Repentance is the act of changing – changing thoughts, words, and behaviors into better ones. Christians are commanded to repent, and there are many calls for repentance in the scriptures. There are also numerous stories in the scriptures that teach the importance of repentance. Two of these stories clearly illustrate the possibility of repentance for even the vilest of sinners. These stories are the experience of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon – Another Testament of Jesus Christ (Mosiah 27) and the experience of Saul of Tarsus in the New Testament (Acts 9).
As I am currently studying the book of Acts, this post will be about Saul. He was a devout Jew who thought that the Christian movement was wrong and wanted to stamp it out. He went about persecuting the Christians and “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He obtained “letters” from the high priest allowing him to hunt Christians and to bring them bound to Jerusalem.
As Saul journeyed near Damascus, he suddenly saw a bright light from heaven about him, and he fell to the earth. Then he heard a voice speaking to him.
Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do (Acts 9:4-6).
I have heard and/or read this story many times in my life. I always considered Saul to be quite wicked because he was persecuting the Christians, and I do not believe that I am the only one to think this way. When I studied these verses this time, I had some different thoughts about Saul. Maybe he was not as wicked as I assumed. Maybe he was just focused on the wrong thing. Maybe something happened to make him more teachable. My thoughts were similar to the following words by President David O. McKay.
Perhaps during those few days of comparative leisure, [Saul] began to wonder whether what he was doing was right or not. Perhaps the shining face of the dying Stephen and the martyr’s last prayer began to sink more deeply into his soul than it had done before. Little children’s cries for their parents whom Saul had bound began to pierce his soul more keenly, and make him feel miserably unhappy as he looked forward to more experiences of that kind in Damascus. Perhaps he wondered whether the work of the Lord, if he were really engaged in it, would make him feel so restless and bitter. He was soon to learn that only the work of the evil one produces those feelings, and that true service for the Lord, always brings peace and contentment (Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. , 148, as quoted in New Testament Student Manual, Religion 211-212, 295)
This statement by President McKay helped me to understand Saul and his story a little better. Saul’s conversion story is more dramatic than most of us will ever experience. Most of us do not go around persecuting the covenant people of God like Saul (his name in Hebrew), nor will we become Special Witnesses of Jesus Christ as Paul (his name in Greek) did. However, we all have the need to change and to become more like the Savior.
I always thought that repentance took time, but I am thinking in a different way since I read a statement shared by a classmate. The following statement is from a devotional address given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland on March 18, 1980, at Brigham Young University.
You can change anything you want to change and you can do it very fast. It is another Satanic falsehood to believe that it takes years and years and eons of eternity to repent. It takes exactly as long to repent as it takes you to say, “I’ll change” – and mean it. Of course there will be problems to work out and restitutions to make. You may well spend – indeed, you had better spend – the rest of your life proving your repentance by its permanence. But change, growth, renewal, and repentance can come for you as instantaneously as it did for Alma and the sons of Mosiah.
Reason tells us that we can repent of our sins and mistakes just as Saul and Alma the Younger did. They were among the vilest of sinners because they tried to destroy the Church of Christ. For Saul it took a visit from Christ, and for Alma it took a visit from an angel. Both of these men went forward and did great work for God. Paul became an Apostle, and Alma became a Prophet. For whatever reason, God decided that they needed special teaching methods.