Most simply put agency is the freedom to choose between good and evil. In Moses we read that God told Adam and Eve, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee.” Agency is the power to act for yourself, to make decisions that affect your life’s course.
We had this magnificent gift of Agency before we ever came to earth in the pre-mortal life. Satan said he would bring all of us back to our father’s presence, but he would have taken away our agency. He would have forced us to be obedient. When his offer was rejected, he rebelled and was cast out of heaven with his followers. Think of your gut reaction to the words “freedom” and “choice”; now reflect on your feelings about the word “force”. We are happier doing things when we have made our own choices.
We all used our agency in heaven to follow Christ and come to earth to obtain a body and be tested. One purpose of earth life is to show what choices we will make. In Abr.3:21 Jesus Christ says to Heavenly Father, “We will prove them (meaning us) herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them,” If we were forced to choose the right like Satan wanted, we would not be able to show to God or ourselves what our choices would be.
I would like to discuss three principals relating to agency.
1. Agency is not free. Our power to choose and make mistakes was paid for by the Savior.
2. We cannot control the agency of others
3. Using agency wisely creates freedom, it does not limit it.
Principal 1: Agency is not free
“Free agency” is a misnomer. Rather it should be called paid agency, either you have to pay or let Christ pay. As Lehi says in 2 Ne. -27, “And the Messiah cometh in the fullness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall.” He goes on to say, “And because that they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given. Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men, (in other words, by following Jesus Christ) or to choose captivity and death (by following Satan).
The mistakes we make, or sins we commit, using our agency must be paid for. I’d like to compare it to an agency credit card where the balance must always be paid. Satan’s ploy is trying to convince you that your purchases (or sins) now do not have any real consequence. You can pay later in that illusive future when you are loaded with money. Satan says to enjoy now and pay later. If he has really worked one over on you, you believe you never have to pay or that no one does.
Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge of the seventy said in this past conference, “One of the most popular and attractive philosophies of men is to live life your own way, do your own thing, be yourself, don’t let others tell you what to do. But the Lord said, “I am the way” He said, “Follow me.” He said, “What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am. Don’t think you can’t… unlike every other experience in this life, this is not a human endeavor. It is rather the work of God … Therefore while the Lord’s invitation to follow him is the highest of all it is also achievable by everyone, not because we are able but because He is, and because He can make us able too.”
Christ suffered for my sins and your sins that we may exercise this wonderful gift but knowing we would make mistakes He prepared a way to repent and come back to Him. If we will let Him, He has already paid the price of our agency. Brothers and sisters, He is willing to pay your huge credit card balance.
Agency is not free. Our power to choose and make mistakes was paid for by the Savior.
Principal 2: We cannot control the agency of others
We all love autonomy and choice naturally. I’m much more likely to get a positive response from my 2 ½ yr old son Gabriel if he has a choice between peas or lima beans, walking or being carried up the stairs to bed. It makes us feel we have power over our situation.
It seems obvious at first that we cannot control the agency of others, yet most of us have tried to do it in the past. We would like others to act in a certain way, and it may even be with good intention, we try to manipulate their actions. It could be friends, peers, co-workers, family, politicians or anyone we have meaningful contact with.
I learned this principle recently as I pondered and prayed about how to help Gabe be more obedient. The thought came to me that if I would be more patient he would seem more obedient to me. I thought I had a righteous prayer, but I was praying for the wrong thing. The Spirit reminded me that my decision and my agency and my responsibility lay in my parenting and my reaction, not in his action. As I choose to be more patient with him, he does seem to be more obedient, whether he is or not. He is naturally more compliant when I try to guide more and force less.
Does that mean we do nothing to help our children choose the right? No, we like God, are supposed to persuade, direct, and encourage good behavior, but just remember we cannot force it. Gabe may have just needed a little more time to respond or a little more convincing in or order to make the right choice. As parents we may use a variety of methods to try and help our children use their agency for good. Like Heavenly Father we may warn of punishment for disobedience, explain inevitable consequences of unhappiness that follow sin, let them know of the blessings and happiness that follow making right choices etc. We don’t just throw up our hands in the air and say there’s nothing I can do, he has to make his own choices.
Elder Bednar said that parents are to do everything they can to help children understand the “range of acceptable options” and not just say that they don’t want to interfere with their children’s freedom. As in the case with a boys decision to go mission, like Elder Ward here, it is the parents’ job to help their sons remember the decision they already made to obey and serve as a missionary in the pre-mortal existence.
We cannot control the agency of others, we can only try our hardest to influence for good. And often, as in my case, the best place to start looking on how to change our situation is in the mirror. Our righteous decisions will have an effect on others but we cannot control the use of others’ agency.
Principal 3: Using agency wisely creates freedom, it does not limit it.
Power is a word that I have found closely connected with the word agency: power over our own situation, power over the future, power to be increasingly happy as we make right choices. When we choose to live according to God’s plan for us, our agency is strengthened. Agency is not simply to choose whatever you want but to choose righteousness. Right choices increase our power to make more right choices. In Doctrine and Covenants 58:27-28 it says, “For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves.” And in vs. 27 it tells us how to use our agency, “Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;”
We think of everyone as having the same amount of agency, the same ability to choose, but that simply isn’t the case. After Adam ate the fruit his freedom to stay in the garden disappeared. A drug addict’s ability to choose diminishes with every hit or drink that he takes. A parent’s temper becomes more automatic every time they yell, and the window to choose is shortened, the same thing with road-rage. A person that just has to watch “their shows” increasingly gives up agency over the use of their time to be productive, get needed rest, or be of help to others. If it is a less than totally uplifting show, which most of them are, we give up the agency of pure thought later on when those words and images come back to our mind. A teenager has a great deal of agency before they get in the car to go to the party or drive off to a secluded location with the opposite sex. Once at the party they no longer can choose what manner of sin they are subjected to. Once alone with their date their agency and power to make the right choice decreases with every passing minute. Agency is a mater of degrees and with poor decisions we decrease the power we have over our selves, our life and our future both here and in eternity.
Elder Bednar said, “Agency is much more than choice. Choice is only a part of agency. Agency is the capacity of independent action.” He goes on to say, “The gospel plan is one of giving increasing amounts of agency back through covenants.” And that “obedience is joyful.”
In review: Agency is not free. Our power to choose and make mistakes was paid for by the Savior. We cannot control the agency of others and Using agency wisely creates freedom, it does not limit it.