We have never, since the beginning of time, been compelled to do or be good. We have always been invited to do, or become good. This holds true going all the way back to our the pre-earth life. The essential principle that guides our relationship with God and our progression to be more like him is Agency. It is a divine gift. We will never be compelled to action by God. He invites, inspires, petitions, prompts, nudges, beckons, teaches and leads.
In the Book of Moses we learn more about what happened in the preexistence when this gift that God had already given us, was threatened. Lucifer wanted to force or compel obedience, at the expense of agency, in order to guarantee that, “one soul shall not be lost” (Moses 4:1). We also learn what became of him, at least in part, because of his desire to take away this essential gift.
“Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him …. I caused that he should be cast down;”
So, why is Agency so crucial?
Agency, or our freedom to choose, allows for the growth and development of Godly characteristics. No one is compelling God to be God. His character is who He is. He is pure. He is authentic. He is love, He is charity. He is perfect. Because He is pure and perfect, in order for us to become like him, we must develop his attributes. This simply cannot be forced or compelled.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure…” (Moroni 7:48)
It’s like when I was a kid, my brothers and I would be caught fighting and smashing each other’s faces in the carpet. When this happened, my mom, following the mom code, broke up the fight, and subsequently compelled us to hug each other and say two good things about the other, inevitably “you’re good”, and “you’re nice”. During those moments, I didn’t really feel sorry. I didn’t really feel that my sibling opponent of the moment was actually good or was actually nice. It wasn’t real. Unfortunately, it was not yet in my character to feel it, or even say it. It wasn’t who I really was to give that hug, and say those things. We were a perfect live example of…
“…for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. [if] he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift…If he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.” (Moroni 7:6-9)
It was, however, teaching us how we should be.
We gain greater power, or growth when we freely choose faith, and when we freely choose to believe in and follow God and his plan of happiness. This progression and spiritual growth is stunted and inhibited or even reversed when we are compelled to action. Elder Tad Callister wrote, ”There exists an eternal principle—the greater the agency, the greater the opportunity for growth.” (The Blueprint of Christ’s Church)
This growth begins as a result of a desire or yearning to be with our Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ. To be with them, however, requires us to be more like them. This seedling desire then can steer our daily decisions and influence our actions. Our personal desires to emulate our Savior and His character can effect how we view and treat ourselves, our spouses, our own families, and everyone else around us.
We all know the Book of Mormon story of Nephi and the brass plates. Nephi had exhausted all his options to fulfill the Lord’s commandments to obtain the brass plates from their wicked owner, Laban. One night, while following the promptings of the Spirit, Nephi was led to a drunk Laban lying alone in the street. In that moment, he was prompted to slay Laban. He was faced with an enormously difficult situation. The choice before him was to follow the directive of the spirit and slay Laban, or shrink, and disobey. This Laban also happened to be the same man that had stolen his family’s property, threatened them, and even attempted to have Nephi and his brothers killed in their previous attempts to obtain the brass plates.
I imagine the natural man in Nephi had some strong feelings about Laban at that moment. I imagine he might have struggled to know if the promptings he had felt to kill Laban were actually from the Spirit, or if they might have been his own. Nephi had to decide —to obey the voice of the Spirit, or disobey. He would either slay Laban and obtain the plates, or question, doubt, and shrink. I imagine it would have been enormously difficult to trust the feelings and promptings in his heart.
He took eight full verses to explain these feelings and the honest and difficult conversation he had with the Spirit. Ultimately, he made his choice. He stated, “I did obey the voice of the Spirit” (1 Nephi 4:18)
I imagine this experience with the whisperings of the spirit taught Nephi a great deal bout how to recognize these intimate promptings of the Spirit. I imagine he learned to trust in God more fully. I imagine this experience effected and guided Nephi with his future choices.
If we fast forward just a few more pages in the Book of Mormon, we learn about the time that Nephi broke his bow while his family was traveling in the wilderness. This fine steel bow had been the only means by which his entire family could obtain food. No bow, no hunt, no food. The family dinner situation had just taken a very bad turn. Even his father Lehi, the Prophet, was complaining. So in this terrible situation, how did Nephi’s past experiences guide his decisions?
“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make out of wood a bow, and out of a straight stick, an arrow; wherefore, I did arm myself with a bow and an arrow, with a sling and with stones. And I said unto my father: Whither shall I go to obtain food?” (1 Nephi 16:23)
His previous experience had taught him to trust in God. It had helped him build the faith and character that could now trust God enough to fashion a handmade wooden bow, and a single arrow, not a quiver of arrows, but a single arrow, and faithfully and confidently head into the wilderness for food. That is complete trust. Nephi level faith and trust is not built in a day, or built upon desperation or compelled humility. It is built upon consistent righteous choices and experiences over time.
Just like Nephi, our own righteous choices today build the character we need to influence our choices and actions tomorrow.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of agency and its practical influence in our lives, is when we attempt to honor it as parents when raising our children. At what point do we step back and allow our kids to exercise their gift? When are we teaching, inviting, or beckoning, and when are we mandating, compelling, and forcing?
I won’t attempt an answer here, as I am still working on this one. Im also not sure where the mom code section about making fighting kids hug each other fits either. I do know, however, that our Father in Heaven lost 1/3 of his children before they even came to earth. He, a perfect Father, still would not compel his children to obey, even at the expense of losing their opportunity to gain a physical body, partake in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and have a chance at Eternal life.
When we look for an example of a perfect parent, we should look to Him, even when we see our kids choose something other than what we would have them choose. We have to remember that real growth only happens when it is preceded by a free choice.
When we freely choose the right, it means that we have aligned our desire and will to God’s desire and will.
Our choices become a way to test or trigger our own spiritual development.
Our choices become consequences of the character we have developed
Our choices become an outward expression of who we really are, and act as stepping stones in our attempts to develop Godly attributes.
In Hymn number 240 “Know This, That Every Soul Is Free” the lyrics describe this concept perfectly.
Know this, that ev’ry soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is giv’n:
That God will force no man to heav’n.
He’ll call, persuade, direct aright,
And bless with wisdom love and light
In nameless ways be good and kind,
But never force the human mind.
During the earthly ministry of the Savior, he continued to honor the principle of Agency. He never mandated compliance with his Gospel. He taught and lead by perfect example. He loved, taught, then invited…
“Wherefore, Hear my voice and follow me, and you shall be a free people…”
(Doctrine and Covenants 38:22)
To the rich young man he beckoned, “…If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mathew 16:24)
If we choose to follow the Savior, his Gospel, and his law, He will receive us, heal us, and bless us.
He demonstrated this with the 5,000 who would eventually experience the miracle of the bread and fishes…
“And the people, when they knew it, followed him: and he received them, and spake unto them of the kingdom of God, and healed them that had need of healing.” (Luke 9:11)
In this same way, and still honoring the gift of agency, we are all invited to follow the Savior even today through the teachings of living prophets and apostles. Living Prophets have encouraged the people to exercise their divine gifts of agency and make the choice to follow God from the very beginning…
The Prophet Enoch was instructed to tell the people …
“Choose ye this day, to serve the Lord God who made you.” (Moses 6:33)
Joshua famously encouraged, “…Choose you this day whom ye will serve; … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)
Today we are experiencing an extension of this same timeless invitation. We have been encouraged to Come unto Christ and come to know him primarily in the safety and security of our own homes. Through his prophet the Lord is inviting us, once again, to…
Come unto Him, to “Learn of [Him] and listen to [his] words, to walk in the meekness of [His] Spirit,… [that we] shall have peace in [Him].” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:23)
The name of the program we now have to study is perfectly named. Our Savior still, as he did in days long ago, opens his arms and invites all of us to “Come, and Follow Me” (Mathew 19:21) and it now becomes our choice, our decision to either follow, or not.
I hope that we all, as individuals, make the choice to accept the Savior’s invitation to follow Him, to learn of Him, and find the peace that only He can bring. As our own testimonies grow, our responsibility is then to strengthen our own families and our own homes. We can make them sanctuaries of peace in an ever more chaotic world. As we ourselves, and as families, choose to be more committed and converted to Jesus Christ and His gospel, we then have the responsibility to invite, encourage, beckon, and lead others along their path towards Him.
Freely choosing to follow and be with our Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ, and to ultimately become like them is the goal.
I hope that we all choose this day to accept the invitation, and follow Him.