There’s a story told in Argentina that goes something like this: A pack of dogs is standing on a street corner, telling each other the woes and troubles they suffer in their lives as dogs. There is a large number of them, and the conversation is very loud. Suddenly the most observant one lets out a cry: “It’s the dog catcher!” Immediately animals scatter in every direction, as fast as they can go. About two blocks away, one of them stops and says, “Why am I running? I’m a cat!”
Although this story is usually told for children, I think it makes a great point for all of us. Many times we act like that cat—because of what others do or say we fail to exercise one of the greatest gifts God has given us, that of making choices.
We all have agency. Our exaltation depends on it. And we will each be responsible before our Heavenly Father to show what we’ve gained by using it wisely.
Let’s stop for a few moments and analyze the use we are making of our agency. It’s a lot like asking, “Why am I running?”
Man helps to determine his own destiny by the choices he makes. This is an eternal law. As we sow, so shall we reap.
We cannot sow the seeds of slothfulness and poor effort and expect to receive the blessings of dedication and diligent effort. Each day of our life, through the choices we make, we determine whether we will augment the building of our eternal dwelling with Heavenly Father or whether we will slide along a path which deprives us of eternal blessings. Samuel the Lamanite expressed this concept emphatically and sincerely:
“And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free” (Hel. 14:30).
Our happiness or unhappiness, our peace of mind or anxiety, all depend upon the choices we make day by day. We cannot allow others to make decisions for us and feel that we are using the blessing of agency wisely.
I once knew a man who attained a high position in a company. Each day he would go to his office with a briefcase. One day his wife asked him, “Why do you carry that briefcase to work each day?”
He replied, “The executive vice-president is a very important person, and the paperwork he manages is also important. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” she said. But then she asked, “How many times do you open the briefcase and use the papers?”
“The truth is, very few times,” he responded.
And she replied, “If the briefcase gives you a feeling of importance, wouldn’t it be easier just to carry an empty one?”
While he was thinking about that, she added one more thought.
“But if you carry it only for status, let me remind you that by the time you leave the office, the only person who sees you is the custodian.”
We often become slaves to routines. We do as custom dictates. But just because most people do something does not mean that it is right. An important issue in determining our exaltation is to know with a clear conscience the motive that moves us, the thoughts we hold within that later lead to actions.
We exercise our agency in our thinking just as much as we use our agency in our actions. President David O. McKay expressed it this way: “Each one of us is the architect of his own fate; and he is unfortunate indeed who will try to build himself without the inspiration of God, without realizing that he grows from within, not from without” (Instructor, Jan. 1964, p. 1).
If we do not make effective use of our agency regarding our thoughts, our minds will not be trained in setting goals and in controlling desires. If that which we wish to accomplish is not clearly defined in our minds, our actions will lack direction; they may be replaced by the attitudes and goals of others.
Think of those who “go along” by repeating commonly used phrases without thinking about what they’re really saying. Yet these phrases in many cases determine the way we act.
For example, some people say “time flies,” when actually it moves at a set rate. Or they speak of “saving time.” But time cannot be saved or borrowed. How many times have you heard someone say they want to “make up for lost time”? But once time has passed, it cannot be replaced.
These phrases about time are commonly used. In fact, we often use them ourselves, without reasoning through their meaning. There is no question about time being the most scarce commodity. Unless we manage it wisely, there may be nothing else to manage. President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Waste is unjustified, and especially waste of time—limited as that commodity is in our days of probation” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, p. 92).
So the solution is not to complain or join with those who declare “There is no time.” The solution is to use time wisely.
Self-discipline in using our time is of utmost importance in the task of making decisions. When we don’t use our time wisely, we don’t use our agency wisely.
Another common phrase used as justification for not fully exercising the right of agency is this (usually said with a tone of defeat and resignation): “The opposition is strong, and I’m only human.”
How can anyone think of opposition as a limiting factor? Opposition is not a justification for failure to act. It is the very reason we must act.
Lehi, speaking to Jacob, said, “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Ne. 2:11).
The trials, the opposition, the conditions which some would define as unfavorable, will be with us throughout this life of probation. Opposition is a principle that has always been with us. We must not let our human condition be an excuse to fail to act positively when confronted with a challenging situation.
There are those who believe that because we are human, that is justification for our weakness. To believe this is to imply that God sent us to earth on the preconceived condition that we would fail, yielding inevitably to the temptations of Satan.
But instead, the scriptures teach us, “Men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
“For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward” (D&C 58:27–28).
These verses clearly indicate the attitude we should develop as we confront every task in our lives—an attitude of proceeding with enthusiasm, vigor, and good will. In that quotation from the Savior, and in the verses surrounding it, we find several important phrases: “anxiously engaged,” “their own free will,” “the power is in them,” and “do good.” Each phrase is a message in itself. But all of them together motivate us to use our talents and our agency willingly.
In these words the Savior teaches us that we should serve willingly based on our desire to do so, rather than doing the job just because we are obligated. In order to find the joy of living in accordance with the Savior’s will, we should have a sincere desire to please him. This will bring us peace of mind and a rewarding feeling that cannot be obtained in any other way.
We need to take time from our daily routine to meditate on the great blessing of agency in our lives. Elder George Albert Smith said:
“There is a division line well defined that separates the Lord’s territory from Lucifer’s. If we live on the Lord’s side of the line, Lucifer cannot come there to influence us, but if we cross the line into his territory we are in his power. By keeping the commandments of the Lord we are safe on His side of the line, but if we disobey His teachings we voluntarily cross into the zone of temptation and invite the destruction that is ever present there. Knowing this, how anxious we should always be to live on the Lord’s side of the line” (Improvement Era, May 1935, p. 278).
It is my sincere desire that in our daily struggle to make decisions, we will always be found on the Lord’s side of the line.