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Sometimes we hear Church members express ideas like this: “I have my free agency so I can do whatever I want!” But is this an accurate understanding of agency? What is agency and how does God intend that we understand and use it?
Agency is a basic and fundamental principle of the restored gospel and yet is surprisingly misunderstood and misrepresented. As a gospel term, agency is defined as “the ability to choose and act for yourself. Agency is essential in the plan of salvation. Without it, you would not be able to learn or progress or follow the Savior. With it, you 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)” (True to the Faith p. 12).
Agency is based on at least three related elements. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson explained:
“What, then, are the elements of moral agency? To me there are three. First, there must be alternatives among which to choose. Lehi spoke of opposites, or “opposition”—righteousness and its opposite, wickedness; holiness versus misery; good versus bad. … He further explained that for these opposites or alternatives to exist, there must be law. Law provides us the options. … Without law, neither [God] nor we would be able to predict or choose a particular outcome by a given action [see 2 Nephi 2:11-13]. …
Second, for us to have agency, we must not only have alternatives, but we must also know what they are. If we are unaware of the choices available, the existence of those choices is meaningless to us. Lehi called this being “enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16). … Ignorance effectively limits [our] agency.
Third is the next element of agency: the freedom to make choices (see 2 Nephi 10:23). … Freedom of choice is the freedom to obey or disobey existing laws—not the freedom to alter their consequences. Law, as mentioned earlier, exists as a foundational element of moral agency with fixed outcomes that do not vary according to our opinions or preferences” (Christofferson, June 2009 Ensign).
To summarize, for agency to exist there must be
- Laws with opposite consequences attached for obedience and disobedience.
- Knowledge of those laws and their alternative consequences, and
- Freedom to choose and receive the consequence.
Misunderstandings about Agency
Understanding these basic principles prevents us from many common misunderstandings about agency. For example, we sometimes hear someone defiantly declare: “I have my free agency, I can do whatever I want!” While this statement may technically be true, the message it conveys is not. It is typically stated in rebellion from a person who wants to do something wrong but does not want to face the consequences. The intent of what they are saying is “I have my free agency, I can sin without consequences!”
But that is simply not true. As we have already seen, agency is based on laws and consequences. Indeed, agency and accountability, choice and consequences, are inseparably connected concepts. Properly exercising agency is not just about choosing the desired action but choosing the action based on the desired outcome—the consequence you want not just the behavior. Therefore, a more accurate statement to depict the truth of what they are saying would be: “I have my agency, I can sin and suffer the consequences!” But of course, no one would ever say that because it is not what they really mean or want.
This is why Church leaders have counseled us to use the term “moral agency” or just “agency” rather than “free agency” because these are scriptural terms (free agency is not) and they avoid the misunderstanding that agency is “free” of consequences and accountability (see Packer, May 1992 Ensign; Christofferson, June 2009 Ensign). The scriptures are clear that we are not just “free to choose” but more accurately we are “free to choose … eternal life … or death” (2 Nephi 2:27). That is, we are free to choose our actions and face the resulting consequences.
Another misunderstanding easily detected with a basic understanding of the underlying principles of agency is the misconception that rules in the home, laws in government, policies in the church, or honor codes at Church schools “take away” our agency. Some seem to assume that agency is lawlessness and most fully exists when there are no rules or consequences. This could not be further from the truth. Agency is not anarchy. Not only is agency not hindered by laws and consequences, it actually requires them to exist! As Elder Christofferson explained above, agency by definition is basically the ability to freely obey or disobey laws and receive the resulting consequence.
As a result, when we voluntarily commit to follow the Honor Code at BYU, we are exercising agency. When we choose to obey any laws of society or rules in a home, we are exercising agency. These laws and standards do not “take away” our agency, they allow us to exercise it. And, when we choose to disobey and are required to face discipline for our actions, this does not “take away” our agency, rather it honors our agency by allowing us to receive the consequences of our voluntary choices.
Related to this is another misunderstanding about agency involving Satan’s so-called plan. Often we hear the idea that Satan planned to “force us to be righteous,” but this is not found anywhere in the scriptures. All we are told in the scriptures is that Satan claimed he could save or “redeem all mankind,” that what he proposed would “destroy the agency of man,” and that his proposal caused him to become the “father of all lies” (Moses 4:1,3,4). It is important to recognize that this indicates that whatever he was proposing, it was a lie. He was a con man, promising something that he could never deliver. We should not speak of Satan’s plan as an actual plan that would have worked as a viable alternative to God’s one true plan. Satan’s plan was a lie (see Mathews, Satan’s rebellion, March 2015 Ensign).
The idea that Satan would destroy agency leads many people to assume he was somehow going to force us all to be righteous. Certainly, that would destroy agency by destroying one important element of it—the freedom to choose. However, there are other ways to destroy agency. For example, if laws and alternative consequences were eliminated, agency would cease to exist. It is possible that the way Satan would have destroyed agency was by promising us that we could do whatever we want and still be rewarded with salvation. This would negate the effect of our choices and render our agency useless.
The LDS Bible Dictionary supports this interpretation by stating that “Lucifer and his followers wanted salvation to come automatically to all who passed through mortality, without regard to individual preference, agency, or voluntary dedication” (War in Heaven). This continues to be his main tactic today. He is constantly telling people that there is no eternal law, no right or wrong, and that whatever they do is no sin (Alma 30:17). He lies to the world by telling them that they can find happiness in wickedness and obtain salvation in their sins (Alma 41:10, Hel. 5:10, Mathews, Satan’s rebellion, March 2015 Ensign).
One final misunderstanding is the common notion in the world today that a person is “born that way and there is nothing they can do about it.” That we are all slaves to our own appetites and temptations. This violates every principle of agency and strikes at the very heart of the Plan of Salvation. In contrast, Elder David A. Bednar has taught that “every appetite, desire, propensity, and impulse of the natural man may be overcome by and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” In fact, “The precise nature of the test of mortality, then, can be summarized in the following question: Will I respond to the inclinations of the natural man, or will I yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit and put off the natural man and become a saint through the Atonement of Christ the Lord (see Mosiah 3:19)? That is the test” (Bednar, May 2013 Ensign). And it is a test of agency.
A simple test to discern if we are understanding agency correctly is to apply the idea to driving with a driver’s license. A driver’s license, often seen as a symbol of freedom, might be compared to agency. It gives us license to drive but we are still subject to laws and consequences. For example, you would not say after running over someone’s lawn that “I have my driver’s license, I can drive wherever I want!” That would be a major misunderstanding of your privileges and would have serious consequences. Likewise, you would not assume that a speed limit “takes away” your driver’s license, rather it merely directs its use. And I hope no one would see someone driving the wrong way on an interstate and say “Well, they do have their driver’s license, who am I to judge that they are driving the wrong way? Maybe they were born that way.” Such an assumption would be ridiculous, but not anymore ridiculous than many similar statements about agency. I hope we can be as discerning in our understanding of agency as we are with our understanding of a driver’s license.
A Higher Understanding of Agency
In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord reveals to Church members an even higher way of understanding and applying agency. He explained, “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” (DC 58:28). The Lord basically defines agency here as the power within us to do good and be rewarded by God. This is how God wants us to view our agency and understanding this doctrine is empowering!
Notice that the word “evil” is conspicuously absent in God’s definition of agency. Presumably this is because “men should use their agency to do good” not evil (see DC 58 verse summary). It may also be because he is talking primarily to baptized members of the Church. At baptism, each of us exercised agency to voluntarily covenant to keep God’s commandments. This means that for us, we have chosen to take evil off the table of possibilities. We have promised to choose the right and do good with our agency and that is exactly what God expects us to do.
As Elder David A. Bednar has powerfully explained, “I have been frankly puzzled as I have listened to members of the Church say: ‘I have my agency. I don’t have to live the law of tithing or the Word of Wisdom. I don’t have to be chaste.’ I would suggest such individuals do not understand the doctrine of agency. You and I exercise agency in the making of a covenant. When we enter into a covenant with God, we voluntarily surrender a portion of our agency. And the consequences that come from violating the covenant are not within our control. It is not simply a matter of freedom to choose; rather, it is a matter of becoming covenant breakers. Think of the song Choose the Right. It does not say, ‘Choose what you want when you will.’ Agency is linked to a course of choosing the right. That is why we have agency. What did the Father say in the premortal council? ‘And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them’ (Abraham 3:25). Agency is to be used in choosing the right” (Bednar, Rick’s College devotional, Sept 9, 1997).
As a result, baptized members of the Church should view agency as defined in DC 58:28. It is the power within us to do good and be rewarded by God! What kind of good can we do with it? All the good that we want! The Lord explained this in the previous verse. He taught that we are to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will, and to bring to pass much righteousness” (DC 58:27). We can do family history work and take names to the temple, we can serve our family and neighbors, we can study the scriptures and Conference talks, we can visit the sick and the lonely. There is literally no end to the good we can do!
So why don’t we do more good in the world than we are now doing? Again, the answer is in the previous verse. The Lord explained, “It is not meet [or necessary] that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant” (DC 58:26). Too often, we act as slothful or lazy servants, waiting for someone to tell us what to do rather than using the power within us to do good on our own. We should be proactive. We should look at the years of our life and the hours in the day as a gift of time from God to do good with the agency He has given us. We should set out every day to accomplish something good with our lives. Rather than thinking of our agency as the right to do whatever we want, our motto should be: “I have my agency so I should do all the good that I can!”
When we view our agency like that it is empowering and inspiring! What good will we do today? What good can we do with our lives? The opportunities are endless! In fact, as we righteously exercise our agency to do good, the opportunities to use it for good expand eternally. For this is how God exercises his eternal agency. He does not use it to do evil (He cannot! See Ether 3:12), he uses it to good, and in this his capacity is endless. This is his work and his glory, to exercise his agency to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
This higher understanding of agency is beautifully captured in a beloved Church hymn which asks:
Have I done any good in the world today? Have I helped anyone in need? Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad? If not, I have failed indeed. …
Then wake up and do something more Than dream of your mansion above. Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure, A blessing of duty and love.
There are chances for work all around just now, Opportunities right in our way. Do not let them pass by, saying, “Sometime I’ll try,” But go and do something today. (Hymn 223)
I recently had the privilege of witnessing Latter-day Saints who truly understood this doctrine of agency. As I was teaching this very lesson on DC 58 to a class of BYU students, I received several text messages on my phone. After class I saw that they were all from faithful members of my ward giving reports to their Bishop of the good they were doing. The first was from my Teacher’s Quorum president who was offering to share a message about what he had learned about priesthood keys. Another was from my Elder’s Quorum president who was informing me that a man in the ward had lost his job but that the presidency was already in contact with him.
Our high councilor then texted that he had visited the man and given him a blessing. The former Bishop then texted me and the Relief Society president informing us that he had just spoken with a ward member whose mother had passed away. The Relief Society president responded that she was grateful for the information and indicated that she was on it. Shortly after that she texted me about the visits she had with the new families that had just moved into our ward.
As I read over these texts, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the good leaders I serve with as Bishop. They truly understand the power that is in them to do good. They are agents who act and are not just sitting around waiting to be acted upon or told what to do by their Bishop (2 Nephi 2:14). While it is true that some things do require that we wait for direction from those who hold priesthood keys, there are many things within the parameters of our callings that do not require us to wait. We are agents. We can act. We can do good. At the risk of damaging the stereotype of the overworked Bishop, I have to admit that it is not hard to be a Bishop when you serve with Saints like that! May we all “act in [our] office” (DC 107:99) and do good with our agency. For the power is in us! (DC 58:28)