Lesson 28: Agency: A Gift from God

Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood: Basic Manual for Priesthood Holders, Part B, (2000), 236–44


The purpose of this lesson is to help us better understand the principle of agency and to teach us the importance of making wise choices.

Introduction

Jacob, the brother of Nephi, declared in the Book of Mormon, “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life” (2 Nephi 10:23).

What gives us the power to make decisions? Why, for example, did we decide to be baptized? Or why are we able to decide what clothes to wear, what school to attend, or what job to pursue?

The answer is that we have been given a gift from God called agency. This gift is the power to make choices. The most important choice we have to make, a choice made possible by the Savior’s Atonement, concerns eternal life. If we choose to follow the Lord, He will bless us and teach us how to use our agency to become like God and gain eternal salvation.

Lehi explained agency to his son Jacob: “Wherefore, men are free … to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27).

Agency: An Eternal Law

Agency is an eternal law. President Brigham Young, speaking of our agency, taught: “This is a law which has always existed from all eternity, and will continue to exist throughout all the eternities to come. Every intelligent being must have the power of choice” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [1954], 62).

Before we came to earth we met in a heavenly council. One of the great issues before us there concerned the eternal principle of agency. Lucifer, or Satan, wanted to take away our agency. Jesus Christ, however, wanted to do the will of the Father, which was to allow us to choose for ourselves.

“This agency,” said President Wilford Woodruff, “has always been the heritage of man under the rule and government of God. He possessed it in the heaven of heavens before the world was, and the Lord maintained and defended it there against the aggression of Lucifer and those that took sides with him. … By virtue of this agency you and I and all mankind are made responsible beings, responsible for the course we pursue, the lives we live, and deeds we do” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, sel. G. Homer Durham [1946], 8–9).

Using Our Agency

Certain things are necessary in order for us to use our agency. First, we must have a knowledge of good and evil; second, we must have the freedom to make choices; and third, after we exercise our agency, there must be consequences that follow our choices.

  • As each is discussed, write on the chalkboard Knowledge of Good and Evil, Freedom to Make Choices, and Consequences of Making Choices.

Knowledge of Good and Evil

To be judged fairly when we meet our Savior, we must be able to think and reason. We must understand what we are doing, recognizing the difference between good and evil and the consequences of our actions. For this reason the Lord does not hold us responsible for our choices until we are eight years old, the age of accountability (see D&C 68:25–27; 29:46–47). Those who are younger than this cannot be responsible for their actions. Mormon explained:

“Little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin. …

“Little children cannot repent; wherefore, it is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them, for they are all alive in him because of his mercy” (Moroni 8:8, 19).

Mormon also explained that people who “are without the law” are “alive in Christ” (Moroni 8:22). This means that people who have not been taught the gospel or who are incapable of understanding it, such as those with certain developmental disabilities, are not expected to live by it. They will not be held accountable until the gospel is taught to them or until they can understand it.

Freedom to Make Choices

The greatest use of our agency is choosing between good and evil. The Lord knows that we can be influenced by both good and evil in making choices. Without the conflict between these two forces, we would not have choices to make—we would not have agency. Therefore, the Lord gives us principles, laws, and commandments to follow, and Satan tempts us to disobey them.

The Lord says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:30). Satan essentially suggests: “Why love God? Why not disregard Him?” He might even imply there is no God!

The Lord says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Satan says: “Use the Sabbath as a recreation day. What value is there in attending church and in not working on this day?”

The Lord says, “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12). Satan puts into our minds the idea of disobeying our parents: “Your life is your own to choose as you wish. Take all your parents will give you. They will soon be old, and someone else can take care of them.” (Adapted from Carl W. Buehner, “Who’s on the Lord’s Side?” Improvement Era, June 1961, 402.)

  • Show visual 28-a, “Danger—No Swimming.” Have the assigned class member relate the story about the sign “Danger—No Swimming” (see “Teacher Preparation”).

As the story about the “Danger—No Swimming” sign shows us, following the temptations of Satan limits our choices. Each time we choose evil we lose some freedom. Freedom is increased only when we choose the right.

President Spencer W. Kimball once wrote a letter to a young man who was struggling with a decision concerning religion. President Kimball wanted to make sure that this young man understood his choices. He wrote:

“Dear John:

“Your resistance and argument against the truths of the gospel have given me grave concern.

“I realize I cannot convince you against your will. … I would not, even if I could, force your thinking, for free agency is the basic law of God and each one must assume the responsibility for his own response; but certainly each of us must do his part in influencing for good those who might need some assistance” (“Absolute Truth,” Ensign, Sept. 1978, 3).

Consequences of Making Choices

The natural result of using our agency is experiencing the consequences of our choices. However, we must understand that while we are free to choose, we are not free to choose the consequences of our choices. Good consequences follow right choices; bad consequences follow wrong choices. The Book of Mormon prophet Samuel declared: “[God] hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you” (Helaman 14:31).

  • Show visual 28-b, “The principle of agency is like the law of the harvest: whatever we sow, we shall also reap.”

The law of the harvest is that we reap what we sow (see Galatians 6:7–8). A farmer lives by this law. The kind of seed he plants determines what he will harvest. If he plants wheat seed, he will harvest wheat, not corn. Nor can he choose to neglect his crop once he has planted the seed and have a good harvest.

The principle of agency is like the law of the harvest: when we make a choice, we must accept the results of that choice. Sometimes we will not realize the total consequences of our choices until we are judged by God. But many times our choices affect us immediately. For example, we are given the gift of the Holy Ghost following our baptism. The full benefit of having the Holy Ghost as a companion cannot be realized until after our resurrection, but if we choose to disobey the Holy Ghost and commit sin, we lose His influence in our lives. The immediate consequence of choosing to do wrong is that we no longer experience the comfort, understanding, love, and guidance the Holy Ghost provides when we do what is right.

  • When a young man breaks the Word of Wisdom, what are the consequences of his actions? (He is unworthy to be advanced in the priesthood. The Spirit withdraws. He is unworthy to serve a mission. He may become addicted to substances that harm his body.)

  • When a father fails to teach the gospel to his children, what are the consequences? (There may be less love in the family. Children may not know good from evil. He may lose his children in the eternities if as adults they fail to become and remain temple worthy. The children’s spiritual progress may be delayed.)

Whether consequences come immediately or in the future, our lives will reflect how we use our agency. The blessings that come from making right choices include “development, growth, and progress” (Elder James E. Faust, in Conference Report, Oct. 1984, 73; or Ensign, Nov. 1984, 59). In addition, we do not need to fear either immediate consequences or those that will follow in the future.

  • Sing “Do What Is Right” (Hymns, no. 237; or Gospel Principles, 342–43).

We Are Accountable for Our Choices

We are free to act, but we will be held accountable for our actions. One day each of us will stand before God and give an accounting of how we used our agency. Then God will judge us. His judgments will be both just and merciful, based on His love and the laws of heaven.

President Joseph F. Smith said: “God has given to all men an agency and has granted to us the privilege to serve him or serve him not. … But he will hold us strictly to an account for the use that we make of this agency, and as it was said of Cain, so it will be said of us; ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door’ (Gen. 4:7)” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. [1939], 49). Alma said:

“It is requisite with the justice of God that men should be judged according to their works; and if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good.

“And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil” (Alma 41:3–4).

Because our actions are a result of our choices, it is important that we make correct choices. Joseph in the Old Testament is a good example of one who made correct choices and received great blessings because of his righteous actions.

After Joseph was brought to Egypt he became a servant of Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard. Joseph was blessed because he had chosen to follow the Lord. Potiphar saw that everything Joseph did was good, so he gave Joseph responsibility over all he had. For Joseph’s sake the Lord blessed and prospered the house and fields of Potiphar.

During this time, however, Potiphar’s wife began to lust after Joseph. Her feelings grew until one day she tried to tempt Joseph to commit adultery with her.

  • Show the color visual of Joseph resisting Potiphar’s wife, found in the “Picture Section” of this manual. Have a class member read Genesis 39:7–12. Did Joseph know the laws of God concerning adultery? What choices did Joseph have? What did he choose to do?

In facing this temptation, Joseph thought about the great trust Potiphar had placed in him; but more importantly, he thought about the Lord and his promise to obey Him. Joseph knew he was ultimately accountable to God. This knowledge gave him strength to resist Potiphar’s wife. He chose to obey God.

The efforts of Potiphar’s wife to tempt Joseph did not cease because he refused her once. She tempted him day after day, and he continued to resist her. Finally, in her anger and frustration, she accused Joseph of the very sin of which she was guilty. As a result, Joseph was put in prison.

“But the Lord was with Joseph” because he chose to obey. Eventually, Joseph was released from prison and became a ruler over all of Egypt. (See Genesis 39–41.)

  • How can Joseph’s example help us use our agency correctly?

Conclusion

President David O. McKay stated: “Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct our lives is God’s greatest gift to man. Freedom of choice is more to be treasured than any possession earth can give. It is inherent in the spirit of man. It is a divine gift to every normal being. … To man is given a special endowment, not bestowed upon any other living thing. God gave to him the power of choice. Only to the human being did the Creator say, ‘… thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; …” (Moses 3:17). Without this divine power to choose, humanity cannot progress” (“Man’s Free Agency—An Eternal Principle of Progress,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1965, 1073).

We must have agency to progress. But we must use our agency correctly because God will hold us responsible for our choices. We should seek to obey Heavenly Father, pray, listen to His prophets, and be worthy of the guidance of the Holy Ghost so we can one day gain eternal life.

Challenge

Select an area of your life you want to improve, and make and carry out decisions that will bring the desired result.

Additional Scriptures

Teacher Preparation

Before presenting this lesson:

  1. 1.

    Review Gospel Principles chapter 4, “Freedom to Choose.”

  2. 2.

    Ask a class member in advance to prepare to give the following analogy: “When we follow the temptations of Satan, we limit our choices. The following example suggests how this works. Imagine seeing a sign on the seashore that reads: [‘Danger—No Swimming.’] We might think that is a restriction. But is it? We still have many choices. We are free to swim somewhere else. We are free to walk along the beach and pick up seashells. We are free to watch the sunset. We are free to go home. We are also free to ignore the sign and swim in the dangerous place. But once the [danger the sign warned us of] has us in its grasp and we are pulled under, we have very few choices. We can try to escape, or we can call for help, but we may drown” (Gospel Principles [1997], 23).

  3. 3.

    Prepare to have the class sing “Do What Is Right” (Hymns, no. 237; or Gospel Principles, 342–43).

  4. 4.

    Assign class members to present any stories, scriptures, or quotations you wish.