**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 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 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!
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:
- Repentance is something you do (Acknowledge your mistakes, feel bad, confess, don’t do it again, etc)
- 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.
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.
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? 🙂
Who doesn’t love Nephi? Artist Arnold Friberg captures the moment of Lehi’s family finally reaching the promised land in rich and sincere detail. Observe Sariah in particular. Imagine how relieved she must have felt to finally, as she might have put it, “get a move on”. 🙂 (Well, that’s what my mom would’ve said, anyway!)
Yet at the same time, doesn’t this moment register as strange to anyone? I mean, what a way to start a book! “Let’s build a wooden ship (in 600 B.C., mind you) to sail across the harsh Pacific waters in hopes of a better land, despite all the gold, precious silver, and other riches in great abundance at home.” Can’t you kind of see why Laman and Lemuel complained so much? I mean, yeah, they had freezing cold hearts and equally as cold intentions, but if you take the synopsis of the first book of Nephi and really condense it, doesn’t it sound sort of…strange? No? Hmmm…well, OK, maybe it’s just me.
But if by chance you do find this opening act a little tough to follow, perhaps we can look at a few concepts that will bring this first and perhaps most significant chapter in the Book of Mormon to greater light.
Remember when God, in his righteous indignation, sent down a great flood (oh, to be a weatherman in those days!) that literally encompassed the whole earth? What was the water itself specifically symbolic of? It is clear that water, in many scriptural instances, is symbolic of the judgments of God. Take Moses and the Read Sea for example (Exodus 14:21+22). God withheld his judgements from Moses and the children of Israel, but as soon as the Egyptians came in after them? SWOOSH! You’ve just been judged. Hardcore.
So isn’t that essentially the same thing God did in Genesis 7? Sure! God exercised his judgment with the flood, and reiterates this fact in Moses 7:32-45.
Let’s stay on the topic of Noah and his more than incredible ark. If the water represents God’s judgments, what does the ark represent? Or rather, what is the only way we can be saved from the judgments of God? While the first principles and ordinances of the gospel are important, one cannot hope to get there without the atonement. The atonement is typified in the ark, bringing Noah’s family safely across the waters of God’s judgment.
But Lehi and his family are also crossing a big sea by boat. Aha! See, this is where it all comes together. This isn’t just a story about building boats from some celestial blueprint and crossing the unfathomably deep, dark, and cold Atlantic waters (which they knew nothing about) to some unknown body of land. This is another tender reminder that Christ’s atonement is all encompassing and eternal. Nephi typifies Christ in his construction of the boat (and in many other aspects of his life! We’ll do a separate study on that!), which was meant to carry his family to safety and rescue them from the judgments of God. And truly, only a boat could’ve ensured safe passage across the sea. So could only the merciful atonement meet the demands of justice. As we sing in one of my favorite hymns, “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” (Hymn 104), Christ is our “wonderful sovereign of the sea”.
But there’s even a little more symbolism! Most modern temples around the world face east, just like Biblical times, because the saints, from the beginning of time, have always been westward. So it was with Lehi and his family. After the boat was constructed, it set sail from the east to the west. Truly, we could even compare that ship to the temple, which saves families and carries them to the promised land.
Comments? Insights? I’d love to hear them! Enjoy the rest of your Sabbath 🙂
On this snowy evening in Rexburg, I decided to record some thoughts about a topic many Latter-day Saints hear a lot about: agency. Before taking my Book of Mormon 121 class at BYU-Idaho, I suppose I interpreted the concept of agency as being synonymous with free agency. Besides, agency means the right to choose, correct? So wouldn’t free agency be the same as agency? The freedom and right to choose?
Well, first of all, you won’t see the phrase “free agency” anywhere in the scriptures. Nada. Zip. Except for one talk (maybe two?) given in 1975 by Elder Delbert L. Stapley, you won’t see the phrase “free agency” in General Conference or other Church publications either! So why do we use that phrase so much in LDS culture?
Perhaps we should do what my Book of Mormon teacher did, and dissect the two words. In the world of sports (which I know SO much about ), if you’re a “free agent”, it could mean a couple things:
- Not under any specific contract
- No sponsor
Truly, being a free agent implies freedom from responsibility, contracts, and all ties to any one group or organization. In our pre-existent state living with our Father in Heaven, do you imagine this idea sounded particularly tantalizing to many people? Oh sure, it must have, or else 1/3 of our brothers and sisters wouldn’t have bought into such a scheme.
We think of the plan of Satan as being mainly one of selfish greed: Give me all your honor, let me be your son, etc (Moses 4:1-4). But the other side of Satan’s plan we don’t talk so much about was to offer up absolutely no responsibility, no contracts, no obligations. I believe it’s right to assume Satan was all for “free agency”, at least in the context that one should not have to accept consequences for actions, because there is no contract stating such consequences must be enforced.
Sure, there are others who also seemed to like the idea of being a “free agent”. Let’s look at a few:
ANTI-CHRIST’S IN THE BOOK OF MORMON
1. Sherem– Sherem is the first anti-Christ we know of, and he does a good job at being one of the principal antagonists in the Book of Mormon. What was his main argument? In the case of Christ’s coming into the world, he responded “…for no man knoweth of such things; for he cannot tell of things to come.” In other words: Seeing is believing.
Isn’t this essentially what Satan believes? “You don’t know what’s best for me! You can’t tell me of things to come when things are going so well right now!” Indeed, if you don’t hold a contract with Christ, then who’s contract did you sign?
2. Nehor– Aside from his less than intimidating name, Nehor had his own spiritually deadly agenda that would ultimately affect generations after him. What was his main argument? “…that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.” (Alma 1:4)
This is a little less obvious than the first misleading statements of Sherem. Sure, it sounds good that Christ saved us all, and therefore no matter what we do we will be saved, but if we take a moment and think about it…wasn’t that exactly Satan’s plan to begin with? “And not one soul should be lost”? No responsibility, no contract, do whatever you want with no consequences in the end. Hmmm…surely there’s a catch…
3. Zeezrom– It seems like these guys’ tactics get more and more refined as the scriptures go on. Zeezrom was especially dangerous because he “was a man who was expert in the devices of the devil” (Alma 11:21) and so, with his wealth, power, and fame, he prostitutes the idea that God shall save people in their sins (Alma 11:34-37).
This goes back to Satan’s original plan of not losing one soul and being saved in sin.
4. Korihor– And that leaves the last major anti-Christ in the Book of Mormon, being Korihor. We all know what his beef was in Alma 30: If you show me a sign, I will believe. And not just that, but he was a major proponent of living the “free life” (momentarily, of course! see 2 Nephi 28:19-22) with virtually no consequences.
Noticing a theme here?
So what is agency then? First of all, let’s refer to it as “moral agency”, the things we do and are responsible for. Let’s turn to D&C 93:30+31: “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man…” Didn’t Lehi also say that we are free to act “according to the commandments which God hath given”? (2 Nephi 2:26)
So yes, we are free up to a point. Like my mom said, it’s like being at a water park (pretend that’s the “sphere” spoken of in D&C 93). There are rules and laws one must abide by to stay in the park. If you rebel against the park rules, you’ll get kicked out “of that sphere”. Of course, in this analogy you would repent, and regain access to the water park. Luckily the manager of this water park is VERY forgiving and you can enter and reenter no matter how many times you break the rules! But one thing remains the same: if you want to stay, you must obey.
Folks, “[we] are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6:20) We all signed a contract! And you know what? Come to think of it, maybe Satan’s plan really wasn’t free agency at all! (Again, see 2 Nephi 28:19-22! GREAT scripture on Satan’s evil devices!) The 1/3 of the hosts of heaven were dragged down by the chains of sin and basically forced to sign a contract anyway. There IS no free way out. Ever.
I believe moral agency is not free. Since when was Christ’s atonement some act accomplished with absolutely no effort on the part of the sinner after the fact? Sure, we can never pay Christ back for what He did for us, but surely His whole ministry wasn’t meant to free everyone from all responsibility or effort altogether! For He said, “And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:38). The atonement was instituted so that we could begin the process of repentance, followed by a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
So, to sum it all up:
- Moral agency= the freedom to choose, in the sphere which God has placed us. We can choose our actions, but not our consequences.
- Free agency= No specific contract or obligation. No strong ties to any one thing either way.
So that’s enough of that I’d like to hear your thoughts! What do you think about moral agency vs. free agency? Is there a difference?