The lesson outline starts with the following:
During the sacrament each week, we should examine our lives, ponder the Savior’s Atonement, and consider what we need to do to repent of our sins. We do not need to be perfect in order to partake of the sacrament, but we should have a spirit of humility and repentance in our hearts. The sacrament can become a source of strength and an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to living the gospel.
I started by reminding everyone of a lesson we had last year about repentance - particularly how we only understand half of the concept of repentance when we focus solely on remembering our sins / mistakes and vowing not to repeat them. (If anyone wants a fuller look at that concept before continuing with this lesson summary, read the following post from January 2008, since our discussion was based on that post: "A Fresh View of Repentance".)
I asked everyone what "repent" means, and they remembered that it simply means "change". I explained that we were going to talk about two ways to try to repent: 1) the traditional focus on recognizing past sins and committing to not repeat them; 2) changing our very nature by developing characteristics that will help us not feel and act in the same way we naturally would.
I mentioned that the first approach (the traditional steps of repentance method) is necessary for "hardcore" sinners (similar to what addicts might have to do because they might struggle with a temptation all their lives but simply have to commit to a sheer force of will no matter how long it takes, along with other strategies), but that, for most people, just suppressing an inclination generally results in that inclination eventually erupting through built-up pressure - which, as one student said, leads to a vicious cycle of failed attempts and self-criticism. I call this reactive repentance, and I stressed that the ONLY focus of this sort of repentance is to remain as good as we are at any given point - to not let our "badness" overcome our goodness, so to speak. There is no real "growth" in that approach; rather, it is much more of a fight to remain stationary.
The second approach is to recognize a weakness and work to develop a characteristic that will eliminate the inclination / weakness / undesired action. This also is focused on "change", so it is "repentance" every bit as much as the other approach. I call this approach proactive repentance.
I asked the students if any of them had ever lost their temper and acted toward someone in a way that they regretted. (I picked a fairly generic issue in order to make it personal for all of them but avoid embarrassing anyone.) They all grinned and raised their hands. I asked them how they could change that - how they could go about trying to not do it anymore - other than simply committing not to do it. I asked them to think about exactly what they could do to tackle that particular issue. Eventually, we came up with the following:
1) Develop more patience;
2) Learn to understand the other person better - both their view/perspective and what things in their life might lead them to say and/or do something that bothered the students enough to get upset and lose their temper.
We talked about patience being the "lower" standard and understanding being the "higher" goal. One of the students in the class has Asperger's Syndrome and occasionally says something inappropriate or off the wall. He said it was okay to use him as an example, so we talked about why everyone else didn't get mad at him and lose their tempers when he said or did something that might make them mad if someone else said or did it. They all said they understand and love him - and, beside being a wonderfully tender moment, it helped them see what I meant about repentance being more than just not doing things. It also can mean doing something to improve one's self and change actions as a result, in this case by understanding someone enough to love them no matter what they say or do.
One student said he would like to read the scriptures more, so we talked about how repentance also can apply to things that aren't seen as sin but are strictly things we want to do better - things we want to change. For this discussion, I focused on the idea of needing to examine one's life and make "repentance" a very practical exercise. We talked about needing to think about themselves and when they are most alert - to look at their real-life schedule and choose a time that will work to read the scriptures - to actually calendar the time so it becomes habitual - to perhaps let others know so they can remind us of the commitment - etc. There were seven people in the room, and we came up with at least four approaches that would be best for someone.
This highlighted that repentance is an individual thing - that there is no one-size-fits-all, universally right approach - that nobody ought to try to force someone else to repent in the same way that person does.
Finally, I returned to the sacrament and pointed out that the ideal is not just to "think about Jesus" but rather to have faith in the Atonement enough to examine our lives and use the sacrament as a way to recommit to a practical examination and plan to change - to move from a warm fuzzy spiritual contemplation to a difficult, reflective, practical exercise founded on a spiritual hope.
I left them with the request to pick something that they want to improve about themselves and start focusing on doing so, if only one thing at a time for a limited time and if only to make some limited improvement during that time (rather than trying to overcome it completely and be "perfect" [whole, complete, fully developed] at it in the short-term).