Agency in the Balance
By James L. Ferrell
An excerpt from The Peacegiver, published by Deseret Book.
You have been taught well by your parents about the premortal life of man, and how there was a great battle in heaven between those who followed the Father’s plan, led by Jehovah, and those who lined up with the dissenter, Lucifer.”
“Do you remember what the battle was about?” his grandfather asked.
“Of course. Two things, really-Satan’s pride and the agency of man.”
Grandpa Carson waited for more.
“The plan for salvation was to provide mankind with bodies and afford us the opportunity to grow to become like our Heavenly Parents. We were to come to an earth, our minds veiled from the specific memories of our prior existence, to see if we would follow our spiritual intuitions and, through faith, learn to obey the commandments of God.
“Lucifer wanted to deny us our agency,” Rick continued. “That is, he wanted the power to lead us at his will, to make us do what we needed to do to receive salvation. And then he wanted the glory for leading the effort. Many of the hosts of heaven joined him in this battle against Jehovah, Michael, and the other spirit children of God. Moses, Isaiah, and John the Revelator all speak of this.”
“Good, Ricky. Let me ask you a question, then. You say that this premortal battle was over agency, and you are right about that. But what would you say agency is?”
“The ability to choose.”
“The ability to choose what?” his grandfather responded.
“Isn’t it just the ability to choose between options, and to be able to make those choices ourselves, without duress?”
His grandfather began fingering through the book Rick had just been reading.
“Those who have been imprisoned,” he said, “those who are handicapped, those who are poor-there are many things they cannot choose to do. Does that mean they then lack agency?”
“No, I don’t think I would say that,” Rick answered thoughtfully. “They all still have the ability to choose, even though their options may be limited.”
Grandpa Carson put his thumb in the book, apparently to save his place. “I want to push your thinking for a moment, Ricky,” he said.
“Suppose a man is tied up so tightly he can’t move a limb. Suppose as well that his eyes are propped open and his mouth is taped shut. All he can do is sit; he has no other options. Would he lack agency, the way that term is used in the scriptures?”
Rick considered this carefully. “I suppose so, yes.”
“I suppose you’ll say he wouldn’t.”
Grandpa Carson smiled at the friendly joust.
“That’s correct, Ricky-that is what I would say. This man would have as much agency as the freest man on the street. The reason why is that agency does not refer broadly to the ability to choose-our choices are always bounded by certain limitations, after all. Rather, agency has to do with a particular kind of choice. Agency, as used in the scriptures, is the capacity to choose who we will follow-the Lord of Light or the Lord of Darkness. That is the choice that was at stake in the premortal realm. And it is a choice we retain here, even when bound and gagged.”
“Okay,” Rick offered pensively, unsure where his grandfather was going with his line of thinking.
“Actually,” Grandpa Carson continued, “it is a choice we may retain, even when bound and gagged, for we can exercise our agency in such a way that we end up losing it as well. Part of having agency is having the agency to give it away.”
“How can we give it away?”
“By giving Satan such iron hold upon our hearts that nothing but the merits of the Son of God can break us free,” Grandpa answered.
Rick stood deep in thought, trying to process the implications, but his grandfather quickly continued.
“The war over agency did not end in the premortal world, Ricky. Satan took up the same war before a tree in Eden, a war that continues to this day, and a war most of mankind is losing.
“Here,” he said, offering Rick the book again. “Read.”
And there was war in heaven, the book began. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not.60
This time, the words buried themselves deep within Rick and spoke directly to his soul.
Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; . . . I caused that he should be cast down. And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and-the words boomed within him-to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.61
Then Rick heard what he had heard earlier: This is what is meant by the chains of hell,62 and he perceived once more the great chain that darkened the earth.
Rick looked up from the page.
“So Satan still tries to control us, to lead us captive-that’s what you mean, isn’t it?” But Rick didn’t wait for a response. “And that’s what I saw earlier,” he added, “the throngs of men being led captive at his will-bound by his cord and chain.”
“Yes, Ricky. Satan’s premortal plan for mankind was to lead us captive at his will in order to save us. After being cast down, his plan became to lead us captive at his will in order to destroy us. In its essence-the destruction of our agency through the capture of our wills-his plan hasn’t changed from the beginning. The cord and chain you have seen-and your own life-are the proof of it.”
Rick, who had been standing where he had observed his own argument with Carol, collapsed onto the chair beside him. “What do you mean, ‘my own life is the proof of it’?”
“You and Carol are barreling toward an unthinkable end, each so committed to the justice of your own course that you are refusing to turn until too late-isn’t that what you thought to yourself just last night?”
Rick remembered thinking that, although he couldn’t quite place when.
“Your feelings toward her have turned cold, as have hers toward you. Yet each of you feels at a total loss to change those feelings. You are no longer sure if such a change is even possible, the indifference sweeps over you so quickly and so fully. When you heard her steps in the kitchen this morning, it was like the whole atmosphere of your morning changed. Just her presence darkened your mood. Am I right?”
Grandpa Carson looked seriously at Rick, who kept his eyes on the floor.
“If that isn’t proof of the loss of agency and the chains of sin, what is? You’re locked into a kind of insane death spiral-another of your own terms, I believe. Your every thought and feeling about Carol is taking you closer to the disaster you at once are denying and making inevitable. All the while, you feel that your feelings and thoughts are thrust upon you. What happened in this kitchen this morning was just the latest episode in that tragic story. Satan has hold of your heart, my boy, and he desires to destroy you.”
Rick sat silently in the chair, covering his face with his hands. His grandfather was right, of course. He did feel out of control, as if his thoughts and feelings, however bitter and troubling, were thrust upon him. That had been a large part of his despair. “But how does he do it, Grandpa? How does Satan capture our wills and take our agency?”
“Read on,” Grandpa Carson said, extending him the book once more.
Wherefore, it came to pass that the devil tempted Adam, and he partook of the forbidden fruit and transgressed the commandment, wherein he became subject to the will of the devil, because he yielded unto temptation.63
Because he yielded unto temptation-Rick repeated to himself, pondering the implications. “Adam became subject to Satan’s will because he yielded to temptation?”
“Yes,” his grandfather responded. “And remember the words you read just a minute ago as well: Satan leads captive at his will those who ‘do not hearken unto the Lord’s voice.’64
It is Satan’s will that we not follow the Lord, and he attempts to capture us by enticing or tempting us to act contrary to the Lord’s will, just as he did in the Garden with Adam and Eve. When we do that, he gains control over us and we effectively hand our agency over to him.”
“But how does that happen? I don’t understand how a single act of sin can capture us and subject us to Satan in the way you’re describing. If that were the case, we’d all be subject to his will.”
“And we are, Ricky. That’s just the point. We are subject to his will. Think about it. Do we always do what we know we should? Do we love, or forgive, or pray like we know we should?”
Rick shook his head. “No,” he said sullenly.
“So you see, Ricky, we are subject to his will. Even in the face of knowledge, we choose away from the Lord. We find ourselves falling away from the diligent living of his commandments, and from the desire to fully live them. ‘Whosoever
committeth sin,’ the Savior declared-and that includes everyone-‘is the servant of sin.’65 And we ‘receive our wages of whom we list to obey.’66 Each sin makes us more susceptible to Satan’s will because each sin is a capitulation to his will.
“Consider the terrible irony,” he continued. “We fought a battle in the heavens in order to protect this precious commodity of agency-a commodity so important we were willing to cast out many of our spirit brothers and sisters to retain it-and then, as if we were central characters in a Greek tragedy, we come to this earth and exercise that agency in a way that effectively gives it away.”
“But that’s the part I don’t understand. I don’t understand how a single act of sin gives Satan control over us.”
“That is because you misunderstand the nature of sin.”
Printed with permission of Deseret Book Company
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.