The Gift of Agency
The Symbolism of the Christian Cross
The prophet Joseph Smith once wrote, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.” If I correctly understand what he meant by that, it means that as members of the restored Church, we need to chart a course seeking truth between polar positives, like we see in the symbol of the cross.
For example, the vertical post of the cross represents our relationship with God and the horizontal beam represents our relationship with our brothers and sisters. Both things are good and holy and desirable. Moving vertically is our effort to fulfil the first great commandment to know and love God while moving horizontally is our effort to fulfil the second great commandment, to love our neighbor.
I talked about how we regularly need opportunities, like those provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to improve our relationships along both axes. Because, like so many things in life, we need to find the proper balance between two seemingly contradictory, yet positive things.
For example, we all need an individual revelatory relationship with God, but we also need to faithfully follow the prophet. As we do so, we are allowed to participate in priesthood ordinances which bind us to God, as well as develop and demonstrate our discipleship through ministering to others, which binds us to our brothers and sisters.
Just having a relationship with God isn’t sufficient, we also need to have a relationship with God’s children. If we only needed a relationship with God, we could do that in a monastery or through prayer and meditation. If we only needed a loving relationship with our brothers and sisters, then any charitable organization would do, we wouldn’t need prophets and scriptures and temples and chapels. But we do — we need them all, therefore we need to choose both.
Choosing the vertical without the horizontal, or the horizontal without the vertical isn’t as good as it can be — just ask a mathematician or a physicist. You need to choose both. You need directionality and inertia, otherwise we wouldn’t make any progress. And that’s where our individual agency comes into play. We get to choose whether to move or not to move, to go upward or downward, or move forward or backward.
What are some additional contraries we are called upon to prove as followers of Christ? How about mercy and justice, faith and works, heart and mind, grace and truth. Then there is spirit and body, strength and meekness, unity and diversity, male and female, tolerance and obedience, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. And now, today, another contrary: agency and inspiration.
Now when I say that agency and inspiration are contraries, what do I mean by that? On one hand we have commandments like this one, from Doctrine and Covenants:
Furthermore, we told in that same section:
We have also been taught “good principles” and are now “free to govern ourselves.”
But on the other hand, we are told to involve God in everything we do and seek his divine guidance and inspiration and seal of approval. After all, aren’t we here on earth to see if we will “do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them?”
Those are two different things. Do we sit back and wait for inspiration or divine revelation or do we step up and take immediate action? Does Heavenly Father want us to humbly submit to His will or actively exercise our own will? The answer is, “Yes.” We do both. And what that looks like to you may be different than what that looks like to me.
Choices and Consequences
Agency is the gift that was given to us from the very first moment of our eternal lives, when our heavenly parents organized our spirit bodies, elevating us from mere intelligences into their spiritual children, created in their very image.
In order to become more like him, God declared that we must remain free to make our own choices. He never has, and never will, force anyone into obedience. Of course, each choice carries with it a necessary consequence, which means the consequence is inevitable, it cannot be avoided. You choose right, you get the positive consequence. You choose wrong, you get the negative consequence.
Sometimes those negative consequences seem like punishments or curses, but in fact, they are simply the direct result of our choices. We chose to receive them. You do the crime, you do the time. You sin, you pay the price. We may not pay the price immediately, but that price eventually needs to be paid, and often with interest. Unless, of course, someone who loves us more deeply than we can fathom volunteers to pay the price for us.
Now notice, that whenever a choice is presented to us, we are also told what its positive and negative consequences will be before we’re given the opportunity to make our choice. If that didn’t happen, it wouldn’t be fair. That’s why parents can’t, or I should say, shouldn’t, make up arbitrary punishments on-the-fly, consequences that we didn’t know were coming. If we didn’t know it was wrong to swipe cookies from the cookie jar, we can’t be held responsible for the swipeage.
Elder David Christofferson, in his October 2009 General Conference address named, “Moral Discipline,” said:
Fortunately, the Light of Christ in the form of our conscience tries to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do, even if we weren’t taught it by our parents and teachers and leaders, but sometimes we find it difficult to choose between good things. Which one is better? Which one is best?
Garden of Eden
Because we’re currently studying the Pearl of Great Price and the Old Testament, think back to Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden. They found themselves in a polar positive pickle: should they choose to obey or choose to partake? Both were good things. But which one was best? Let’s take a step back and examine what happened.
First, they were given a commandment and told what would happen if they violated it. Then they were also told which choice God preferred them to make. Nevertheless, they were free to choose whatever they wanted. To eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or not eat of it. To remain in the garden and walk and talk with God and freely eat any fruit, or to leave the garden, leave the presence of God, so they could develop faith and be fruitful and grow their own family trees amidst the thistles and thorns of a telestial world, a world that is also inhabited by the unseen Lucifer and his host of miserable minions.
Adam and Even were given two, seemingly contradictory commandments. Both were good. It presented a contrary that they needed to be proven. Fortunately for us, they used their agency to listen to an argument, and then made the decision to activate their senses and see, touch, smell, and taste the forbidden fruit. They then fell downward as well as forward, which subsequently allowed each of us to participate in the plan of salvation too, which also meant we would necessarily fall and fail as well.
But they had faith! And we also need to have faith that we can be rescued and reborn and revitalized and resurrected by the righteous Redeemer, if we respond to his revelations and regularly and religiously repent and refine. That’s a lot of Rs.
Why Agency is Essential
Now implicit in the Holy Scriptures, and especially explicit in those revealed to us through the Prophet Joseph Smith, we are taught about the essential role of agency. Without it, we could not progress. Without it, there would be no commandments. There would be no consequence for obedience or disobedience. Without it there would be no need for a Savior nor a Deceiver. There would be no need for faith. There would be no need for our universe at all. There would be no meaning to our existence. There would be no forward and upward nor backward and downward progress. There would only be confusion and chaos.
In his October 2019 General Conference address, “Agency: Essential to the Eternal Plan,” Elder Robert Hales said:
But there is agency. We can choose to do good or not do good. Fortunately, we can look around and see for ourselves and differentiate good from evil. Satan is permitted to tempt and torment us in this life, and the closer we get to God, the more effort he spends trying to get us to follow him instead.
We are free to make our own choices, even if we imprisoned and dropped into a deep, dark, and dank dungeon. Despite our captivity, we can still choose how we think and how we feel. It is a God-given gift.
Of course, Satan would love for us to choose to give away some of our agency for a while, which is what we do when we choose to be enslaved to addictions and bad habits, or when we choose to ignore our divine nature and cater to the insatiable appetites of our carnal selves, or when we choose vice over virtue and distance ourselves even further from God.
Sometimes, as citizens we choose to give up some of our freedoms in exchange for free stuff, just like the ancient Romans did as they entertained themselves right into destruction. Freedom isn’t free. It never has been. It is always purchased with blood, sweat, and tears. If we choose to remain free, we must be willing to pay its price.
Ultimately, the price for our freedom to progress and become more like our heavenly parents was paid for by our Savior who chose to live a sin-free mortal life for 33 years. Then he chose to enter the garden of Gethsemane where he would be punished for our sins. And then he chose to allow himself to be crucified on Golgatha. Six hours later, his body was carefully placed into a garden tomb. But then, because of his choices, because of his righteousness, because of his sacrifice, because of the price he paid, all by himself, he was given power over death and hell and was clothed in a glorious resurrected body. And he wants us to choose to follow him, so we can receive one too.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ and his subsequent resurrection, opened the doors of our prison and literally set us free, not just in the life hereafter, but in our present mortal existence. So let us use our agency and freedom to follow Him as much as we can. There is no other way. He is the only way. We cannot do it on our own. Please, please, please—choose Him.