In this life, there is a space between choices and consequences. That’s what makes it a period of probation. We are not trained animals, taking actions with the expectation of immediate rewards or punishments. Instead, we are often left alone, to see what we will choose to do in the absence of either positive or negative reinforcement.
We are habit-forming creatures, which is another way of saying that our current decisions influence our future decisions. Make a poor decision today, and in the absence of an immediate negative consequence, you are more likely to make a similar poor decision tomorrow. As a pattern of decisions emerges, it becomes our default behavior. As these patterns harden over time, they can become difficult to break. We may also be less willing to break them, more inclined to remain as we are.
To be ripe is to be fully ready for a specific action or purpose, such as when a fruit is ready to be harvested and eaten. (See Oxford English Dictionary, definitions 1 and 2.) Some form of this word appears nineteen times in the Book of Mormon: twice in the allegory of the olive trees, once in the context of missionary work, and sixteen times as a warning to us.
What is the warning? That we must repent before we are fully ripe (Alma 37:31).
What does this ripeness represent? Does it mean that we can reach a point where we are unable to change? I think it means that we can reach a point where we are unwilling to change.
When Amulek warned the Zoramites against procrastinating their repentance, he didn’t describe a referee declaring that the game was over or a teacher refusing to accept an assignment after the deadline. Instead, he asked them to think about their own future selves: what they were becoming.
Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world (Alma 34:34).
The binding constraint, in other words, will be you: your future self, what you have become. The danger is that, if you resist change long enough, eventually that resistance will become permanent. It’s not that God will no longer allow you to repent and return to Him. It is that you will have ripened into a person who is permanently unwilling to do so.
The antidote is repentance: regular, prompt, and frequent repentance. As President Russell M. Nelson has taught us:
Nothing is more liberating, more ennobling, or more crucial to our individual progression than is a regular, daily focus on repentance. Repentance is not an event; it is a process. It is the key to happiness and peace of mind. When coupled with faith, repentance opens our access to the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ (“We Can Do Better and Be Better,” General Conference, April 2019).
Today, I will remember the Book of Mormon warning to repent before I ripen. I will recognize that my daily decisions are collectively forging my future character and that consistent repentance can help prevent my sins from hardening into habits.