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. Here are five myths 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 God.
2) “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 and remains external to who you are – a Divine soul. Your inner essence of sanctity and innate worth stays with you regardless of your past behavior. As one of God’s children, you have intrinsic value and the potential to change and grow; nothing can take that away from you.
There is no such thing as being damaged beyond repair. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, “If you believe you can damage, then believe you can repair.”
There is no sin for which repentance does not work. As Maimonides states (The Laws of Repentance 3:14), “…For nothing can stand in the way of repentance.”
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 still beckons you to return to Him.
3) “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 and not take on too much at once. The process of repentance though, is straightforward and can take less than five minutes. Do not underestimate the power of repentance to turn around your life.
For sins against others, we must first ask for their forgiveness and make amends, when possible, and then ask God for forgiveness.
There are three essential steps to repentance. For those sins which are ongoing, there is an additional preparatory step of refraining from the sin.
The 3 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, always remember our Father’s endless love for us; He is waiting to grant us forgiveness and bring us close to Him, even after we have committed the worst sins.
2. Verbally confess to God and ask for forgiveness. “God, I have sinned by ___(preferably specify the sin). Please forgive me.”
3. 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.
A mnemonic to remember the three steps is RCC: Regret, confess, commit.
Writing down your 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 three steps, your Father has forgiven you. Let go of guilt, let go of shame. You are now a new person, no longer burdened with that past mistake. According to the Sages, even in Heaven you will not be reminded of sins for which you have repented.
If you have trouble believing God has forgiven you, perhaps it is you who has trouble forgiving. Focus on becoming a more forgiving person. Then, you will have an easier time believing God has forgiven you. For details, see, “The Freedom of Forgiveness: 3 Strategies to Letting Go.”
4) “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 God 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 God which sin compromised.
The Talmud (Yoma 86b) teaches, that when people repent out of love for God (wanting to come closer to Him and fulfill His will) versus out of fear of Divine punishment, their past sins are turned into merits. The more sins you have committed, the more deeds you have waiting to be converted into merits. This is an incredible gift God is waiting to give you. Take advantage of this amazing opportunity.
If there is a particular sin you are especially motivated to repair, start with that one. If you do not know where to start, make a list of your sins. For help compiling your list, you can look at the section in the back of the Artscroll Yom Kippur prayer book which details the many sins people commit.
First do a basic repentance on all your sins by feeling regret and verbalizing both your sins and that you will do your best to avoid them in the future. Then go back and choose the easiest sin for you to stop doing. Make a firm commitment not to repeat this sin and focus your energies on keeping your commitment. If you do not think you can stop cold turkey, then break down the sin into small parts and commit to stopping one part at a time, or to a gradual reduction of the behavior along a specified schedule. You can speak to your rabbi or rebbetzin for personalized guidance.
Once avoiding that sin or doing that mitzvah which you had not been doing becomes routine, put a check mark next to it and pick another one. Eventually, with God’s help, you will succeed even in areas that are currently very challenging.
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 ten 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 God to help you triumph in this struggle. With His help you will succeed and be cleansed of the harmful effects of the sin.
Your self-image plays a pivotal role in whether you will repeat a sin. If you think of yourself as a sinner, that is how you will act. Instead, if you lapse in your commitment to avoid a sin, immediately do the three steps of repentance. Then, tell yourself, “I am no longer the type of person who does that act.” Begin again with a clean slate and a fresh start.
King Solomon wrote in Proverbs (24:16), “Even if a righteous person falls seven times, he will get up…” The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, explained that it is the rising from every fall which enables a person to become righteous. This means that every one of us – no matter how far we may have fallen – has the innate ability to become righteous by refusing to give up. If we pick ourselves up after every fall, our falls will serve as a springboard to incredible growth and achievement.
Tell yourself, giving up is not an option. Keep striving; keep getting up after every fall and with God’s help you will transform yourself into the person you were meant to be.
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