I haven’t always been a sincere follower of Christ. As a boy, holidays recognizing the Savior were just another holiday, like Halloween or Presidents day. The joy of being out of school, receiving gifts, and eating all the goodies at Christmas and Easter were at the top of my list. The significance of the holiday didn’t matter; a fun time with a lot of goodies was the important thing.
Later, as a worldly teenager, I still enjoyed holidays because of the “goodies”—however my definition of goodies had changed from food and candy to “partying.”
Nowadays, as a follower of Christ, I travel memory lane, thinking of the events that took me from a boyhood fascination with holiday goodies, to teenage keg parties, and lastly to an abiding appreciation of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice. The transition from a worldly teenager to a follower of Christ was, and continues to be, an incredible journey. I’d like to share a few things I’ve leaned on this journey with the hope that it will help others who are making transitions in their lives.
A Startling Answer to Prayer
I’d been drafted into the army and was preparing to go to Viet Nam. This forced me to take a serious look at life. I reflected upon my life, all nineteen years of it. I recalled the time as a young deacon being thrilled to hear the Joseph Smith story and how the Book of Mormon came to be. I decided to ask God if he was there, and if so, was there anything to these stories. I offered a brief, but sincere prayer.
One night, shortly after getting into bed, my prayer was answered. I had just laid down; rolled over on my left side, when suddenly I found myself in the presence of an evil spirit (he cursed and swore at me, I couldn’t escape his hold). His intentions were clear, he wanted to take my life, and I had no power to resist him. I knew the only way I would be delivered was to pray, I didn’t know what to say so I began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The instant I thought the first word of the Lord’s prayer I was delivered from his power. I watched him walk away.
In the hours and days that followed I did some soul searching. I knew enough about things of the Spirit to realize I had been living my life in such a way that I was being influenced by those who had fallen from heaven—Lucifer and company. I also realized that God had answered my prayer for deliverance. I made the decision to follow God.
Transitioning from a natural man to a follower of Christ wasn’t easy for me. I struggled to change my way of life. I wanted to stop smoking and drinking, but when I tried, I failed. It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to find a whole new way of life. This meant I needed to associate with those who were followers of Christ. I ask Heavenly Father for help, and gradually I broke away from the powers of habit and the powers of darkness. I was learning what repentance was all about. In the early months of my transition I didn’t think in terms of the scriptures. I didn’t tell anyone about my experience or see a church leader for help, I just showed up at church. I met the missionaries and spent as much time with them as I could.
It wasn’t easy living up to the standards of the church in those early days of my return to the narrow path. As a soldier, most of the men I lived and worked with weren’t interested in living the standards I was determined to live. I was in a barracks with several hundred men. I prayed and asked Heavenly Father to bless me to find a place where I could be away from the distractions of army life. Within a few days I was reassigned to a new location. It was perfect; there were just two of us at the new location. My work allowed me a lot of free time to study the gospel. I drank in the doctrines of the Book of Mormon.
I did my best to resist the temptations that surrounded me. After a few months I had made some progress. I was living the word of wisdom and enjoyed my new-found friends at church. I got acquainted with a lot of wonderful people. I’m so thankful for their examples and help.
Looking back from the vantage point of fifty-plus years, I would like to write a few things I’ve learned about repentance, with the hope it might be helpful to those who read my words.
I’m aware that some of you who are reading my words have done a good job keeping the commandments—all of your life. I think of you as Nephi-kind of people. Others, like me, for a variety of reasons, haven’t done a very good job keeping the commandments. I think of us as Alma-kind of people. Both Nephi and Alma (the younger) were sons of prophets. They were brought up in families that taught them the ways of the Lord. Both of them needed to repent of their sins. Of the two, Alma was referred to as a very “vile” sinner. The word vile only appears once in the Book of Mormon. I think the use of this word makes the point that you and I would probably blush if we understood the extent of the sins Alma was guilty of. It might be that Alma is the archetype sinner for those of us who are like him—to show that a man can be called the very vilest of sinners on one page in scripture, and then called a holy man a few pages later. That’s quite a transition! A wonderful message of HOPE! An incredible testimony of the power the Savior acquired when He accomplished the ATONEMENT!
The question that all this brings up is: how does one tap into the power of the atonement? My answer is prayer. Most people don’t have dramatic answers to prayer as I related above, but all sincere prayers are answered. There is no message repeated more often in the scriptures than the promise that our prayers will be heard and answered. Some readers may think they can “repent” without troubling Heavenly Father. For those who think this way, and at one time I did, it’s important to know that changing our behavior without God’s help is not repentance. I hope you will reread the last sentence if you doubt or don’t understand what I’ve stated.
In other words, there are two kinds of “repentance”, the Lord’s way, and the world’s way. The Lord’s way includes the atonement, the world’s way doesn’t. The Lord’s way requires that we:
1. Have Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ
3. Receive Baptism
4. Receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost
The world’s way is to reform behavior through the arm of flesh. This can be accomplished in many different ways, but never includes the Savior’s atoning sacrifice.
The question asked above: how does one tap into the power of the atonement? The first and most important step is prayer—sincere heartfelt prayer. This first step is a clear manifestation on our part of having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I learned this simple, yet profound truth, and it changed the course of my life.
I’ve learned that repentance is as essential to following Christ as breathing air is for our body. When we correctly repent we are made “alive in Christ.”
The Power of Example
Two very different men helped me find my way back to God. The first example came from a man named Smith, Sergeant Smith. He was about 10 years my senior, married with a small family. His objective in life was to increase in military rank. To accomplish his goal, he let the men in our unit know that he would make sure we had a good time if we helped him get promoted in rank. We soon found out that he had an ample supply of liquor at his home. On the weekends those who did his bidding were invited to his place to party. There was good food, a well-stocked liquor cabinet, and a fridge full of beer. I was worried that my commitment to repent would be side tracked. However, after going to a few of Sergeant Smith’s parties, I observed some things that redoubled my determination to change (repent). It soon became apparent that he didn’t care very deeply about anyone at the party—including his wife and children. The positive impression he initially made was lost when I saw the smallness of character he actually possessed by the way he treated his wife.
The second example was Jack. He wasn’t in the military; he was a salesman. He was also a branch president. He and his family befriended me. I spent a lot of time at their home. Jack radiated all the qualities of character that Sergeant Smith lacked. I knew he cared for me and the other members of the branch. His objective in life was to serve the Lord and his family. The more time I spent with him, the greater became my appreciation, love, and respect for him.
One day I got to thinking about the contrast between Sergeant Smith and Jack. I remember thinking that if I didn’t repent I could end up being like Smith. And if I did repent, I could become like Jack. This was an important, profound insight for me. It literally changed something in me.
As I think back on those early years of my life, I realize that Heavenly Father was guiding and helping me. He enabled me to see my own future through the examples of these two men. I saw that I was more like Sergeant Smith than Jack.
One of the greatest obstacles I had with repentance was feeling “unworthy” because of backsliding. With some sins, I was able to repent and wasn’t troubled thereafter, with other sins I struggled. At times I felt the Lord must have been worn out with me. He knew how many times I had tried and failed in my efforts to keep some of His commandments. It went something like this: I would knee before the Lord and say, “I am going to repent of (fill in the blank).” I would then exercise my will power; I would do well for a period of time, only to end up backsliding. After doing this numerous times, I realized repentance wasn’t always easy. I was embarrassed, and thought for sure the Lord considered me a loser.
This kind of thinking led to two kinds of behavior:
1. I would give up trying to repent, thinking I wasn’t celestial material.
2. After giving up trying to repent, I’d binge in the sin I’d hope to repent of.
This kind of “repentance” plays into satan’s plan. He is at his best when we’re discouraged and discomforted.
So what does one do when seeking to repent of sin that just won’t yield to the standard ways of repentance?
First, it’s important to remember, repentance isn’t like baseball—three strikes and you’re out. Repentance is like soap, it is needed often, and is necessary as long as we live.
Second, any progress we make in conquering the natural man or woman is pleasing to God.
Third, and most important, the Lord has said: “if he . . . repenteth in the sincerity of his heart I will forgive him . . . Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.” (Mosiah 26:29–30)
From what I’ve learned about the Lord, when we sincerely seek to repent, and then backslide, the Lord will forgive our trespasses (back sliding) as often as needed.
The Lord gave His life so that each of us could have access to the gift of repentance. What could I possibility write, that would put into perspective the magnitude of this blessing that required the Son of God to die?
I hope each time we partake of the sacrament we will be able to fathom, to some degree, just how high the cost was that caused the Savior to bleed at every pore. Why would He be willing to pay such a price? The answer is: He loves us.
My experience with repentance taught me that with persistence we can make progress in overcoming the carnal, sensual, and devilish natures we inherit because of our flesh. Each person’s journey may vary on the path of repentance, but the destination is the same—peace in this world and eternal life in the world to come.
The Lord Isn’t Like an Athletic Coach
The Lord isn’t like an athletic coach who is disappointed if we don’t perform to expectation. On one occasion, I was so discouraged with myself I told the Lord I wasn’t celestial material and I didn’t want to disappoint Him anymore. I was frustrated and thinking of giving up. As I sat there with my head in my hands, contemplating leaving activity in the church, I had an impression fill my mind and heart. It was as though I was looking into a corridor of time, viewing my future. I could see that it would require many more years for me to make the kind of progress that I wanted to make immediately. I realized that I needed to be patient with myself. I also needed to see the Lord, not as a coach or an earthy father subject to the weaknesses of the flesh, but as a Heavenly Father, perfect in all ways.