Agency and the Freedom to Choose

A father playing with his sons by the beach

When I was nine years old, some friends and I decided that we wanted to grow sideburns and a mustache. We didn’t know how to do it at first, but then one of our friends told us that all we had to do was start shaving. So, I snuck into my father’s bathroom, found his razor, and shaved my face. After a couple of days, my father caught me shaving. He was not angry, but he explained that it was dangerous for me to be playing with his razor and that someday I would need to shave for real, but not now. Notwithstanding my father’s counsel, I secretly kept shaving.

Then one afternoon, I slipped while handling the razor and cut my lip. When my father got home from work, he noticed the cut and asked how it happened. I told him I fell while playing at school. For a little while, I felt elated because I could keep shaving and grow sideburns and a mustache. But then all I felt was guilt. I’d never lied to my father before. I couldn’t sleep that night and finally got out of bed and walked into the living room of our home. There, sitting on the couch in the dark, was my father. Somehow, he knew I would not be able to sleep or perhaps he had been praying that would be the case. I told him I’d lied to him and that I had cut my lip shaving. He convinced me that my friend’s advice about shaving was nonsense, told me it hurt him more to think that I would lie to him than disobey him and that he still loved me. I have no recollection of ever lying to my father again. I disobeyed him from time to time, but when he caught me, I told him the truth. The entire experience, insignificant as it may seem to you, was a defining moment in my life.

Reflecting on that experience, as well as other similar experiences, causes me to feel tremendous gratitude to our Father in Heaven for the glorious gift of agency, the right we each possess to make choices, right or wrong. But for that agency, I never would have learned that doing wrong causes one to feel sorrow and that doing right causes one to feel joy. Without agency, I would have gone through life feeling and learning nothing of significance and would have exited mortality no different than when I started it. How grateful I am that agency, with its corresponding freedoms and consequences, is, as one author has put it, “the fundamental condition of God’s dealings with His children.”¹

We are free to choose good or evil. It is the existent of agency and opposites that make this earth life so meaningful.

After our Father in Heaven presented the plan of salvation to all His spirit children, a plan firmly rooted in the concept of preserving agency, one-third of the hosts of heaven turned away from Him “because of their agency.”² The price our Father in Heaven paid for preserving our agency was that one-third of his spirit children rejected His plan, supported a plan of coercion rather than agency and opposites, followed Satan, and were cast out of His presence for eternity. One-third of His spirit children’s potential to progress and become like Him was forever lost.

Thankfully, our Father in Heaven did not abandon His plan to allow each of us to progress and become like Him. His plan, which we call the plan of salvation, is the plan that governs our existence on this earth and it is a plan that jealously guards that same agency
we possessed as His spirit children.

On this earth, our Father in Heaven compels no one to listen or obey. He is always there, waiting, hoping, persuading, willing to provide inspired advice, but ultimately the decisions are ours. We are free to choose good or evil. It is the existent of agency and opposites that make this earth life so meaningful. In the Book of Mormon, Lehi’s final words to his son Jacob focused on the principles of agency and opposites. He testified to Jacob that “God gave unto man to act for himself,” that men are “free to choose liberty and eternal life . . . or to choose captivity and death,” and that “it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things.”³ The important question, therefore, is how will we exercise this great gift of agency, a gift that is inherent in a plan that required the infinite suffering voluntary death of His Only Begotten Son.

Shortly after abandoning trying to grow sideburns and a mustache, I became convinced that if I jumped off the roof of our house holding onto a sheet by its four corners, I would gently float to the ground. Thank goodness we lived in a single-story house. No matter what I thought or had hoped would happen, certain laws of nature mandated that I would not float when I jumped off that roof but rather fall like a rock. And I did. My older brothers thought it was funny; I thought it was painful.

So, it is in life. There are laws, in some cases eternal laws, that cannot be altered or canceled just because we want to ignore their consequences. Agency gives us the ability to choose, but not to avoid the consequences of our choices. That is why in the Book of Mormon Alma was so emphatic when he said to his troubled son Corianton, “[W]ickedness never was happiness.”⁴ That is an eternal law. Sin ultimately results in sorrow and unhappiness. We may choose to sin, just as I chose to lie to my father about shaving, but we cannot alter the consequences of our sinful acts. We will be hurt, spiritually and often physically.

What a great blessing it is to have agency, to be responsible for our actions. We did not come to this earth predestined to become or do one thing or another.

The reality is that sin robs us of freedom, not commandments or laws. If we sin and do not repent, we cannot inherit the celestial kingdom; we cannot return to be with our Father in Heaven. Our ability to exercise our agency will be limited by the constraints inherent in the lesser kingdoms we obtain. Only those who choose to conform their lives to the principles of the gospel will have the privilege to exercise fully their agency in the next life. That is why President Joseph F. Smith testified, “There are no freer people upon the face of the earth than the Latter-Day Saints.”⁵

We have no excuses. There is no compulsion in the gospel; there is only agency and opposites. In the words of Samuel the Lamanite: “And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for 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.”⁶

What a great blessing it is to have agency, to be responsible for our actions. We did not come to this earth predestined to become or do one thing or another. There is no truth in the statement, “Well, that’s just the way I am. I can’t change.” We did bring with us to earth those talents and abilities we acquired in the preexistence through the exercise of our agency, but the ability to grow and change did not stop at birth. Rather, it was enhanced through the combining of spirit with flesh to create a living soul. Agency allows us to grow, learn, change, repent, and progress. Surely Jacob, the son of Lehi, was correct when he proclaimed, “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves - to choose.”⁷

1 The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Freedom” (David E. Bohn, author) at 525
2 D&C 29:36
3 2 Nephi 2:11, 16, 27
4 Alma 41:10
5 Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine at 84
6 Helaman 14:30
7 2 Nephi 10:23