It’s a Sunday morning, and I’ve just finished breakfast. I decide to go for a walk while listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on my MP3 player. Afterward, I shower and dress in clothes I ironed the day before. Anxious not to be late for church, I gather my scriptures and lesson materials because today is my turn to teach Sunday School. I feel prepared, but I run through a mental checklist to make sure I have everything I need. Ready at last, I set out for the chapel, greet some friends before the service begins, find my usual seat, and pick up a hymnbook.
This might sound similar to your Sunday morning or the Sunday mornings of millions of other Church members across the world, but I guarantee that my experience this morning is quite different than most.
I’m in federal prison.
My journey to this place took years of blindly stumbling down dark paths of sin, but thankfully I’ve learned that no path is too dark, or situation too dire, to embrace the rescue and redemption found in the Atonement. I am living proof of this eternal, saving truth. Illuminated by hope and a divine invitation to “Come Unto Me,” I’ve felt a burden lifted from my soul that I couldn’t lift on my own. And through this journey and remarkable spiritual rescue, I’ve learned valuable, life-changing lessons.
Sin is no respecter of persons.
By anyone’s interpretation, I started as an outwardly successful young man beginning a promising and rewarding career path. I am an Eagle Scout, returned missionary, and have faithfully served in many callings. I hold a doctorate degree. I also hold a deep secret—I was addicted to pornography.
This addiction began as a dangerous mixture of lustful curiosity and easy access to online images that fed that curiosity.
Like many others struggling with addiction, I easily justified my illicit activity and hid it under worldly success. I naively believed it caused no harm, or at least that I could handle it and stop at will. But my habits grew unchecked and eventually led me to commit a felony.
“No man can serve two masters.”
While facing my addiction, Matthew 6:24 became very real to me. And before I knew it, I understood the Lord’s warning. My sins were slowly draining my spirituality.
When a cancerous tumor grows, it robs nutrients from the rest of the body, jeopardizing healthy tissue. Most tumors, like sin, are tucked away and hidden—sometimes undetected by the untrained eye, especially in early stages. Similarly, my sins were robbing me of spiritual nutrients; however, a “trained eye”—someone in touch with the Spirit—recognized which master I was serving.
On my first day in a new ward in England, my elders quorum president sought me out and asked if he could meet with me for a priesthood interview. I agreed and met him at the chapel a few days later.
We sat down in a quiet room and began with prayer. After asking questions about my family, education, and interests, he moved toward my Church experience and then to topics that I had come to avoid, such as my personal scripture study and prayer. Though I had ceased doing these things, I told him all was well.
At the end of the interview, this spiritually in tune brother, whom I’d met briefly only two days before, said something that I remember to this day: “I sense you have some inner struggles, and I feel you aren’t as close to the Spirit as you should be.” I was shocked. For a brief moment, I considered the treacherous path I was on and how detrimental it was to my spirituality.
Later, on the bus ride back to my apartment, I took an honest inventory of myself. I realized that with every step I took into the filthy waters of pornography, I left behind the “living waters” of Christ. I had been serving a different master than the Master who protects, shepherds, and saves us. I learned, through the painful experience of wrong choices that I truly couldn’t serve two masters.
Regretfully, I was so entrenched in my sins that I wasn’t yet willing to change.
The Atonement still applies in prison.
I ran a marathon once, and I recall the relief I felt when I came across an aid station. In my own life, I’ve learned the Lord is eager to put “aid stations” to help us along the way; but, I’ve learned that help (sometimes in the form of warnings) is efficacious only when you accept it. I lacked desire and courage when I was offered aid from my priesthood leader. As a result, his words fell on stony ground and didn’t take root.
My pornography problem eventually led to my arrest and imprisonment. Fortunately, that isn’t the end of the story. My parents eagerly reached out to me, their prodigal son. My father told me that how I reacted now would define my future.
Under heaven-sent guidance and countless prayers from loved ones, I began to change. I sought paths illuminated by the light of the One who saves, rather than the dim light of a computer screen. Ironically, I had to be caught and incarcerated before I could break these bonds and truly be free.
I learned through personal experience that repentance means to change—specifically, change how we think about sin. I learned that as I sought the Lord through prayer and the scriptures, I became happier. And I could literally feel the freedom come to my tethered heart and mind.
I cannot stress enough the damaging effects of pornography on the soul. Even a casual perusal scatters weeds in the flower garden of the mind. As it becomes an addiction, it strangles and suffocates the light within you. But the good news of the gospel is that the Atonement has no limits— and with the Lord, all things are possible.
Tender mercies exist even in dark places.
Prison is a dark place. Fortunately, in my experience, it hasn’t lived up to the violent image portrayed by Hollywood—but I’ve found the loss of light and the loss of hope to be far more threatening. I have felt this darkness, this feeling of hopelessness, fighting to constrict my soul.
But I have learned that the Lord looks over each of us, and as we look back to Him, He eases our burden. His tender mercies usually don’t remove our trials. Rather, they help us to bear our load. In my prison experience, most of these tender mercies have come from the kindness of others.
Before I was sent to prison, I was kept in a detention center unit with about 30 other inmates. Words can’t describe how frightened, hopeless, and out-of-place I felt—there were times I wanted my life to end. But prayers were heard, and a tender mercy came from an unexpected source: a correctional officer.
This officer happened to be a member of the Church, and he brought a spirit of calm to the chaos around us. One early evening, while I sat in my cell, burdened with a sinking feeling of depression, he entered the unit and turned off the loud television, plunging the cavernous unit into an unusual and welcomed quiet. Minutes later, he put a CD in a small sound system on his desk, and I heard the angelic voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Be Still My Soul.”
Never before had music stilled my soul more completely than at that instant. At my deepest moment of despair, the Lord was aware of my anguish and sent a tender mercy. Though I felt more alone than I’ve ever felt, an overwhelming sense of peace enveloped me—even in a place as dark as jail.
Though I feared protests when the music started, I was surprised to hear requests to turn up the volume. This moment of peace turned into an evening tradition for us, and a needed time of spiritual refuge for me. It didn’t remove my trial, but it gave me time each day to spiritually recharge so I could lift my burdens. Most importantly, it provided an environment in which I could feel the love of our Savior.
I learned that if we are aligned with our Heavenly Father, no matter what we’ve done or where we’ve been, He is eager to help and welcome us home. Though I put myself in spiritual darkness and created my own burdens, the moment I earnestly worked to change, I found heaven’s help in the form of tender mercies that brought light back to my soul.
True freedom comes from using the Atonement.
Though I’m confined by fences and razor wire, I feel free again, thanks to the gospel of Jesus Christ and His miraculous Atonement. My physical captivity matters far less when I’m not imprisoned by the burden of sin. Making the wrong choices can lead to strong consequences, but I testify that the Lord’s Atonement is stronger. He bears our griefs and carries our sorrows if we are willing and ready to let Him.
Thanks to the hope found in the gospel, I do not let my past mistakes or my current environment define me. I choose to press forward with faith and find ways to still share the gospel, even in an unlikely place like prison. Because here, of all places, a simple Sunday School lesson could change a life for the better.
For more great stories like this, check out the November/December 2015 issue of LDS Living.