A long time ago, when we were just “intelligences that were organized before the world was,”1 God said “we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.”2 He (God) knew that the best way for us to learn and “to progress toward perfection”3 was to go to a place far away – called earth – “to obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience”.4 His method for us to progress towards perfection? By letting us be enticed by two opposite forces, and then allowing us to choose for ourselves.
The lord has told us (more than once) “thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee,”5 and even indicated the principal reason that Satan was cast down was that he “sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him”6. Agency, or the ability to choose7, is a pretty big deal “therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves.”8 And in case we don’t really know if that’s true, let’s add some reinforcements: “men are free to choose,”9 “ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves”10 and “Let every man choose for himself”.11 The scriptures repeatedly teach us that we are indeed free to choose.
We – as human beings – are therefore in a class all by ourselves. We are moral agents, meaning we can choose to act all on our own. We’ve heard this a million times, but do we fully understand what it means?
For us to be held morally accountable for any of our actions, there must be two conditions present:
- We must have (or had) the law to know it is moral
- We must have the ability to freely choose
We reviewed item number two above by citing five different scripture passages indicating that we are indeed free to choose, or that we have the ability to choose (given by God), but do we have the law or the knowledge to do so? Let’s read the rest of Hel. 14:30-31, which answers our question “behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free. He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose.” In a single sentence, we are informed (twice) that both conditions are satisfied – which means we are absolutely moral agents unto ourselves. And if that weren’t enough, we could also include more of 2 Ne. 2:26-27 which states that “they (us) have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not be acted upon… wherefore, men are free according to the flesh, and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose”. But for good measure, let’s add one more (again from a passage already cited) in Moses 7:32 “behold these thy brethren (us); they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them… gave I unto man his agency”. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the very scriptures that indicate that we have agency, also outline that we have the law, meaning both conditions are met.
So, we may be thinking to ourselves, “I get it, we know the law and we can choose”, but what is it that we can choose? Is it just a choice between good and evil or right and wrong or any other opposite? To understand the answer to that question, we need to go back and look at our first required condition above: moral law.
We have the ability to choose (moral agency) according to right and wrong, not just once or when it happens to be a big decision, but within the entire set of moral laws, which by the way is not short. This list of moral laws is all of the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt not’s” – yes, all of them (that includes all of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ the, ‘please do’ and ‘please don’ts’ given by prophets and leaders through the years). Just run through your mind quickly all the various times the Lord (or his leaders) have given us guidance on things we ‘should’ or ‘should not do’. There’s only about 5 million of them sprinkled throughout the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, 185 sessions of General Conference, a bazillion issues of the Ensign, endless devotionals, talks, speeches, books, lds.org, and all of those things are on the list. It’s not a short list, but these things make up the entire set of moral law.
Let’s start with an example; “thou shalt not kill”. In order for us to be truly moral agents, we must 1) know that this is the law, and 2) have the ability to freely choose to obey or disobey it. So far so good right? Now, let’s review one of the most classic scriptures in all of the Book of Mormon “I know that the Lord giveth no commandments (moral laws) unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”12 Further; God “did provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he commanded them”13 and the Lord himself said “I will provide means whereby thou mayest accomplish the thing which I have commanded thee.”14 That’s three confidence bolstering reaffirmations that we have the capability (or the way will be prepared) to complete each and every one of the ‘should’ or ‘should not’s’ on the moral law list. All of them.
Despite the gentle and loving enticements from the Savior for all of us to choose good, and despite the preparatory means that are ever present helping us to make good choices, we have sadly seen the downside (or the necessary opposite) of this truth in our society throughout all of history. Because the precious gift of agency (moral choice) has been extended to all mankind, it is not and will not nor can it be denied to all mankind.15 Some people choose to “not” kill, while some people choose to kill. It is just part of the deal. For agency to be agency, and for it to be available for everyone – it has to be this way. Once cannot say, I will give you free agency unless you try and make a bad choice – then I won’t allow it. That’s not agency – that’s coercion and lack of true moral agency (see condition number 2 above). That kind of thinking is exactly what got Satan kicked out of heaven. Let that thought kick through your mind the next time you ask “Why does God allow stuff like this to happen”? It’s because he is the most loving and kind and gracious (and perfectly trustworthy and just) God who has given us the gift of agency and will not rescind that gift even if there are some who abuse it. He will allow men to choose for themselves – even when it’s a gruesome and horrific choice to follow evil. If he didn’t allow this none of us would have the chance to be truly free. He even allowed Lucifer to use his God given agency to try and take away the very gift of agency from all of us. That is someone who sticks to a true principle no matter what.
Let us remember that those who choose to kill (or violate any law) are agents unto themselves, because they have the knowledge of the law, and the ability to choose it – meaning both conditions are satisfied which negates any and all claims that there is an uncontrollable force, basic human nature, environmental factors, or any other number of (supposedly good) reasons for choosing poorly because the fact of the matter is that we all have the God given ability to choose the right. We (that’s every last one of us) cannot excuse ourselves from the commandment (law) on the grounds that we are unable, or that the opposing feelings are too strong, or that boundaries set by the Lord are unrealistic (or too stringent). If we start to feel that way, please remember the scriptures listed above that god prepares a way for all of us to obey any commandment (law) given. Why would he ask us to do something we can’t do? He wouldn’t and he doesn’t. That doesn’t mean he won’t ask us to do hard things – because he will, but he will never ask us to do something that we cannot do. So, the next time we are tempted to say, “I can’t do that”, let’s understand that what we are really saying is “I choose not to do that”, or maybe even “I choose not to even try, because that would be really hard and uncomfortable.”
That example (thou shalt not kill) was pretty straightforward and easy for most of us. I don’t think I’ve ever really struggled with that one (knock on wood). But what about some of the moral laws that we’ve been given that we may not even think about being moral laws? Such moral laws that we may have considered optional recommendations or encouragements – like good feelings? “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another”16 or feelings of persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness, and love unfeigned.17 The scriptures also condemn feelings of anger: “Can ye be angry and not sin? Let not the sun go down upon your wrath,”18 or other emotions of a similar quality: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.”19 This idea indicates that our emotions (not just anger, but all of them) must be matters of agency, otherwise how could we “choose” to give them up and/or choose to change how we feel to obey the law? All of those things that we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do are on the moral law list – all of them.
Some of us who are used to the idea that emotions (or feelings) are just characteristics of our personality that we were born with, or our feelings are just products of our environment may be troubled by this, yet the scriptures only condemn a person’s [present] condition, not the person, and the scriptures simply reject emotions of a certain quality encouraging us to ‘make a choice’ using our agency. Emotions are symptoms of our spiritual condition at any given moment, not some unchangeable feature of our personality or inescapable characteristic of our ‘human nature’.20
With that understanding, can we then understand the implications of the full range of our agency and ability to choose? It’s not just a choice between killing or not killing someone. It’s not just choosing to obey a commandment or not. It is a very real choice of every single emotion, act, intention, and thought as we navigate this earthbound experience to which we are subjected. It’s also never “someone else’s” fault how we feel.
Now that we are sufficiently buried under the monumental heap of moral expectations, let’s add the weight of the bazillion things on ‘the moral law list’, which as we’ve learned includes how I feel about the list and how I react to other people’s emotions, and the myriad of stressful situations and people that we interact with all day long. Then we start to feel discouraged about the list, only to realize that by becoming discouraged or anxious or unfriendly I am ‘choosing’ an unhelpful emotion and am therefore ‘choosing’ things I ‘should not’ and….. oh man (set this cycle on repeat).
Let’s take a deep breath, count to ten, gather ourselves, and then re-read Colby’s recent post on grace. Because without a correct understanding of it (grace) – there is no way that anyone can reconcile themselves with their performance (choosing) of items on ‘the list’ without getting buried. We’ve all been there and the moment that you reach your breaking point with an exasperated groan – you’ve made it. You’ve maxed out and you’ve failed at being perfect. Welcome to the “tried really hard but failed to be perfect” club. Please note that this club is populated by amazing people like Joseph Smith, Gordon B. Hinckley, Peter, Nephi, Moroni, and everybody else you’ve ever met in the whole world.
So what are we going to do?
First, let’s all realize that we have arrived in the exact place where the Lord wants us – non-perfection (also called mortality and many other things). He wants us to have a ‘broken heart’ and a ‘contrite spirit’, so that we can look to him, admire him and be super impressed by his perfect life and example, and then partner with him by helping someone else who has found themselves in the same non-perfect place that we are in. Second, we should remember (while we are in this state) the crucial difference between means and ends because ‘the moral law list’ is not the ends, it’s only the means to the best ends.21 Third, lets remember that the lord told us that “his yoke is easy and his burden is light”22 and that if we choose to yoke ourselves with the savior, it will come to pass, that “[he] will ease the burdens which are put upon [our] shoulders, that even [we] cannot feel them upon [our] backs… and this will [he] do that [we] may stand as witnesses for [him] hereafter, and that [we] may know of a surety that [he], the Lord God, does visit [his] people in their afflictions.”23
Perhaps the primary reason that constant opposition is so necessary and welcomed is because of how quickly and deeply the saviors succoring can be felt in our hearts during those times – if we “choose” to welcome him, and because he desires to spend so much quality time with us, that he keeps knocking on the door asking for us to let him in.
1 Abr. 3:22
2 Abr. 3:25
3 The Family a Proclamation to the World, paragraph 3.
4 Ibid. (paragraph 3).
5 Moses 3:17
6 Moses 4:3, see also Moses 7:32
7 Agency is described in ‘The Guide to the Scriptures’ as “the ability and privilege God gives people to choose and to act for themselves.” I also like Richard G. Scott’s definition of agency; which is “our ability to make decisions and to become accountable for those decisions”. (See his conference address from October 2014 “Make the Exercise of Faith your First Priority”). See also the entirety of D. Todd Christofferson’s talk “Free Forever, to Act for Themselves” from the October 2014 general conference. In each of these two citations, it is clear that an inseparable companion to the gift of agency is the responsibility and/or accountability of the consequences or results that inevitably follow our choices.
8 2 Ne. 10:23
9 2 Ne. 2:27
10 Hel. 14:30
11 D&C 37:4
12 1 Ne. 3:7
13 1 Ne. 17:3
14 D&C 5:34
15 I don’t mean that rights and privileges and freedoms (true agency) can’t be taken away, because they can, but this loss of agency is usually the penalty for a previous choice (IE murder, theft, drug use, etc. result in incarceration or imprisonment) and in that sense can be termed a ‘consequence’ of their previous choice – and that they have “chosen” to limit their agency all on their own. See note 9 above.
16 Eph. 4:32
17 See D&C 121:41-42
18 JST Eph. 4:36
19 Eph. 4:31, see also JST Matt. 5:24
20 The idea in these two paragraphs (related to emotions as a moral choice) come from chapter 4, “Chastity and Fidelity in Marriage and Family Relationships” by Terrance D. Olson found in the Strengthening our Families, and In-Depth Look at the Proclamation on the Family.
21 The numerous things on the list can and should be seen as “the means”, or “the load” as Elder Bednar explains so well in “Bear up Their Burdens with Ease” from April 2014 General Conference.
22 Matt. 11:29-30
23 Mosiah 24:14, see also 1 Ne. 20:10
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