Unmasking 5 Misconceptions About Repentance

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30 Aug 2012

Imagine the city in late winter: cold, cloudy, with large patches of soot-covered snow.

Then the spring rains come and wash away the remnants of winter, rejuvenating the city. Repentance is that healing rain, our Creator’s gift, which washes away accumulated impurities. I will explore five misconceptions about repentance, which hold people back from making use of this amazing gift.

1) “I don’t need to repent; repentance is only for hardcore sinners.”

We all make mistakes that need to be fixed. A plane is off-course 90% of the time; only because pilots make constant corrections does the plane arrive at its intended destination.

If we want to arrive at our intended destination – living an elevated life and earning the bliss of Heaven – we also have to make constant corrections. This is the essence of teshuva, the Hebrew word for repentance, which literally means returning: returning from drifting off-course, returning to G-d.

2) “I’ve committed too many sins; I’ll never be able to repent.”

Repentance is not all or nothing; even just thoughts of regret and longing to return to G-d elevates your soul and brings you closer to Him.

You will benefit from any amount of the purifying effects of repentance. The more you cleanse yourself, the more you repair and restore your connection to G-d. Every positive action strengthens your relationship with Him.

Make a list of the areas you want to focus on. Repent and strengthen one at a time, starting with the one that is easiest for you. Speaking to your rabbi or rebbetzin for personalized guidance can be of immense help. For suggested categories to choose from, see my blog post, How to Live a Fulfilling Life: An Action Plan.

Once avoiding that sin or doing that mitzvah (commandment) becomes routine, put a check mark next to it and pick another one. Eventually, with G-d’s help, you will succeed even in areas that are currently very challenging.

3) “It’s too late; I’ve already done the unforgivable.”

Never think you are too far gone. The spiritual damage caused by sin is not permanent. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, “If you believe you can damage, then believe you can repair.”

If you need a sign that the gates of repentance are still open for you, feel your pulse; as long as you are alive, your Father in Heaven beckons you to return to Him.

4) “Repentance is arduous and time consuming.”

Changing our behavior is challenging, that is why it is important to focus on changes that are within reach. The process of repentance is straightforward and can take less than five minutes. Do not underestimate the power of repentance to turn around your life.

Please note that for sins against others, we must first ask for their forgiveness and make amends, when possible, and then ask G-d for forgiveness.

The 4 steps of repentance:

1. Feel regret. If you have trouble feeling remorse, think about how our Creator gave us a pristine soul to safeguard, along with many gifts – the human body, money, leisure time, etc. – to be used to bring this pure soul close to Him. Instead, we took the very gifts He gave us and used them to defile our souls – distancing us from Him and causing our Father pain.

Remorse is part of the purification process and motivates us to abandon harmful behavior. At the same time, think of our Father’s endless love for us; He is waiting to grant forgiveness and bring us close to Him even after we have committed the worst sins.

2. Refrain from the sin. We cannot repent if the transgression is ongoing.

3. Verbally confess to G-d and ask for forgiveness. “G-d, I have sinned by ___(specify the sin). Please forgive me.”

4. Make a verbal commitment not to repeat the sin. If you doubt you will be able to keep your commitment, Rabbi Shaul Wagschal, in The Practical Guide to Teshuvah, advises you only focus on the present. Do not think about your past failures to improve or your doubts about future successes. Right now, do you sincerely want to never repeat this sin? If yes, then go ahead and make whatever commitment will help strengthen your resolve. Our Creator knows our limitations and does not expect perfection; all He asks is that we do our best to follow His will, and repent when we lapse.

Writing down the resolution and reviewing it regularly can be helpful. When appropriate, tell others of your resolution, as an added incentive to keep it strong.

Have faith that after sincerely doing these steps, your Father has forgiven you. You now share an even deeper relationship. Let go of guilt, let go of shame. You are a new person, no longer burdened with that past mistake.

If you have trouble believing G-d has forgiven you, perhaps it is you who has trouble forgiving. When you become a more forgiving person, you will have an easier time believing G-d has forgiven you.

5) “I’ve tried to do better and failed; I’ll never be able to change.”

In the beginning, you might have trouble keeping your commitment. Sin has an addictive quality and it is challenging to break free from addictive behavior. To illustrate, smokers attempt to quit, on average, eight to 10 times before they are successful. When attempting to separate yourself from the tentacles of sin, be prepared to fail, and be prepared to recommit and try harder each time, until you succeed.

Try the following three strategies to prevent repetition of the sin:

  1. Implement safeguards to keep you far away from temptation.
  2. Say to yourself, especially when thoughts of sin enter your mind, “I am the son/daughter of the King of kings. I refuse to act in a lowly manner,” or, “I’m not the kind of person who does that,” and think about something else. By letting the evil inclination know that your commitment to avoid sin is non-negotiable, you take the wind out of its sails.
  3. Ask G-d to help you triumph in this struggle. With His help you will succeed and be cleansed of the harmful effects of the sin.

Each time you stumble, immediately do the four steps of repentance. Begin again with an invigorated start.

King Solomon wrote in Proverbs (24:16), “For though the righteous one may fall seven times, he will arise….” The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, explained that determination to rise from every fall is what enables people to become righteous. Each of us – no matter how far we may have fallen – has an innate ability to become righteous by refusing to give up.

Keep striving; keep getting up after every fall and with G-d’s help you will transform yourself into the person you want to be.

For further discussion on how to live an elevated life and come closer to G-d, please see Yaakov’s blog, yaakovweiland.blogspot.com.

Yaakov Weiland has an MSW from Fordham School of Social Service and lives in New York City. He has been published in The Jewish Press, Arutz-7 and Aish.com. To read his other articles, please visit yaakovweiland.blogspot.com.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.