During the lesson in Relief Society this week, we were discussing Jonah, and I remembered an incident a few years ago that had really bothered me.
An acquaintance had done something rather obnoxious to me. I don't think it was terribly malicious, but it was also uncalled for and unnecessary and made me uncomfortable. I was completely unprepared for it and didn't know how to respond, so mostly I just didn't. I tried to be polite and move on as quickly as possible.
A short while later, that individual pulled me aside to "apologize". What she actually did was explain to me that she didn't do what everyone who observed the behavior thought she did. As that person spoke, I felt miserably sick through my entire body, and the message from the Spirit was clear: this is a lie.
It bothered me because it was so petty. You have done something wrong. It wasn't a huge deal, but everyone saw through your charade and knows that you have done something wrong. It would be so simple to just acknowledge that and move past it and forget about it, so why compound the wrong by justifying yourself and lying, thus doubling down on the original offense, ensuring that the frustration level would rise and everyone would remember it? Why lie about such a little thing? Why not just admit the wrong-doing and move on?
When I expressed that thought to a friend, she articulated the obvious (in retrospect) reason that I had been unable to put my finger on: this individual had serious challenges in life and in all her relationships because she was deeply dishonest with herself about the intentions and affects of her actions, and even about what her actions were. Admitting this wrong-doing, however small, opened the possibility that she was wrong about other things--it opened the possibility that other blatant misdeeds were, in fact, her own fault. That must've been a crushing feeling that constantly hung at the edges, just outside of conscious thought.
So, back to Jonah. Jonah was commanded to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. Let's have some sympathy for Jonah--it was a tough assignment: he was pretty sure that the mostly wicked citizens of Nineveh weren't going to receive him kindly. I'd be scared and reluctant, too. Jonah shrunk from the command, and tried to flee in a ship going the opposite direction. In other words, overwhelmed and frightened by the task assigned to him, Jonah disobeyed a direct commandment from the Lord. While he was on the ship, a terrible tempest arose, and the sailors (themselves heathens and unfamiliar with the teachings and workings of the Lord) feared for their lives. Instead of hiding in embarrassment, afraid to tell them this was his fault and just hunkering down and hoping for the best, Jonah confessed to the sailors that it was his fault: he had displeased the Lord. He knew the happiness, security and very lives of others were at stake because of his disobedience. In that moment, I imagine that Jonah, generally good and righteous man that he was, realized that that was exactly the reason the Lord wanted him to go to Nineveh: the lives and happiness, in an eternal sense, of many others were at stake. So, Jonah confessed to the sailors that the storm was his fault, that he had disobeyed God, and should be thrown overboard. He would meet his doom, he assumed, but the Lord would be pacified and the lives of the sailors would be saved.
That is what true repentance looks like: a willingness to admit wrong-doing to those we have harmed (or put in harm's way), and to accept any and all consequences that may result from that, up to and including, in Jonah's case, death. Often, we avoid sincere repentance because we are more embarrassed than ashamed: we are still petty enough in our hearts that we fear being "found out", we fear temporal, social consequences--be they emotional, financial or physical--more than we feel shame for having disappointed and disobeyed the Lord. Until our love for God and our deep sorrow for having separated ourselves from him through our unrighteous actions is greater than our fear of embarrassment or reprisal before our fellow men, true repentance won't happen. We have to be willing to accept fully the consequences of our actions, in order to put ourselves aright with both God and our brethren.
That is not the end of Jonah's story, however. When he finally came forward, admitted his wrong-doing, and was prepared to be lost to the sea to make penance for his disobedience (and the harm that that disobedience had caused others), he was indeed thrown overboard by the others on the ship--but God did not abandon him. Jonah found himself swallowed up by a whale. I'm sure it was not a terribly pleasant place to be, but it was a big step up from drowning in a tempestuous sea. He had three days entirely alone with his thoughts and his God, with nothing to do but think about the trouble his action had caused, both for himself and for innocent souls, and to figure out how he was going to do things differently moving forward, if he ever got out of that whale alive. His life was spared, he found himself on dry ground three days later, and, here's the kicker: he was able to fulfill his original assignment, with tremendous success. Many of those in Nineveh came to believe what Jonah taught, and were themselves beneficiaries of the Lord's mercy.
Jonah discovered a wonderful truth: when we finally let go of our fear of the mortal consequences of our sins and mistakes, when we admit our wrongdoings and are willing to accept the consequences, the Lord is far more merciful than we expect. Trusting in that mercy, feeling that godly sorrow for having disappointed the one soul who loves us unfailingly, can give us the necessary courage to repent of even very serious sins. Even if worst comes to worst and you get thrown overboard after all, remember that the Lord sent a whale of mercy for Jonah--he can do as much for you, and will, if you trust in Him more than in man. The Lord wants us to succeed, but we damn our selves when we fail to honestly admit failures. Trust that his mercy is great enough to deliver you from failure, that his love is stronger than even the most vile derision of men. We must learn to truly trust that even if the Lord is the only friend we have left, he will be enough. And trusting in that, I think we will find that most of the people we know are more forgiving and kind than we expected, as well.