My friend texted and asked if we could discuss a question later that day. “Sure,” I texted back. “What’s the question?” She wrote: “Why should I be grateful for agency?” “Deep question!” I answered. Then she sent me links to two talks on agency by Elder Robert D. Hales (1932-2017) and asked if I had time to listen to them (You can read them HERE and HERE. The reason for her question is that half of her children had used their agency to leave the Church, and she was “struggling with grief and guilt.”

It’s natural to have questions about agency when loved ones make choices that take them away from the covenant path. I felt honored to discuss her question but knew I couldn’t teach her anything new because she knows as much about agency as I do. I know from personal experience that during seasons of disappointment and loss, when things don’t go as we hoped, prayed for, and anticipated, that grief and guilt bring out our insecurities.

Satan can seize the opportunity and fan a flicker of doubt into a flame. I felt my challenge was to bring things to her remembrance and help her protect her testimony. I prayed the Holy Ghost would accompany our discussion and give her a measure of assurance that her prodigals will return. I prayed she would continue to live her testimony and receive ideas on how to be part of his life and his healing no matter how long it takes. I thought about things I could bring to her remembrance if the discussion went that direction.

The fact that the term “free agency” has been replaced with the scriptural term “moral agency” or simply “agency” is important. The Lord said: I have given unto every person moral agency “that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101:78). In a 2006 BYU devotional talk, President Uchtdorf explained: “You have agency, and you are free to choose. But there is actually no free agency. Agency has its price. You have to pay the consequences of your choices.” 

Agency is an eternal law and God’s gift. It is evidence of His love and trust in His children. All children of God our Heavenly Father can use their precious gift of agency to prove their love and trust back to Him. Agency is the only thing that is unique to each person. No one can use my agency but me.

Agency’s opposite is compulsion. When agency is used to take away others’ agency, the result is abuse, contention, and deception, to name of few of the evils that result. The war in heaven and all subsequent conflicts from personal to marital to familial to regional to national to global started over agency and compulsion. Reading today’s headlines shows the war continues.

“Agency is essential in the plan of salvation.” “Agency is the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for ourselves.” “Without agency, we would not be able to learn or progress” (www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/agency-and-accountability?lang=eng). I have a doctrinal question about agency. Is agency decreased by bad choices and increased by good choices? It seems to me that a drug addict has less agency than someone without an addiction.

Abraham and Joseph F. Smith had similar visions. Abraham saw “many of the noble and great ones”(Abraham 3:22-23), and President Smith saw “the great and mighty ones… assembled in a vast congregation” (D&C 138:38). Abraham saw pre-mortal spirits chosen by God with potential to be His leaders. (I think leaders could apply to parents and teachers, perhaps even to all who keep their covenants.) Thousands of years later, President Joseph F. Smith saw post-mortal spirits who had used their agency to reach their potential. In thinking about these two visions, it seems reasonable that some in Abraham’s vision misused their agency and were not in President Smith’s vision.

As harsh as that may seem, it is comforting to know that those who stray from the covenant path are not permanently lost. Everyone who has lived on earth will be resurrected. Everyone in this life or the next will acknowledge Jesus Christ as his/her Savior and Redeemer. Everyone will inherit a kingdom of glory, excepting a few sons of perdition who in the very, very end purposely and defiantly choose Satan over God. That means 99.9999% of humanity “though in the desert they’ve wandered, spiritually hungry and cold; the Good Shepherd’s servants will find them, and help them return to the fold” (www.churchofjesuschrist.org/music/library/hymns/dear-to-the-heart-of-the-shepherd?lang=eng, [words modified]).

Children who stray is a common theme in scripture The prophet Lehi pled with Lemuel, his second-born son: “O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 2:10). We who have read the Book of Mormon know that Lemuel did not stay true to the gospel of Jesus Christ despite being taught true doctrine, witnessing miracle after miracle, and being chastised by an angel. How puzzling it is that Lemuel and his brother Laman grew up in the same environment as Sam, Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph and how differently they used their agency.

Two sons rebelled and four chose to stay firm and steadfast. Why? Why do some turn their backs on the tree of life while others hold to the iron rod and partake of the fruit of the tree? The overriding truth is that parents can “teach, persuade, direct aright” but “ev’ry soul is free to choose his life and what he’ll be; for this eternal truth is giv’n that God will force no man to heaven” (www.churchofjesuschrist.org/music/library/hymns/know-this-that-every-soul-is-free?lang=eng). God doesn’t force but the consequences of agency squandered are very good teachers.

When someone leaves the covenant path, there is a time gap between faithlessness and faithfulness as the wayward experience the consequences of agency and choose to return. The parable of the prodigal son is a sweet example of what a parent can do while the misuse of agency is happening. When the son was returning home, his father saw him when he “was yet a great way off… and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” Parents can wait and watch in faith and anticipate the child’s return with love and compassion. I can see the embrace in my mind as this beloved son melted into his father’s arms and choked out the words: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (Luke 15:18-21). Two more examples of sons who came to themselves are found in the Book of Mormon.

Alma, son of Alma, and four sons of King Mosiah rebelled. For a time it seemed they had irreparably forfeited their opportunity to be in President Smith’s vision. As they went about trying to destroy individual testimonies and thereby the Church, their fathers—Alma the prophet and Mosiah the king—mourned and prayed for them, as did other members of the Church. The Lord heard these petitions and sent an angel who warned these disobedient men of great potential to stop destroying the Church or else they would be destroyed (Mosiah 27:18–19.) This wakeup call motivated Alma, Ammon, Aaron, Omner, and Himni to repent. They did and served the Lord for the rest of their lives.

Alma’s son Corianton gave into temptation while on a mission. Alma spoke to him forthrightly yet lovingly about the seriousness of his sin and taught him the principles of repentance and forgiveness. He prophesied that Jesus Christ was coming “to take away the sins of the world” (Alma 39:15). This motivated Corianton to ask his father doctrinal questions that were troubling him. Alma explained agency, the plan of salvation, and judgment and mercy—“endless misery or eternal happiness” (Alma 41:4-5). Alma said: “My son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance” (Alma 42:29). The Book of Mormon tells us what happened to Corianton: “There was… exceedingly great prosperity in the church because of their heed and diligence which they gave unto the word of God, which was declared unto them by Helaman, and Shiblon, and Corianton” (Alma 49:30, italics added).

In David F. Holland’s book, Moroni, he explains the importance of withholding judgment whenothers don’t use their agency to meet our expectations: “We will all encounter others who quite literally cannot do what [we] might otherwise expect them to do. Capacity [potential] is constrained by inherited mental health, physiological structure, the paralyzing impact of trauma, and a million other obstructions to action. When we say that the ability to act and choose is given by God, we necessarily also acknowledge that its limitations often lie beyond our understanding and within the veil of his superior wisdom. Were I to tell a severely depressed soul to rise up and be of good cheer, and condemn her for her failure to do so, I might rest that judgment on the belief that the ability to act on that command is a capacity all humans have by nature.” He advises his readers “to be more appreciative of what other human beings can do and more patient with what they cannot do” (David F. Holland, Moroni: A Brief Theological Introduction [Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2020], 84.) When we give others space and grace for pre-existing issues that compromise their ability to use their agency for good, we confess God and wait while His superior wisdom is manifest.

My friend is a woman of testimony who trusts that Heavenly Father’s plan is a plan of happiness. She thanked me for listening and for acknowledging how hard it is when someone you love takes an alternate path. She told me about her self-doubt and how ill-equipped she feels going forward to meet his needs, her husband’s needs, her other children’s needs, and her own. I assured her that as she traverses this uncharted territory, the Holy Ghost will comfort her and inspire her with ideas. I pray she will go forward during this time of uncertainty with faith in Jesus Christ, knowing that He is the Good Shepherd and is seeking His lost lambs and sheep.