Agency and Responsibility (David O. McKay Lesson 22)

Neal A. Maxwell, One More Strain of Praise - November 14, 2005

"Among the especially powerful, restored doctrines of the kingdom, and one worthy of much more of our pondering and praise, is God's deep commitment to our moral agency. Its place in His plan is fundamental, especially in the face of restored truths that bring a knowledge of key things, past, present, and future." --Neal A. Maxwell

Among the especially powerful, restored doctrines of the kingdom, and one worthy of much more of our pondering and praise, is God's deep commitment to our moral agency. Its place in His plan is fundamental, especially in the face of restored truths that bring a knowledge of key things, past, present, and future. Such restored truths include "things as they really are" (Jacob 4:13).

The verse to follow bears upon many fundamental things: "All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence" (D&C 93:30; emphasis added). Furthermore, the scriptures declare without elaboration: "here is the agency of man" (verse 31).

Elder Steven L Richards declared of this glorious truth of the Restoration:

I set forth as the first aspect of this new interpretation the doctrine of the dominance of intelligence. I believe I am correct in the assertion that in all Christian literature prior to the advent of our Church there were to be found no such concepts of the origin, function, and place of intelligence in the universe as come from our modern scripture. Here are some excerpts:

Intelligence or the light of truth was not created or made, neither indeed can be.

All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also. Otherwise, there is no existence. (D&C 93:29, 30.)

The glory of God is intelligence—or in other words, light and truth.

Light and truth forsake that evil one. (D&C 93:36, 37.)

Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.

And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come. (D&C 130:18, 19.)

Now, since intelligence is co-eternal with God and is the very glory of God, it follows logically that it is the chief investiture of man. Indeed, it is man, for it is that part of his constituency that persists, that is eternal. This knowing, conceiving, illuminating principle of existence lies at the base of all our powers and potentialities. Without it there would be no virtue and no sin. It alone gives to man his free agency, the power to choose, to will, and to act, conscious of the effects of his decisions and his deeds. (In Conference Report, April 1938, p. 22.)

Writing on this same, vital subject, President Joseph Fielding Smith, then of the Twelve, added:
Some of our writers have endeavored to explain what an intelligence is, but to do so is futile, for we have never been given any insight into this matter beyond what the Lord has fragmentarily revealed. We know, however, that there is something called intelligence which always existed. It is the real eternal part of man, which was not created or made. This intelligence combined with the spirit constitutes a spiritual identity or individual. (The Progress of Man [Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1936], p. 11.)
Therefore, since some things are yet unrevealed, we do not know with any precision exactly what was "brought with us" as, later on, we become spirit sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven. It is clear, however, that God did not fashion us ex nihilo, out of nothing. Our intrinsic makeup is not somehow all His responsibility; there is no "easy out" as to our individual accountability in the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

President Marion G. Romney, then in the Twelve, said of our freedom to choose, "Abridge man's agency, and the whole purpose of his mortality is thwarted. Without it, the Lord says, there is no existence." (In Conference Report, April 1966, p. 99.)

Indeed, without the existence of choices, without our freedom to choose and without opposition, there would be no real existence. This is so much like Lehi's metaphor of how, in the absence of agency and opposites, things would have resulted in a meaningless, undifferentiated "compound in one" (2 Ne. 2:11). In such a situation the earth would actually have "no purpose in the end of its creation" (2 Ne. 2:12). It is a fact that we can neither grow spiritually nor thereby be truly happy unless and until we make wise use of our moral agency. Yet God will not "force the human mind" even in order to cause us to serve and worship Him. (See D&C 29:36.)

Instead, as between good or evil (even with all of their profound and attendant consequences), the scriptures emphasize: "Nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself" (JST, Gen. 2:21; Moses 3:17). Of this fundamental reality the Lord has said, "Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light" (D&C 93:31). Father Lehi gave further expression, saying: "Because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon" (2 Ne. 2:26). Clearly, Jesus' declaration about how the truth can make us free is part of this spiritual equation (see John 8:32).

As with other key, doctrinal scriptures, those verses associated with moral agency are densely packed with meaning at several different levels. Such is surely the case with Lehi's great sermon on agency. Therein he speaks of man's need to choose amid the reality that "there must needs be an opposition in all things" (2 Ne. 2:11). Lehi tells us that this principle operated "even [in] the forbidden fruit" (2 Ne. 2:15). Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has described life's ongoing "opposition" as presenting us with "contending enticements" (Christ and the New Covenant [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1997], p. 202).

This "competition" is real, but without such alternatives our agency would be meaningless. In fact, without agency there could be no felicity or happiness. Hence, man really remains "free to choose liberty and eternal life . . . or . . . captivity and death" (2 Ne. 2:27). Thus the availability of "contending enticements" is necessary in order that man can truly act for himself, while being "enticed by the one or the other" (2 Ne. 2:16).

Granted, we usually think of enticements as being associated with evil, but there can be enticing desires for righteousness, too. Therefore, King Benjamin pleads for us to follow "the enticings of the Holy Spirit" (Mosiah 3:19). Of course, the adversary has totally different motives when he entices us, striving to have us become "miserable like unto himself." (2 Ne. 2:27).

Without any real choices and without the capacity for differentiation along with "opposition," things would form, just as Lehi said, an undifferentiated "compound in one" (2 Ne. 2:11). If this had been the result, the earth would have "no purpose in the end of its creation" (2 Ne. 2:12) there would be no real existence (see D&C 93:30).

Perhaps the imagery of a "compound in one" is intended to connote a hypothetical blending that loses any distinctiveness. In any case, the scriptural phrase "compound in one," with its litany of opposites, makes clear all that would thereby be lost; we would get nothing! In effect, things would "remain as dead" (2 Ne. 2:11).

So there is a clear friction between agency and opposition, but it is a necessary friction, if we are to progress. Hence knowing the truth about divine standards and then choosing aright is essential to our growth and happiness and freedom, but we will feel the friction! Moreover, if things were in a "compound in one," we could not learn from our mortal experiences, because we would not experience the opposites. Furthermore, we could not be held accountable either, because no real and clear choices would be before us, given the "compound" circumstance. Individuality would be inert!

In the family tree of doctrines pertaining to the plan of salvation, therefore, moral agency is root and branch. If things had formed a "compound in one," as Lehi further declared, we could not really "act for [ourselves]" but we would inertly be "acted upon."

It is ironic that those who wrongly choose to celebrate their capacity to feel grossly—slavish sensation seekers—eventually become "past feeling" anyway, producing an outcome of insensibility; the very outcome so much to be avoided in Father's plan (1 Ne. 17:45; Moro. 9:20; 2 Ne. 2:11). Yet some end up doing indirectly what the Lord's plan forbade directly!

Without the plan's saving arrangement there could be no righteousness, no wickedness, no holiness, no misery, no good, and no bad. Indeed, there could be no plan of happiness, because full happiness depends upon our deliberate choosing of individual righteousness. This primacy of agency in the plan["answer [s] the ends of the atonement," which mercifully permits us to choose to repent (2 Ne. 2:10). In God's plan, formed before the world was, the terms of specific punishment are "affixed," and likewise are the conditions of happiness (2 Ne. 2:10; Alma 42:18; 22).

As BYU professor David Paulsen has thoughtfully written of the mortal experience: "Without moral righteousness, there is no happiness; without significant moral freedom, there is no moral righteousness; without an opposition (opposing possibilities to choose between), there is no significant moral freedom. Thus, happiness and opposition are essentially related." (November 1994 letter.)

Since it is only out of righteous choices that character and happiness come, Samuel, the Lamanite, speaks of the futility of happiness being sought by "doing iniquity." He declares such an approach is not only spiritually wrong but also intellectually naive, being "contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head." (Helaman. 13:38.) Therefore, happiness is actually not obtainable in doing iniquity any more than it is obtainable without agency. In fact, the "carnal state" is one in which some individuals live "without God in the world"; they have, alas, gone "contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness" (Alma 41:11).

The "nature of happiness" requires us to know about "things as they really are, and . . . things as they really will be" (Jacob 4:13). To be ignorant of the soaring realities of God's plan is, in one degree or another, to "live without God in the world," which lifestyle is so desensitizing and depriving (Eph. 2:12; Mosiah 27:31). No wonder the scriptures, instead, speak of our need to become "alive in Christ" (2 Ne. 25:25).

As to our so savoring of life, several scriptures use the word taste, as when some did "taste of exceeding joy" (Alma 36:24). Other and almost exclamatory words appear elsewhere involving both taste and sight:

And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. (1 Ne. 8:11.)
Alma even blends the senses, speaking of having "tasted" light, meaning to have "experienced" light (Alma 32:35). Mormon speaks of having "tasted of the goodness of Jesus" (Morm. 1:15; Alma 36:26). "Taste," in the spiritual sense, involves the capacity to savor joy, sweetness, goodness, and light, for they are "discernible." But such would simply not be possible if things were in a "compound in one" (Alma 32:35; 2 Ne. 2:11).

Even so, we are not only to possess the capacity to discern and distinguish thusly; we are also to use our agency so that we come to prefer, and even strongly desire, the taste of gospel goodness, sweetness, and joy. This is part of educating the tastebuds of the soul. And we happily note that what is discernible by one individual is also verifiable in the very same ways by another, as is well described in Alma chapter 32.

Thus the correct use of agency empowers as well as enlivens us spiritually! In contrast, how does one "taste" or draw nourishment from a tasteless "compound in one"?

Furthermore, only those who have significantly developed the tastebuds of the soul will be even partially prepared for the incredible beauties of the world ahead, one in which "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, . . . the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Cor. 2:9).

Meanwhile, so many fail to connect the joyless sameness of sinners that results in the very joyless insensibility spoken of by Father Lehi. In contrast, the more saintly become ever more tastefully discerning and sensitive; they are filled with more joy. In fact, the very concept of a "compound in one" rejects the discerning differentiation made possible by increasing saintliness.

For instance, if in daily life we assault our ears with sounds that are not truly music, we may lose our capacity to distinguish beautiful music from mere noise, another type of "compound in one." One note does not a symphony make!

So it is that the wise use of agency is linked not only with accountability but also with beauty and felicity. Without developing that distinguishing capacity that goes with wisely used agency, we would be like the undiscerning who anciently heard "the voice of God," but thought it was merely thunder (John 12:29). How sad not to even recognize His voice, let alone not to hear what God had to say! Clearly those who "know not the mind of God" have not only failed to develop the "mind of Christ" but they also lack the ears to hear! (See 1 Cor. 2:16.)

In the mortal process of choosing, we ourselves determine what our own prevailing desires are. No wonder, therefore, President Joseph F. Smith spoke about the need for us to engage in "the education of our desires" (see Gospel Doctrine [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939], p.297). In the use of our agency we are fundamentally sovereign. Given the constant and basic role of our desires, a significant portion of real discipleship consists of the "education of our desires." If we are meek, our capacity to learn from our experiences will reflect how we educate our desires, even in the hard experiences. After all, it is we, individually, who shape our desires and determine to which of the "contending enticements" we will finally respond and from which we will experience happiness.

Thus, given God's plan and agency's vital role in it, we must ever be on guard against today's trends and patterns, however carefully they are camouflaged, in which operative agency is severely diminished, such as when some seek to avoid or to deny personal accountability or to say there are really no fixed values. Ethical relativism can thereby lead to a type of a "compound in one" by an undifferentiated life or simply by ruling out moral absolutes and thereby encouraging every man to walk in his own way (D&C 1:16; see also Judg. 21:25; 2:10).

There is a deep irony in the sameness of sinners who think they are individualistic. They have given away, at least temporarily, their agency and their capacity for joy, living life on a single plane; or, more descriptive still, some march like lemmings down the slope to the gulf of misery.

The ultimate consequences will be real and harsh, because

That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still. (D&C 88:35.)
A powerful magnetism is thus quietly at work in what at first may seem to be mere philosophical differences. Nevertheless, these result in converging and sad consequences: "And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin" (2 Ne. 2:13). Those who deny the existence of any absolutes in their own ways fulfill this scripture, as situational ethics prevail.

Yet with all that has just been said, it is easy for us to agree to the vital role of agency in the abstract but much harder to be fully appreciative of agency in the rough and tumble of life. For example, some struggle and even despair over the human consequences of misused agency, because of the global and individual suffering it causes. Some even try to push away all they can of the burdens of choosing, giving away all of the proxies they can. Some demand as evidence of His existence that God intervene to stop the terrible consequences of our bad choices.

Once again, the wisdom of President Joseph F. Smith comes to the fore. He observed of human suffering that nevertheless God "permits" choices to be made by humans of which He clearly doesn't approve (see Improvement Era 20 [July 1917]: 821).

Besides, without an "opposition in all things," where are the isometrics required for individual development, such as when the new self is pitted against the old? Consider this simple illustration by scientist Alan Hayward of behavior when forced by "compulsory means":

Suppose for a moment that God made His presence felt all the time—that every action of ours, good or bad, brought an immediate response from Him in the form of reward or punishment. What sort of a world would this be then?

It would resemble, on a grander scale, the dining room of a hotel . . . where I once stayed for a few days. The European owner evidently did not trust his . . . waiters. He would sit on a raised platform at one end of the room, constantly watching every movement. Goods that might possibly be pilfered, such as tea bags, sugar knobs and even pats of butter or margarine, were doled out by him in quantities just sufficient for the needs of the moment. He would scrutinize every bill like Sherlock Holmes looking for signs of foul play.

The results of all this supervision were painfully obvious. I have stayed in many hotels around the world . . . but never have I met such an unpleasant bunch of waiters as in that hotel. Their master's total lack of trust in them had warped their personalities. As long as he was watching they acted discreetly, but the moment they thought his guard was down they would seize the opportunity to misbehave.

In much the same way, it would ruin our own characters if God's presence were as obvious as that of the [hotel owner]. This would then be a world without trust, without faith, without unselfishness, without love—a world where everybody obeyed God because it paid them to do so. Horrors! (God Is [New York: Thomas Nelson, 1978], p. 134.)

If instead, speaking hypothetically, the Lord were to show His power constantly, as some mortals wrongfully wish Him to do, our lot would be one of prompt punishment rather than divine love and long-suffering. God would then silence all opposition, but He would not be an all-loving God. He would have destroyed His own plan of happiness! Such enforced cooperation would not produce a society of illuminated individuality but, rather, an indistinguishable "compound in one" (2 Ne. 2:11). We would then have an enforced and an undifferentiated "salvation," an outcome rejected so long ago (Moses 4:1). People might even think they were "saved," just as murdering Cain thought he was "free"!

No wonder that for a host of reasons Satan seeks to "destroy the agency of man"! (Moses 4:3.)

While God has yet to tell us all the implications, if things were to be in a "compound in one" we can be certain that in such blobbishness and lumpiness there would be no prospect that "men . . . might have joy" (2 Ne. 2:25).

Meanwhile, therefore, we are left to "do according to [our] own will" (Mosiah 2:21), so "that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment" (D&C 101:78). Hence fairness, as well as happiness, is deeply involved!

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has observed insightfully that "the word probation is found only ten times in the Standard Works, and nine of those references are in the Book of Mormon" (Christ and the New Covenant, p. 209). We can't get very far in understanding life and God's purposes without our understanding this "probation" portion of God's plan of happiness. Advocacy and judging by Jesus are thus implicit! Probation is clearly linked to our using mortal time well by becoming wisely experienced in the use of our agency. Clearly these immense truths about agency are among the "plain and precious things" restored (see 1 Ne. 13:26-29).

Each mortal, at least initially, has "the light of Christ" to guide (Alma 29:14; Moro. 7:19; D&C 88:7). This light can prompt us, if we will, in the wise use of our agency. If, however, it is extinguished or severely diminished, we are at risk. Thus, to help us with our agency, God gives us our consciences and, for some, the great gift of the Holy Ghost. Furthermore, God is long- suffering and redemptive as He works with us. But we are personally and finally accountable for our wrong choices, which, alas, bring misery not only to ourselves, but to others as well.

Thus, in His plan of happiness the love of God meets the agency of man in so many ways. These touching points we cannot now fully diagram; we cannot yet connect all the dots all of the time! But the outline is clearly there!

The comforting key to dealing with our mistakes is Jesus' great atonement, by means of which, if we repent, we can achieve the needed reconciliation and emancipation. Even though we may not now fully comprehend the marvelous and glorious atonement, we can, nevertheless, experience it in goodly measure. We can do this while simultaneously educating our desires and experiencing and succeeding against opposition, as we strive "to apply the atoning blood of Christ" (Mosiah 4:2).

In any case, the deeper our understanding of the role of agency becomes, the deeper our gratitude will be for it, including our much greater appreciation for the tremendous and redeeming restraint exercised by our loving Father as He watches His erring children.

Of course our individual patterns of genes, circumstances, and environments matter very much, for these do impinge upon us and do shape us and our choices significantly. Yet there remains an inner zone in which we are accountably sovereign. In this zone lies the essence of our individuality. Furthermore, we have been developing, as ourselves, for a long, long time. Though we do not have all the revealed details, the intimations are there in the revelations and are also there in such instructive words as these from President Joseph Fielding Smith:

If the Lord declares that intelligence, something which we do not fully understand, was co-eternal with him and always existed, there is no argument that we can or should present to contradict it. Why he cannot create intelligence is simply because intelligence, like time and space, always existed. (Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co. 1957-66], 3:125.)
In fact, we were with God in the beginning (D&C 93:29). In contrast, there is the widely held concept of an "out of nothing" creation—with all of its agency-reducing implications. This errant teaching confronts its adherents with a severe dilemma about human suffering and about God's character, as pointedly put by one commentator:
We cannot say that [God] would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God [who creates all things absolutely—i.e., out of nothing] must be an accessory before (and during) the fact to every human misdeed; as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe. (Antony Flew, "Theology and Falsification," in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre [New York: Macmillan, 1955], p. 107.)
No wonder it is so vital to understand God's soaring character and his felicitous purposes by better understanding our agency! George MacDonald observed of the contracted view of God held by so many, "I suspect a great part of our irreligion springs from our disbelief in the humanity of God" (The Miracles of Our Lord [London: Strahan and Co., 1870], p. 265). Beliefs do have consequences. Failure to understand both the character and the purposes of God can lessen the religious feelings of individuals!

In fact, while God has given us so many enabling gifts in addition to the gift of life, the only real gift we can actually give Him is to submit our will to His (Mosiah 15:7; Mosiah 3:19). Therefore, if a plan opposite to the Lord's plan had prevailed, it would not only have abrogated our agency; it would also have prevented us from giving God the one precious gift, our wills! It is the only one we can really give to Him that is not already His!

In the final judgment we will receive what we deserve; but meanwhile, God will not "force the human mind" in order for us to receive what could have been otherwise. Hence one's misused agency can inexorably create a pattern of choices pointed towards misery instead of felicity. Even the first tiny droplets of decision suggest a direction. Then the little inflecting rivulets come, merging into small brooks, and soon into larger streams; finally one is swept along by a vast river which finally flows into the "gulf of misery and endless wo" (Hel. 5:12).

The choice of outcome is always up to us. Therein lies life's greatest and most persistent challenge: as to our pattern of choices, in which direction do we face?

If we are wise, we will use our daily mortal experience in ways in which "all these things shall give [us] experience and shall be for [our] good" (D&C 122:7).

Brigham Young spoke emphatically about how all of life's daily moments are to be wisely used, however ordinary these moments may seem to be:

It is the aggregate of the acts which I perform through life that makes up the conduct that will be exhibited in the day of judgment, and when the books are opened, there will be the life which I have lived for me to look upon, and there also will be the acts of your lives for you to look upon. Do you not know that the building up of the kingdom of God, the gathering of Israel, is to be done by little acts? You breathe one breath at a time; each moment is set apart to its act, and each act to its moment. It is the moments and the little acts that make the sum of the life of man. Let every second, minute, hour, and day we live be spent in doing that which we know to be right. (In Journal of Discourses, 3:342.)
Hence for serious disciples who would act "in a pleasing way," there are no ordinary people, but likewise there are really no ordinary moments! Moment by moment we are shaped by our choices—large and small. The daily quizzes matter along with the major exams.

Indeed, as to the daily use of our agency, we should daily plead, "Father, help us now to serve Thee in a pleasing way"—especially in the face of our "unnumbered blessings."


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