Leading up to this I had been discussing repentance with my friend, who had been undergoing a challenging repentance process himself. "The hardest part about repentance" he offered, "is getting to the point that you are willing to repent. To get there you have to admit to yourself that you cannot fully fix it yourself." My friend said that this felt like much more than a simple surrender of pride. It was more like giving up an essential piece of one's identity.
(This, of course, presupposes that the individual has first gotten to the point that he recognizes his sin as a problem and then decides that he wants the problem fixed.)
The very first of the commandments listed on the stone tablets Moses brought down from the mountain demands our recognition of God's preeminence in all things and forbids the worship of idols (see Exodus 20:3-6). Our modern society regularly worships many other gods (see Dallin H. Oaks 10/2013 general conference talk). But perhaps the god we are most guilty of setting before the great God of heaven is ourselves. Isaiah tells us that "we have turned every one to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6).
I have a friend that greatly dislikes the Old Testament tale of the prophet Samuel confronting King Saul about Saul's failure to fully keep the Lord's commandment (see 1 Samuel 15). My friend focuses on the direction to engage in scorched earth warfare and genocide, as well as the execution of the enemy king following the battle. While these are weighty moral issues to consider, I think that my friend's heavy focus on these factors might cause him to overlook an important lesson in the story.
When Saul claims that he disobeyed so as to offer better sacrifices to the Lord, Samuel replies that "to obey is better than sacrifice" (see 1 Samuel 15:22-23). He goes on to say that "stubbornness is as ... idolatry."
We engage in self idol worship whenever we decide that our idea is better than God's or that what we want is more important than what God wants. We rationalize that our cherished sin isn't that bad and that we know plenty of decent people that engage in this type of thing. But we cannot escape the consequences of our enmity with God.
The reason it is so difficult and painful to get to the point that we are willing to repent of the sin of self worship is that destroying our idol literally means destroying something that we have allowed to become part of our identity. The Savior said that this process can be like cutting off a hand or a foot, or plucking out an eye. But he assures us that in the end the reward will be worth the pain (see Matthew 18:8-9).
Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf assures us (see 10/2013 general priesthood address) that while "heartfelt regret and true remorse for disobedience are often painful and very important steps in the sacred process of repentance," true "repentance is about transformation, not torture or torment."
Pres. Spencer W. Kimball's book The Miracle of Forgiveness left an indelible imprint on my generation. Sadly, I think that the message that many of my generation took away from the book was one of harshness, torment, and torture. Most people I talk to about this book today only vaguely recall the message of Christ's miraculous and healing atonement, while vividly recalling the message of suffering as part of the repentance process.
My penitent friend said that trying to shed patterns of past wrongs in favor of patterns of righteous living indeed has its painful moments. But he also claimed that these episodes are nothing compared to the pain of becoming willing to repent. In fact, they can even seem like milestones on the way to a better place.
When the prophet Samuel talks to Saul about obedience, he isn't really saying that God wants this or that action. He is saying that God wants us to sacrifice our own will to his, because he knows that in doing so we will find eternal joy. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis famously put it this way:
"Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self---in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart."This is where my repentant friend is headed. And while this path has its share of pains and trials, it is a joyful path. Perhaps even more joyful than traveling this path ourselves is seeing another soul making progress on that path. This may help explain why God's work and glory is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (see Moses 1:39): because his joy is great "in the soul that repenteth" (D&C 18:13).