Glimpses of Grace Donald Stoesz
Nine Principles

Nine Theological Principles of Recovery: 
Pastoral Care in Prison

1. Created in the Image of God
2. Feelings of Remorse for Harm Done
3. Confession to God and Others
4. Acceptance of Forgiveness
5. Surrender to God
6. Restoration to Original Righteousness
7. Ability to Love
8. Eros and Agape
9. Discipleship


Going into prison can be a daunting experience. Authorization papers are needed to enter the facility. Security checks at the front gate ensure that nothing is brought into the institution that jeopardizes the safety of staff and inmates. A person signs their name at the front gate so that staff know who is in the facility at any given time. A staff person opens any number of locked doors so that a visitor or security officer can enter the facility.

These experiences can make persons wary. Why would one want to enter a prison other than the fact that one has been sentenced to prison, works as a staff person there, or has come to visit a friend or relative? I went into prison as a volunteer over thirty years ago. I became a chaplain because I believe that being sentenced to prison is not the final answer to the question of justice and punishment. A variety of opportunities for staff, inmates, families, volunteers, and friends can make it a redemptive place.

Nine theological principles help chaplains in their work with inmates. Each of these principles represents a solid grounding in faith and life. They steer chaplains away from the most serious pitfalls.

The first principle has to do with offenders being created in the image of God. This premise is not a given in the storied history of Christian theology. Some denominations believe that people need to be baptised in order to be saved. These churches maintain that human beings have been born into sin.[1] People cannot act on the basis of original goodness because they are fallen creatures, prone to evil actions and fated to sin.

This negative assumption is not helpful for offenders who have already committed heinous actions.  They need to be reminded that they were born creatures of God, created in the image of God, and are essentially good.

The second starting point has to do with remorse for harm done. Dialogue and pastoral care are difficult if the inmate believes that they have not done anything wrong. Denial is a huge factor for anyone who has committed a serious crime. The inmate finds it difficult to believe that they are the ones who committed this offence.  They did not realise that they were capable of such harm to another human being. Their natural tendency is to diffuse the shame and guilt associated with this action. They tend to deny that they committed such an offence.

A chaplain’s task is to help the inmate own the offence that they committed. Naming the criminal act assists the inmate in admitting that they were in some way involved with the crime. The chaplain guides offenders through stages of denial to deep feelings of remorse, guilt, and shame.

Having remorse is one way of admitting that we are less than good. We have fallen short of the glory of God in spite of our commitment to the good. Ownership of the crime committed represents a starting point for further pastoral care.

Admission of guilt in the context of a chaplain’s office represents a form of confession. Inmates may have called out to God to say that they are sorry for what they have done. They may negotiate with God to reduce the effects and punishment for the crime. They may feel that their admission of guilt represents an opening for God to reduce the difficulties of living with the crime.

A purely subjective confession to God is inadequate because it does not enter the playing field of reality. Real harm needs to be met with real punishment, with real consequences.  An inmate’s ability to confess the nature of their crime to someone besides God represents a third starting point in healing and recovery. Ownership of wrong done becomes real when the offender realises the extent of the harm they have caused. Ripple effects of sin continue for years, for lifetimes from which there is no escape. Forgiveness may or may not be granted -- by God, by human beings, by oneself.

We know on a subjective level that God forgives us if we cry out to the divine. That sense of freedom is only real on an ephemeral level. Forgiveness of self and forgiveness by others may take a lifetime.

The above discussion brings us to a fourth theological principle of pastoral care. Offenders cry out to God because they want forgiveness. Inmates share intimately about their offences in the privacy of a chaplain’s office because they want to be absolved of their sins. Granting absolution in public and private settings assuages the situation.  Inmates want to be blessed by the priest because they know that they need a lot of affirmation and forgiveness and acceptance.

A chaplain’s task is to absolve offenders of their sins on the basis of God’s forgiveness and absolution. This absolution does not obviate the punishment that the inmate has received for the crime committed. Punishment may go on for a lifetime, even though the offender has been forgiven by God and absolved by the priest on the basis of their confession of sin.

Surrender to God is the next logical step of deepening one’s faith and commitment. It is one thing to feel remorse, confess one’s sins, and accept forgiveness. It is another thing to live one’s life under the umbrella of God’s care. Surrender of one’s will to God’s will is a daily exercise that orients the inmate toward discipleship.  I consider the Council of Chalcedon’s affirmation of the two wills of Jesus as operative in the lives of believers.[2]

 The will of God and the will of man operate within believers in the same way that Jesus acted according to his human and divine will. God was acting within Jesus at the same time as Jesus was acting according to his human will. Neither will was obviated on the basis of the other. Jesus is confessed as the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. He is also confessed as a human person who can identify with all human beings in their weaknesses. This dual aspect of the nature of Jesus is helpful in understanding how we can surrender fully to God without obviating the role of the good will with which we have been created.

Being restored to original righteousness is especially important in an atmosphere that is anything but conducive to positive energy. I have been drawn to the idealistic aspects of the Roman Catholic beatific vision[3] along with the original innocence in which Adam and Eve were born. Naivete, childlike trust, kindness, compassion, love, care, hope, and faith shine brightly in darkness. The downward spiral of negativity and despair are met head on with the grace and compassion of God. God calls us from deep within to a brighter future.  The light draws us upward as sin falls from our sides. The journey from justification to sanctification is evident within a prison setting.

Ability to love, eros and agape, along with discipleship represent another three theological principles by which we live. Love trumps hope and faith at the same time as hope provides light for the future and faith rests secure in the knowledge that not a lot of divinity is visible on an experiential level within the fences. Offenders’ ability to love others is mirrored in chaplains’ ability to love inmates on the basis of Jesus’ infinite compassion.

Eros is affirmed on the basis that our deepest desires have been created by God. The infinite selflessness of God exists within and without the inherent desires that shape human need. To channel libido in an appropriate manner represents a way out of the tangle of needs and wants that have come to define the criminal act. God wants us to fulfill our deepest desires. Curiously enough, those desires can only be satiated through a selfless giving to others. Relationships are defined and sustained by this dialectical relationship between eros and agape.

Poverty, obedience to a higher authority, and sexual abstinence represent three virtues forced on inmates upon their incarceration. Offenders can choose to embrace these external restrictions to achieve a higher spiritualty. Many of them have committed crimes on the basis of their immediate need to get rich, their anti-authoritarianism, or their obsession with sex. Ability to see these needs – wants – on a more objective basis allows discipleship to flourish in prison that is more intense than for those believers who enact these disciplines in the community.

Illustrations of Each Principle

Theological resources have been drawn from a variety of sources to illustrate the importance of each principle. The Catholic Catechism is especially helpful in regard to being created in the image of God. It makes a distinction between a tendency to sin, called concupiscence, and sin itself.[4] All of us have an inclination to sin based on our selfish desires.  Inmates committed their crimes because they fed the flames of these proclivities to possess what they wanted. Placing one’s covetous impulses within an ethic of care and respect enables a person to become whole, spiritually, emotionally, and socially.

The Catechism acknowledges our propensity and inevitability of sinning while placing that original sin within the salvific perspective of the gospel. God forgives our sin, saves us from ourselves, and empowers us to live redeemed lives.

Fictional writer J.K. Rowling is particularly perceptive regarding the second principle. She includes an extended discussion of the impact of remorse in her seventh and last book in a fairy tale series about Harry Potter.[5] She suggests that remorse can be very painful because it means that we have to admit that we have been wrong in our actions. We have to live with the painful consequences of our actions. We have to take the punishment we deserve.

This stage in the process of healing is particularly difficult for J.K. Rowling’s chief antagonist. Tom Riddle has killed any number of people including his own father. He becomes less and less human as he continues to get worse. One highlight of the book occurs six pages from the end of a thousand page odyssey.[6] Harry Potter suggests to Tom Riddle at the height of battle that he should learn to feel some remorse. Tom Riddle responds by saying that he has no idea what Harry is talking about. Tom is on the verge of what he considers his final victory. Love, compassion, regret, guilt, and shame mean nothing in the face of Machiavellian politics. Winners take all in the fight for power and control. Nothing else matters.

I was drawn to the fictional character of Tom Riddle because so many of the men that I meet reflect his personality. They are willing to do anything to win at all costs. They suppress the pain and hurt of their victims because this is the only way that they can continue to inflict harm. To admit wrongdoing means that their house of cards would come crashing down. Admission of guilt would mean the end of their world as they know it.

I have known lifers who continue to claim innocence twenty and thirty years after the crime was committed. While some of their retorts may be true, the fact of the matter remains that they were convicted of their crimes. Significant new evidence is necessary to overturn their conviction. Denial of the circumstances and involvement is a huge factor for many of these men. Admission of wrongdoing, however small and insignificant, represents the start of a long journey of recovery.

Confession is a third principle that moves the discussion from admission to healing. This confession takes place in the privacy of a chaplain’s office, the privacy of a confessional to a priest, or in the public declaration of confession in a worship service. I have chosen Celebrate Recovery[7] as the confidential context in which confession of sin occurs because of its egalitarian assumptions. The book of James speaks about “confessing one’s sins to each other” (James 5:16) without elaborating on the power relationship between confessor and confessee. Confession is offered on the basis of trust, confidence, and a belief that absolution of guilt can occur.

The fact that facilitators within the Celebrate Recovery program have gone through the twelve steps of recovery keeps them on an egalitarian level with the clients they are serving. Like Jesus, they can identify with the weaknesses of participants because they themselves are prone to these same bad habits, hurts, and hang-ups. This empathetic identification represents the necessary prerequisite for confession and absolution to occur.

Acceptance of forgiveness represents a fourth stage of the process of healing. Jean Valjean from Les Miserables[8] has been chosen as an exemplar par excellence of this step. The transformation from hardened criminal to spiritual surrender occurs because of the exceptional grace of a Catholic priest. Jean’s reward for stealing the dinner plates and silver cutlery from Bishop Bienvenu is receiving two additional silver candlesticks. Jean can only weep at this undeserved show of solidarity and compassion.  His acceptance of the priest’s grace takes Jean on a road to recovery that lasts, like J.K. Rowling’s magnus opus on Harry Potter, a thousand pages. Jean is able to forgive himself along with Inspector Javert and others as he becomes attentive to the redemptive aspects of life. The nuns’ sacrifice of obeisance and surrender in the face of a compassionate God resonate with Jean’s own emotional and spiritual transformation.

Surrender to God represents a fifth principle that is anything but easy. The human will with which we have been born instinctively fights against the divine will for which we have been shaped. Some theologians have been on the verge of asserting an eternal dualism between these two wills.[9] Either God or humanity has to rule.  I take my cue from the Council of Chalcedon, which asserts that the human and divine wills existed equally within Jesus. This means metaphorically that the divine will is there to save as well as empower the human will with which we have been created. The goodness of self with which we have been created is reborn and envigoured by the divine will that transforms us from grace to life, from forgiveness to holiness, from despair to hope, from nihilism to faith, from arrogance to love.

Hans Frei’s reflection on the resurrection of Jesus[10] provides the wherewithal to understand this dialectical relationship between human and divine will more fully. The fact that God raised Jesus from the dead as well as that Jesus raised himself (sic) means that the humanity and divinity of Jesus are held in creative tension. Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity, eternal Son of God, raised himself as attested to the Gospels of Mark and John (Mark 8:31; 10:34; John 10: 17-18). At the same time, Jesus had to be raised from the dead because he was fully dead.  I am making a theological point about the divine and human wills of Jesus while acknowledging the historical messiness of describing the simultaneous rising and being raised.

This theological point is being made to assist believers in affirming the goodness of the human will with which we have been created and the divine will for which we have been destined. We do not have to assert the predominance of original sin to protect the divine initiative that God enacts through grace. We do not have to assert the essential goodness of humanity in order to negate the need for grace and salvation. The two wills exist in tandem, as affirmed in the case of Jesus through the Church’s Council of Chalcedon.

Restoration to original righteousness is especially important for pastoral care in prison. The darkness shines so brightly that intense experiences of hope, faith, and love, along with idealistic visions of non-violence, compassion, reconciliation, respect, and obedience are needed to assuage the situation. The Catholic Catechism includes a beatific vision in its description of restoration. It is able to do so because it starts with the premise of human beings having been created in the image of God. Special recreation is possible on the basis of natural creation, which God deemed good.

The last three principles flow naturally from the first six principles. They are like water running downhill. The pull of God’s gravity is so powerful that spirituality, faith, and belief find their fulfillment in the ability to love, the ability to desire deeply while giving graciously, and in the ability to practice humility and care in the midst of pride and arrogance.

Jean Valjean has been chosen as a witness to love. Victor Hugo has suggested that Les Miserables represents one long journey from despair to hope, from evil to good, from wrong to right, from punishment to justice, and from law to gospel.[11] I have countered his affirmation by suggesting that the book is actually about love.

The headings of the four major sections say it all. The bookends of Fantine and Jean’s paternal love are matched by the mutual, erotic, agape, and fulfilling love of their step-children, Cosette and Marius. The marriage of the latter two characters extends beyond the end of the book. Children and progeny, careers and fortunes await, similar to J.K. Rowling’s subsequent book that relates what happened to her protagonists after the end of her first seven novels.

Eros and agape are particularly important in the context of relationships. We have been created with the wonderful gift of erotic love and desire while being challenged to use this gift of libido responsibly so that relationships can last. We have been born selfish in order to practice selflessness. We have been born with innate desires while harnessing them in a proper direction. We have been born with the will to live while needing to die to self in order to be supremely fulfilled by the next person.

The intimacy of God may be the only attainable aspect of this exotic adventure. The Catholic Catechism includes a beatific vision in its doctrines because it knows how much brokenness exists on the realm of human relationships. The brokenness of relationships that I witness on a daily basis in prison behooves me to embrace the love that once was, the love that is still evident in the divine, the love that can be fulfilled by the very nature of being human: sexual, driven, needy, incomplete, spiritual, and deeply religious.

Andres Nygren has been chosen as the fall guy for an enunciation of the dialectical relationship between eros and agape.[12] His radical defence of God as the primary initiator of grace, forgiveness, salvation, and agape make human beings less than good from this perspective. Natural human grace through creation does not seem possible for Nygren because he wants to protect the sovereignty of God. This one-sided approach fails to see how natural grace is restored through exceptional grace.

Discipleship is the last big word in these stages of recovery. Sanctification is illustrated on a daily basis in prison as inmates learn to trust each other, confide in each other, respect each other, and live in harmony with each other. This virtuosity extends infinitely outward to staff, friends, family, volunteers and the very Godself.  Redemptive behaviour on the basis of infinite grace shines forth in the midst of darkness.

I have chosen Saint Francis as exemplar of discipleship. His radical practice of poverty, obedience, and abstinence rivals all other forms of discipleship and ethics within a prison context.  Normality can only be achieved through recognition of the abnormal deprivations and challenges of prison life. Embracing the ideals of a life without material riches, sexual relationships, and disobedient children makes all of us relook at the basis of our own radically mediocre ethic.

Concluding Reflections

The purpose of the book is to point chaplains in the right direction. Theological resources have been provided that are peculiar to the prison context. Other theological principles would be applicable in a military or hospital chaplaincy setting. Guilt, shame, remorse, regret, forgiveness, absolution, and surrender are apropos topics for pastoral care in a prison setting because serious offences have been committed. Chaplains have to come to terms with the relationship between the wrath and love of God in order to become effective chaplains.

[1] T. Richard Snyder, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), pp. 36-37.

[2] A theological formula of Jesus having two wills was drawn up at the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.), see Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in the Christian Tradition, Volume 1, trans. John Bowden (Altanta: John Knox Press, 1975), p. 544.  It reads in part: “. . . our Lord Jesus Christ is the one and the same Son, the Same perfect in Godhead, the Same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the Same consisting of a rational soul and a body homoousios with the Father as to his Godhead, and the Same homoousios with us as to his manhood . . . made known in two natures which exist without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and both concurring into one Person and one hypostasis.”

[3]  “This mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description. Scripture speaks of it in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise. . . . God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself open up his mystery to man’s immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory ‘the beatific vision,’” Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition (Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2019), p. 268.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 14-15, 255, 358.

[5] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 89.

[6] Ibid., p. 594.

[7] Course materials include the NIV Celebrate Recovery Study Bible, edited by John Baker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) and four course booklets written by John Baker, Stepping out of Denial into God’ Grace, Taking an Honest and Spiritual Inventory, Growing in Christ While Helping Others, and Getting Right with God, Yourself, and Others (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). More information about the usefulness of such a program within prison walls can be found in chapter fifteen of Donald Stoesz with Hank Dixon, A Prison Chaplaincy Manual: The Canadian Context (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2020), pp. 133-140.

[8] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables. Translated by Charles Wilbour. New York: Modern Library, n.d.

[9] One thinks, for example of Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will (Baker Academic, 2012).

[10] Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997), pp. 152-155.

[11] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, pp. 484-485.

[12] Andres Nygren, Eros and Agape, two volumes, translated by Philip Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1932, 1939).