Repentance is the second principle of the gospel, and as such, it plays a foundational role in LDS theology. But unfortunately, it is a topic that many LDS leaders and teachers have misconceptions about. This is problematic from a church perspective because if LDS leaders and teachers have misconceptions about repentance, then it seems likely that these misconceptions are being and will be perpetuated. Additionally, this is problematic from an individual perspective because if repentance is something we all need to engage in, yet we do not have an accurate understanding of it, we are not going to engage in repentance in the most effective ways.

In Fall, 2017, Leading Saints administered a survey to its followers. One of the questions asked was a fill-in-the-blank question: What is repentance? Out of 160 people that took the survey, 112 answered this question. All but one respondent held a calling and nearly all respondents are currently serving in some form of leadership or teaching capacity. For example, 16% of the sample were Bishops.

After reviewing the responses to this question, I had two primary observations. First, there is little consistency in the definitions of repentance. Some examples included:

  • “Changing your evil ways” (Elders Quorum President)
  • “Being sorry and really meaning it” (Primary President)
  • “Having a change of heart and mind” (Bishop)
  • “Improvement or overcoming the natural man” (Stake President)
  • “The ability to make amends and start anew” (Relief Society President)

Second, four clear myths associated with repentance arose:

Myth #1: Repentance is overcoming, turning away from, or rising above sin
Myth #2: Repentance is a process or a series of steps
Myth #3: Repentance is having godly sorrow/Godly sorrow is necessary for repentance
Myth #4: Repentance is about changing behaviors

The purpose of this article is to “bust” or correct these misconceptions. I hope that by doing so, LDS leaders and members can come to a clearer understanding of repentance, to be able to better teach the topic and to be able to effectively engage in repentance to become more like our ultimate example, Jesus Christ.

Myth #1: Repentance is overcoming, turning away from, or rising above sin

Out of the 112 responses, 31 (28%) stated that repentance is overcoming, turning away from, or rising above sin. While this is not altogether wrong, it is also not altogether right. It is important to realize that sin is not a necessary prerequisite for repentance.

To better understand this, it is necessary to get at the heart of repentance. At its core, repentance is having a change of mind and heart. The Bible Dictionary specifically states that the Greek translation of repentance “denotes a change of mind.” LDS.org states that repentance “is a change of mind and heart that gives us a fresh view about God, about ourselves, and about the world.”

While we likely need a change of mind and heart when we sin, we may also need a change of mind and heart when we do not sin.

To simplify this, I believe that we have a tendency to think that repentance is about going from bad to good. But, repentance is also going from good to great, and this may not involve sin at all.

Let me give you an example. I used to be a Sunday school president. In my ward, there was a teacher that primarily relied upon lecture-style teaching. While the teacher did a good job of covering the material in the lesson manual, there was very little participation in the class. And, when a student asked a question, the teacher often ignored the question because that meant deviating from the teacher’s prepared outline. Multiple times, I tried to encourage this teacher to create more discussion in the class, but the teacher’s common response was, “I am teaching in the way prescribed in the church manuals.”

Was this individual sinning? I do not believe so. But, could this person have been a better instrument in the hands of God had he/she been more willing to change his/her mind and heart? I believe so.

I would like to hope that most of us are living our lives with limited need to repent because of sins we commit. But, that does not mean that we do not need repentance. I would like to hope that the repentance that most of us needs is refining our minds and hearts as we strive to move from good to great.

Myth #2: Repentance is a process or a series of steps

When I was a missionary, I experimented with different ways to teach repentance. One that was simple and memorable was the ABC’s of repentance. I would teach that repentance is a series of steps that includes:

  1. Acknowledging that you have done something wrong
  2. Be sorry
  3. Confess
  4. Don’t do it again

From the survey, 20 of the 112 responses (18%) defined repentance as a process or a series of steps. Some of the shorter examples include, “Being sorry, never doing it again, make it right if possible,” and “An act and process of receiving forgiveness of our sins and becoming sanctified.”

But, as I defined in the previous section, repentance is not about a process, steps, or boxes to check off. Repentance is about change. While a process, steps, or boxes to check off can be helpful in inducing change, they are not necessary. Change can be instantaneous. I can go from seeing life in an unhealthy way to seeing it in a more healthy way (i.e., changing my mind and heart) in a matter of moments.

Further, it seems possible to go through the steps of repentance (checking off all the boxes), yet still not fully changing our minds and hearts. Just because someone has acknowledged that they have done something wrong, felt sorry, confessed it, and stopped doing it does not necessarily mean that they have changed their mind or heart.

Myth #3: Repentance is having godly sorrow/Godly sorrow is necessary for repentance

As mentioned above, one of the things that I taught as a missionary was that it was necessary to “be sorry” in order to repent. Out of the 112 responses, 11 (10%) focused almost solely on the idea that either repentance is having godly sorrow, or that it is an important and essential aspect of repentance. Here are a few responses:

  • Repentance is sorrow for some sin either by omission or commission.
  • Repentance is sincere sorrow for sin and a sincere effort not to repeat that sin.
  • Repentance is being sorry and really meaning it.
  • Repentance is feeling godly sorrow for transgressions, taking actions to correct and avoid them in the future.
  • Repentance is a godly sorrow of sufficient intensity that causes a person to sincerely want to change their behavior and take the necessary steps to be cleansed and reborn through the atonement of Jesus Christ.

As has been articulated, repentance is about having a change of mind and heart, not feeling sorry. Can feeling sorry help people to change their mind and heart? Certainly. Do they need to feel sorry in order to change their mind and heart? No. We do not need to feel any sort of sorrow in order to change our mind and our hearts.

Let me give you an example of this. A couple years ago, I read a book by Ryan and Robert Quinn called Lift: The Fundamental State of Leadership. I loved the book. In the book, the authors discussed that in order to be a more effective person and leader, we need to be:

  • Purpose-centered instead of comfort-centered
  • Internally directed instead of externally directed
  • Other-focused instead of self-focused
  • Externally open instead of internally closed

After learning about these concepts and reading various examples, I realized that I needed to change and improve in some of these areas. Up until that point, I felt I had been trying to live the best I could with the knowledge that I had. But, with new knowledge, I came to understand that I could be living better. Did I feel bad? No. Did I change my mind and my heart? Yes.

In my opinion, most of the change that we make when we go from good to great does not involve “feeling sorry.” So, if we make it a necessary condition to feel sorry in order to change, we are going to miss out on a lot of growth and change.

Myth #4: Repentance is about changing behaviors

Imagine a scenario where a teenager is meeting with a bishop, and in that meeting, the teenager confesses that he/she is smoking pot (not for medical purposes). What is the thought that both of these individuals are likely to prioritize? Likely, it has something to do with stopping the behavior of smoking pot.

This priority of changing behavior is not unique to smoking pot. If someone is not paying their tithing, is engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior (e.g., premarital sex), is not going to the temple, is not engaging in a personal ministry, or is not engaging the class when they teach, our natural inclination is to get them to change their behaviors: pay their tithing, stop engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior, go to the temple, start engaging in a personal ministry, and engage their class.

In each of these instances, the priority is the same: change behaviors.

While this is well-intended, behavior is probably not the best thing to focus on if we are the one repenting, or if we are the one helping someone to repent.

A better place to focus is on the mind and heart because that is where repentance occurs. This is a better place to focus because it is treating the source of the issue. If we focus on behaviors, we will only be treating the surface or manifestation of the issue, and we are forgetting that it is the condition of our minds and hearts that drives our behaviors. If we truly want to change behaviors, it is going to be much more effective and long-lasting to focus on minds and heart.

Let’s go back to the teenager smoking pot example. If we ultimately want the teenager to stop smoking pot, it is essential that we understand why he/she is smoking pot in the first place. We need to understand what has led their mind and heart to believe that this behavior is appropriate and acceptable to them. When we can understand the ‘why’s behind their behavior, then we can treat the problem at the source.

Often, when an individual does not live up to the standards of the church, it is a call for love. They are engaging in the behavior because it fulfills an unmet need. (For more on this, see this article).

In the case of the teenager smoking pot, if we focus on (stopping) the behavior, a potential course of action might be to recommend the Addiction Recovery Program. But, if that does not address the underlying unmet need, that recommendation is not going to lead to repentance: a change of mind and heart. What is more likely to result in a change of mind and heart, is fulfilling the unmet need.

In all, repentance is not about changing behaviors, it is about changing hearts and minds.

Conclusion

For much of my life, I have believed each of these myths associated with repentance. Seeing repentance as something that was closely attached to sin and feeling sorrow, and seeing it as a process (something that would take significant time), repentance had somewhat of a negative connotation to me. This perspective also led me to take an approach towards life where I was primarily focused on avoiding issues, problems, and sin.

But, now seeing repentance as change of mind and heart, not closely attached to feeling sorrow, and something that can occur rather quickly, repentance has a positive connotation to me. I now see repentance as my path to reach my intended destination of becoming more like Jesus Christ, becoming a better person, and becoming a greater influence for good in the lives of others. The idea being is that if I have not been a very strong influence for good in the lives of others, if I have not been as successful at life as I want to be, and if I have not been as good of a parent as I could be, the only thing that stands in my way is change (i.e., repentance). Thus, I now see repentance as an opportunity. I am now much more open to change, learning new things, and taking new approaches.

As I reflect on this, I realize that how we come to define gospel principles really matters. It can change our perspective and approach towards life.

But, seeing the responses from the Leading Saints survey, I am concerned about the wide variety of definitions that members have for key gospel principles, such as repentance. Such a variety causes confusion and can lead people to not take full advantage of the beauty of the gospel.

I hope this article helps all of us become more precise in our definition of repentance that we may better (1) use repentance in our lives, (2) teach the principles of repentance, and (3) help others to repent.

The only thing that stands in the way of us becoming more like Jesus Christ is repentance (i.e., change).

Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and the Assistant Director of the Center for Leadership at the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. His topical expertise is in success mindsets, leadership development, performance management, and organizational topics that include employee engagement, psychological safety, trust, and fairness. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from Indiana University, and a BA from Brigham Young University. Additionally, he is a former Gallup workplace analytics consultant, where he designed research efforts and engaged in data analytics to generate business solutions for dozens of organizations across various industries. He has published over 15 articles in various journals including Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Management, Business Horizons, and Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. You can check out his leadership and personal success blog at https://www.ryangottfredson.com/

 

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