A frequent question I receive from young readers is regarding the repentance process. In many of these cases, the young people have developed their testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and they desire to serve a mission. Upon reflection of their past actions, though, they realize they have committed serious sins that need to be cleared up, so they can be worthy to go. In many cases, they are wondering if they will ever be able to go on a mission. In either case, they are seeking encouragement to begin the repentance process.
Some serious sins can prevent you from ever serving a mission. Your bishop is the one who determines that. But whether or not you have committed serious transgressions, like serious violations of the law of chastity, we all make mistakes and need to utilize the repentance process. The ability to repent and become cleansed of our transgressions is a wonderful gift from our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Because the Savior performed the great atoning sacrifice and suffered for our sins in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, we can repent, change our ways, be forgiven, and be made clean and worthy before God. We all need to repent in order to be worthy to return to live with our Heavenly Father.
Missionaries are called to teach faith, repentance, and baptism, so you future missionaries will need to be familiar with the steps of repentance in order to teach them effectively. Here is what God requires for full and complete repentance, as taught in the scriptures and by living prophets:
Steps of Repentance
- Faith to rely on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. You must have faith that through prayer you can communicate with God and receive your Heavenly Father‘s help to repent and know that He has forgiven you. You must have faith that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, you can be cleansed and forgiven. “Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you” (Alma 34:17).
- Sorrow for committing the sin (godly sorrow). Sorrow for sin comes from acknowledging that you have sinned and feeling godly sorrow for having committed the sin. Godly sorrow means that you feel such remorse for having sinned that it causes your heart to break with sadness for what you have done. You realize that you caused the Savior to suffer and bleed at every pore, and you are heartbroken for that. Godly sorrow gives you a sincere desire to change and a willingness to submit to every requirement for forgiveness. It is different from the natural consequences of sin or fear of getting caught. Alma counseled his son Corianton: “Let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance” (Alma 42:29).
- Confession. Confession is telling Heavenly Father through sincere prayer all that you have done wrong and expressing sorrow and a desire to repent and receive His forgiveness. You must confess to those you have injured or wronged. Serious sins, such as breaking the law of chastity, need to be confessed to your bishop or branch president. The Lord has promised, “I, the Lord, forgive sins, and am merciful unto those who confess their sins with humble hearts” (D&C 61:2).
- Abandonment of sin (forsaking the sin). You must abandon the sin by turning away from it, never doing it again, and regretting that you ever did it. Forsaking the sin is to cease sinning, to resolve never to commit it again, and to stay away from the situations where you may be tempted to repeat the sin. The Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins–behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43).
- Restitution (seeking to restore the damage as far as possible). You must seek to restore as far as possible all that has been damaged by your sins. For example, a thief should give back what he has stolen. A liar should make the truth known. As we do these things, God will not mention our sins to us when we are judged (see Ezekiel 33:15-16).
- Righteous living (living a life of obedience). It is not enough simply to stop sinning—you must have a change of heart which brings a desire to fill your life with righteousness and engage in activities which bring spiritual power. You must strive throughout your life to obey all gospel teachings, not just the commandment you broke. The Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith that “he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven” (D&C 1:32).
While I have given a list of six specific steps here to help young people begin the process of repentance, please remember that to repent is not something that you can superficially do by checking off some boxes in a checklist. This is what Elder D. Todd Christofferson said in General Conference a few years ago: “Repentance requires a seriousness of purpose and a willingness to persevere, even through pain. Attempts to create a list of specific steps of repentance may be helpful to some, but it may also lead to a mechanical, check-off-the-boxes approach with no real feeling or change. True repentance is not superficial.” (The Divine Gift of Repentance, D. Todd Christofferson, October 2011)
How long will the repentance process take?
Repentance is a life long process, so we should never stop repenting, leaving behind our mistakes, and coming unto Jesus Christ. Everyone will continue to make mistakes throughout their earthly life, and thanks to the mercy and grace of God, there is no limit to the amount of times a person can sincerely and fully repent (Matt 18:21-22 and Mosiah 26:30). However, when young people often ask me how long the repentance process will take, what they mean is, how long will they have to go without some of the privileges of Church membership after they have committed serious sin? Privileges like taking the sacrament each week, holding a calling, going to the temple, and going on a full-time mission.
The LDS Church Handbook for bishops and stake presidents says that a person who has been guilty of serious violation of the law of chastity must fully repent before they can go on a mission and partake of the other privileges mentioned above. The bishop and stake president have the responsibility to confirm that the person is free from serious transgression for a sufficient time to make sure they have manifested true repentance (see D&C 107: 72). This period can be as long as three years for multiple serious transgressions and should not be less than one year from the most recent serious incident.
May the Lord guide you and direct you through the promptings of His Holy Spirit as you go through the repentance process. Forgiveness is a supremely wonderful blessing for those that repent. Remember that because of the death and suffering of our Savior Jesus Christ, his atoning sacrifice, and by following His prescribed ordinances, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18).