The Repentance Paradox: A Tale of Two Teacups

I have a confession.  I have broken the Word of Wisdom.  


To find out more about the LDS Church’s Word of Wisdom, click here.   

I was 7 years old and in 2nd grade. 
Can you see me?  I'm hard to spot because I look like a boy.

Let's just say the pixie cut didn't do much for me.
My teacher taught us how to make mugs out of pottery.  She decided to throw a tea party after they came out of the kiln and were glazed.
I knew that as Mormons we weren’t supposed to drink tea, but I really loved my teacher Mrs. Fox

This is a picture I drew of her. 

and I was excited to drink out of something I had made with my own hands.  I also had no idea how to say no to my teacher.  I was conflicted. 

The fateful day arrived.  We all sat at our desks where our lumpy, crooked mugs resting on a small, square white napkin waiting for the teacher to pour the hot liquid so that we could drink.  My stomach was in knots as I waited for my turn.  I still had no idea what I was going to do. 

Mrs. Fox poured the tea into my little brown cup and moved on to the next student.  I sat there staring at the amber-colored beverage.  Maybe I just won’t drink it. I thought.  But then she noticed me and said, “Heather, drink your tea.” 

I quickly obeyed and took a sip.  It was disgusting, but I didn’t want to get in trouble so I drank the whole thing. 

That afternoon I came home from school and walked in the door.  I burst into tears and told my mother of the awful sin that I had just committed.  She didn’t say a word but just stared at me with a horrified look on her face.  I was hoping she would comfort me but instead she just said, “Why on earth would you do that?  I can’t believe you drank TEA!” 

I was afraid that I had just started down a path of breaking the Word of Wisdom.   In my future I saw smoking tobacco, getting drunk from alcohol, maybe even eating fruit out of its season!  One look from my mother confirmed that would indeed be my fate.

“Well,” she said, “At least you aren’t baptized yet.  That will make you clean again.”
And she was right.  I still had a few months yet before I was to be baptized.  All I had to do was live in this awful state for a few months and hope I didn’t die.  Then I could put on a white dress, get baptized, and never mess up ever again.

My baptism day arrived and I could not have been more excited.  I was finally going to be able to be washed cleaned and put my wild tea-drinking days behind me.  I will be perfect from now on, I told myself, no more sinning for me. 

This picture was taken near the time I got baptized. 

Less than 24 hours later, I was sitting in Sacrament Meeting when my sister said something really mean to me.  I used the only defense I had against her.  She bit her nails, but I let mine grow long.  I had learned the best way to get her to stop being mean was to dig my fingernails into her skin because she couldn’t do it back.  So I reached over, grabbed her forearm, and dug in really hard.  As soon as I did it, I realized that my quest for perfection had ended.  I hadn’t even made it 24 hours!  Now what was I supposed to do? 

Now, there was another Mormon girl sitting in this very same Sacrament Meeting.  She too had had an experience with tea in her classroom.  Her teacher had decided to have an international food tasting party.  Each student was to bring something exotic from another country to share with the class.  Everyone was to try everything.

As she stood in line to sample the foods, she saw that someone had brought tea.  Like me, she also knew that Mormons don’t drink tea.  Another Mormon girl stood behind her in line and whispered, “What are we going to do?  We can’t drink the tea.” 

“That’s okay,” she said,  “we can have the tea now and just repent later.”  That’s what they did.

Can you see how much these stories are alike?  
We both were Mormon. 
We both knew about the Word of Wisdom. 
We both were told to drink tea in our classroom at school. 
We both drank the tea. 
We both used repentance afterwards. 
And we both used repentance incorrectly.  

You see, both of us saw repentance as our backup plan.

Elder Lynn G. Robbins in his latest General Conference talk “Until Seventy Times Seven” tells us:

Repentance isn't His backup plan in the event we might fail.  Repentance IS His plan, knowing that we will.  

We were brought here on earth so that we could make mistakes.  Lehi explains it to his son Jacob this way. 

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.  If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.  Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; (2 Nephi 2:11)

All of us, not just my 7-year-old self are going to be faced with opposition, temptations, and hardships.  And we are not always going to choose correctly.  It’s what President Nelson calls “a lifetime curriculum.”*

Elder Robbins also tells us that our success isn’t by being able to go from failure to failure, but to grow from failure to failure. 
How do we do that exactly?  How do we grow from our failures? 

Moroni teaches us how.  In Moroni 6:8 we read: 

But as oft as they repented and sought forgiveness, with real intent, they were forgiven.

That’s the key.  In order to grow from our failures, we need to repent with real intent and to seek forgiveness, that’s how we are forgiven. 

Unfortunately, it’s actually pretty easy to repent the way I did. 

We commit a sin and then feel like we are forever unworthy.  We can’t turn to the Lord and ask for forgiveness because we are now unacceptable.  I had looked for my baptism to make me clean and was then determined to never make a mistake again.  I did not realize that I could immediately repent and ask for forgiveness no matter what I had done.

It can also be easy to repent the way my friend did.

She committed a sin with the forethought to repent of it later.  It reminds me of when Nephi warned us what it would be like in our day.  He told us people would say: 

Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; … God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God. 
(2 Nephi 28:8)

And more recently, Elder Dallin H. Oaks warned us of this too.

"We are concerned that some people have a very lax attitude toward sin. Some young people say, 'I'll just have a few free ones, and then I'll repent quickly and go on a mission [or get married in the temple], and everything will be all right.' 

Young people are not the only ones with a lax attitude toward sin.  We know of mature members of the Church who commit serious transgressions knowingly and deliberately, relying on their supposed ability to repent speedily and be 'as good as new.'  Such persons want the present convenience or enjoyment of sin and the future effects of righteousness, in that order.  They want to experience the sin but avoid its effects." 

As I think about these two very different attitudes it feels like a paradox.  On the one hand, don’t ever feel too unworthy to repent, but don’t use it as a failsafe either. I’m reminded of what Rabbi Simcha Bunem did when faced with a different paradox.  He said that he always carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket.  When he’s feeling too prideful he pulls out a piece of paper from one pocket, when he’s feeling of little worth, he pulls out the paper from his other pocket.

We could do something similar with repentance.  Our slips of paper could read:
  1. Your sins can be as white as snow; (see Isaiah 16:18)
  2. Do not excuse your sins, (see Alma 42:30)
We can read the first one if we ever feel like our sins are too great and we can’t repent.  The second one when we feel that our sins are so minor we don’t need to repent. 

And I would need a third pocket, to hold another slip of paper that reads: 
“Repentance is not the backup plan, it IS the plan.” 

In our last October General Conference, Elder Stephen W. Owen gave a talk titled "Repentance is Always Positive."  He points out that it is only through true repentance that we access the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  Without it, it’s what he calls “miserable behavior modification.” 

I think as humans it is easy to fall into the trap of miserable behavior modification.  We try on our own to stop or start a behavior.  We fail, we try again, we fail again.  If we stay focused on our efforts and our inability to do it right, it’s easy to see why it’s called miserable.

Elder Robbins reminds us that we can receive continual access to forgiveness by partaking of the Sacrament every week.  And thankfully, there is no limit to how many times we can come back and makes this covenant anew.  As he points out, it is more than seventy times seven.  We don’t walk into the chapel where we have to show a punch card that expires after the 490th punch. 

So what does true repentance, or repentance with real intent, actually look like? 
I think we can turn to the Sacrament prayers for the answer. 

To read the prayers offered at an LDS Sacrament Meeting worship service, click here.

For more information on what it is like to attend a Sacrament Meeting or how to find one in your local area, click here.

While I like to study what is in the Sacrament Prayers, I also like to observe what is not in them.  Have you noticed that when we make this covenant at no point do we promise not to mess up, or to be perfect?  For years I had thought of partaking the Sacrament a little like this:

“Okay, this week I’m going to be better than I was last week.  Last week was a disaster, but not next week.  Next week I’m going to be the kind of daughter you’ll be proud of.  I’m going to be obedient and get everything done I need to.”

Then the following week, “Hi, I’m back.  So last week was a disaster, but not next week.  I’ll be so much better next week, just you wait.” 

And again and again until I don’t even want to reflect on my previous week because it’s too depressing.  Definitely what Elder Owen calls miserable behavior modification.

So let’s look at what we actually are promising in the Sacrament Prayer. 

…are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son

One of the key words in my mind is the word “willing.”  Thinking of the sacrament table as an altar helps me think about how I lay up my will on the altar and in exchange I take on the will of Christ, or take upon me his name.  As the bread and water symbolize his flesh and blood, I symbolically internalize them to show that I want my will to be His will. 

And what exactly is it that I’m willing to do?

…and always remember Him and keep his commandments.

I spent about a year studying the difference between obeying commandments and keeping them.

To read what I discovered, click here.

To me, keeping the commandments means we treasure them, we value them, we give them our utmost and top priority.  We may not always obey them correctly 100% of the time, but we want to.  We want to because it’s how we show Heavenly Father we love Him. 

I submit to you this point to ponder. 

It is much easier to learn to keep the commandments by repenting when we break them than by obeying them perfectly all the time.  

If you aren’t sure if that could be true, ask the Pharisees and Sadducees how well it worked out for them in their quest to be perfectly obedient. 

I also think that it’s much easier to make this promise while sitting quietly in a church dressed in our Sunday best, than when we are stuck in rush hour traffic on a Thursday afternoon.  But it is possible to always remember Him and keep His commandments, and we come back week after week to remind ourselves that it is. 

As we repent with real intent, recognizing the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and believing that we can become clean again, what are we promised in return? 

…that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.

We are promised forgiveness. 

This is what is so beautiful to me about the Sacrament service.  This is when we can feel the sanctification of the Holy Ghost testifying to us that we are clean once again.  We are told that we may ALWAYS have his Spirit to be with us.  We always can be forgiven and sanctified.  Always.  Not 490 times, but always.

Elder Owen tells us that repentance is a lifelong pursuit.  Elder Robbins tells us that our change will be imperceptible from day to day, it’s only when looking back that we’ll see how much we’ve grown. 

It’s been over 40 years since I sat on that school bus bumping along the New Mexico dirt roads feeling guilty for what I had done.  It didn’t know it at the time but I was growing.  I was growing because of my failure.
If I could somehow climb inside a time machine and visit with that little seven-year-old Heather, I’d wipe away her tear-stained cheeks and say this. 

“Not only can you repent, but you can be forgiven.  For this is how we become like Christ, let me show you how.”


To read more about repentance and forgiveness, click on these talks below: 

Until Seventy Times Seven by Elder Lynn G. Robbins
Repentance is Always Positive by Elder Stephen W. Owen 
Even as Christ Forgives You, So Also Do Ye by Elder Larry J. Echo Hawk
Sin and Suffering by Elder Dallin H. Oaks

If you liked this article, you might like these: 

*Russell M. 
Nelson, in Dallin H. Oaks and Neil L. Andersen, “Repentance” (address given at the seminar for new mission presidents, June 26, 2015), 11

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