More than just getting over the bad, repentance is about a restoration to the good. Sincere repentance is not about false shame or self-oppression. It is freedom from the entrapment and burdens caused by the consequences of bad behavior and negative interactions (see chapter 19 of the "Gospel Principles" manual).
Getting caught in the act or being burdened by consequences are not motives for true repentance; however, these experiences may prompt us to better recognize God's will. One of the roles of ancient and modern prophets has always been to remind the people of God's will for them and the blessings awaiting them. This is to help people make the connection between choices and consequences, whether those consequences be blessings or hardship. The Bible Dictionary says that true repentance develops out of a desire to be whole, including the desire to express love to God by aligning our will with his (see "The Divine Gift of Repentance" by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve, general conference, October 2011, and "Repent and Change" by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, also of the Quorum of the Twelve, general conference, October 2003).
Here are some tips to help you stay focused through the sometimes hard process of repentance and to notice some of its positive benefits:
Acknowledge what has been done (or not done). When the scriptures say to confess (see Leviticus 5:5 and Mosiah 26:29,35), it means more than just telling God or a church leader about wrongdoing (or failing to do good). Confession also means acknowledging that God's way really is the best way and really does lead to happiness (see Alma 34:17). God's will is not about oppressive rules but includes protective factors that lead to good choices with good consequences and positive interactions with others.
Explore the impact of choices. One of the signs of maturation is understanding the connectedness of people, the impact of choices surrounding world. Every choice has consequences, either positive or negative. Every interaction is an indicator about the person one is choosing to become. Each person is responsible for his or her own behavior and interactions, regardless of what others do or external circumstances.
Emotionally respond to the impact. A soft heart is a heart that feels, Elder Bruce D. Porter of the Seventy taught in "A Broken Heart and a Contrite Spirit" in the October 2007 general conference. An awake spirit is one that is aware. This can be challenging, especially in a society that is quick to numb out through external solutions that help us avoid feeling bad. It is appropriate to feel badly after making poor choices or noticing the impact on others (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Humble ourselves enough to depend on God. Humility helps a person notice the distance poor choices or negative interactions causes between his or her self and God. God is holy, and people are unfinished. Poor choices or negative interactions amplify this discrepancy. However, rather than despairing, humility will help us recognize this distance as evidence that each person needs God (see "Repentance" in "For the Strength of Youth").
Choose differently. With true humility, confession will bring move a person full circle to align the will with God's will. This means that a person must stop doing what was wrong and choose to do what is right (Doctrine and Covenants 58:43). It means choosing positive interactions regardless of the behavior of others. It means being more willing to do what is good and responding to promptings more quickly.
Make restitution. Making restitution means to find ways to make things right again (see "When Saying 'I'm Sorry isn't Enough," by Robert R. and Jill W. Dunford, Ensign, October 1984). For example, if a person stole something, he or she must return it. Sometimes, like saying mean things, a person simply cannot go back and undo what was wrong — but they can work hard at being very kind in the future. In some cases, it is not healthy or safe to return to a very old situation to try and make things right. The best thing to do in this situation is to find another way to make restitution through other means, such as volunteering with an agency or donating service to a related cause.
Be grateful. Repentance is provided as a process by which all may be restored as children of God (see Isaiah 1:18, Doctrine and Covenants 58:42). Each person can feel the peace this brings, and be thankful for it. This will make it easier to offer the same forgiveness to others when they need it, and find ways to encourage peace-making in families, workplace and community. This helps people respect God and the process of repentance by not returning to old ways, or more quickly asking him for help when needed. Remembering that repentance brings wholeness will help with making choices that are aligned with God's will and good for both individual and others.
Repentance restores wholeness. No longer at war within, internal congruence restores peace and confidence. Repentance brings harmony with others and ultimately with God (see 2 Nephi 25:23). It is God's mercy that forgives through the repentance process, but it is God's grace that has provided repentance as part of his great plan of happiness.
Emily Christensen, Ph.D., lives with her husband in Oklahoma. Her Ph.D. is in marriage and family therapy, and she is pursuing a degree in Hebrew and Jewish studies. Her blog is www.housewifeclass.com, and her email is [email protected].