On the Responsible Self


Robert S. Wood
The concepts of individual freedom and personal responsibility are at the very center of the Atonement.

The three temptations of Christ are often seen as archetypal—models or patterns of the kind of temptations to which all men and women are subject. As you recall, after the Savior fasted 40 days, Satan appeared to Him in the wilderness and beguiled Him in three ways:

  1. 1.

    “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” (Matt. 4:3). This was an appeal to physical needs and desires and an attempt to either give undue importance to or pervert a normal mortal requirement. And hence Jesus’ answer: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:5).

  2. 2.

    “Then Jesus was taken up into the holy city, and the Spirit setteth him on the pinnacle of the temple;

    “Then the devil came unto him and said, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down, for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone” (JST, Matt. 4:5–6). It is this temptation that we will discuss below.

  3. 3.

    “Jesus was in the Spirit, and it taketh him into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

    “And the devil came unto him again, and said, All these things will I give unto thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me” (JST, Matt. 4:8–9). This was an appeal to greed and the desire for power, the requirement for which was to serve the devil. Thus Jesus’ reply: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10).

Perhaps the symbolic nature of the second temptation is the least apparent of the three. But on reflection, this temptation points to a tendency to which we all are subject—the tendency to desire some miraculous delivery from the consequences of our actions; to be borne up, if you will, by angels or divine providence, with little effort on our part.

Why is such a tendency harmful? Why is it crucial that we accept responsibility for our actions? And how should our understanding of our personal responsibility affect our behavior?

Being Free Requires Being Responsible

Ancient Greek dramatists had a device they used when the characters in their dramas were trapped in a complex web of dilemmas, largely of their own making—the deus ex machina. This was a machine in which actors portraying the gods would suddenly be lowered on the scene to save the mortal characters from the consequences of their own actions.

Today many people manifest the desire for such a rescue in small and large ways: the student who, having failed to study during the term, prays for assistance in an examination; the teacher who opens a lesson by saying that, having made no preparations, he or she intends to rely on the Spirit; the individual who, having abused his or her body through lack of exercise and violation of the Lord’s law of health, expects to be delivered, sometimes through priesthood administration, from the ravages of self-induced ill health; the drunken or reckless driver who prays for a “second chance”; the individual who, having violated the commands of God or rules of society, expects mercy to utterly suppress the requirements of justice.

The psychologist Erich Fromm called the wish to escape the consequences of one’s actions a desire to escape from freedom. For being free requires being responsible. The very word freedom connotes the ability to judge rationally between alternatives and the willingness to accept the consequences of one’s decisions.

The prophet Lehi, in his counsel to his son Jacob, stressed that life poses real alternatives with different consequences (see 2 Ne. 2). Adherence to divine commandments will protect us from those consequences that are most damaging to our quest for sanctification and exaltation. If we abide strictly by the commands of our Heavenly Father, we may not necessarily be protected from adversity, but we will be protected from that which is most deadly—the weakening of our integrity, alienation from God, the surrender of our divine destiny as children of God, and the destruction of our soul. Consequently, when we disobey the commands of God and the counsels of the living prophets, we always pay a price. No rationalization, no excuse, no complaining will alter the consequences.

As Alma observed, “There is a law given, and a punishment affixed” (Alma 42:22). Moses preached the same doctrine: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deut. 30:19).

The Apostle Paul reiterated this doctrine of consequences:

“For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.

“… [But] the end of those things is death.

“But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.

“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:20–23).

The Lord in modern revelation has stated the matter in positive terms:

“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20–21).

Freedom and the Atonement

God has paid us the ultimate compliment: He holds us responsible and respects us as free, rational beings. He has given us this freedom through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The concepts of individual freedom and personal responsibility are at the very center of the Atonement. As Lehi noted, the sacrifice of the Messiah removed from us the consequences of the Fall of Adam, which bound our bodies to death and our spirits to hell. Being redeemed from the Fall, we are “free forever, knowing good from evil; to act … and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day. … Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man” (2 Ne. 2:26–27). In the words of the second article of faith, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.”

Note this great truth: once we have accepted responsibility for our own actions, the grace of God is extended to us. For freedom implies not only accountability but also the ability to repent (see D&C 20:71), and repentance, grounded upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, brings sanctification and holiness—the ability to transcend the consequences of our actions and to be restored as children of our Father in Heaven. Alma’s words to his wayward son Corianton reveal that only the “truly penitent” can return to Heavenly Father’s presence:

“Mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence, to be judged according to their works. …

“… Justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved. …

“Therefore, O my son, whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come; but in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds” (Alma 42:23–24, 27).

Teaching Others to Be Responsible

The Lord has commanded as a matter of urgency that we prepare our children for a free, responsible life by teaching them “the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, … to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord” (D&C 68:25, 28). If we fail to do so, the Lord declares, the sin will be upon our heads (see D&C 68:25).

As with children, so it is, in a sense, with our dealings with all people. We must not deny people their responsibility. We have discovered in society as a whole, and often in our interpersonal relationships as well, that excusing someone because of all the things of which he or she has been deprived—social acceptance, a healthy home life, and so on—often gives license for further harmful behavior. Yet responsibility arises not only from favorable conditions. The Light of Christ, with which every man and woman is born, can shine through the most horrendous circumstances, but only if we persistently educate and communicate the idea of accountability. Without such a sense, there is no freedom, and if there is no freedom, there will ultimately be no fulfillment and no happiness.

Be Engaged in the World

After Alma taught Corianton that he must accept responsibility for his personal thoughts and acts, Alma turned Corianton’s vision outward: “And now, O my son, ye are called of God to preach the word unto this people … [to] bring souls unto repentance, that the great plan of mercy may have claim upon them” (Alma 42:31). Like Corianton, we bear responsibility not only for our own acts but also for those conditions in society that we can reasonably influence.

There is a fairy tale about a king who offered the hand of his daughter in marriage to the young man who would do or create the most extraordinary, unbelievable thing. Young men from all over the kingdom brought to the royal city marvelous works of mind and hand and tremendous demonstrations of physical agility. Finally, one young man created a tremendous clock that not only told the minutes, hours, days, months, and years, but also had carved within it the figures of the great poets, philosophers, and prophets of history, who on the appointed hours expounded the wisdom of the ages. The people exclaimed, “What an unbelievable thing!” But then another young man appeared on the scene who, sledgehammer in hand, began to destroy the masterpiece. Again the people exclaimed—this time in horror—“Why, this is the most unbelievable thing we’ve seen!” And so it appeared that the king was to be compelled to hand his daughter over to the ruffian. But, this being a fairy tale, suddenly all the stone figures reassembled, became flesh, and drove the young man from the town.

When I first read this tale to one of my daughters, she asked, “What was everyone doing while the young man was wrecking the clock?” A very sensible question! For too many, responsibility seems to end with hand-wringing and exclamations of dismay. Yet talk without action accomplishes little. We need to be vigorously engaged in the world. If our schools are inadequate or destructive of moral values, we must work with fellow members of the community to bring about change. If our neighborhoods are unsafe or unhealthy, we must join with the civic-minded to devise solutions. If our cities and towns are polluted, not only with noxious gases but soul-destroying addictions and smut, we must labor to find legitimate ways to eliminate such filth while respecting freedom of conscience.

But what can one man or woman or a handful of Latter-day Saints accomplish? Much. The dynamics of history are driven, on the one hand, by the few who are engaged, and on the other hand, by the many who are apathetic. If we are not among the few engaged, we are, despite our concerns and voices of alarm, among the apathetic. May it never be said of us, “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).

We are among the most blessed people in all of history. There is no place for complaining, no excuse for inaction, no “escape from freedom.” Being so richly blessed, we have the responsibility to be a blessing to others, to our nation, to the world. When we stand at the great judgment bar of Jehovah, He may ask: Did we honor our personal responsibility? Did we bear the burdens of our neighbors? Did we heal? Did we comfort? Did we bring peace? Did we instill virtue? Did we spend ourselves in the service and uplift of mankind? May we at that day be able to answer in the affirmative and then hear the words pronounced, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into my rest.”

Let’s Talk about It

Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:

  1. 1.

    How has an attitude of blame affected society at large? How can it affect our interpersonal relationships?

  2. 2.

    How are the concepts of individual freedom and personal responsibility related to the Atonement?

  3. 3.

    How does obeying the commandments help preserve our freedom?

[illustration] Get Thee Hence, Satan, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, det Nationalhistoriske Museum på Frederiksborg, Hillerød

[illustration] The Bitter Cup, by Simon Dewey

[photo] Photo by Steve Bunderson

[illustration] Alma the Younger Counseling His Son, by Darrell Thomas

[photo] Photo by Craig Dimond