The thoughts expressed here are based on an article by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in the June 2009 Ensign.
Free Agency vs Moral Agency
We usually talk of free agency, which is correct, for we are indeed “free to choose” (2 Nephi 2:27). However, the actual phrase ‘free agency’ is not found in the scriptures – ‘moral agency’ is though. Adding the adjective ‘moral’ puts a whole different perspective to our agency – it means that we are people free to choose, but are also responsible for the outcome of our choice. We cannot personally choose the consequence of our actions but we decide the choices we make which lead to the consequences.
What is Moral Agency?
Elder Christofferson then listed three elements of moral agency:
“First, there must be alternatives among what to choose…” – there would be little point in giving freedom to choose if there was nothing to choose from. In 2 Nephi 2:11, Lehi counsels Jacob “there is an opposition in all things. If not so…righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness…” We need these choices in life so that we can learn and grow from the outcomes. These alternatives must also have an outcome, positive or negative, or in some cases both. There must be consequences “the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.” (Alma 42:22) As we have been the Light of Christ, every single one of God’s children, we are responsible for our choices as we sense what kind of outcome there will be.
Now of course, not everyone has a perfect knowledge of what the consequences to all of our actions will be, and some have more knowledge or experience than others. However, this leads onto the next element Elder Christofferson stated – “Second, we must not only have alternatives, but we must also know what they are…If we are unaware of the choices available, the existence of those choices is meaningless to us.” Due to the choice of Adam and Eve, we each have a knowledge of good and evil, therefore “we attain a state of accountability and we can recognise the alternatives before us.” Now, we do have to remember that some have more awareness than others – the Gospel of Jesus Christ illuminates and enhances perspective, making us aware of dangers and pitfalls that Satan has placed along the way. We, therefore, have better use of our moral agency to bring happiness, bringing into context the phrase ‘the truth will set you free’ – we are more able to choose our outcome because we are more aware of the alternatives. Elder Christofferson continued “Many of God’s children fall into unanticipated traps and unhappiness because they either lack or ignore gospel light. They are unaware of their options or are confused about the outcomes of their choices.” – they are limited in their choices.
The final element of moral agency is “Third…the freedom to make choices,” or, put scripturally “ye are free to act for yourselves.” (2 Nephi 10:23). This freedom of choice is a gift from God. Without this freedom to choose, there would be little point in even coming to Earth as all decisions would be made for us. We know that we had this agency as far back as the pre-mortal life, we are told by the Lord in latter-day revelation that “the devil…rebelled against me, saying “Give me thine honour, which is my power; and also a third part of the hosts of heaven turned he away from me because of their agency.” (D&C 29:36) Notice the irony that in order to give up their agency and follow Satan, those of Heavenly Father’s children had to use their agency to decide that. Not only has God given us moral agency, but he “is preserving you day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will…” (Mosiah 2:21) – meaning that He gives us the life we have in which to use this agency…that He has also given us! Now, it must be remembered again that despite the fact we have moral agency, we can not decide the outcome of our actions. Because of this, some would say that we are not free to choose – for example, someone might argue that they would like to steal something they cannot afford, but because there would be negative consequences they aren’t able to choose that. On this point, Elder Dallin H. Oakes said “We are responsible to use our agency in a world f choices. It will not do to pretend that our agency has been taken away when we are ot free to exercise it without unwelcome consequences.” We can still decide to do what we want…we just have to be prepared for the consequences.
A Vital Part of the Plan
Now, to understand the importance of this moral agency again we look back to the Council in Heaven. A couple of points need to be made. First, look at the two plans – Heavenly Father’s and Satan’s. Satan said “…send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it…” (Moses 4:1) Satan offered to save every single one of God’s children – what more could Heavenly Father wnat? Well, one thing actually…moral agency. Our Father in Heaven would rather give His children the choice and lose some from His presence than force everyone to be saved and follow Him. That is one reason we can assume that moral agency is so vital to us. Also, “…there was a war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon…” (Revelation 12:7) – a war was waged to preserve this agency and agency prevailed! Surely we should think carefully how we use this God-given moral agency.
Since that time, Satan has done everything he can to destroy the precious gift of agency we have. He entices God’s children to do things which will take away that agency, things which drive away the Spirit and therefore limit our choices as we are slowly put under Satan’s power. Addictive behaviours, once Satan pulls us onto those paths, diminish our agency as we find we have less power to choose not to partake in them, whatever they may be. In the mind of a person going down the path of addiction, they simply cannot choose not to partake, and moral agency is destroyed. There are also people influenced by Satan who seek to carry out his original plan here on Earth, probably not even realising it! Amalickiah was such a person. In Alma 46:10 it says he did “seek to destroy the Church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty which God had granted unto them…” – those who desire to take away other people’s moral agency to choose are in the world today.
Of course, without this adversity from Satan, as has been said before “righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery…neither good nor bad.” (2 Nephi 2:11) There would be no point in having moral agency if Satan was not there to tempt us. “It must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves…” (D&C 29:39).
The Role of the Saviour and His Gospel in Agency
As always, our Saviour plays a vital role in this. First, He was an upholder of the original plan of happiness, or agency. He said “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” (Moses 4:2). Not only that but, as the Saviour, He makes it possible for us to return to live with our Heavenly Father again. We all sin, we are fallen. No matter how hard we try to exercise our agency for good, we will fail overall. And once we have fallen short of perfection, that’s it! We have sinned and so, can not return to the presence of God. That is – if we did not have our Saviour. “And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence.” (Alma 42:14). Without Christ, we’d be free to make choices, but for what reason? We would all fall short of perfection. “But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God…to be judged according to their works…” (Alma 42:23) – what a great scripture! Alma testifies to his son, Corianton, that because of Christ’s atonement, we will be resurrected, meaning we can be judged and therefore, our moral agency is once again, proven to be of valuable worth.
Jumping back a bit, how can obedience to God’s commandments really give us more ability to choose? Surely we are limiting our agency to set guidelines? Professor Daniel H. Ludlow said “The extent of our individual agency…is in direct proportion to the number and kind of laws we know and keep.” As we understand the gospel doctrine and principles more, primarily by obeying them, we can see things more clearly, enlightened by the Spirit, and our agency grows as we can see more alternatives and their potential outcomes. Elder Christofferson explained “Think of a ladder – each new law or commandment we learn is like one more rung on the ladder that enables us to climb higher…”
Decisions Determine Destiny
Now, despite using our agency for good, we will all still be tested – in Christ’s parable of the wise man and the foolish man (see Matthew 7:24-27), the rain fell on both houses, not just the foolish man’s. However, all tests and trials can be for our benefit. The Lord taught Joseph Smith “…if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7). We learn from all tests we face, as we learn outcomes from certain choices – we improve ourselves and become better. Elder Dallin H. Oakes said “The Final Judgement is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts – what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts – what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions…The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.” Using our agency to make the right choices today will ultimately have an impact on who we become. This final character of who we are will determine our future, or, as President Thomas S. Monson puts it “Decisions determine destiny.”
Our Father in Heaven loves us. He cares for us. He wants us to return to live with Him, in our eternal families – we make the choices, it is up to us. We can receive guidance through the Spirit by our Father in Heaven, but in the end, because of the atonement of Christ, we can determine where we go after this life. THAT is the gift of moral agency.