Many years ago I received a surprise visit from one of my former students. Near the time of this young woman’s graduation from the university, she began seriously dating a young man from her hometown. He was smitten with her and conveyed his intentions to marry her.
This young woman, whom we will call Diane, felt very unsure of herself with regard to his marriage proposal, so she sought the counsel of a trusted family friend. This elderly man had known her young suitor’s family for several years, and he highly recommended the young chap as a suitable husband for her. Based upon his seasoned recommendation, she proceeded with the wedding plans.
About a year after their marriage, she gave birth to a healthy baby, but at the very time she should have been overwhelmingly happy, she had come to the realization that her husband was emotionally immature as evidenced by his uncontrolled outbursts of anger at the slightest provocation. Furthermore, he had neither ambition nor intentions to accept the responsibility of supporting his new family.
To keep food on the table, Diane juggled a job along with caring for her baby until she reached the point where a divorce seemed to her to be the only solution to her problems. As she recounted her troubles of the previous few years, I asked, “How do you feel toward the family friend who counseled you to marry this young man?”
Her response indicated considerable spiritual maturity on her part. “I still admire and respect him as a valued friend,” she said. “The mistake in judgment was mine. I went to him for a decision which I should have made. In essence, I handed him my agency when I should have accepted the responsibility myself.” Of course, there is wisdom in seeking the counsel of others in making important, life-changing decisions. But we are liable to err if we rely solely on such counsel without studying the matter ourselves, weighing options against our own feelings and the guidance and inspiration available to us through prayer (see D&C 9:7–9). We are entitled to receive revelation for the blessing and direction of our personal lives.
Diane gained an invaluable insight into herself and into the plan of salvation, the “great plan of happiness” (see Alma 42:8), when she discovered the importance of moral agency in her life. So it is for each of us. We can make better choices when we understand the importance and sacred nature of our gift of agency and recognize that which will help or hinder us as we seek to use our agency wisely.
The gift of agency is a crucial and fundamental element of our Father’s great plan of happiness. Because we can exercise our agency only when alternate choices are possible, this plan involves considerable risks—the ability to make mistakes, to transgress divine laws, to disobey, to sin, and to rebel. As Lehi explained, “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” Without such ubiquitous opposition, “righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Ne. 2:11).
Intertwined with the principle of agency is the Atonement, through which we become cleansed from our sins and mistakes. Repentance, baptism, and necessary priesthood ordinances further qualify us to regain the presence of God. In the process of repenting and learning from our past mistakes, we have the potential to acquire the attributes of godliness. The more we exercise our agency wisely, basing our choices on righteous principles, the more Christlike we become. Thus the freedom to choose is a very sacred gift. Indeed, President David O. McKay observed that “next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man” (Gospel Ideals, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1993, p. 299).
The Price of Agency
I am indebted to President Boyd K. Packer, who made us aware of the fact that the term free agency appears nowhere in holy writ. Instead, the scriptures generally speak of agency or free will, but when agency is modified, it is referred to as “moral agency” (D&C 101:78; emphasis added). Because the term free agency has been used by various modern prophets, I use the terms free agency and moral agency interchangeably, aware that the latter term is more correct.
The plan of salvation provided the means whereby the spiritual offspring of our Heavenly Father (see Acts 17:28–29) could come to earth to gain a physical body so “that [we] might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25), for when the body and spirit are “separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33–34).
This wonderful plan of happiness was provided at a very high price. As the Apostle Paul taught the Corinthians: “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19–20; emphasis added).
That price, of course, was the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, graphically described in his own words:
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
“But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
“Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
“Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men” (D&C 19:16–19).
Every drop of divine blood was payment for a costly plan that provided us with moral agency, the ability to become righteous or to sin, and the miracle of forgiveness, which enables us to become cleansed from our sins through repentance, priesthood ordinances, and endurance to the end.
The Apostle Paul clearly forewarned us of the price of unwisely using our agency: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Each time we misuse our moral agency, there is a penalty attached: By offending the Spirit, we withdraw from his companionship; and when we persist in our deviant course of action, we experience a spiritual death, and with certain sins death may be physical as well as spiritual.
Alma taught that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10; emphasis added), a reality more powerful than gravity. Unhappiness is another price to be paid for misusing our agency. To some of the recalcitrant generation of his day, Helaman explained, “Ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head” (Hel. 13:38). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that happiness is the design of our existence (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 255–56). In light of the teachings of Alma and Helaman, righteousness is also the design of our existence.
Using our agency in making righteous choices also involves a price. The Savior’s Sermon on the Mount has been described by President Harold B. Lee as “The Lord’s Constitution for a Perfect Life” (Decisions for Successful Living, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973, pp. 54–62). He suggested that the Beatitudes represent a recipe for righteousness with incremental steps, beginning with “the poor in spirit who come unto [Christ]” (3 Ne. 12:3; emphasis added). The next step in the celestial direction is to mourn, especially for our sins, for “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10). One then becomes meek and begins to hunger and thirst for righteousness. A natural sequel is a greater inclination to be merciful, an increased desire to become pure in heart, and a stronger desire to be a peacemaker (see 3 Ne. 12:5–9). But even the proper and inspired use of our moral agency has a price indicated in the next beatitude: “And blessed are all they who are persecuted for my name’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (3 Ne. 12:3–10; emphasis added). As we climb the steps outlined in the Beatitudes, we soon humbly recognize that our lives are on a higher plane than those who love the things of this world. And notwithstanding our attempts to share with them gospel truths that can also elevate their lives, many of them will begin to persecute us and scoff at our lifestyle and point mocking fingers at those who have partaken of the fruits of the gospel (see 1 Ne. 8:26–27).
The Savior reserved a special blessing for those who would be reviled and persecuted and falsely accused for his sake: “Ye shall have great joy and be exceedingly glad, for great shall be your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets who were before you” (3 Ne. 12:11–12).
The late Elder Richard L. Evans also spoke of the price that is paid merely to experience and endure the vicissitudes of life. Said he:
“Some of the ponderable problems, the unanswered questions, the seeming injustices and discrepancies and uncertainties … which we often have a difficult time in reconciling, will find answer and solution and satisfaction if we are patient and prayerful and willing to wait. Part of them are the price we pay for our free agency. We pay a great price for free agency in this world, but it is worth the price we pay. So long as men have their free agency, there will be temporary injustices and discrepancies and some seemingly inexplicable things, which ultimately in our Father’s own time and purpose will be reconciled and made right” (Improvement Era, June 1952, pp. 67–68; emphasis added).
The Savior’s atonement bought us with a price. But whether we pay the price of repentance for our sins or the price of enduring persecution for our righteousness, any price we pay is only a token, partial payment, “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23; emphasis added).
Enemies of Agency
One of the critical elements of the great plan of happiness presented in the premortal council was the importance of our use of time in mortality. Alma explained to Corianton that “there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God” (Alma 42:4). That is a rather brief agenda for our sojourn here on earth. We are to use our time repenting and serving God, remembering, of course, that “when [we] are in the service of [our] fellow beings, [we] are only in the service of [our] God” (Mosiah 2:17).
Satan would have us waste our time in activities that impede our progress on the pathway to perfection. Following are some of the many enemies of agency.
Addiction. Many people lead empty lives completely devoid of purpose, meaning, and direction. Empty lives must be filled with something, anything, so some people fill their empty lives with endless hours of television, while others become addicted to pornography, alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Still others develop an unhealthy capacity for overeating. And ever so surely these individuals trade their moral agency for their addiction until they are no longer able to exercise their agency. All of their decisions are now on automatic pilot, with seemingly little hope of changing the direction of their lives. There is little advantage to living in a free country if we are in bondage to personal habits.
Debt. The accumulation of financial debt is another dangerous incursion upon our moral agency. A poignant description of the enslaving power of debt was provided by the late President J. Reuben Clark: “Interest never sleeps nor sickens nor dies; it never goes to the hospital; it works on Sundays and holidays; it never takes a vacation … it has no love, no sympathy; it is as hard and soulless as a granite cliff. Once in debt, interest is your companion every minute of the day and night; you cannot shun it or slip away from it; you cannot dismiss it; it yields neither to entreaties, demands, or orders; and whenever you get in its way or cross its course or fail to meet its demands, it crushes you” (in Conference Report, 6 April 1938, p. 103).
There are, of course, justifiable occasions when one incurs debt, such as for the purchase of a house or a major business investment. But even then, great wisdom should be used.
Discouragement. Discouragement and its fellow travelers of depression, despair, and hopelessness are much like the proverbial rocking chair: they keep us busily occupied, but they do not take us anywhere.
I have found through personal experience that whenever I am discouraged and start thinking only of myself and how hard hit I have been, when I kneel down and count my blessings, all of a sudden my personal problems do not seem large at all.
President Spencer W. Kimball provided us with excellent counsel in overcoming discouragement and finding meaning to our lives: “When we concern ourselves more with others, there is less time to be concerned with ourselves. In the midst of the miracle of serving, there is the promise of Jesus, that by losing ourselves, we find ourselves (see Matt. 10:39). … The more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. … Indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find!” (Ensign, Dec. 1974, p. 2.)
Cultural Traditions. A recurrent theme throughout the Book of Mormon is the constraining influence of the false “tradition of their fathers” passed down from Laman and Lemuel through subsequent generations (see Mosiah 10:11–12; Alma 37:9; Alma 60:32; Hel. 5:51; Hel. 15:4; Hel. 16:18–20). Tradition can be a double-edged sword. When based upon the perpetuation of righteous principles, tradition can become a marvelous support system in helping us employ our moral agency wisely. On the other hand, many traditions find their origins in the false pride and foibles of mankind. In modern-day revelation, the Lord has taught: “Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning. … [But] that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers” (D&C 93:38–39; emphasis added).
Cultural customs and traditions often provide a useful map for the members of a given society, but if we are to become members of a celestial culture, we must overcome the natural man reflected in earthly cultures (see Mosiah 3:19; D&C 88:22). Indeed, some cultural enticements—such as following the crowd in matters of fashion and acceptance of worldly standards—are spiritually, and sometimes even physically, destructive. John the Revelator admonished us to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15; emphasis added; see James 4:4).
Aids to Our Agency
Our loving Father in Heaven has given us many indispensable resources and means to guide us in the wise exercise of our agency.
The Gift of the Holy Ghost. In D&C 33:16, the Lord revealed that “the power of [his] Spirit quickeneth all things.” I believe that “all things” means all things. He will not usurp or override our moral agency, but when given an invitation, his Spirit will augment and accelerate our agency. When the Spirit, the gift of the Holy Ghost, is given a chance to influence us, decisions become easier and despair dissipates as solutions to our challenges become clearly evident.
The Book of Mormon prophets make it very clear that the Holy Ghost is willing to exert a very powerful influence in our lives when we are responsive to his promptings. Nephi, Mormon, and Ether explained that the Spirit strives with us to guide our lives on righteous paths (see 2 Ne. 26:11; Morm. 5:16; Ether 2:15). Moroni proclaimed that the Spirit persuades us to do good (see Ether 4:11–12). Amulek taught that the Holy Ghost contends with us to do that which is right (see Alma 34:38), and King Benjamin explained that the Holy Ghost entices us to be righteous (see Mosiah 3:19).
The promptings of the Spirit were never intended to supplant our moral agency, but the Spirit will underscore preferable options in our behavior and clarify a certain course of action in our hearts and minds.
The Savior’s Example. Jesus Christ set the perfect example for us. Without boasting, he acknowledged that “the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him” (John 8:29). He has extended to each of us the invitation to “learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me” (D&C 19:23).
Scripture. Another indispensable resource that assists us in using our agency wisely is holy scripture. The Apostle Paul explained, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Nephi gave the additional prophetic promise that when we “feast upon the words of Christ, … the words of Christ will tell [us] all things what [we] should do” (2 Ne. 32:3). In short, the scriptures are our life script, our instruction manual in mortality, if you will. But of course, if the universal teachings in holy writ are to benefit us, we must follow Nephi’s additional counsel to “liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Ne. 19:23).
Testimony. We learn in the book of Revelation that during the war in heaven, those who overcame Satan and his followers did so “by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (see Rev. 12:7–11). A testimony was an invaluable weapon in the war in heaven, and it is an indispensable weapon here on earth.
A testimony that is continually being nourished and is continually growing will help us at every crossroad when important decisions are made. Indeed, a testimony supplants the need to make certain decisions under fire, because we already know well in advance the course of action we will take.
Power of Prayer. The Apostle James eloquently observed that “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). Alma the Elder would certainly be an ardent advocate of this statement by James, for when the angel appeared to Alma’s wayward son, he explained to Alma the Younger that “the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee” (Mosiah 27:14).
All prayers are, indeed, answered, and it is well to remember that sometimes the answer is not in the affirmative. As the Son of God prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that the bitter cup might pass, an affirmative reply would have thwarted the entire plan of salvation. But the Only Begotten Son demonstrated his meekness and humility and obedience as he added: “Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). The divine answer was no, but “there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43). This is certainly a prototype and a promise for each of us as we too are required to drink from bitter cups in our lives. We will not be left comfortless.
Fasting. There are great blessings promised to those who fast. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord posed an important question, followed by profound promises: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” (Isa. 58:6.)
When we subordinate our physical needs and desires to the dictates of the Spirit, we tap into a spiritual strength beyond our own. If we are in bondage to bad habits or unkind thoughts, we can break the bands of weakness or wickedness through fasting. Our hearts will be filled with love and forgiveness, and we can get on with our lives after having broken “every yoke.”
Ordinances. Ordinances are outward manifestations of inner covenants, commitments, and promises. Ordinances are not optional on the pathway to perfection. These include baptism and confirmation (see John 3:5; 2 Ne. 31:5–12); ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood, for all males (see D&C 84:33–42); the temple endowment and the sealing ordinance (see D&C 132:15–24).
Participation in ordinances helps us use our agency wisely and well, and a constant commitment to covenants spares us the emotional energy required to decide and re-decide what we are going to do each time we face temptation. Each week, through the ordinance of the sacrament, we solemnly covenant to “always remember him” (Moro. 4:3; Moro. 5:2; emphasis added).
Living Prophets. A loving Heavenly Father has provided us with living prophets to receive and to help us understand his mind and will. In speaking of his servants, the Savior said: “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (D&C 68:4). Elsewhere he declared that “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38).
We sustain the fifteen men serving today in the First Presidency and in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators. They are watchmen on the tower who point out the course of action we should take and who see beyond the bend in the road and beyond the horizon.
Patriarchal Blessings. President Ezra Taft Benson encouraged every youth to receive a patriarchal blessing and admonished, “Study it carefully and regard it as personal scripture for you—for that is what it is. A patriarchal blessing is the inspired and prophetic statement of your life’s mission, together with blessings, cautions, and admonitions as the patriarch may be prompted to give” (Ensign, May 1986, p. 43).
The Gift of Agency
We have all been given a marvelous gift, even the great gift of moral agency. And through the infinite love and grace of a Heavenly Father, we also have been given many aids to help us learn how to properly use that precious gift. In addition to those helps already mentioned, we have for our edification and guidance the influence of parents, local Church leaders, sacrament meetings, teachers, Church magazines, righteous friends, hymns and other sacred music, and even ministering angels and the Lord himself (see D&C 84:88).
Truly we are not left alone, helpless, and defenseless against the fiery darts of the adversary. May we appreciate—and use wisely to our eternal benefit—the great gift of our moral agency.