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Why "Free Agency" Doesn't Exist and Why It's Important for Parents to Realize That as They Teach Their Children

The great misconception of "free" agency is that one can have the privilege of choice and somehow avoid the responsibility of consequences. Someone has said that a Statue of Responsibility should be erected on the west coast to balance the Statue of Liberty that stands on the east coast. Young people, especially, have an asymmetric view of agency; they tend to focus on the positive outcomes they associate with making their own choices and ignore the potential negative outcomes.

The following story, written by radio talk-show host Bob Lonsberry, is one of thousands that could be used to illustrate the principle of agency and consequences.

This is the story of John and some choices he made.

It ends beneath an underpass with the Bishop hanging upside down, crumpled inside what remained of the family car. There had just been a hellacious collision and the Jetta came to a rest ripped to smithereens, a jumble of broken glass and twisted metal.

In pain, the Bishop thought first of his family, and looking around discovered what had been done in an instant.

His wife, pregnant with a baby boy, sitting beside him in the front seat, was dead. His 11-year-old son was dead in the back seat and so was his 9-year-old daughter. His 6-year-old son was alive but had suffered a major brain injury.

That's where it ended.

It began at John's house. . . .

He is 17, with three years on the varsity football team, an Eagle Scout, seminary student, and an active member of his Priests' Quorum. He is a Latter-day Saint kid growing up like so many other Latter-day Saint kids in Utah.

He has had the advantage of a loving, gospel-centered home, and a ward, school and community support system designed to give him every opportunity to grow into a righteous and useful man.

Like so many Latter-day Saint youth, he had the benefit of being taught the gospel and the importance of faith in Jesus Christ. He has been instructed countless times about the commandments the Lord has given to protect and bless his life.

And still, police say, he was behind the wheel of a speeding truck, in the wrong lane, roaring head-on against traffic, with almost twice the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream. As the Bishop swerved to get out of the way, witnesses said John swerved as well, directly into the Jetta.

That's how he became a killer.

John, a senior in high school, crawled out of the wreckage of his truck and ran several blocks before police caught up with him. When ordered to take a field sobriety test, police said, he responded that he couldn't, that he was too drunk. . . .

This is the story of John and some choices he made.

This is the story of a Latter-day Saint kid who memorized the Articles of Faith, sang in the Primary presentations, had family prayer and grew up in a good Latter-day Saint home. This is the story of a Latter-day Saint kid a lot like you.

A kid who heard but did not do, promised but did not fulfill, professed but did not practice. A kid who did not understand what a commandment is.

It is a protection, not a punishment; a shield, not a chain. It is a warning from a loving heavenly parent. The Lord gives us commandments not to make us miserable, or to deprive us of enjoyments, but to keep us out of trouble, to spare us the miseries and sufferings that are eventually and unavoidably tied to unrighteous conduct.

Commandments are not given for God's benefit, but for ours. They are rules of safety, akin to a parent telling a child not to stick things in a light socket.

But John didn't listen.

Not that night behind the wheel. And see what has come. Think about what happened.

Imagine what has been lost. List the victims, contemplate the emotions, and count the cost.

And think about yourself.

Think about the consequences of your own choices. Are they apt to be joy and peace, or pain and suffering? Do they have the potential to be devastatingly wrong? Could they leave blood on your hands? If not the blood of an innocent family, then of an innocent Lord who was crucified for us and because of us. . . . This is a lesson in the power of personal choice, and the importance of a righteous choice.

This is the story of John.

But it's really about you.

And what you decide your story will be. (Bob Lonsberry, "A Story for Latter-day Saint Teens," names have been changed; emphasis added.)

What a sad but illuminating story about agency and consequences. Unfortunately, it is only one of many that could be told. One result of casually blurring the concept of moral agency with free agency is the implication that unfettered choice is also somehow free from consequence. It is doubtlessly pleasing to the devil, who seeks to make "all men miserable like unto himself" (2 Nephi 2:27), that the relationship between choice and accountability is constantly being obscured. Misery is definitely the result of making choices without regard to the consequences that may follow.

A little experience teaches that while a person may indeed be free to choose an action, he or she is not free to choose the consequences that accompany the action.

Our understanding of consequences increases dramatically with age and experience. We may be told that a given choice or act has a particular consequence, but until the consequence is experienced personally, the discussion is mostly academic or conceptual. Learning a principle from our own experience in life's laboratory is more powerful than any conceptual discussion of that principle. One of the great challenges of life is to learn about choices and outcomes from those experiences that are less serious instead of more serious. Hopefully we learn about the consequences of gravity by jumping off the couch before we try jumping off the roof. We can learn about fire by touching it with our hand before we allow it to burn our whole body.

Parents have the major responsibility to monitor and maintain a balance in the learning process. They cannot constantly shield their children from the consequences of their actions in the ill-conceived notion that such a practice is good parenting. Using money, influence, or other means to protect children from experiencing the link between actions and consequences often leads to disastrous outcomes. Children so treated usually end up with very poor judgment and ultimately make serious errors that cannot be mitigated by parents. In such cases, society has to step in and impose sanctions and penalties that are much more severe than would have been the case if the individual had been allowed at an earlier date to personally experience the link between agency and consequences.

On the other hand, the desired balance in the learning process can be undone by parents who push their children too fast into certain kinds of experiences. Children can be encouraged by well-meaning parents into all kinds of activities before they are prepared for the consequences. A certain level of maturity and judgment is needed before a boy is given a gun to shoot, a four-wheeler or jet ski to drive, an axe to wield, or a motorcycle to ride. Girls who are encouraged as preteens into provocative dress and behavior are poorly prepared for the potential consequences of such actions.

Parents' good judgment in their own behavior can do much to help children learn about consequences. Driving when drinking, speeding, scoffing at the law, credit card debt, physical abuse, dishonesty, and a host of other parental behaviors can send messages to children that such behaviors have little or no earthly consequences. Parents need to "walk the walk" if they expect to fulfill their responsibility in teaching about agency and consequences.

Parents can also "talk the talk" about consequences. The family dinner table is an excellent setting for discussions about good decisions and bad decisions. Examples can be used from newspaper reports, neighborhood events, family activities, and scriptural accounts, among others. Family home evenings, family councils, and one-on-one activities with children also provide excellent settings for discussing actions and consequences. Some children can learn on their own from observation; most need parents who involve children in discussions (not lectures) so that the children benefit from the thought processes and judgment of mature adults who have more experience than they have.

An important element in the discussion of consequences is the differentiation between earthly consequences and heavenly or eternal consequences. Some important major differences exist between the laws of God and the laws of man and the consequences that follow the breaking of each.

In the first place, men's laws are finite, and the breaking of those laws results in finite consequences. However, God's laws are eternal and have eternal consequences. In the second place, the laws of society are less and less patterned after the laws of God. For example, the laws of God concerning chastity and moral purity are quite clear, and we are constantly counseled about the eternal consequences of breaking those laws. By contrast, most Western societies have long since given up on trying to punish any kind of immoral conduct. This creates a serious problem for parents who wish to teach eternal truths and eternal consequences. When our youth observe immoral behavior in television shows, movies, lyrics of songs they listen to, and even among their peers, and they observe that that behavior seems to have little or no consequence, it becomes imperative that parents emphasize the truths inherent in the laws of God.

For more than two decades the young women of the Church around the world have been standing and reciting together the Young Women theme, which in part says, "we will stand as 'witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places' (Mosiah 18:9) as we strive to live the Young Women values, which are: faith, divine nature, individual worth, knowledge, choice and accountability, good works, integrity, and virtue" (emphasis added). The theme appropriately focuses attention on standing as witnesses of God. The values espoused are values of God, not values of man. Choice and accountability is a true principle that will be enforced by God regardless of the laws of man.

The principles of agency and accountability are spelled out beautifully in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet published by the Church. Page four of the pamphlet, under the heading of "Agency and Accountability," quotes the scripture, "Wherefore, men . . . are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death" (2 Nephi 2:27). After the scripture are found the following paragraphs:

Your Heavenly Father has given you agency, the ability to choose right from wrong and to act for yourself. You have been given the Holy Ghost to help you know good from evil. While you are here on earth, you are being proven to see if you will use your agency to show your love for God by keeping His commandments.

While you are free to choose for yourself, you are not free to choose the consequences of your actions. When you make a choice, you will receive the consequences of that choice. The consequences may not be immediate, but they will always follow, for good or bad. Wrong choices delay your progression and lead to heartache and misery. Right choices lead to happiness and eternal life. That is why it is so important for you to choose what is right throughout your life.

You are responsible for the choices you make. You should not blame your circumstances, your family, or your friends if you choose to disobey God's commandments. You are a child of God with great strength. You have the ability to choose righteousness and happiness, no matter what your circumstances. (For the Strength of Youth: Fulfilling Our Duty to God  [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2001], 4-5)

The counsel in these paragraphs is given lovingly and with the great hope that it will be followed. It is given by men and women in the highest Church leadership positions, who have firm testimonies of the value of eternal principles. It is given to our youth with the sure knowledge that eternal blessings await those young people who exercise their agency in accordance with eternal principles instead of the precepts of men.

One of the often ignored consequences of agency is that good choices lead to more choices and poor choices lead to fewer choices. Indeed, a paradox of our modern society, which places so much emphasis on unbridled free agency, is that the exercise of unbridled—I can do anything I want—agency leads ultimately not to more freedom and more choices but to less freedom and fewer choices.


For additional insights on this topic, check out Why God Lets Us Choose: How Agency Explains the Way Life Works by Stephen D. Nadauld. 

Why does God let us choose? Why don't we always see the consequences of our actions? Why is God willing to allow our decisions, knowing we will make wrong choices? It's about agency.

Stephen D. Nadauld answers these — and other questions —about this most integral of God's gifts.

Understanding the answers to these questions and exercising our agency wisely brings us closer to God. Ultimately, the choice placed before us is to choose Him. 

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