Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wife Rule #126: Why I Love Your Mother (to my children) -- Chapter Two: The Agency of Man

They are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency.
--Moses 7:32

A key to understanding God's dealings with His children is the concept of Agency.

The prophet Lehi gave to his son Jacob one of the most profound sermons in all recorded scripture, found in Second Nephi chapter two. One of his primary subjects in this sermon is agency. My dear children, in addition to recommending that you read this yourselves, I want to put it into my own words.

In this chapter, Lehi lays out eternal law as the foundation upon which God exists and operates in our lives (vs. 11-13), and then dwells significantly on the difference between "things to act, and things to be acted upon" (v. 14). It is through agency--the power to truly act, and not just to be acted upon--that mankind's destiny and purpose in creation is found. Agency is not the goal of man's existence, no; rather, it is the means through which man can achieve the ultimate goal of existence. You will never understand the purpose of creation without also understanding agency.

There are at least three pillars upon which agency depends. Like the legs of a three-legged stool, if you take away any one of these three pillars, agency ceases to function and mankind is lowered to the level of the brute beasts. These three pillars are eternal law, choice and accountability, and probation and atonement.

I. Eternal Law

Agency, or "freedom" as it is sometimes called, is greatly misunderstood in our world today because most people don't know that all three pillars must be in place for it to exist. There are those who believe that agency is restricted by applying consequences to our actions. This camp of people are opposed to enacting laws forbidding certain actions such as taking illegal drugs, for example. They feel that "freedom of choice" includes freedom from reaping the consequences of our choices. They feel that in order to increase freedom, we should decrease law. Each of you has expressed this sentiment at one time or another in our family (always when you are in violation of our family "laws," or rules). You protest loudly that "it's not fair" that a consequence should be given when a rule is broken. You can relate to those in the world whom I am talking about.

But in fact, they have it exactly backwards: agency, or "freedom," depends on laws being in place. Without any laws, as Lehi explains, the universe would be "a compound in one... having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility" (2 Nephi 2:11). If there is no line drawn in the sand, then it can't possibly matter where you stand, not having a fixed point to reference your positin from. As the Cheshire Cat replied to Alice in wonderland when she asked him which of two paths to take, "Where do you want to go?" "I don't know," replied Alice. "Then it doesn't matter which path you take" (see Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (New York: William Morrow, 1992), p. 89). Earthly laws based on correct principles of eternal law are essential to the agency of man, and agency is essential to growth.

II. Choice and Accountability

Second, there has always been a camp of men on earth who seek to restrict freedom (agency) by forcing others into making certain choices. Repressive governments seek to control every aspect of their citizens' lives. It is obvious to any rational human being that while certain laws are essential to lay the moral groundwork that establishes a basis for freedom, it is also possible for laws to go too far. It is in the process of understanding law, weighing alternate choices, acting, and experiencing consequences that growth is achieved.

God will teach and explain, but He will never force action. As Lehi explains, "Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself" (2 Nephi 2:16). It is certainly wrong for men to attempt to do what God himself will not do. That is one of the toughest balances for your mother and I to get right in raising you children, but because we have your best interests in mind and desperately want you to eventually grow up and become independent, we provide opportunities for you to make your own choices as your ability to comprehend increases.

A baby makes very few choices and has very little accountability; its parents dress it, move it around, and decide when to put it to bed or get it up. As the baby grows, it gradually takes on more choices, such as what to put in its mouth, where to crawl, etc. Even with this new freedom, certain actions are restricted such as not letting the baby crawl into the street. But as the child grows further, even a place such as a street becomes an opportunity to exercise judgement and make choices. God's working with us is similar: He has given us a tremendous amount of latitude within the parameters He sets up for us according to our abilities. The more we exercise good judgement, the greater the latitude He give us, and the greater our "freedom" or agency becomes.

III. Probation and Atonement

Third, there are those in the world who lose their agency because they become trapped by their pasts. God has provided an escape from our pasts by delaying judgement for our actions, giving us a "probation" to work out our salvation:

"And the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened, according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men. For he gave commandment that all men must repent; for he showed unto all men that they were lost" (2 Nephi 2:21).

Without a space to learn from our choices, and a chance to correct wrong choices, our freedom (agency) would be non-existent and we would be instantly blocked in our progress, or "damned." The prophet Spencer W. Kimball explained it this way:

"If pain and sorrow and total punishment immediately followed the doing of evil, no soul would repeat a misdeed. If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil—all would do good and not because of the rightness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no free agency.... There would also be an absence of joy, success, resurrection, eternal life, and godhood" (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (1982), 77).

For example, suppose your mother and I always rewarded you with a cookie for every good choice you made. You would either grow very fat, or learn to hate cookies, but you would certainly not learn to make good choices for their own merits. We would stunt your growth by spoiling you.

Likewise, if your mother and I sent you to Time Out forever the first time you broke a family rule, it would be very difficult for you to grow and develop as you should. The fact that we have a space for repentance--to change our actions in accordance with eternal law--is essential to our growth and progress.

It would all be meaningless, however, if repentance were not possible. This is where the "good news" of the gospel comes into play. God sent his Son, the only perfect man to ever walk the earth, to become a ransom for us, a mediator between us and the eternal law of justice, which cannot be violated. Justice demands consequences for every choice, and having a mediator who is able to pay the demands of justice introduces the eternal law of mercy into the equation, enabling us to rise again after we fall.

Alma 34:16 explains, "And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption."

This plan of redemption, another name for the plan of salvation, hinges on the Savior coming to earth and through His suffering for our sins and breaking the bands of death, redeeming us from the fall. It also hinges on us having a chance (or a probationary time) to repent and take advantage of what He offers us.

As Lehi explained in 2 Nephi 2:

24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And 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, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.
27 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 liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
28 And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;

The gospel of Jesus Christ truly is "good news," and it brings increased freedom to all who learn of it. In fact, knowing the gospel plan is the only way that mankind can achieve complete freedom and attain the full measure of agency available here on earth. That is why it is essential that the whole world be given the gospel message.

You, my children, are free. You have been provided with a full measure of the three essential pillars of agency: you know the law because your mother and I have taken great care to teach you; you have the ability to make choices and we try to make you accountable for those choices; and you have the chance to repent and change because Jesus Christ died for you. You know these truths, and you can exercise your agency to your own salvation if you so choose.

And what exactly is that salvation? To have any hope of understanding that, and how it relates to the love I have for your mother, we must better understand our relationship to God. And in order to do that, we must first understand what God is like.

Part two of a twelve-chapter essay. Read more: Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 | Ch 5 | Ch 6 | Ch 7 | Ch 8 | Ch 9 | Ch 10 | Ch 11 | Epilogue

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