Revise and resubmit

I’ve been thinking about the way that many religious words accumulate baggage. Over time they automatically evoke certain moods. They become weighed down by definitions and experiences and feelings to the point that they basically lose their power.

Take the word “repentance” for example. When you read or hear that word, stop and pay close attention to how your body reacts. What thoughts come to mind? Is it a positive feeling? People who’ve been wounded by religion might feel really tense. Their fight or flight response is triggered. It begins to open drawers full of painful memories. It might smell stuffy and stale. It might even seem merely quaint.

For other people, the word is so familiar that it’s lost its ability to provoke or challenge. It might slip right past the consciousness of religious people who think of themselves as devout, like they already know everything it means. They’ve mastered it. They know how to describe its process using a few simple “r” letter words.

In either case, I think the word “repentance” becomes worse than useless. It evokes pain or contempt on the one hand and self-satisfied hypocrisy on the other. I think it can be helpful to rethink old ideas using new terms.

Instead of “repentance,” what if we think of “revision”? Reviewing the past, however far or immediate—it could be years, it could be minutes—and then trying to make something better out of it. Fixing mistakes, filling in gaps, learning and growing.

I thought of the connection between repentance and revision during a discussion I had with author Kiese Laymon. Revision is a theme he returns to again and again in his writing, like he’s still in the process of revising his approach to revision itself. Kiese believes in the power of revision as a life practice, not just a writing tool.

Here’s an excerpt:

KIESE LAYMON: I think writing is the bedrock of my practice of revision—looking at how I’ve lived a day, lived a relationship, lived a piece of art, and then going back and assessing what my vision for that day or that art or that life was, and then trying to revise it and make it better. That’s how I live my writing life. And that’s how I try to live my real life.

I just think revision is the most important gift we can give to any kid in this world. And I just think adults have a hard time modeling it. So I’m just trying to be better at that myself.

BLAIR HODGES: That takes me back to your novel Long Division , because when you do long division, the math—you know, teachers are always saying, “Show your work,” right? And if you show your work, and the sum is incorrect, you can go back and revise.

KIESE LAYMON: Yes! That’s the point.

BLAIR HODGES: And when people don’t show their work, when they hide their long division, and they come up with the wrong answer, they’re not going to revise it.

KIESE LAYMON: Right! How about we do the work and see where the mistakes are, see where the successes are. Like that’s it, bruh, that’s what Long Division is. I’m asking these young Black characters, these young Jewish characters, these young white characters, to go back—and they’re telling us, like, “we’re gonna show you the work. And we want y’all adults to show your work too!” And that’s the only way we can talk about whether the work is deadly or loving or triumphant. But when everybody’s trying to hide their work, you can’t revise that way.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts about what “repentance” evokes for you. Or what do you think of substituting a new word for it? Does that change the original concept beyond recognition? Is it a useful way to resurrect our religious language when it risks becoming stagnant? And I’m also wondering what other religious language you might have mental substitutes for. When it comes to our religious vocabulary, sometimes I feel the need to revise a little bit.


  1. Thanks for these excellent and useful thoughts, Blair.

    I associate Mormon discourse about repentance with three ideas that probably create more problems than they solve: 1) suffering is a necessary element of repentance; 2) there is a prescribed formula of actions that constitute “repentance,” and 3) repentance restores a state of purity. I only want to say something about the third idea.

    In my experience, the idea that repentance restores a state of purity is never stated overtly, but it’s strongly implied. The usual description of repentance focuses on the actions of repenting, followed by a blissful state of relief that is the reward for repentance. This suggests a repeating cycle that goes like this: blissful happiness, followed by a sin, followed by the torment of being in a sinful state, followed by the torment of repentance, followed by a return to an inert state of bliss. The active decisions of day-to-day life must, of course, be happening somewhere under the surface of this model, but they are not a core part of this description of repentance.

    Repentance as revision is a more accurate description of what life is actually like. Moving forward, making decisions, dealing constructively with life as it happens—those things ought to be the point of repentance. Achieving greater peace is a wonderful blessing, but it’s not the ultimate goal. And becoming pure seems to me entirely beside the point. Greater peace and communion with the Spirit are byproducts of actively, consistently revising our lives to be more in tune with God’s purposes.

  2. Wow Loursat, thanks for all that! I like how you laid out those three ideas.

    Achieving greater peace is a wonderful blessing, but it’s not the ultimate goal.

    This made me realize as if for the first time that repentance, or revision, can actually make things more difficult. It can get you in real trouble. It can bring additional pain that could be otherwise avoided by not revising.

  3. Not a Cougar says:

    I can think of only one time I really went through a rigorous repentance process that involved clergy. It was very distressing and uncomfortable and I do not look back on it as a good or uplifting experience nor can I honestly say that I felt restored to God afterward. At the very least it didn’t feel anything like seminary and Institute videos made it look.

    Separately, gotta say I’m disappointed there’s not a General Conference rumors post. They are always among my favorites.

  4. Most of our biblical language is so strictly religious in nature across a thousand plus years of use that’s so arcane it’s worse than a foreign language.

    The german umkehren, turn around, turn back is better.

    If you’re not a reflexive enemy of anything that Jordan Peterson extrapolates with that nebulous mind of his, I also find enlightenment from his approach to the word “sin”. (far better than Obama’s approach to defining sin at least)

    JP isn’t the first with the observation, but I appreciate his emphasis on connecting “sin” to “missing the mark” in archery connotation. Therefore, I filled in the next step based on his definition that to repent is to readjust our aim on the target to hit the mark.

    It fits will with the german definition as well.

    All of this connect back to the idea of discipleship – focus your life on Jesus Christ and aim for him. Where you fail, readjust your aim, readjust your course and get back on the discipleship path. That’s what it means to repent. Failure in this context is not a massive failure (although it also is that). But any failure (sin) is when we don’t live up to our commitment to follow Christ. When we repeent, we are both focused on Christ and aware of our actions and seeking to bring our actions inline with Christ so we can follow him.

    To take an extra bit from King Benjamin, we then retain a remission of our sins when we have not only repented (focused our life back on Christ), but incorporated Christ like love and discipleship into our actions with our fellow man, specifically the poor, needy, suffering, etc. lifting them up as Christ would.

    The ultimate goal of our discipleship, of course, becoming like Christ, for when we see him will be like him, because we’ve spent our entire lives adjusting our course/aim/repenting to follow him.

  5. I remember a Gospel Doctrine discussion from a few years ago where the scripture was Jesus calling somebody (I forget the details) to go and preach the gospel of repentance. A class member mentioned how they didn’t like how some people complicate discipleship with a bunch of other “stuff”; all that’s needed is repentance. I asked a question along the lines of needing to know more, such as what to repent of, but was told that all that’s needed is repentance.
    What I don’t want to have happen is something thinking that they need to repent of something when they don’t. I know that the Lord does not command in all things, and while that vagueness can be good at times, I also don’t want to misjudge a situation and “repent” of something that wasn’t in need of repenting of.

  6. I once heard a story of a friend receiving persistent promptings to go do a thing, multiple times.
    Each time they heeded the promptings, without really knowing why, maybe with an inner eyeroll or some confusion. Not much later, after they discovered the reason for the prompting, they “repented.” I wondered why they felt the need to use the word “repent” to describe their attitude when they had obediently followed a prompting without understanding why. “Gratitude” or “humility” would have been better descriptors.

    Another term along those lines is “unworthiness.” God himself thought we were worth the investment of Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf – therefore, we are!

    It’s like we take this approach to God of being sorry for our weakness and failures, all the time. God knows us for who and what we are, so why do we need to keep apologizing for being who and what we are? I love the idea of revision. Of course we can do better.

  7. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    This is an interesting take, and causes me to think through these ideas that we often use uncritically. Repentance really can be tricky. I believe that we can “repent” and be made clean. I believe in that power, and it’s effects. But it really is a vague concept. And, as with all such concepts what we have today, it is a version that has been ritualized and codified and modified to fit into something that can be reduced to a simple process that can be easily explained and accomplished. Not that repenting is necessarily easy, but understanding what is required is simplistic and readily teachable. But that’s the problem. We’ve turned repenting into a task, something that we can work through and reach conclusion. But that’s not how change works. Revision is a continuous process. In fact, revision will never be complete in this life. That’s not the simple message of repentance that is we want to hear, though. Sometimes we revise and move on. Other times we revise, and revise, and even return back to a previous revision. It’s not linear. Life isn’t linear.

  8. sute, you got me, I am a reflexive rejecter of Jordan Peterson! I’ve yet to encounter anything good from him that I haven’t heard from somewhere else, and due to all his misogyny, transphobia, and racism I don’t spend any more time engaging with his thoughts on anything other than to know what kind of bad ideas he’s spreading to his millions of followers! The archery image is nice, though.

    jader3rd, yeah how much time do we spend worrying about how we’ve messed up versus focusing on doing good?

    Ann: I think worthiness discourse is pretty problematic!

    Turtle, I like how you put this: “We’ve turned repenting into a task, something that we can work through and reach conclusion. But that’s not how change works. Revision is a continuous process. In fact, revision will never be complete in this life.”

  9. Hmmm. Well, I will add my critical thinking that a careful reading or listening of Jordan Peterson leads me to conclude that he is much less misogynistic, transphobic, and racist than Oaks, Bednar, or Nelson, and the variety of prophets and apostles that preceded them. In fact, I find absolutely nothing racist, transphobic, or misogynistic about Mr. Peterson. I realize his detractors, opponents, and enemies paint him that way, and I can understand even how they interpret his words, I just think they are wrong and not listening to what he is actually saying. I think he is wrong on some of his conclusions, but I think he is honest and has good intentions. But isn’t it interesting how we can each listen to or read the same things and come away with such different interpretations or conclusions? How many Christian denominations interpret the same passage of scripture differently? Is it faith or works that saves us? Is God a spirit or an exalted man? Was Brigham Young a racist jerk or following God’s will? Was Joseph Smith compelled by an angel to live polygamy or was he a sexual predator? You won’t get a consensus. So what is repentance? Hmmm. Ask 10 people and get 12 answers. Personally, I loathe the word ‘repentance’. It conjures up bad memories and emotional pain. It is not peaceful and redeeming to me. No, it is dirty, manipulative, and degrading. But that is me. I can appreciate that some people find it beautiful. And so it goes with most of life. I am not trying to start an off-topic thread debating the words of Jordan Peterson; rather, I am using that as an example to illustrate how we complicated and emotional humans bring our own biased baggage and life experience to the table of topics (myself included). I admire Jordan Peterson and hate repentance. To many others, it is the opposite, and so be it. Repent if you want, change if you want, grow if you want, progress if you want, come to peace with yourself if you want, revise if you want. Or don’t.

  10. When I first read the word baggage, I immediately thought of the chapter in Patrick Mason’s book Restoration where he discusses baggage the church needs to ditch in order to move forward. Then as I read the post, I realized you were talking specifically about language and thought of Lera Borodisky’s fascinating TEDWomen talk about how language shapes the way we think. Words are important. They do accumulate baggage over time.

    Thoughts that repentance evokes for me is reading The Scarlet Letter in English class; meaning shame and punishment. Revision definitely feels like a better fit for what is intended. As for other words that have become stagnant, there are many to choose from. I would like to see qualification interview instead of worthiness interview, moderate instead of modest, and congregation instead of ward. The podcast At Last She Said It has an episode call “What About Blessings?” that does an excellent job of addressing how we use that word and how revising how we think about that word completely changes our concept of blessings. So good.

    Then there is the entire category how how women are referred to in the church. I can’t even start with that one or I will end up in a knot of frustration. Plus, others have already documented the changes that would be helpful in this category to help us as a church see women as fully formed human beings who are individuals in their own right instead of viewing women as appendages to husbands.

  11. Tim:

    “Well, I will add my critical thinking that a careful reading or listening of Jordan Peterson leads me to conclude that he is much less misogynistic, transphobic, and racist than Oaks, Bednar, or Nelson, and the variety of prophets and apostles that preceded them.”

    You go on to say:

    “I realize his detractors, opponents, and enemies paint him that way, and I can understand even how they interpret his words, I just think they are wrong and not listening to what he is actually saying.”

    I like Jordan Peterson as well–for the most part. Let’s try to be as responsive to the words of the prophets by listening with an open heart and mind to what the have to say.

  12. I think language and culture are products of each other. And as such we may want think about how a less than perfect–if not down-right evil–culture influences our religious discourse. It may cause us to approach the scriptures or prophetic counsel or what-have-you with a worldly (and therefore inadequate) hermeneutic–or even a jaundiced disposition.

    I think we can find many different expressions of repentance in the Book of Mormon–there’s not only one way of looking at it. Even so, if I had to boil it all down to one simple idea it’d be something like: repentance is turning our hearts to God.

  13. Tina: thank you for that! Excellent examples of words that have accumulated baggage.

    Jack: I think we can find many different expressions of repentance in the Book of Mormon–there’s not only one way of looking at it.

    More of this at church please! So often we nail down one culturally-permeating definition and lock it in without thinking of alternative ways to think about things.

  14. Blair, debates about μετανοέω/metanoeo are well-trod territory so I won’t elaborate, but your OP reminds me of the distinction between a “remorse” sense and a “turning” sense for what is usually rendered repent or repentance in English. There’s a translation history and debate–more than linguistic but also messaging and theology.

    Just one clip from Wikipedia:
    “In the New Testament the μετανοέω/metanoeo word group can mean remorse but is generally translated as a turning away from sin (Matthew 3:2). Theologically ‘repentance’, the turning away from sin is linked to a corresponding turn to faith in God.”

  15. I think of repentance less as suffering for our sins as a means to pay for them, although suffering often comes as a consequence, but more as us turning towards the example of Christ, being more charitable, serving others, and loving like Christ does. It’s more about reconciling us to God than reconciling God to us. I know that kind of thinking got Eugene England in trouble, but it makes more sense to me that way.

  16. I am sure my feelings about repentance come from my life experience, but I have found our cultural rejection of shame to be counterproductive and extremely damaging to the victims of sin, especially what we used to recognize as serious sin.
    Too often I have watched friends suffer through the destruction of their marriages through adultery or abuse and then have to deal with their ex-spouse’s return to activity, remarriage and call to church callings of leadership and trust while they are treated as second class citizens of the kingdom because they are divorced or still members of singles wards.
    I realize the church needs to provide a path back for these people. Perhaps it should not be through positions of leadership. I remember reading a book written by a former mission president concerning his repentance process following adultery. He expressed his fear he would not be called to important positions again. He expressed his concern about the effect news of his excommunication would have on his former missionaries and his parents. Never once did he acknowledge the destruction his actions caused in the life of his wife. Not once in the entire Deseret Book published book was his wife even mentioned.
    The speed with which bishops and stake presidents rush the sinners back into full fellowship without any attempt to actually hold the sinners accountable for the trust they destroyed or their need to provide meaningful remorse expressed to their children and former spouses has astonished me. Only when the pattern is repeated does the priesthood leadership realize the person was never repentant in any meaningful way, but I have yet to witness the leaders’ realization that their actions contributed to the suffering of the victims.
    In the public world people are being held to account through the MeToo movement and public shaming of those who associated with men such as Jeffrey Epstein. In the church I hear only the same old excuses. “How could I have known,” the bishop says. Followed by ” Of course I have the gift of discernment. It is part of my calling. So follow me.” What I have seen too often in the church is a going through the motions of making people think they are heard without any attempt to actually solve problems. Of course, members treated in such a manner recognize their leaders are actually only checking boxes rather than actually providing help. “Met with despairing sister. That duty done. On to the fireside with the Young Men.”
    I am sorry, but you will need both to heal the damage you have done and prove your right to lead before I will trust again.
    True repentance needed, even if some are publicly shamed in mortality. After all, what will be more publicly shaming than arriving in the spirit world where all will be able to recognize your unrepented sins. How terrible to know you are visible as an unrepentant abuser or adulterer. Or as a former church leader who is not welcome in the homes of thise he once led. How much better to arrive as a stain free follower of Christ, even if it cost you something in mortality. Perhaps a blow to your ego. Perhaps a recognition of how truly selfish you were. And how much you needed the Atonement.

%d bloggers like this: