"Your assignment is to find out what Godly sorrow is," Clark said.
I was serving at the time as a counselor in the Stake Sunday School presidency to Clark Burt.
Clark issued my assignment to figure out "Godly sorrow" as if it were as easy as picking up milk from the grocery store on my way home from work.
The unusual thing about Clark was how he used the "Return and Report" principle. He used it in a way I hadn't seen others use it before.
Instead of treating me like a worker bee, handing me a shovel and delegating a list of chores for me to do ("clean the church on Saturday, take the young men to the temple, plan the Easter program, pick up rocks at the church farm, ask Sister Jones to speak on Sunday"), he didn't assign me things to do, but things to learn.
Well, this caught me off guard. After all, in a Church built around doing, I was not trained for learning.
Staring Repentance Between the Eyes
I took my assignment seriously, assuming Clark had a good reason for giving me this particular task.
And as you know, a person can't get very far studying "godly sorrow" without running across repentance.
Like most young men growing up in the Church in Utah, I had learned by rote the "R's" of repentance:
Recognize Remorse Restitution Reformation
I'm not sure what "R"-word replaced confession (Reveal?), but confession to the bishop was a major theme during our quorum lessons.
I graduated from Seminary and went to BYU; I served a mission in Paris and married my Sweetheart in the Salt Lake Temple; and I felt like I had gotten pretty good at this whole "repentance" thing.
But in reality, looking back now, I don't know if I experienced a mighty change of heart. Instead, I think I had just gotten pretty good at being . . . good.
Yes, as a youth I felt shame for my sins; I prayed and shed tears asking for forgiveness; I tried sincerely to forsake my bad habits. I ran the hamster-wheel with the best of them.
I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
(2 Tim. 4:7)
What was I missing? I wanted to be like the apostle Paul; I wanted off the hamster wheel!
Where was the finish line? Could there even be a finish line when we're told to "endure to the end?" The end of what?
Whereas Paul said he had "finished the race," it seemed to me that there was no finish line to the never-ending to-do lists and commandments we're taught in Church.
Now in my 40s, it's clear that while I never struggled with scrupulosity, I was definitely marinated in a culture of toxic perfectionism.
And so, today I am here to declare in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ:
The gospel has a finish line!
May I repeat the good news: The gospel has a finish line!
What is it?
It is the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is the alpha and Omega, the beginning and the END (Revelation 21:6).
The Devil [was] bound a thousand years, and cast into the bottomless pit.
Bottomless pit? What better way to describe "hell?" A place where we can never do enough; where we can never be enough.
(Perhaps this will give you some additional insight into my poem, Without End.)
Have you ever, perchance, interpreted Nephi's words in this way, when he said:
Dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this.
(2 Nephi 28:8)
Do we dig pits for each other when we pile all these rules and policies and commandments onto our brothers and sisters; when all those things become the gospel for us, instead of Him crucified?
There's a better way.
Good Guys, But Lousy at Repentance
Clark taught me, "As long as we continually think of ourselves as the good guys we will not get very much out of the scriptures."
All my life I had read about "the wicked" in the scriptures, but I guess I never really identified with those guys!
After all, I was a (1) baptized, (2) endowed, (3) full-tithe paying member of the Church. How wicked could I be?
I didn't realize how dangerous it was to start "likening the scriptures unto us" (1 Nephi 19:23). I began studying and applying the verses in The Book of Mormon about "the wicked" to me and to the Church. My world began to turn upside down; once my eyes were opened, I couldn't not see it (yes, that was a double negative).
Clark said, "Ezekiel says that Israel was 'corrupted more than Sodom and Samaria in all their ways' (Ezek. 16:47). That's referring to the Lord's people! How do you think Israel is faring today?"
Before I could experience my mighty change of heart I guess I needed to have my heart obliterated into a thousand potsherds. As I read the scriptures with a broken heart, I began to understand that these words were about me:
"At that day when the Gentiles [that's me! that's you! that's the Church!] shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them" (3 Nephi 16:10).
And so I knelt down and repented.
But this time it was different . . . .
The Gall of Bitterness
This time I wasn't repenting for some teenage indiscretion or infraction―
I was repenting for a lifetime of pride.
But this went beyond my own pride (from which we could fuel several nuclear reactors, I'm sure, with all the radioactive fallout my spiritual uranium has emitted into the environment over the years), extending to the pride that surrounds all of us and that blankets the world in darkness.
Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
Now something unexpected happened. I felt godly sorrow wash over me ― not just for my own sinfulness but for all wickedness. This will sound crazy except to those who've experienced something similar. How can repentance be about more than just me? I mean, I can't repent for others' sins, right?
I was overcome with grief for my sins and for the sinfulness of this fallen kingdom we inhabit; it was gut wrenching because I couldn't comprehend why we labor in darkness when the Lord's arms are outstreched and I felt ashamed for myself and for everyone else out there who is blind at midday, ignoring the light of Christ that surrounds us; and it hurt. Maybe I was tapping into some collective, higher consciousness or something, but I think the best way to describe it is to paraphrase Peter's words:
I perceive[d] that [we] art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bonds of iniquity.
And I wept bitterly.
I suppose I may have been having a spiritual breakdown like Alma's:
I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that [we] had rebelled against God, and that [we] had not kept his holy commandments.
When Alma felt that pain, he was smart. He cried out:
O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
I wasn't so eloquent. It wasn't so much words but sobs that came out, something like, "I am so, so, sorry, Lord. Please forgive me; please forgive all of us!"―
What happened next was not at all like what Alma experienced. Alma felt relief and could remember his pains no more.
That would have been nice.
But I wasn't given peace. Instead I was filled with "fear and trembling" as the Spirit bore witness to how awful it will be when the Lord shakes the foundations of the earth and all that is prideful shall be abased and brought low to the dust, and great shall be the fall thereof.
Godly Sorrow Come Lately
I returned and reported.
"Clark, I think I learned something about godly sorrow," I said, "but I still have a ways to go."
"What have you learned?" he asked.
"Maybe repentance is not so much about what I've done as it is about what Christ's done. What power has sin over me when I am looking into His eyes, right?"
"Good," Clark said. "Now I want you to learn what Justice and Mercy mean."