Monday, February 14, 2011

The Blessings of Agency

I was asked to give a talk at church on the topic of agency about 5 months ago.  It kept getting pushed back, and yesterday I was finally able to give it.  Some of what I shared actually came from previous posts, but there are some newer thoughts here and I've tied it all together.  It was a bit of a challenge narrowing down 5 months of study into 25 min, but I felt the most prepared that I've ever been for any talk (largely thanks to suggestions from my wife.)
I’d like to start off with one of the earliest places in the scriptures that discusses agency.

God’s plan vs. Satan’s “plan”

Listen carefully to what Satan proposes:
Moses 4:1  AND I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor. 2  But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me—Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.
There weren’t two plans presented in the pre-mortal Council in Heaven, there was one: Heavenly Father’s plan.  He didn’t force us all to follow it, but it’s never good to go against His will.  Let’s say when Pres. Monson was being sustained as the new prophet that another person decided he wanted the job too and lobbied for it at their council?  This would definitely be inappropriate.  God’s will was known and anything else would not work and was wrong.  President John Taylor said:
"From these remarks made by the well beloved Son [referring to the passage in Moses], we should naturally infer that in the discussion of this subject the Father had made known His will and developed His plan and design pertaining to these matters, and all that His well beloved Son wanted to do was to carry out the will of His Father, as it would appear had been before expressed."
If we read further we find out quite a bit about Satan:

Satan seeks to destroy man’s agency

Listen for the 3 reasons that Satan was cast out.
Moses 4:3  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; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down;  
4  And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.

How to destroy Agency

In order to better understand what agency is, it helps to think on how Satan could have destroyed it.  How can agency be destroyed?
President Monson stated in the last general conference,
“We know that we had our agency before this world was and that Lucifer attempted to take it from us.  He had no confidence in the principle of agency or in us and argued for imposed salvation.  He insisted that with his plan none would be lost, but he seemed not to recognize--or perhaps not to care--that in addition, none would be any wiser, any stronger, any more compassionate, or any more grateful if his plan were followed.”
It’s commonly believed that one of the ways Satan would have imposed salvation on us (and destroyed our agency) would be through forcing us to do good.  How this was actually planned to be carried out is unclear, but we could suppose that one way would be to impose immediate consequences for any wrong-doing.  I don’t believe we would have been actually controlled, except by fear of consequences.  This sounds very characteristic of what we know about Satan.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie presented another very interesting possibility in his book The Premortal Messiah.  Listen carefully for another way that Satan could take away or destroy our agency:
"When the Eternal Father announced his plan of salvation...there was a war in heaven. Lucifer sought to dethrone God, ...and to save all men without reference to their works.  He sought to deny men their agency so they could not sin.  He offered a mortal life of carnality and sensuality, of evil and crime and murder following which all men would be saved.  His offer was a philosophical impossibility.  There must needs be an opposition in all things.  Unless there are opposites, there is nothing. 
"Lucifer and his lieutenants preached...a gospel of fear and hate and lasciviousness and compulsion.  They sought salvation without keeping the commandments, without overcoming the world, without choosing between opposites."
This argument makes sense when we read about the importance of opposition, with regards to our agency.

Necessity of Opposition

2 Nephi 2:11  For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.  If not so...righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.  Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. 
v.13  And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin.  If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness.  And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness.  And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery.  And if these things are not there is no God.  
Let’s pause here and reflect on Satan’s initial demands in the pre-mortal council, “here am I, send me, I will be thy son, … wherefore give me thine honor.”  If we remember the parable of the prodigal son, the youngest son went to his father and asked for his inheritance.  This act, given that the father was not dead or dying, was akin to wishing death upon his father so that he could receive his inheritance early, the father was literally dead to the son.  This is very similar to what Satan wanted.  He wanted more than his inheritance and essentially wanted God to cease to exist.  Let’s finish the verse:
“And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.”
So if Satan’s plan were to have no law or any consequences, I imagine it would have sounded rather appealing that there would be no punishment.  That seems to be what he tries to do now, to “lull [us] away into carnal security”, to “tell [us] there is no hell” and no devil and no consequences to our actions, no law. (2 Nephi 28:20-23)  

Right and Responsibility of Choice

Satan was cast out of Heaven, and Heavenly Father’s plan was carried out.  Because of agency, we were allowed to come to earth.  Pres. Monson said in the last General Conference,
“With the right of choice comes the responsibility to choose.  We cannot be neutral; there is no middle ground.  ...  As long as we live upon this earth, Lucifer and his hosts will never abandon the hope of claiming our souls.”
Even in the garden of Eden, Lucifer knew that by giving the fruit to Eve that he was furthering God’s plan (whereas commonly it is believed that he was not aware that he was assisting God), but giving Eve the fruit was the only way that he could get to God’s other children, for “Adam fell that men might be.”  The only way Satan could inflict misery and lead astray mankind would be if they were to come to earth in a fallen state.

“Satan cannot seduce us unless we consent”

Now, let’s move on to something that has a little more hope in it, something a bit less dreary.  With this knowledge of Satan’s power, it helps to know that we have complete power over the devil.
“Satan cannot seduce us by his enticements unless we in our hearts consent and yield. Our organization is such that we can resist the devil; if we were not organized so, we would not be free agents. 
“The devil has no power over us only as we permit him; the moment we revolt at anything which comes from God, the devil takes power.” Teachings of the Presidents of the Church - Joseph Smith (TPC-JS), p.213
The moment we decide to stop attending church, the day we don’t read our scriptures or say our prayers, or stop striving to keep the Holy Spirit in our lives, temptation has a stronger hold on us, we are weaker, and Satan can have power over us.
Pres. Monson explained
“No temptation, no pressure, no enticing can overcome us unless we allow such.  If we make the wrong choice, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  President Brigham Young once expressed this truth by relating it to himself.  Said he: ‘If Brother Brigham shall take a wrong track, and be shut out of the Kingdom of heaven, no person will be to blame but Brother Brigham. I am the only being in heaven, earth, or hell, that can be blamed.’  He continued: ‘This will equally apply to every Latter-day Saint.  Salvation is an individual operation.”
Paul taught the Corinthians,
“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” 1 Cor. 10:13
C.S. Lewis gives a very nice explanation in his book Mere Christianity of what it means to withstand temptation.
“A silly idea is current that good people do not know what  temptation means. This is an  obvious lie. Only those  who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. ... You find out the  strength of a wind by trying to walk against it,  not by lying down. A man  who  gives in to temptation after five minutes simply  does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people,  in one sense, know very little about badness. They have  lived a sheltered life by  always  giving in.  We never find out the strength of  the evil  impulse inside us until we  try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the  full what temptation means-the only complete realist.”
…The only one who can fully help us withstand temptation.

Eliza R. Snow recorded
“[Joseph Smith] said he did not care how fast we run in the path of virtue. Resist evil, and there is no danger; God, men, and angels will not condemn those that resist everything that is evil, and devils cannot; as well might the devil seek to dethrone Jehovah, as overthrow an innocent soul that resists everything which is evil.” TPC-JS, p.214 

Obedience is highest expression of Freedom

Before I go on, I’d like to pose a question, what is the opposite of bondage?
The article on Agency in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism states that “Obedience expands agency, and the alternative to obedience is bondage” not fun or freedom, BONDAGE.  
The article continues, 
“Thus, in the LDS concept of agency, obedience and agency are not antithetical. On the one hand, Church leaders consistently stand against all coercion of conscience ("We are not disposed, had we the power, to deprive anyone of exercising…free independence of mind" [TPJS, p. 49]) and counsel Church members to depend first of all on themselves for decisions about the application of gospel principles. On the other hand, obedience-willing and energetic submission to the will of God even at personal sacrifice-is a central gospel tenet. Far from contradicting freedom, obedience is its highest expression.” (Emphasis added.)
According to this quote, obedience and captivity are opposites; this seems odd, since both are basically the submission of our will to another being (one Christ and the other Satan).  However, Lehi supports this idea by confirming that captivity or bondage is the opposite of obedience.  In 2 Nephi 2:27, it's rather clear that we have two choices:
  1. "Liberty and eternal life, through [Jesus Christ]" - in other words, obedience to the laws and ordinances of Christ's gospel-, or
  2. "captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil"
My wife made the connection of this concept (the dichotomy of obedience and bondage) and the numerous times in the scriptures that various people(s) are exhorted to remember the captivity of their fathers. For instance, I was reading in Mosiah 27 a little while back and there an angel stops the sons of Mosiah and Alma the Younger from pursuing their destruction of the Church. He tells them in v.16,
Go, and remember the captivity of thy fathers in the land of Helam, and in the land of Nephi; and remember how great things he has done for them; for they were in bondage, and he has delivered them. And now I say unto thee, Alma, go thy way, and seek to destroy the church no more…”
The charge to “remember the captivity of [their] fathers” was a reminder to Alma that freedom comes to those who choose to be delivered through Jesus Christ.

Remembering both the physical and spiritual captivity of our fathers should allow us to better comprehend our agency.  We should be aware of the incapacity (lack of freedom) that existed while our fathers were in bondage, and that only through obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ are we free to become like our Redeemer is.  There is no such thing as "free to do whatever I want to do, with no restrictions or consequences"; even though today that is what is given as the most common definition of freedom.  Obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ is the highest expression of our personal freedom.

Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-28

26 For behold, it is not meet 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; wherefore he receiveth no reward. 
27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; 
28 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.
Ignorance is not bliss

I’ve wondered what would happen if I chose not to know more.  What if I was happy complying with the commandments and covenants I’m currently keeping, but don’t really want to study or learn more so that I don’t have to be expected to do more.  What if I choose to be ignorant so that life can be easier?  Is that possible?  I found my answer in Alma 12:10-11,
10 And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full. 
11 And they that will harden their hearts [or choose ignorance], to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.
We see again here, that there is no way to remain complacent with where we are.  If we are not actively studying and learning and obeying the principles and commandments we are trusted with and gain knowledge to, what we have will be taken away and we will be captives of the devil.  Agency consists of either obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ or being captives of the devil.