Several years ago when living in Salt Lake I had a conversation with a co-worker of my husband, a born-again Christian. He made a comment I completely disagreed with, namely: “God gave us commandments expecting that we’d break them.” I viewed his statement as a false, almost blasphemous, doctrine. Surely God gave us commandments fully expecting us to obey them! I found his interpretation of God’s mercy (“I gave you commandments so you will know your need for me when you fail to live them. Your obedience is not required, just your humility”) pathetic—robbing justice, as it were—which would make us out to be wimpish pawns in the hands of a narcissistic God.
For years before and following that conversation, I tried with all my might to perfect myself (by keeping the commandments I believed God had given us) in order to be worthy of His love. The hardest commandments for me were always the ones related to my relationship with others– the Sermon on the Mount material: not getting angry, not reacting to offenses, being merciful, etc. Knowing of my frequent failure to live up to the standards set forth in that sermon (I knew I was an angry mother), I often felt unworthy to even approach God in prayer. Rather than “picking myself up” and apologizing when I had been unkind, however, I usually ended up going over and over my character flaws in my head and yet redoubling my efforts only in those areas I had better control over: attending the temple, fulfilling my calling, working on my grandparents’ life histories, etc. Although I can recognize now several instances over those years in which I felt God whisper peace to my heart, inviting me to trust in His love, I was too engrossed in my mission of self-perfection to really hear.
A pivotal change of perspective came one day when I went to the woods to pray. Feeling ashamed that the day before I had given in to the passion of anger—losing control and cruelly yelling at my children on many occasions—I wanted to plead for Heaven’s help to change! After walking up to a secluded area, I knelt down, desiring to pray. But I couldn’t even begin. I felt so unworthy of talking to–“being in the presence of”–God! All I could muster was a tearful, desperate question: “Father, what do you think of me when I get angry like that?”
An answer came to my mind almost instantaneously: “Why do you think I gave you repentance?”
I was stunned, realizing what that phrase suggested. “You mean, you gave me repentance for each time I make a mistake? That it’s a way for me to acknowledge my mistake and return back to your ‘good graces,’ even though I might carelessly do it again?!”
Now repentance is a principle I thought I had understood. I had graduated from seminary, taken numerous religion courses at BYU, served a mission, and taught this principle from the pulpit. Repentance was only sincere and effective, I’d understood, when a person recognized their mistake, felt remorse, confessed the transgression to the appropriate authorities, asked for forgiveness, made restitution, and overcame the sin. Herein was my stumbling block for believing in God’s mercy. In order to merit forgiveness for my anger (or any of my other shortcomings), I had to overcome those weaknesses myself. Or so I had believed.
Yet the answer I got at that moment–that repentance was a gift for each time I lived below my ideal–was powerful revelation, the very means to peace for a self-consumed perfectionist like myself! It helped me to believe that God knows we will make a lot of mistakes in our lives which will cause us pain and regret. But, rather than having us wallow in self-loathing, He invites us to rise out of regret to refreshing repentance: ready to admit our actions and to set things right. Feelings of remorse for mistakes can instruct rather than destroy us, I realized, if we view them as powerful evidence of our desire to do good. Recalling that fact will help us feel God’s mercy afresh. We came from love, we’re “made” of love, and we can return to a loving state each time we notice our departure–so long as we don’t give up on ourselves. Repentance really is a gift!