhood. But though we would like to be as children, we are not children. The purpose and the thrust of repentance is not, nor has it ever been, to return us to the innocence prior to our fall. Life, the test, would truly be wasted time, misery, and pain if that were so. We repent to become, not to restore.
I’ll return to this passage, but, before I do, I want to spend some time on another passage that I think confuses the issue. In 1st Nephi 7, Nephi’s brothers and the sons of Ishmael rebel in the wilderness. They tie Nephi to a tree and plan to leave him there, to be eaten by wild animals. Eventually, they are convinced that they are behaving badly and the following takes place:
20 And it came to pass that they were sorrowful, because of their wickedness, insomuch that they did bow down before me, and did plead with me that I would forgive them of the thing that they had done against me.
21 And it came to pass that I did frankly forgive them all that they had done, and I did exhort them that they would pray unto the Lord their God for forgiveness. And it came to pass that they did so. And after they had done praying unto the Lord we did again travel on our journey towards the tent of our father.
This passage can be read as saying that the primary purpose of repentance is to achieve forgiveness. But this is a misreading. As part of repentance we can seek forgiveness, but forgiveness isn’t guaranteed (at least, not from anyone but God). Repentance may put us in a place where we have no desire to sin, but such is always necessarily a temporary state (or else, why are we here?). Certainly, the sincere repentance of Nephi’s brethren here did not prevent them from committing the same sins (over and over again). Should we assume that Nephi was mistaken about their sincerity (remember that he is writing this knowing that they will betray him and his father again and again later) or is something else going on?
One last quote to make my point. Note that I don’t consider the writings of President Obama (or his speechwriters) scripture. The following is an excerpt from his recent Oval Office address regarding the response to the BP oil spill:
You know, for generations, men and women who call this region home have made their living from the water. That living is now in jeopardy. I’ve talked to shrimpers and fishermen who don’t know how they’re going to support their families this year. I’ve seen empty docks and restaurants with fewer customers, even in areas where the beaches are not yet affected.
I’ve talked to owners of shops and hotels who wonder when the tourists might start coming back. The sadness and the anger they feel is not just about the money they’ve lost; it’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost.
I refuse to let that happen. Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.
And this fund will not be controlled by BP. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.
Beyond compensating the people of the Gulf in the short term, it’s also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region. The oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that’s already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation that has led to disappearing wetlands and habitats.
The problem with this portion of the speech is that, try as I might, I don’t believe the President. Sure, he might have the power to strongarm BP (and has already done so). Certainly, the Gulf Coast, never particularly economically privileged, has had a bad 5 years. But it is this line that invokes my disbelief, “I refuse to let that happen.” How? Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil have spilled into the Gulf in a manner that will alter the environment of the gulf, the marshes, the islands, the deltas, and the beaches for decades. People are going to lose their traditional way of life, because the world in which that life took place is not around any more. There will be (and should be) more regulation of off-shore oil drilling. There will be (and should be) a strong push to wean ourselves from fossil fuels (both of which are addressed in this same speech). But there simply is no way, no matter how much money we get from BP or spend ourselves, that the gulf coast will be unaltered or restored to “its unique beauty and bounty.” Or, rather, there is nothing humanly possible that can restore it. Of course, we should clean up what we can and we should do all that we can to restore the environment in that area, but promising people their “way of life” and declaring that it will be returned to its paradisaical glory is hubristic and impossible.
That said, I understand the impulse. The $20 billion from BP is supposed to be insurance and that is supposed to provide what insurance does: assurance. Forceful rhetoric is meant to assure (like that money does) that action will be taken and that determined effort will be applied to the problem until it is resolved. But resolution and restoration are two different things and clarity prevents unrealistic expectations. As with our individual falls and our individual repentance, this is an opportunity to become something better and should be treated as such, rather than a perpetual recycling of the status quo (which is why I like the rest of the speech much more than that passage).
Let’s run back to the Isaiah passage. Reading verse 18 in isolation, one might be tempted to assume that we were white to begin with. But reading verses 16 and 17 indicates that we were not. The command to cease from evil would tend to show that we were already somewhat pink (at least). Verses 16 and 17 ask us to change our behavior and become more like God. The promise in verse 18 is not that we will become what we were, but that we will become what we ought to be, which will be different. As we strive to fulfill the commandments, God promises that he will make us someone who is more capable of keeping the commandments (see Ether 12:27). Repentance is the means whereby God changes us, sin the means whereby we become sufficiently humble to seek that change.
However, neither of these affects only ourselves. Sin and Repentance both affect our environment, change it forever, for good or ill. To deny these changes is to sin again. While God asks us to forgive all, it is a further sin to demand our sins be forgiven by those whom we have wronged. Our bad choices do real damage, damage that we cannot correct merely by returning to our personal innocence. That’s why this notion of sin and repentance (that it is merely about committing and erasing sins) is not just wrongheaded, but instead potentially toxic. The promise of repentance is that, as our bad choices brought about pain, misery, and suffering, our good choices, born of our repentance, can bring about joy, consolation, and wholeness. We have no means to restore broken relationships, much as we can’t restore the dead to life (usually). But we can build new relationships, born of changed hearts that understand they can be broken, because they can be reformed stronger.
Insurance (and President Obama) assure by promising a return to a golden era that may or may not have ever existed. Repentance, properly understood and pursued, promises the creation of a new golden you, over time and in this flawed world, capable of suffering for and from the sins of the world, but more capable of emulating the pure love of Christ and providing light thereby. I suggest that we should, personally and institutionally, look forward to that perfect day, rather than imagining how the film of our past life will look at our judgment. Repent, become good, and leave the rest to God; that’s my testimony today.