Category Archives: Repentance

“Sackcloth and Ashes”: The True Meaning of Repentance

**I don’t know why I’m on such a “repentance craze” lately, but after my post yesterday I decided to record some thoughts from my mission journal about the topic of sackcloth and ashes and what it has to do with repentance. As with all the other material covered thus far, I don’t claim by any means to be an expert in Biblical history and its accompanying traditions. These are just thoughts a 19 year old young man gathered from the scriptures one evening in a country with not much more than 2 million people. I would love to hear whatever insights you have on this subject!**

From one of my mission journals, November 9th, 2011; Windhoek, Namibia

Throughout my mission, bishops and branch presidents often came up to us missionaries and voiced the same concern: “Our people do not know how to repent.” This was an interesting statement and has stuck with me even up till now. It has caused me to think if I even know how to repent. Missionaries are known for repeating the same old “ABC’s of repentance”, being:

  • A= Acknowledge your wrong doings
  • B= Be sorry, or feel bad
  • C= Confess your sins to the Lord (or priesthood authority if the sin warrants!)
  • D= Don’t do it again

This illustration, while doctrinally correct, can lead people to think about repentance as a casual thing. Yes, even as casual as the ABC’s.

The Old Testament and the Book of Mormon give a unique view of repentance that is less repeated or emphasized today due to changes in culture and time, that unique view being covering oneself in sackcloth and ashes. This custom is not a major recurring theme in the scriptures, but when it is mentioned it is always follows after major act of sin, transgression or mourning.

After Jonah preached repentance to wicked Nineveh, the king “arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 2:6) The king even went so far as to proclaim that every “man and beast be covered with sackcloth and cry mightily unto God” (verse 8). The Book of Mormon prophet Abinadi also approaches the wicked people of King Noah and said that “except they repent in sackcloth and ashes, and cry mightily unto the Lord their God, [he] will not hear their prayers, neither will [he] deliver them out of their afflictions.” (Mosiah 11:25)

And yet another example is found in the Book of Esther when king Ahaseurus, with the help of Haman his wicked servant, sent a decree to kill “all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day.” (Esther 3:13) The magnitude of this evil act caused Mordecai, Esther’s faithful guardian, and all the Jews to engage in “fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.” (Esther 4:3) Esther even sent  “raiment to clothe Mordecai, and to take away his sackcloth from him: but he received it not.” (verse 4)

So what is the real significance of “sackcloth” and “ashes”? It would be helpful to look at the two words separately:

SACKCLOTH

Sackcloth registers to most as more of a scratchy, burlap grain bag that one might cut holes through to use as clothing, but in Biblical times such cloth was made from coarse goat hair. Although it was customarily used for sacks, people wore such clothing as a sign of true repentance and/or humility.

John the revelator refers to sackcloth with intriguing imagery as the sixth seal is unfolded to his view in the Book of Revelation. He says, “And I beheld when he [the Lamb; Christ] had opened the sixth seal…the sun became black as sackcloth of hair…” (Revelation 6:12) Doctrine and Covenants 88:87 gives us an idea of what is meant when John referred to the sun becoming “black as sackcloth of hair” in the last days. The Lord revealed, “For not many days hence…the sun shall hide his face and shall refuse to give light.”

These two scriptures help us figure out what is meant by “sackcloth” in the context of repentance. If, in the last days, the sun will be clothed in it, which will in turn cause him to “hide his face and…refuse to give light,” that must mean the sackcloth is a sign of shame, regret, or disappointment. When we are entangled in sin, do we not want to crawl into a corner and cover ourselves from the public eye? Do we not want to “hide our faces” and “refuse to give light” because of all the shame and embarrassment that is often associated with sin? Or, like in the case of Mordecai and the mourning Jews, do we not at times feel like hiding or isolating ourselves from the wickedness and cruel nature of man and mourn the hardness of their hearts? This is where “ashes” adds more meaning to this predominately Old Testament custom.

ASHES

Ashes are, of course, the remnants of any burnt object. It is black and gray in color and levels itself with the earth. To help give meaning as to why it is important and symbolic in the repentance process alongside sackcloth, we can look at Genesis 18:26. As the prophet Abraham discusses the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with the Lord, he acknowledges his weakness as a mortal man by saying, “Behold, now I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes…” By admitting his own nothingness, even by referring to himself as “but dust and ashes”, Abraham displayed the celestial attribute of humility.

Conversely, the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah refused to humble themselves to the dust, so God compelled them to be humble by “turning the [city]…into ashes condemn[ing] them with an overthrow.” (2 Peter 2:6) Their prideful ways brought them from their lofty and prideful heights to the dust of the earth in the form of ashes.

From these scriptural accounts, it is clear ashes is a representation of humility and perhaps even sacrifice, as many Old Testament references to ashes alone deal primarily with burnt sacrifices. Sackcloth and ashes combines seem to send a message of shame, regret, and humility.

So to sum it all up, repentance is far more than a casual thing. As the Bible Dictionary states, repentance means “to turn” or, turn from something. Sincere repentance is hard, but brings forth so many rewards in the end that make the suffering worth it. How grateful we should all be that Jesus Christ suffered throughout His ministry so that we could repent. Truly repentant sinners not only feel deep sorrow for sin but also humble themselves before God so He can shape them into becoming and realizing their full potential.

Any thoughts or added insights on this subject? I’d love to hear it!
~Matt

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“A Broken Heart and a Contrite Spirit”: What does it mean?

Artist unknown

My whole life I thought of a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” as being the same as repentance. But it means far more than just repentance itself. It is the marvelous result of true repentance, blooming with sweet evidences of true conversion and selflessness.

The prophet Lehi in the Book of Mormon explains how repentance in and of itself does not ensure salvation:

 Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered. (2 Nephi 2:7)

The Lord Himself stated explicitly in 3 Nephi 9:20: “And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit…” Clearly this phrase is more than just feeling bad about something, it’s a sacrifice! It’s not meant to be easy! I remember sitting in seminary hearing this scripture and thinking, “Wow, thank goodness this is all the Lord expects of us. I’d hate to slaughter goats every time I want to make restitution for sins!” If we’re going off easiness here, I think goat-slaughtering would win 😉

In a general sense, here’s how I understand it:

  1. Repentance is something you do (Acknowledge your mistakes, feel bad, confess, don’t do it again, etc)
  2. A broken heart and a contrite Spirit is a gift of the Spirit that is ultimately developed after being truly forgiven of personal sin.

Let’s look at the requirements for baptism in D&C 20:37 (bold added)–

All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church.

Having a broken heart and a contrite spirit isn’t an “or” statement. We need both. Let’s break this down:

A BROKEN HEART

Jesus Christ is the perfect example of One who already had these qualities without struggling through personal sin to attain them. They say Christ died literally and figuratively of a broken heart (see Chapter 35, note 8 in James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ). Sang the psalmist in reference to Christ: “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20,21)

Matthew shares with us the intimate moments of Christ’s suffering in the garden by providing these verses: “And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.” (Matthew 26:37+38; bold added) It is indisputable that at this moment, and all moments prior and after, Christ truly had a broken heart. Christ’s heart was broken for others. His whole ministry was about others. We don’t always need to associate a broken heart with repentance, as Christ proves it often has nothing to do with recovering from personal sin.

Artist unknown

The sons of Mosiah also experienced this broken heart as they thought about their brethren, the Lamanites. In Mosiah 28:3+4, we read:

Now they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any should should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble. And thus did the Spirit of the Lord work upon them…

The sons of Mosiah weren’t quaking and trembling because of their own sins, as those had been repented of previously. Rather, they thought nothing of themselves, only fearing that anyone should experience the dark and dreadful path a life without the gospel leads. Truly, they had a broken heart, or rather genuine love and concern for others.

CONTRITE SPIRIT

Let’s refine our Hebrew, shall we? Thanks to BlueLetterBible.org, I was able to find that “contrite” in Hebrew is daka’, or in English, to crush, be crushed or worn down. Well that’s odd…a ‘crushed’ spirit? Well, if we’re going to try to mold this phrase into our everyday speaking, I think we’d probably say “humbled” or “submissive” spirit. After all, the English definition of the word “contrite” is “showing sincere remorse”.

Christ certainly exemplified one who had a contrite spirit. Four simple words give us this reasoning: “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10). Christ literally bowed himself to the dust of the Earth, and although his spirit was most certainly worn and humbled, He remembered whose work it was He came to do: the Father’s.

This can’t be an easy thing to accomplish. Perhaps this is why the Lord refers to it as a sacrifice (3 Nephi 9:20)

So how do we know when we have a broken heart and a contrite spirit? President Spencer W. Kimball said, “True repentance incorporates within it a washing, a purging, a changing of attitudes, a reappraising, a strengthening toward self-mastery. It is not a simple matter for one to transform his life overnight, nor to change attitudes in a moment, nor to rid himself in a hurry of unworthy companions…he is not repentant if he has not developed a life of action and service and righteousness, which the Lord has indicated to be very necessary.” (From What is True Repentance? May 1974).

Thoughts? Additions? Quotes? 🙂

~Matt

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