One of the most important doctrinal points of the LDS Church is the power of choice, called agency or free agency in the Church. In many ways, the entire Plan of Salvation hinges on the power of choice.
“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)
The entire topic of choice and free will did not originate with the LDS Church. For hundreds of years, philosophers and theologians have contemplated the idea of free will, both in a religious and a natural sense. It is not my intention to discuss these ideas, but if you are interested, you can start at Wikipedia on Free Will and Free Will in Theology . I wish to focus my attention to the LDS concept of agency and how we are affected by its use in our lives.
“Man was also in the beginning with God. 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)”
We are taught that there was a war in heaven before the world was. That some chose to follow Satan and were cast out. Those that chose to follow the plan of Our Heavenly Father and Jesus also chose to come to earth, assume a mortal body, and be subjected to the trials of this earth in the hope we would find the Gospel, live a life of obedience and sacrifice and gain our reward to return to live with them throughout eternity. This simple lesson is taught in primary and by the missionaries to investigators. But the power to choose and the possible ramifications of our choices are much more complex and difficult than a simple lesson would indicate.
Every choice we make has consequences associated with it. And while it is assumed that choices are made between good and evil, sometimes choices have to be made between good and good.
“And I, the Lord God, commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. “ (Moses 3:16-17)
When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they were forced to make a choice between two seemingly good things. That of being obedient to the Father and being fruitful and multiplying, thus creating the mortal human race. Luckily for us, they choose the later. But in doing so, they suffered the consequences of their act of obedience by introducing a number of bad things to the world such as death, sin, sickness, suffering, trials, etc. Many good things also happened like happiness, joy, children, blessings, and the ability to choose.
What can we choose?
There are many basis areas when we have almost complete control of our choices. We decide which way to go.
- Many Life Choices – Where to live, where to go to school, what kind of career to have, with whom to associate, who we marry (Gay folks notwithstanding for now), whether or not to have children, etc. Those sort of things.
- Our Morality – What kind of person will we be, law abiding, honest, trustworthy, loyal to others. Much of which is driven by:
- Our Religion and Faith – We can choose whether we will follow a set of religious principles or not. We can choose which religion we want to belong to or identify with and we can choose to be active in that religion or not. We can choose to follow the religion of our parents or we can go in a different direction entirely. We can even choose if we want to believe in God at all or not. I firmly believe that having faith is a choice reinforced by our experiences, both spiritual and temporal. On the other hand, I can also see that not having faith or losing faith can be the result of the same thing. But, I think the key idea is the choice. We can choose to believe in spite of the lack of experiences which reinforce our choice. I know this is hard, but as Paul said,
“faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
We can continue to hope those experiences will come.
- How we react – We can choose how to react to things around us. In spite of the hand which we are dealt (see below), we can let the things we cannot control, control us, or we can choose to take control of our situation and make it better. As a child, this is not always possible or we may not have a sufficient maturity level to fully comprehend it. As an adult, we can gain complete control over most of the circumstances and the ill effects of our life. In some cases, it requires incredibly hard work, sometimes alone or with the help of others, God and our faith, but many people have overcome horrendous circumstances to go on to lead highly productive, happy lives.
What we can’t choose?
While we have this ability to control our choices for most of our lives, there are a few things we cannot choose or where we lose our ability to choose.
- The circumstances of our birth – As far as we know, we do not or cannot choose who our parents will be, the circumstances of our birth, such as where we are born, whether our parents are rich or born, whether they will be good parents, and whether we get to be brought up in the Gospel or not. We cannot always control the health or condition of our physical bodies. We may have chronic problems or physical limitations. It appears we just have to deal with it one way or another.
I’ve always been somewhat bothered by the seeming randomness of it all, whether it is part of God’s plan or just luck, good or bad. And if it is part of God’s plan, why some people never find the gospel in this life? Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? In other words, “Jimmy, you promised!” But can he really deliver? I know we are given trials in this life to help us improve, but some folks just seem to get a disproportionate share.
- The consequences of our own decisions – If we have the complete freedom to choose, we do not have the freedom to choose what happens as a result of many of our choices, good and bad. For example, the economy. We could have done everything right with regard to preparing for a “rainy day” and still suffer some effects of the bad economy we now face, like losing a job. We could have mitigated the effects substantially by following the things we are taught at Church, like having a year’s supply, staying out of debt, saving our money, etc. If we become addicted to drugs, alcohol or other harmful things, we lose the freedom to choose to do it or not do it without a lot of painful effort. If we choose to be dishonest or commit a crime, and get caught, we cannot control our punishment. If we stop following the commandments, turn our back on the church and leave it, we cannot control our eternal consequences. That is, if all we have learned is true. If not, then maybe we will be OK after all.
- The consequences of the decision of others – If God is truly watching over us, then the actions of others should be mitigated by what God has planned for us personally. That is, IF that is the case. But, if God allows the actions of others to affect our lives in spite of “the Plan,” then we are subject to other’s poor choices. Such as we are driving down the road, minding out own business, following all traffic rules and we are hit and killed by another driver, who is not following the rules. That sort of thing happens every day. Part of the Plan? Perhaps so, but we had no choice in the matter. I suppose we could have chosen to stay home and in bed that day. But, as my grandmother used to say, “Who knew?”
There would be some who might say, “well, if you are really in tune with the Holy Ghost, He would warn you that a bad thing might happen and to avoid that spot at that time.” Yeah, right. Yes, it could happen, it might happen, but sometimes does not. Seemingly, good, God-fearing people die all the time under circumstances they did not or could not control. Part of the Plan? Maybe. There are a million other examples I could cite.
As I stated in the beginning, I think choice is among the most important gifts God has given us. We can use it wisely or use it foolishly. Our happiness on this earth and in the eternities seems to depend on the choices we make.
Do you think choice is that important?