Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells us in Likkutey Moharan (I: 27): “When a person is confronted with lustful thoughts and fantasies, if he turns away from them and focuses on other things, through this he achieves his main teshuvah. When lustful thoughts are entering his mind and he turns away from them, by focusing on something else, this is the primary rectification for the previous damage he caused in the area of the bris (reproductive organ), since this teshuvah completely corresponds to the sin previously committed.
“Therefore,” continues Rebbe Nachman, “don’t be disconcerted if you see yourself being plagued by fantasies and improper thoughts, because this itself is your teshuvah and your way of rectifying your past sins regarding the reproductive organ.”
This is very similar to what Maimonides wrote (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:1): “Who has reached complete teshuvah? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned previously, and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit the sin because of his repentance and not because of some other reason such as fear or lack of strength.”
In other words, a person must turn away from sin in the same situation in which they previously failed. It’s not enough for one’s teshuvah to be theoretical. We have to actually go through the test and pass it. The novelty of Rebbe Nachman’s advice, however, is that we shouldn’t become discouraged when confronting unwanted temptations; rather, we should recognize them as an opportunity to attain the high level of “complete teshuvah.”
It goes without saying that a person should never seek out tests by purposely placing themselves in situations or scenarios that will bring on sinful temptations. But, as it sometimes happens, we find ourselves in those unwanted situations and faced with a test in which we previously failed. When this happens, we should recognize that we are being presented with an opportunity to make amends for past indiscretions.
But why is it necessary to confront the same situation in which we previously failed? Why isn’t a theoretical teshuvah enough? After all, doesn’t G-d already know if we’ve truly repented?
The answer is that by going through the test and passing it, we bring our inner strength from a state of potential to a state of being actualized. It’s not so that Hashem will know if we’ve truly repented. He already knows exactly where we’re holding. Rather, the benefit is for us. When our strength is actualized in a real-life situation, we become what heretofore we only were in potential. May Hashem help us to always remember this as we will undoubtedly face countless scenarios in which we previously failed to be our best version of ourselves.