A basic tenet of Christianity is that God has given His children free will, the ability and privilege to choose. But the concept of agency, taught in the Book of Mormon and by latter-day prophets and apostles in concert with other gospel truths, is a doctrine rich in power and eternal in its implications.
Agency is essential to Heavenly Father’s plan for His children, for without it we cannot become as He is. Agency is an eternal attribute of all intelligent beings. It did not begin with mortal birth. We possessed agency in our premortal existence. As the Lord revealed:
“Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
“All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
“Behold, here is the agency of man” (D&C 93:29–31).
We do not believe in a deterministic God—that is, one who determines in advance the eventual fate of His children. Rather, we believe in a God who has perfect foreknowledge of the choices His children will make. He may use this foreknowledge to guide us or even to warn us, but He does not use it to preempt our agency. He allows us to become what we truly desire to become. As Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote: “[God] knows what each will do under given conditions, and sees the end from the beginning. His foreknowledge is based on intelligence and reason. He foresees the future as a state which naturally and surely will be; not as one which must be because He has arbitrarily willed that it shall be.”1
Most Christian churches believe God created His children ex nihilo—out of nothing. If this were true, then God might be held accountable for any evil we would do because He created us with flaws and weaknesses. But we know our Heavenly Father did not create us out of nothing, and He is not responsible for our weaknesses or sins. He merely places us, His spirit children, in spheres where we can learn and grow by exercising our agency, if we employ it correctly.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that agency requires four conditions:
Laws ordained by an omnipotent power must exist, laws we can either obey or disobey.
There must be opposites—good and evil, right and wrong.
We must have knowledge of good and evil; we must know the difference between the opposites.
We must possess an unfettered power of choice.2
We must also be accountable for our choices if we are to enjoy agency fully. The laws that exist must bring consequences—and not just the natural consequences resulting from our actions, such as losing people’s respect if we lie and cheat. The laws must also bring blessings from God if we obey them and punishments if we do not.
Of the premortal existence, the Lord says, “Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3). For his rebellion Lucifer was cast out of heaven, but here on earth he continues to undermine our agency. He does this in many ways, two of which are:
Disobedience. “Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light. … And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men” (D&C 93:31, 39). Disobedience damages our agency in two ways. First, when we lose light and truth, we become blind to many opportunities to do good; and second, some forms of disobedience are addictive—we become entrapped in behaviors that are extremely difficult to forsake. We may even hurt others and damage their agency.
No accountability. Satan whispers in our ears, telling us, “Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; … and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Ne. 28:8). Some mistakenly believe that once we have “confessed Christ” and have been “saved by grace,” it doesn’t matter what we do—we are saved. This doctrine is a subtle manifestation of Satan’s ongoing deception that we are not accountable for our sins and that there are no consequences for them.
When we use our agency to choose righteousness, God not only blesses us, but our agency is strengthened and enhanced. When our Heavenly Father sees that He can trust us to make correct decisions, He does as any loving parent would do: He blesses us with new opportunities and more responsibility. Thus, if we use our agency wisely, the possibilities for doing good and blessing others become infinite. Obedience always leads to greater agency and increasing possibilities. It is sin that shrinks our options.