Restitution

The Hebrew word shalam (שָׁלַם) means to make something complete or whole. It is sometimes translated into English as “make restitution.” The word appears many times in the context of our obligation to repair the damage we do. Consider the following specific examples:

ReferenceActionConsequence
Exodus 22:5If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed in another man’s field; of the best of his own field, and of the best of his own vineyard, shall he make restitution.
Exodus 22:6If fire break out, and catch in thorns, so that the stacks of corn, or the standing corn, or the field, be consumed therewith; he that kindled the fire shall surely make restitution.
Leviticus 6:2-5If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the Lord, and lie unto his neighbour in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbour;
Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein:
Then it shall be, because he hath sinned, and is guilty, that he shall restore that which he took violently away, or the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten, or that which was delivered him to keep, or the lost thing which he found,
Or all that about which he hath sworn falsely; he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth, in the day of his trespass offering.

The underlying principle is straightforward: If we break something, we ought to fix it. If we steal something, we ought to return it. We ought to do all we can to make other people whole when we have harmed them in any way.

When Zacchaeus, a tax collector, told Jesus that he had been conscientious in making restitution, the Savior was pleased. “If I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation,” he said, “I restore him fourfold.” Jesus replied, “This day is salvation come to this house” (Luke 19:8-9).

After Alma and the sons of Mosiah recognized the damage they had done by leading people away from the church, they worked very hard “to repair all the injuries which they had done” (Mosiah 27:35; see also Alma 36:24). However, Alma was initially in despair, recognizing that he could not possibly undo all of the harm he had caused. “I had murdered many of his children,” he said, “or rather led them away unto destruction” (Alma 36:14). His actions had led people away from God, and he didn’t know if he could bring them back.

Elder Boyd K. Packer explained:

There are times you cannot mend that which you have broken. Perhaps the offense was long ago, or the injured refused your penance. Perhaps the damage was so severe that you cannot fix it no matter how desperately you want to….

If you cannot undo what you have done, you are trapped. It is easy to understand how helpless and hopeless you then feel and why you might want to give up, just as Alma did.

The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” General Conference, October 1995

But Alma found an answer: Jesus Christ can resolve the issues which we are powerless to solve. After crying to Him for mercy, Alma said, “I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.” (Alma 36:19).

Elder Packer continued:

The thought that rescued Alma, when he acted upon it, is this: Restoring what you cannot restore, healing the wound you cannot heal, fixing that which you broke and you cannot fix is the very purpose of the atonement of Christ.

The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” General Conference, October 1995

President Russell M. Nelson recently reminded us of this principle:

It is possible to make restitution for some sins but not others. If one person abuses or assaults another, or if one takes the life of another, full restitution cannot be made. The sinner in those cases can only do so much, and a large balance is left owing. Because of the Lord’s willingness to forgive a balance due, we can come to Him regardless of how far we have strayed. When we sincerely repent, He will forgive us. Any balance owing between our sins and our ability to make full restitution can be paid only by applying the Atonement of Jesus Christ, who can make a gift of mercy. His willingness to forgive our balance due is a priceless gift.

The Power of Spiritual Momentum,” General Conference, April 2022, footnote 12

It strikes me that there is an important balance to achieve here. Just as we can’t make ourselves perfect, we can’t solve every problem around us, even the ones we have caused. God expects us to do what we can. He is pleased when we make an effort to improve and to make things better. But there is a point at which we need to let go, stop trying to do more than we can, and let Him do the rest.

Today, I will do what I can to make others “whole.” I will strive to correct my mistakes to the degree possible. I will also turn to God, trusting that He can compensate for the damage I am unable to repair.

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