This is based on a talk given by Elder Jeffrey R Holland at a CES Fireside in September 2007.
One of the most difficult and depressing times for the Prophet Joseph Smith was the winter of 1838-39. Persecution in Missouri had become so terrible that the Saints had to travel, through the cold of winter to Illinois, a treacherous trek. Not only that, but the Prophet and other brethren were falsely accused of crimes and unjustly incarcerated in Liberty Jail. Elder Holland describes the horrific ordeal as such – “Surrounded by stone walls four feet thick, the floor-to-ceiling height in the dungeon was barely six feet…When they lay down , it was mostly upon rough, bare stones of the prison floor covered here and there by a bit of loose, dirty straw or an occasional dirty straw mat…
The food given to the prisoners was coarse and sometimes contaminated, so filthy that one of them said they “could not eat it until they were driven to it by hunger.” On as many as four occasions poison was administered to them in their food, making them so violently ill that for days they alternated between vomiting and a kind a delirium, not really caring whether they lived or died.” Such were the conditions the Prophet of God and his brethren found themselves in that wretched place. Not only that but the guards were abusive and blasphemers – making every aspect of that prison terrible.
So why call Liberty Jail a prison-temple experience? This term was first used by Elder Brigham H Roberts in recording the history of the Church. Surely what those brethren endured there was the extreme opposite of a temple.
We are entitled to receiving sacred, revelatory experiences in any situation you’re in: at home, at Church, in the Temple – but also in the most miserable situations of your life. In fact, that’s probably when you’re most likely to receive the most profound experiences and learn the greatest lessons. We all will face our ‘Liberty Jail’ at some point in our lives – not physically but spiritually of course. From all different sources for all different reasons, adversity will come to everyone – God’s plan for us wasn’t for life to be perfect but to have opposition to learn and grow (see 2 Nephi 2:11). Through God though – as will be discussed – we can find warm, comforting arms in those times. Joseph Smith found such comfort from on high – the D&C sections 121-123 were all revelation received during the prison-temple experience and they are powerful words. There are three lessons learnt that Elder Holland highlighted.
The first, having already been mentioned, is that all face struggles in life – the rain falls “…on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) and when this does happen, we will feel like Joseph Smith, crying “O God, where art thou?…How long shall thy hand be stayed?” (D&C 121:1-2). We might feel God has abandoned us and that all is lost. We need to remember however that God is always with us, that “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able…” (1 Corinthians 10:13) and I firmly believe that God works the same way with our trials – we will not be tested above that we’re able to endure with God’s help. Remember God’s answer to the Prophet “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment: And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” (D&C 121:7-8) – all these things we face will end, they are for a short season. The Lord has promised us “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgement thou shalt condemn.” (Isaiah 54:17) and so we need not fear trials.
The second lesson is that, because you are in a trial – it doesn’t mean you have necessarily sinned – although some sins do lead to a greater amount of trials to face. In fact, often the most righteous suffer the most – just look toward our Redeemer! Joseph Smith himself had to be reminded “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8) – the most perfect person to walk the Earth was also the one to suffer the most. “However heavy our load might be, it would be a lot heavier if the Saviour had not gone that way before us and carried that burden with us and for us,” said Elder Holland. Through the Atonement, we can find relief from our burdens and comfort because Christ has suffered it all for us already – we just need to accept the gift. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) – as we come unto Christ by accepting His Gospel, we find rest. We are not greater than the Saviour, therefore we are not entitled to perfect lives with no suffering – and it would have been far worse without the Atonement of Christ, something we can truly be thankful for. This also doesn’t mean we should go looking for trials – for they will come anyway. Also do not pray for them – God does answer prayers – but do pray for guidance for the strength-building experiences when they do come.
The third lesson highlighted by Elder Holland from the Liberty Jail experience is remembering to act in harmony with the teachings of God. “…The powers of heaven cannot be controlled or handled only upon the principles of righteousness,” (D&C 121:36) – therefore, we should not act in anger or vengeance. It takes a true disciple of Christ to take on trials with humility, meekness and continual charity. The true test comes when we’re at our lowest. Christ, Himself, again showed this principle in action. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Christ in His most agonising moments had the charity towards those who lifted Him onto the cross to forgive them. Only then does the meaning of D&C 121:45 – received in the prison-temple – ring true; “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men…then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God.” Only once we endure our trials with the patience and love required by the words of the prophets, then may we feel we have won the fight.
These three principles are three gems excavated from the prison-temple, however the final counsel given from the Lord to the Prophet is powerful too. Joseph Smith was writing these words for the saints, and he said “…let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.” (D&C 123:17). These are motivating words…however, when we remember what conditions he wrote these in, they can have a larger impact on us. He was still in the prison-temple, the time he’d be let free was still unknown – meanwhile the saints were also at their lowest, being driven from Missouri to Illinois. What a great attitude to have in troubling times, to cheerfully do all things in our power.
I know, with Elder Holland, that trials are a part of life. “The Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also has become my salvation.” (2 Nephi 22:2) – as long as I trust in Him, I will be cared for, as He is always there.