The following is part 5 of a 5-part series. To read the previous part, CLICK HERE.
It was a cold and snowy December night in Utah. Seth was over eighteen at this point and had been living on his own for some time. This particular night he was staying with us. Three days before, he had begged for help to get off drugs. He had promised to do anything so he could.
I told him—as we always did—that we would only help if we believed what we were doing would truly help. We were unwilling to rob him of the consequences of his choices. I explained we did not believe it was loving to keep someone from learning. But I added—as we always did—that if he was asking for help to turn his life around, there was nothing we would withhold.
He assured me that turning his life around was the goal. I explained it would require enormous sacrifice and asked if he was willing to sacrifice anything if it would help him change his life. I suspected his words exceeded his commitment—but I accepted his affirmative response, and we made a plan. I believed it was sometimes better to be vulnerably optimistic than protectively cynical.
We made the deal. He agreed to a painful list of sacrifices: no contact with friends, attendance at a twelve-step program, no lying, no drug use, willingly drug testing, etc. He agreed that if he violated these strict agreements, he would have to leave our house immediately.
He enthusiastically honored the agreements for a full twenty-four hours. First, he began complaining about the constraints. He became fidgety, resentful, and finally dishonest. Then he arranged for drugs to be dropped at our house and lied about it when confronted.
Now here we sat on Friday night. It was snowing lightly and 28 degrees outside. The consequences for breaching our agreement were crystal clear. My wife and I sat in our room for a long time praying about whether or not we should follow through with the agreed-upon consequence. How could we? He had nowhere to go. He had nothing to eat. He had no money. It was very cold.
Parents in our situation often lament their lack of influence. We wonder how we can help our loved ones “want to change.” I learned from Moroni that this is the wrong question. The right question is, “What am I doing that is keeping my child from wanting to change?” The most potent lesson Moroni offers parents is that when we stand between our child and justice, we often stand between our child and God.
Often our claims that we are offering an addict mercy are just our way of dressing up our own weakness. It makes us feel badly to see a loved one suffer—even if their suffering is precisely what they might need in order to motivate change. So, we intervene. We clean up messes. We subsidize sin. And we harbor evil. The Atonement isn’t offered for those who simply want to dodge consequences. Christ’s intervention comes only to those determined to make and keep covenants. Never forget: the prodigal son was not welcomed home with drugs in his pocket or porn in his backpack. And while he was fed and sheltered, he was still poor. He still had to face the educative consequences of his indolence and indulgence.
Moroni faced ambivalent “addicts” throughout his twelve-year campaign. Time and again after they had covenanted to defend their freedom, they backslid. Large factions of the Nephites would actively collude with the Lamanites in a way that would inevitably bring them back into bondage. Like my son, within hours of making an agreement they hungered again for bondage.
What did Moroni do when people made self-destructive choices?
Seven years into Moroni’s campaign he was still agonizing over the weakness of his own people. As hordes of Lamanite forces threatened to invade Nephite lands, Moroni had to decide whether to fight Lamanites or his own Nephites. Facing the Nephites meant disaster. Lives could be lost. Cities could fall if Lamanites descended while Nephites were fighting each other. But Moroni treated one principle as sacrosanct: No victory was possible so long as the Nephites weren’t sure they wanted freedom. He knew that to attempt to fight the battle for the ambivalent Nephites would violate agency. He could not rob them of their right to choose their own demise.
We often talk about agency as “the power to choose.” But it is far more than that. Agency is not just the freedom to follow our whims. It is the power to create. Specifically, it is the power to create consequences.
Agency is the God-given power to become like God by making choices that create consequences. To the degree we make choices that produce positive consequences, we become more like God. When we choose to create negative consequences, we become less like Him and more like the Satan. We can’t learn to become more like God unless we have the opportunity to experience the consequences we create.
When God evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, He said He was sending them into the world ‘to learn by their own experience.’ He designed a system where they could create and experience consequences. He seemed to think it was a pretty good system. He had confidence that when the consequences were painful, we would learn. When the consequences were joyful, we would also learn. Over time we would gain greater ability to create better consequences.
So how did Moroni help his people want to change? He trusted God. God’s way of teaching is to allow people to experience the consequences of their choices. Moroni realized his job was not to motivate the Nephites. His job was to let the natural consequences of their choices do the motivating.
Let me explain.
Moroni wasted little time sermonizing to the uncommitted. When you lecture, guilt-trip, and reason with those who don’t care, you become responsible for their motivation. Moroni never falls into this trap. You don’t find this misplaced effort in Moroni’s story. Instead, he allowed them to make their choices and then refused to stand between them and the consequences they chose. He let them experience the full measure of justice for their choices—good or bad—trusting that by so doing many of them would learn to choose more wisely. Justice, during this period, meant severe legal punishment. For some Nephites, it meant the death penalty.
The Lamanites were closing in. A Nephite faction called the Kingmen welcomed them with open arms. In doing so, they committed treason. In Nephite law—as in most any society—the consequence for putting your nation at risk in time of war was death. So, Moroni “sent a petition . . . unto the governor of the land, desiring that he should . . . give him power to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death.” The petition was granted.
Was Moroni being merciless? Was he overreacting? Was he using the law to try to force the Kingmen to change? No. No. And no.
Moroni never violated agency. And he is one of the most merciful figures in all of scripture. He offered his own life in every battle to defend those he loved. But he refused to rob them of the consequences they were choosing. Had Moroni not inflicted the legal consequences of treason on the Kingmen, he would have been guilty of consenting to their crimes.
Moroni trusted that exposure to the natural consequences of justice might teach those who seemed unwilling to protect their freedom.
As we sat in our room agonizing over what to do with our boy, the question in our minds turned 180 degrees. Whereas we had been wondering how we could get him to repent, we began to think more about how our decision might keep him from repenting. We decided to trust in God’s plan for teaching.
I walked downstairs and told him he had to leave. I told him how much I loved him. I told him that I believed at some future time he’d figure out how to have a happy life. I assured him that when he did, I would be there to help him get it. Then I helped him pack up his few belongings. He had no luggage, so we placed his things into two big black trash bags. He shuffled wordlessly out to my car with me. I asked him where he wanted me to take him. He suggested a Walmart not far from our home. He exited my car in the parking lot and retrieved his bags from the back seat. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I could see him in the rear-view mirror standing next to his two trash bags with snow falling lightly between us. I drove a short distance, pulled to the side of the road, and cried.
When our loved ones are in bondage, we frequently face these choices. I do not know how every parent should deal with every such choice. But I know that my tendency is the opposite of Moroni’s. On the face of it, you might think that Moroni’s decision to enforce the consequences of treason on the Kingmen is employing compulsion. And that a decision to withhold information from police about a son’s drug use is merciful.
I’ve come to suspect the opposite is usually true. Moroni is the merciful one. He has faith in God’s plan of teaching. And on the contrary, my tendency to interrupt consequences is actually a desire to control. Any time I try to “get my loved one to change” I employ some form of compulsion. If I fight at all costs to keep my loved one from going to jail, I rob him of his agency. He made a choice, but I refuse to let him to experience it.
For example, if I have a child who is rude to other kids, they’ll probably shun her. And if in defense of my child I lash out at those peers for their unkindness, I steal her opportunity to learn empathy. If I pay off the debts of a sister who spends foolishly, I keep her from becoming motivated to learn restraint. If I give free rent to a lazy brother, I make it less likely he’ll develop a work ethic. If I pretend to believe someone who has repeatedly lied to me, I help them treat trust as an entitlement. If I replace a car for a loved one who carelessly wrecks it, I weaken his agency and rob him of an invitation to greater responsibility.
Frequently, rather than impose consequences, we yell, cry, guilt-trip, or nag. Nagging is a form of control. It is a way of taking responsibility away from the other person. It puts the burden on the nagger to monitor and motivate the other person. Moroni did not nag. He was not willing to attempt to change the Nephites’ beliefs by force. Rather, he treated treason as treason. Then he let people decide whether treason produced the consequences they wanted.
When we remove natural consequences from those we love, we take control of a process that God ordained. We are assuming our own design of the world is superior to His or that those we love are too fragile to learn in His way.
Moroni had no such belief. When he found himself fighting harder than the Nephites for their own freedom, he stopped his campaign against the Lamanites and allowed them to face the full legal measure of justice their actions invited. He did it in the first year of the war. As a result, Amalickiah was expelled and a few Nephites executed. He did it in year seven and 4,000 Nephites were executed. In year ten he faced it again—and once again let them have what they chose. The lesson for me in all of this is that it takes enormous faith in God’s ultimate wisdom to witness the misery of those you love as they progress through their own painful learning process. It can take years. And you may have to watch them repeatedly make the same mistakes.
. Alma 51:15
. Alma 51:15
25. Alma 51:19
26. Alma 53:8-9