Most people, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, don’t anticipate having to visit their spouses behind bars. It’s just a foreign concept for us. Unfortunately, we are all human, and we all make mistakes. And, as one woman said, some people’s mistakes are bigger and more visible than others.
My friend who said this has firsthand experience with high-profile errors, because her husband is serving time in federal prison on a case that was well-publicized in their former community. He is appealing his conviction. The husband of another friend of mine is also incarcerated, and his case is winding through the legal system.
I am a second-hand observer to their situations, and I don’t pretend to know how they feel. But I can imagine that the road is lonely and a little scary. My purpose in writing this is to help others who might be in a similar situation see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and they are not alone. From the experiences of these two ladies, here are 5 things to remember when a loved one is incarcerated.
1. Heavenly Father loves us, and everything will be OK in the end.
One of my friends said that, from the beginning, she needed to know that Heavenly Father loves her and her husband, and that everything would be OK. The late President Gordon B. Hinckley was fond of saying, “Things will work out.” In times of distress, sometimes it’s hard to see that.
Sister Elaine S. Dalton said:
The Lord has promised us that as we “search diligently, pray always, and be believing, … all things [will] work together for [our] good” (Doctrine & Covenants 90:24; emphasis added). That doesn’t mean that everything will be perfect or that we will not have any trials, but it does mean that everything will be okay if we just “hang in there.”
Sometimes the trials are of our own making, and sometimes they are a result of another’s choices. But if we focus on doing what’s right—or repenting of our wrongs, if need be—then, in the end, everything will be OK.
Above all, we must remember that the love of God transcends all of our weaknesses and our sins. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught:
God does not look on the outward appearance. I believe that He doesn’t care one bit if we live in a castle or a cottage, if we are handsome or homely, if we are famous or forgotten. Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely.
He loves us because He is filled with an infinite measure of holy, pure, and indescribable love. We are important to God not because of our résumé but because we are His children. He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken. God’s love is so great that He loves even the proud, the selfish, the arrogant, and the wicked.
What this means is that, regardless of our current state, there is hope for us. No matter our distress, no matter our sorrow, no matter our mistakes, our infinitely compassionate Heavenly Father desires that we draw near to Him so that He can draw near to us.
My friend said that knowing everything will work out in the end, she can be OK now. Her faith in Heavenly Father’s love and guidance gives her courage to face her trial with faith. And she knows that as long as she is on the right path, that she will be OK—and so will her husband. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said:
On occasions, global or personal, we may feel we are distanced from God, shut out from heaven, lost, alone in dark and dreary places. Often enough that distress can be of our own making, but even then the Father of us all is watching and assisting. And always there are those angels who come and go all around us, seen and unseen, known and unknown, mortal and immortal.
Not only do these women need to know that Heavenly Father loves them no matter what, their husbands need to know that as well. And, though we might need to make some course corrections, “all things will work for our good” if we trust in Heavenly Father and try to do what’s right.
2. The situation calls for compassion and mercy, not judgment.
Easter 2013, my friend’s husband asked my husband, who was his bishop, for a blessing. His trial was coming to an end, and he and his family were scared of what the outcome would be. The Spirit was strong as my husband and other priesthood holders administered to this man. He was convicted shortly thereafter, with harsh words from the judge. However, he and his family continued to feel the peace that they felt during his blessing. I’m not trying to say that it has been easy for them, but they were comforted by the words spoken in his blessing.
It would be easy for me to pass judgment on him in this case—after all, he was found guilty. But I don’t think I have enough information to do so. And I don’t feel like I can. The Prophet Joseph Smith said:
Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive. … God does not look on sin with [the least degree of] allowance, but … the nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. [Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 257, 240–41.]
It is for this reason that we are taught to not judge others. This concept can seem confusing. The Savior taught that we should “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1). At another time, He taught that we should “judge which is right” (Luke 12:57). Elder Dallin H. Oaks clarified:
We must, of course, make judgments every day in the exercise of our moral agency, but we must be careful that our judgments of people are intermediate and not final.
In other words, we must decide if a person’s actions are wrong, but we must not condemn the person—meaning that there is no more hope of divine forgiveness for that person. President Uchtdorf said:
I am not suggesting that we accept sin or overlook evil, in our personal life or in the world. Nevertheless, in our zeal, we sometimes confuse sin with sinner, and we condemn too quickly and with too little compassion. We know from modern revelation that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” We cannot gauge the worth of another soul any more than we can measure the span of the universe. Every person we meet is a VIP to our Heavenly Father. Once we understand that, we can begin to understand how we should treat our fellowmen. …
With this in mind, let our hearts and hands be stretched out in compassion toward others, for everyone is walking his or her own difficult path. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our Master, we are called to support and heal rather than condemn.
We don’t always know the thoughts, intents and struggles of another person, and we don’t always know what is in his or her heart. But the Savior does. That is why those who are incarcerated—and the loved ones they left behind—need love, support and encouragement instead of judgment.
President Henry B. Eyring told a story about a friend’s grandmother who had a wayward grandson. This grandson chose a life of crime and eventually was sent to prison. President Eyring said:
My friend recalled that his grandmother, as she drove along a highway to visit her grandson in prison, had tears in her eyes as she prayed with anguish, “I’ve tried to live a good life. Why, why do I have this tragedy of a grandson who seems to have destroyed his life?”
The answer came to her mind in these words: “I gave him to you because I knew you could and would love him no matter what he did.”
There is a wonderful lesson for us all. … Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son love all of God’s children no matter what they choose to do or what they become. The Savior paid the price of all sins, no matter how heinous. Even though there must be justice, the opportunity for mercy is extended which will not rob justice.
(Maybe it’s just me), but I always thought that the prisons were full of bad people who deserved to be there. Through this experience I have realized that although some might deserve to be there, that doesn’t mean that they are bad people. President Uchtdorf said:
In truth, we “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” We are all in need of mercy. In that last day when we are called to the judgment bar of God, do we not hope that our many imperfections will be forgiven? Do we not yearn to feel the Savior’s embrace?
It seems only right and proper that we extend to others that which we so earnestly desire for ourselves.
3. The Church of Jesus Christ offers resources for those who are incarcerated.
When my friend’s husband was arrested nearly two years ago, they wondered how they could get him scriptures, a subscription to the Ensign magazine or other materials from The Church of Jesus Christ. At least in the experiences of my friends, inmates are only allowed to have soft-cover books that come directly from the distributor.
But the Church does offer resources for those who are incarcerated:
In collaboration with Welfare Services at church headquarters, LDS Family Services is responsible for materials and professional resources to assist those in correctional institutions and their families. For assistance, contact LDS Correctional Services at 800-453-3860, ext. 2-2644, or [email protected]
In addition, some corrections institutions have bishops assigned to assist members there. When permitted, The Church of Jesus Christ will organize programs and other services at facilities—including worship services with prayers, talks and fast and testimony meetings. The sacrament is not administered, but the Spirit of God is often there. S. Brent Scharman, who has served as an ecclesiastical leader in correctional institutions, wrote:
I have come to discover that prisons are places of paradox: harshness combines with opportunities for spiritual growth. I’ve had the chance to observe what happens when inmates choose to participate in the Church where it is available. …
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt the Spirit more strongly than in a meeting where approximately 100 inmates were celebrating Easter. The choir was surprisingly capable and demonstrated genuine emotion and sincerity. Inmates gave from-the-heart testimonials about their need for the Savior’s help in bringing about real change. The feelings in the meeting that day were of hope, optimism, and love.
4. The power of forgiveness and the Atonement are real.
One of the most comforting doctrines for those whose loved ones are incarcerated is that of forgiveness and the Atonement. President Boyd K. Packer said:
… Save for the exception of the very few who defect to perdition, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no apostasy, no crime exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness. That is the promise of the atonement of Christ.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of hope, even when all seems lost. To claim the blessings of the Atonement, we must repent of our sins. President Uchtdorf taught:
True repentance brings us back to doing what is right. To truly repent we must recognize our sins and feel remorse, or godly sorrow, and confess those sins to God. If our sins are serious, we must also confess them to our authorized priesthood leader. We need to ask God for forgiveness and do all we can to correct whatever harm our actions may have caused. Repentance means a change of mind and heart—we stop doing things that are wrong, and we start doing things that are right. It brings us a fresh attitude toward God, oneself, and life in general.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ is what makes this possible. President Packer said:
Your repentance cannot be accepted unless there is a restitution. 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….
…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.
When your desire is firm and you are willing to pay the “uttermost farthing,” the law of restitution is suspended. Your obligation is transferred to the Lord. He will settle your accounts.
Repentance is available to all, even to those who are serving time in prison or jail. President Hinckley said:
I know this is a delicate and sensitive thing of which I am speaking. There are hardened criminals who may have to be locked up. There are unspeakable crimes, such as deliberate murder and rape, that justify harsh penalties. But there are some who could be saved from long, stultifying years in prison because of an unthoughtful, foolish act. Somehow forgiveness, with love and tolerance, accomplishes miracles that can happen in no other way.
My friend sees one of these miracles in her husband’s life. He is pleading guilty in his case. My friend said to me after one of his hearings, “I am so grateful that the prosecutor isn’t out to destroy my husband. She’s trying to be fair, but she’s not trying to ruin his life.” Mercy cannot rob justice. But sometimes, in the pursuit of justice, we can find mercy as well.
5. We can be an instrument in the Lord’s hands wherever we are.
President Uchtdorf told a story several years ago about a group of men who were trying to move a grand piano. The men tried all sorts of configurations but could not get the instrument balanced enough to move it safely. Finally one man suggested that they all stand close together and lift where they were standing. President Uchtdorf said:
Although it may seem simple, lifting where we stand is a principle of power.
My other friend and her husband are amazing examples of this principle. From the beginning, her husband has befriended and worked to help and lift his fellow inmates. At times he has also enlisted his wife’s assistance in aiding other inmates and their families.
She said that she often receives texts from former inmates. One said, “Tell your husband that I’m praying every night and reading my scriptures.” Another said, “Tell your husband that I’m doing fine and I’m going to church.”
As ironic as it sounds, she and her husband feel that he has been called on a mission to prison. Elder Oaks said:
… The Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become.
While he is appealing his conviction, my friend’s husband is working to help others realize what they can become. Both of my friends are also lifting where they stand. First and foremost, they love and support their husbands and continue to see the good in them—even when others don’t. Both women are strengthened by their faith in Heavenly Father and the knowledge that their families are bound by temple covenants.
Although they are dealing with their own trials, they are reaching out to others around them. One friend said, “I feel like I have been so blessed throughout this trial that I just want to be helping and serving others whenever possible.”
They are both examples of this quote by Elder Holland:
May we all believe more readily in, and have more gratitude for, the Lord’s promise as contained in one of President Monson’s favorite scriptures: “I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, … my Spirit shall be in your [heart], and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.” In the process of praying for those angels to attend us, may we all try to be a little more angelic ourselves—with a kind word, a strong arm, a declaration of faith and “the covenant wherewith [we] have covenanted.” Perhaps then we can be emissaries sent from God when someone … is crying, “Darkness … afraid … river … alone.”