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Not long ago I posted an article called “What Does It Really Mean to Be ‘Saved’?” Click on this link to read if you missed it or would like to refresh your memory. I quoted from a friend I’m calling “Jacob” who is sharing his story of his personal repentance process in detail in hopes of helping others anonymously. His story is lengthy and continues to bless and enlighten me. This is the second installment of Jacob’s story.
As I said, my first awareness had been that I WAS CLEAN, and that I would have been perfectly confident to meet the Savior at that time. My initial awareness wasn’t that I had been forgiven, but that soon came as a logical understanding. And along with this miracle was another. I had no desire for the things that had been my most difficult to conquer, normal physical thoughts and actions that sometimes get out of bounds. So I was pretty certain that not only was I forgiven and clean, but that I would remain that way, having no desire to sin.
Every parent knows that one thing that makes children and grandchildren so lovable is the very funny things they tell us as they discover life. For instance, a four-year-old tells us with all sincerity how they think life really works and we laugh and laugh at their naivety. I am pretty sure God does the same thing, getting a good chuckle at the “wisdom” we proudly and confidently disseminate. The Jews have a saying, “man plans, God laughs.” And I’m sure God got a good laugh out of my thought that I was done sinning. I would later learn that having “no more disposition to do evil” isn’t the same as never doing it.
As you can imagine, the event [that resulted in me feeling clean and saved] occupied nearly all of my thoughts for weeks. So many new understandings came to my mind, but also, so many questions.
As profound and miraculous as the experience was, I was sad to learn that the feelings weren’t permanent. A few days later I woke up feeling some guilt and fear again. Some of my continuing anguish had to do with the problems still present in my business. But this time I KNEW how to cure it. First of all, I knew I had been forgiven and that all would be well, so this time I didn’t experience the same depths of despair. And I knew there was power in Alma’s prayer, so I said it. Often! “Jesus, thou son of God, have mercy on my soul!” If I said that prayer before with hope, I now said it with faith, with every expectation of relief. Sometimes I said it all night, and it always brought peace. My dark days were less frequent, and were interspersed with days of feeling the complete peace again.
Many of my prayers and answers seem to come when I am driving or outdoors. I had developed the habit of looking up into the sky when praying. One day when I was driving and praying I began to feel the Spirit strongly. As I looked up and asked what this feeling meant, I got the definite impression, “You will be fine financially if you work hard and are generous with others.” The first part was completely understandable; I had always had a pretty good work ethic, but I knew I could work harder.
However, the part about being more generous surprised me. I fully thought that by paying tithing and fast offerings and giving to strangers who were obviously in need, that I had been generous. Besides, at the present time my business was broke! And He wanted me to give more? That was a shock. Since then I have tried to err on the side of generosity. I have learned more about relying on God, rather than the arm of flesh. I have learned that if I need a financial blessing, to give some money away. One cannot deplete his assets when helping others, and God pays unbelievably high interest.
Another thing I learned from my initial experience was my recognition that I had been negligent in all my relationships, including those with my employees. I had taken them for granted, been way too disinterested in their personal lives. I needed more of what the scriptures call the pure love of Christ. But the natural man cannot love others as he should until he is born again and feels the love Christ has for others. I am not a people person. So I knew his would indeed be a project for Christ to change that about me. He’s working on that.
Though I had been forgiven very quickly, my work problems took longer to solve. But they were solved eventually, and without a doubt just as miraculously, powerfully, and divinely. And I kept wondering how and why this was all happening to me.
Lord, How Is It Done?
Part of the immediate response to my experience was the question, “What just happened”? The next time I read the account of Enos, his words jumped at me, “Lord, how is it done?” Yes! my thoughts exactly!
The powerful profound miracle I had experienced conflicted somewhat with my previous understandings of how salvation worked. What was it that I experienced? Had I been “saved,” redeemed, justified, sanctified, born again? These concepts that Mormons aren’t very good at defining suddenly became important to me. Besides, I wanted to tell others that they can be delivered from fear and guilt, but how could I help others if I didn’t know what had happened? I had an insatiable desire to find the answer.
I recognized similarities with Alma’s experience so I found his account in Alma 36. A previously vague remembrance that Alma had been confronted by an angel and “converted” to the gospel became entirely different as I read the account now. Each verse, each word, now jumped off the page to me as I compared my experience to his. He had been fighting the church (well that wasn’t a match) but “not of any worthiness of myself,” check, “fear of the Lord,” check, “racked with torment and the pains of a damned soul,” check. And Verse 18: “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me.” I must have remembered verse 18 because I had said that exact prayer, but now it was burned into my spirit.
Those are not just random words that some guy named Alma happened to use in his deserved call to repentance. Those are not idle words that aided his “conversion.” In fact, the word “conversion” isn’t anywhere in his account. Those are words that save! Powerful, important words. Words that access forgiveness and peace from Jesus Christ.
And now I understood too Alma’s powerful immediate response, “There could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.” And also, he wanted others to know that this joy was possible. Check, check, check. This was my experience exactly! And Alma said he had been born again. Had I too been born again? That sounded way too presumptuous.
Is this what being born again is? I had thought little about the principle, but had previously understood it to be the process of being baptized, and confirmed and given the gift of the Holy Ghost. So of course every member is born again. Right? Then what had I experienced? One doesn’t hear about these profound events happening often; why is that? Was Alma born again this way because he had been very wicked? If so, then my experience must have happened because I was very wicked.
That conclusion saddened me for two reasons. First of all, yes, I had sinned, but I didn’t think I was THAT bad and I certainly hadn’t been fighting against the Church. And secondly it dampened my desire to share my experience with others. “Hey let me tell you how to get exquisite peace, but first you must be exquisitely wicked.” That just didn’t sound right. As you might imagine I didn’t shout my experience from the rooftops, didn’t even tell my wife, didn’t tell anyone for several years.
I didn’t know what to tell them had happened, and certainly didn’t want to start the story with, “Because of my great wickedness . . .” But the other side of that thought was this, “If I was one of the wicked ones, why was I blessed with such forgiveness and miracles?” I know many “righteous” people who have never had such powerful experiences. Maybe they don’t need to experience the dreadful anguish? But if they don’t know the anguish, how can they appreciate the peace and joy? How? Why? I had more questions than answers.
Despite not sharing, the questions consumed me. Before my experience, I, like the aforementioned four-year-old, thought I had a “perfect” understanding of the principles of salvation. My puzzle was proudly put together and understood. But now the pieces were all dissembled with no confidence of where they fit: works, grace, mercy, justice, wickedness, righteousness, repentance, forgiveness, the broken heart, mighty change, born again, justified, sanctified. Suddenly my gospel puzzle was completely apart and I had to start from scratch to reassemble it.
I still don’t have all the pieces put back together, but I will try to elaborate on some things I have learned in the four years since then. I had noticed some common elements with my experience and Alma’s: neither of us were ‘righteous,” then feeling fear, an acute awareness of our awful situation, pleading for mercy, being forgiven, and finally, being changed. I’ll abbreviate even more and call them, sin, guilt, fear, supplication, born again.
Prior to my experience I had become aware that that there is an inherent guilt when one commits to following Christ. I had previously read James Ferrell’s book, The Peacegiver and was enlightened to the concept that by the law all are guilty. As he points out, all the scriptures teach it, Paul in Romans, Lehi in 2 Nephi 2:4-7, and explicitly in King Benjamin’s sermon. But this is a concept most of us LDS don’t understand: that just by virtue of committing to follow Christ, we become accountable to His law, and immediately become guilty, become sinners.
Pinpointing the Formula
Ferrell uses the example of the people of King Benjamin, pointing out that they were a very obedient, faithful people, fully living the law of Moses; yet when King Benjamin teaches them about Jesus Christ, the angel tells him, “even then they are no more blameless in the sight of God.” This concept held greater importance to me now. And even more interesting was the rest of their experience.
Even though they were good obedient people, because they had been taught about Christ and were now accountable, and “no more blameless” they immediately felt the “fear of the Lord.” They immediately fell to the ground and prayed, “Oh have mercy and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified.” Immediately they were filled with joy, had their sins forgiven, and received peace of conscience.
As I read this, the common elements again jumped out at me: sin, guilt, fear, supplication, born again. But the great discovery for me was that these people were a righteous people! This was huge for me, because maybe this was the pattern for everyone? And maybe it meant that my experience was not because I had been particularly wicked. I took some comfort in that. Having said that, there was one significant difference between the experience of King Benjamin’s people and the experience Alma had. The end result was forgiveness and joy, but Alma had endured much more suffering for his sins than did the people of King Benjamin. This led me to the conclusion that there is a price we pay for our sins.
I began to notice that those same common elements permeated scriptural accounts of those born of God, those who received a remission of sins, and a mighty change of heart. Fear, guilt, despair, are given to EVERYONE, even and especially those who commit to following Christ. We are blessed with an awareness of our fallen state. Here are some references: 2 Nephi 2:21, 2 Nephi 4:17-19, Mosiah 4:1-2, Romans 7, the whole story of Enos, and the whole story of Lamoni. It couldn’t be said any plainer than in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14.
In some narratives the elements are subtle. At the very first of Lehi’s dream, 1 Nephi 8:5-8, Christ bade him follow, and he immediately experienced fearful darkness, then pleads for mercy. Note the similarities in the account of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water Matthew 14:28-31. The Lord tells Peter “Come,” and he has short-term success, but soon fails. I believe walking on water can be a metaphor for the impossibility of keeping all of the law perfectly all of the time. Peter panics and nearly sinks, except that he does the one and only thing any of us can do: he cries out, “Lord save me!” And the Lord did.
In the first vision, Joseph Smith experienced life-threatening darkness and fear, then pled for MERCY. The first thing Christ said to him was, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” After which Joseph, too, noted being filled with peace and love.
In my previous life, I had focused my efforts primarily on the commandments and what I should “do” [thinking I would eventually be able to do “enough.”] I now began to see that being saved and forgiven by asking for mercy is everywhere in the scriptures. It seems like Christ is willing to save anyone and everyone who has faith enough to turn to him when our broken hearts give way to desperation, when we too realize that we can’t walk on water, that we can’t keep ALL the commandments ALL of the time.
The Pattern of Receiving God’s Mercy
Of course we sin every day, if not willfully, we still sin. A few months after my experience I recognized that I had willfully sinned. I felt the guilt and darkness again. I was devastated and was sure I had lost all my forgiveness, was sure I had blown my eternal salvation; I wanted to die. Feeling worthless and fallen again I pleaded to be saved, and hoped God was more merciful than I deserved. I was shocked to be given immediate peace. In fact, the next day I had a memorable spiritual experience. Amazingly, just like that, I was back on track. Obviously my childish thought that I would never sin again wasn’t true. But if I was still sinning, how could I keep being forgiven? Is God really that patient? Although [after my first amazing experience] I knew I had been forgiven, and had been clean, I was not yet holy. I was beginning to see the difference between being justified and being sanctified. I could never have understood these things without experiencing them.
I began to understand spiritual progress differently. I previously thought my human efforts would accumulate a certain amount of “worthiness” and that I would at some future time be awarded the difference by God to make me holy. Now I believe that’s not how it works at all. First of all, our human efforts are wholly inadequate and always will be. We will never by our own efforts be profitable servants. The natural man, one not yet born again, can do nothing of himself. And we can only access His power by humbly admitting to Christ that we don’t know what we don’t know, and even if we did know what we needed, we would not have the power to change our nature, wants and desires.
C.S. Lewis said, “If… what we are matters even more than what we do— and if what we do matters chiefly as evidence of what we are—then it follows that the change which I most need to undergo is a change that my own direct, voluntary efforts cannot bring about . . . . I cannot, by direct, moral effort, give myself new motives. After the first few steps in the Christian life we realize that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can only be done by God” (Mere Christianity, 164-65).
Jacob learned on a daily basis to turn his life over to God and to ask for and recognize His grace and mercy. The next installment will increase our understanding of these saving principles and of the necessity of a broken heart. What process could be more important to our well being and happiness, here and hereafter?