I remember my father awakening me one cold night in February when I was about 16. I remember feeling startled; I had only been asleep about an hour. He explained that a steer from our farm had wandered onto the highway and been hit by a truck. The animal was dead. To save the meat we would have to act quickly.
We dragged the steer to an open shed with our old tractor. Our next task was to hoist the animal up. We tied its hind feet together, then threw the rope over a beam. I remember struggling to get my arms under the animal’s hindquarters and lift as my father pulled. To lift with any effect required wrapping my whole body around the slippery animal. By the time the body was hung, the mud and stench was ingrained in my clothes. I felt miserable, but our work had only begun.
Together my father and I cleaned the dead animal. We didn’t finish until about three in the morning. The smell, the slime, the dirt, and the filth clung to me as I went back to the house.
Although it has been more than 25 years, the events of the next hour are vivid in my mind. I remember the satisfaction of removing my shirt. Peeling off each layer of clothing brought relief. I began washing—first my hands, then my arms. It was not the kind of dirt that disappeared quickly. Then I showered, first washing the ears, then the hair, back to the hands and fingernails, and to the hair again. It was some time before the cleansing was done.
Slipping into clean pajamas, I lay awake for a while. It was four in the morning. I was exhausted, but the tiredness did not approach the satisfaction of being washed and clean.
Yet as memorable as that experience was, there are feelings far surpassing the physical feelings of that cold winter night. I speak of marvelous spiritual feelings that come through the gift of the Savior’s atonement as the layers of sin are washed away and we come to feel spiritually clean.
Jesus Christ taught forcefully of the joy of this redeeming power. One of his most poignant parables is that of the prodigal son. Humbled by the emptiness of “riotous living,” the son “came to himself.” He realized his wrong; he knew he must change. He said, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.” He was repenting.
Then “he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (see Luke 15:13–20).
Do we understand our Heavenly Father’s eagerness at our every effort to return to him? When we are still a great way off, he welcomes our return.
We experience joy as the love of our Savior assures us that we can yet be clean, that we will one day be home again. This happiness comes only through repentance. As we leave wrongdoing behind and exercise faith in Jesus Christ, we receive a remission of our sins. We sense that our Savior is doing for us what we cannot do ourselves.
“Will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” he said.
“Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me” (3 Ne. 9:13–14).
Remember Alma’s feelings as his sin and guilt were lifted:
“I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
“And oh, what joy … ; yea, my soul was filled with joy. … There can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy” (Alma 36:19–21).
This is the Savior’s promise. I know these feelings of joy. It is a happiness that can come in no other way.
While for some the process of repentance can happen dramatically, as it did for Alma, this is more the exception than the rule. Most of us move step by step toward more goodness. President Ezra Taft Benson said: “For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord” (Ensign, Oct. 1989, 5).
Repentance is powerful spiritual medicine. There are few spiritual ills it will not cure. Each sin left behind through faith in Christ opens spiritual doors.
We must become converted to daily repentance. President Benson taught that many of our troubles sprout from pride, which he defined as a selfish pitting of our will against God’s (see Ensign, May 1989, 4–7). We repent as we follow the Savior’s example in doing “not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). As we gain sufficient faith and trust to meekly surrender ourselves to the Lord’s way, we are repenting.
Daily, as we are humble, the Lord will reveal our weaknesses to us. Remember this promise: “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness” (Ether 12:27). As we seek earnestly to know ourselves, to make honest assessments of what we are and where we are, the Lord will reveal, in answer to our prayers, where our repentance should be focused.
Honesty in assessing ourselves allows us to more clearly hear his voice. But it is so easy, in those times when we feel the changes the Lord wants us to make, to say, “I don’t want to do that!” or to hide and discontinue honest communication. Sometimes we rationalize that the feelings we felt were not from the Lord. Where do we begin, then, to assess ourselves truthfully?
As we honestly listen during our prayers, we will each know what we need to do. Maybe it’s beginning to pray earnestly again. Maybe it’s being kind to our family. Maybe it’s turning off the soap operas or controlling our tempers. Maybe it’s being honest at school or always telling the truth. Maybe it’s paying tithing or sharing more of what we have with others. Maybe it’s being more careful about what we wear. Maybe it’s casting out unbelief or better preparing for the temple.
As a prophet of God, President Harold B. Lee explained: “The most important of all the commandments of God is that one that you’re having the most difficulty keeping. … Today is the day for you to work … until you’ve been able to conquer that weakness. Then you start on the next one that’s most difficult for you to keep.
“That’s the way to sanctify yourselves by keeping the commandments of God” (Church News, 5 May 1973, 3).
If we wish to return to our Heavenly Father, we absolutely must learn how to feel the power of our Savior’s atonement through the remission of our sins. Lovingly, the resurrected Christ told his disciples on the American continent:
“No unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.
“Therefore, if ye do these things blessed are ye, for ye shall be lifted up at the last day” (3 Ne. 27:19, 22).
We may not succeed as quickly as we would want, but as we make repentance a constant part of our lives, miracles occur. Our “confidence [waxes] strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45). We kneel in humility before our Father. We tell him openly of our progress, and also of our fears and doubts. As we draw near to him, he draws near to us. He gives us peace and encouragement. He heals our souls.
As we continue inch by inch to repent, we determine that nothing will hold us back; we will do our part. We come to feel like that king who cried, “Oh God, … wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee” (Alma 22:18).
With this commitment to who we can become, spiritual doors swing open. There is a new freedom to feel, to know, to become. Individual inspiration blossoms, and we receive personal revelation to help us handle the temptations of an increasingly wicked world.
Oh, to have faith unto repentance! “May God grant unto you … 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).
Oh, to be clean! This is the great challenge of our mortal probation. It is also the only way to the joy of truly knowing our Savior. He promised, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
As you peel off the layers of sin, even a little at a time, you will feel the loving kindness of our Savior. Even when you are “yet a great way off,” he will reach out to you, bringing peace that surpasses understanding. He will heal you, and as you complete your repentance, he will wash you clean.