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Saturday, May 6, 2017

UNDERSTANDING AGENCY--Maybe not what you think, but more powerful than you realize

I remember standing in the doorway of my house as a teenager declaring, “I have my free agency. I can do what I want!” At the time, agency seemed like a wonderful entitlement that opened doors without consequences.

As a mother of teenagers, I didn’t have such a liberal view. When one of my own children would declare themselves to be free agents—usually just before doing something they knew was wrong—I wondered if perhaps Satan’s plan of forced obedience was actually a good idea.

Thanks to the Book of Mormon, and particularly the prophet Lehi, who carefully explained this principle to his own children, I have learned six important principles about agency over the past several years. Come to find out, it isn’t what I thought it was as a teenager or even as a mother of teenaged children.

Principle #1—Agency is not free.
In the scriptures we are taught we are “free to choose” (2 Nephi 2:27) and we are told we have “moral agency” (D&C 101:78) but nowhere does it speak of “free agency”.

As Lehi taught, “men . . . are free to choose liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men . . .” (2 Nephi 2:27, emphasis added).  Or, in other words, through the atonement of Jesus Christ we can choose good.  We can choose to repent. We can choose to receive the Holy Ghost. We can choose to make covenants. We can choose to qualify for eternal life. But without Christ’s atonement NONE of these blessings would be available to us. Once we sinned, no matter how small the sin, we would be forever in Satan’s grasp with no opportunity for repentance and no possibility for progress.

Agency is not free. It was purchased at a very high price—the atoning blood of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Principle #2—Agency requires opposition

Lehi’s statement, “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11) is one of the most often quoted scriptures in the Church. Usually it is used to explain the need for life’s trials and tribulations. In regard to the principle of agency, however, it means that in order for something to be good, there must also be something that is bad.

Let’s say the only available item for your breakfast each morning is one hard-boiled egg. If you consider a hard-boiled egg to be a bad breakfast, then by only having that item available, you do not have the agency to choose anything good. If you love hard-boiled eggs, then by only having that item available, you do not have the agency to choose anything bad. The only agency you have is to eat the egg or go hungry. But the choice to eat something good or something bad has been taken from you.

In the gospel sense, in order for agency to exist there must not only be right, but also wrong.  Where there is light, there must also be darkness; where there is freedom, there must also be captivity; where there is eternal life, there must also be eternal damnation.  If there is only light, you can’t really choose light, because you have not been given a choice.

Principle #3—Agency requires knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.
“And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil”. (2 Nephi 2:5)

In the mission field, we frequently heard missionaries dismiss the failure of their investigators to attend church with, “We invited them, but they have their agency”.  Often we discovered the investigators did not truly have agency because the missionaries failed to instruct them sufficiently on the importance of going to church.

Agency requires you to know and understand that something is right or wrong. I can neither choose nor reject having an eternal family if I do not understand what an eternal family is and that having an eternal family requires me to be sealed to my spouse in the temple. And I can neither choose nor reject to receive the blessings associated with keeping the Sabbath Day holy if I do not know what keeping the Sabbath day entails and understand the blessings associated with keeping that law.

An increase in knowledge of right and wrong leads to an increase in agency. 

One of the great evils in the world today is the belief some parents have that they should not teach their children religious principles, but rather allow them to choose for themselves when they are adults.  Agency cannot exist without sufficient instruction and it is up to parents to sufficiently instruct.  

Principle #4—Agency requires choices to have consequences
“ . . . And if there be no righteousness, nor happiness, there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not, there is no God.” (2 Nephi 2:13)

This principle is very simple but critical and ties in with principle #3.  If there is no blessing associated with a good choice, then what makes it good? If there is no punishment associated with a bad choice, then what makes it bad? For agency to exist there must be blessings and punishments associated with each choice.

Principle #5—Agency requires that a person have the ability to act for oneself.
 (2 Nephi 2:16)

Once a man has knowledge of right and wrong and understands the consequences of his choices, then to have agency he must also have the physical, mental and emotional ability to make a choice. Without the power to act, he not only does not have agency, but he also is not accountable for his lack of action.

In an extreme example, if a woman is lying in bed critically ill and unable to move, she certainly does not have the power or ability to choose to read her scriptures daily. BUT she also does not have the ability to choose NOT to read them. Being physically unable to move has removed her ability to act. Therefore, she cannot be held accountable for her lack of action.

Principle #6—Agency is a requirement for exaltation.
Satan’s war in Heaven, which he continues here on earth today, was over agency. Why? Because agency is a requirement for redemption, progression, and in the end, exaltation.  Satan’s plan was always to take away our agency and enslave us, while God’s plan was always to increase our agency and exalt.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson said, “. . . God will not act to make us something we do not choose by our actions to become.” He can’t. It is against His law. He cannot increase our faith if we are not choosing to act in faith. He cannot increase our love for others, if we are not choosing to act in love.

And when we use our agency to make wrong choices, we lose agency.  However, when we use our knowledge and agency to make right choices our power to make right choices, our agency, increases. 

Just as with each unrepentant wrong choice we make, we lose agency, with each right choice we make, we gain it.  As we continue acting on our knowledge of right and wrong by choosing right, our power to do right expands. And this power, knowledge and agency will continue to increase until, through the atonement of Jesus Christ and His grace, we become like our Heavenly Father who has all knowledge, and all power to act on that knowledge, and therefore complete agency.

And that is why the fight for agency is a war worth fighting.
May we always be valiant soldiers in the battle. 

Lori Smith Wagner

One Mormon Voice

If you want to read more on this subject I recommend this talk by Elder Christofferson, "Free Forever, To Act For Themselves" Ensign, November 2014