“Choices,” Ensign, May 2004, 51–54
My beloved brethren of the holy priesthood of God all over the world, I greet each of you in the spirit of love and fellowship.
In this life we have to make many choices. Some are very important choices. Some are not. Many of our choices are between good and evil. The choices we make, however, determine to a large extent our happiness or our unhappiness, because we have to live with the consequences of our choices. Making perfect choices all of the time is not possible. It just doesn’t happen. But it is possible to make good choices we can live with and grow from. When God’s children live worthy of divine guidance they can become “free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon.”1
Sometimes we make poor choices when we yield to peer pressure. Kieth Merrill had such an experience when he was a young man. He and his friends were diving from sheer rock walls at the East Canyon Reservoir, northeast of Salt Lake City. It inevitably turned into a teenage contest when one young man climbed up to the top of the dam and dived 50 feet into the deep water of the reservoir. The rest of the young men all went to the top of the dam and made the same high dive. One boy wasn’t satisfied with that, so he said, “All right, I’ll do one better!” He climbed 60 feet up the side of the cliff. Not wanting to be outdone, Kieth climbed up beside him. After the other boy had dived into the water and seemed to be all right, Kieth took courage and made his dive. The contest was now down to these two boys. Kieth’s friend then climbed up to 70 feet and dived. He came up from the water laughing, rubbing his shoulders and his eyes. He then challenged Kieth, “Well, are you going to do it?”
“Of course, I’m going to do it!” And everybody on the shore said, “Of course, he’s going to do it!”
So Kieth swam back to the shore and climbed up the rocks. He knew if he jumped from the same height of 70 feet that his friend would want to go higher, so he scrambled up 80 feet to the very top of the cliff. No one could go any higher than the top. As Kieth looked down, he was terrified to see the water so very far away. He had made a rash decision. It was not what he wanted to do nor what he felt was right. Instead he had based his decision on the prodding and dares of a half dozen young men whose names he cannot now even remember.
He backed up and ran as hard as he could toward the edge. He found the mark he had carefully laid at the edge of the rock and sprang out into space. On the way down he remembered his parents teaching him to be careful when making decisions, because a wrong one could kill him. And now he thought, “You have done it, because when you hit the water you’ll be going so fast that it might as well be concrete.” When he hit the water, it even felt like concrete. How grateful he was when his head finally popped above water.
Why did he jump? What was he trying to prove? The young men who dared him didn’t care and probably don’t even remember that foolish act. But Kieth realized afterward that he had made what could easily have been a fatal decision. He had yielded to the pressure of friends expecting him to do what he didn’t want to do. He knew better. He said: “I was living in the world, and at that moment I was of the world because I was not in control of myself. I was not making decisions about my own life. The world made the decisions for me, … and [I] had barely avoided being in the world about six feet deep.”2
It takes a certain kind of courage to stand back rather than leaping forward, foolishly allowing someone else to make our choices for us. We can more readily take firm stands when we have a clear idea of our identity as sons of God and bearers of the holy priesthood, having a bright potential for a meaningful future.
Unfortunately, some of our poor choices are irreversible, but many are not. Often we can change course and get back on the right track. Getting back on the right track may involve the principles of repentance: first, recognizing the error of our ways; second, forsaking the wrongful conduct; third, never repeating it; and, fourth, confessing3 and making restitution where possible. Learning by experience has value, but the “school of hard knocks” is deserving of its name. Progression comes faster and easier by learning from our parents, those who love us, and our teachers. We can also learn from the mistakes of others, observing the consequences of their wrong choices.
Some choices present good opportunities no matter which road we take—for example, when deciding which career path to follow or which school to attend. I know one bright and able young man who wanted to become a doctor, but the opportunity did not open up for him; so he chose to follow the law. He has become a very successful lawyer, but I am satisfied he would have been equally successful as a doctor.
Some of our important choices have a time line. If we delay a decision, the opportunity is gone forever. Sometimes our doubts keep us from making a choice that involves change. Thus an opportunity may be missed. As someone once said, “When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that in itself is a choice.”4
Some people find it hard to make a decision. A psychiatrist once said to a patient, “Do you ever have any trouble making up your mind?” The patient said, “Well, yes and no.” My hope and prayer is that we can be as resolute as Joshua when he proclaimed, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve; … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”5
Some choices have greater consequences than others. We make no greater voluntary choice in this life than the selection of a marriage partner. This decision can bring eternal happiness and joy. To find sublime fulfillment in marriage, both partners need to be fully committed to the marriage.
Some important choices for fulfillment and happiness should be made only once and then, having been made, never have to be made again. For example, we need only once to make the firm and unequivocal resolution not to smoke tobacco, not to drink alcoholic drinks, nor use mind-changing drugs.
In 1976 Elder Robert C. Oaks, then a colonel in the United States Air Force, was a member of the Incidents at Sea negotiating team. They were guests at a dinner hosted by the Leningrad Naval District. About 50 senior officers of the Soviet Union and the United States were present as the host led the group in toasts before dinner. They stood for the first toast and raised their glasses, most of which were filled with Russian vodka. Brother Oaks had pink lemonade in his glass, which was immediately noticed by the admiral leading the toast. He stopped and demanded that Brother Oaks fill his glass with vodka, stating that he would not proceed until he had done so. Brother Oaks declined, explaining that he was happy with what he had in his glass.
A significant tension began to build, and even his own team members, most of whom were senior to him, were growing uneasy over the impasse. Brother Oaks’s Soviet escort hissed in his ear, “Fill your glass with vodka!” Brother Oaks uttered the shortest prayer of his life: “God, help me!”
Within seconds, the Soviet interpreter, an army captain with whom he had previously discussed religion, whispered to the host admiral, “It is because of his religion.” The admiral nodded his head, the tension immediately diffused, and the program moved on.6
Elder Oaks had decided years before that he would never drink alcohol, and so in the moment of trial he did not have to make this choice again. Elder Oaks was convinced that more harm would have come to him if he had compromised a tenet of his faith than the harm that would have come from drinking the vodka. Incidentally, adhering to his religious principles did not hurt his career. After this incident he went on to become a four-star general.
Strangely, doing the wrong thing often seems reasonable, possibly because it seems to be the easiest course. We often hear as a justification for wrong behavior, “Well, everybody is doing it.” This evil distorts the truth, and its author is Satan. As Nephi tells us, “Thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.”7
No matter how many people in our society are involved, none are justified in being dishonest, lying, cheating, using profanity, especially taking the Lord’s name in vain, engaging in immoral sexual relationships, or not respecting the Lord’s day.
Other people’s actions do not dictate what is right or wrong. One person having the courage to make the right choice can influence many others to also choose wisely. I wish to endorse what is stated in the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth:
“You are responsible for the choices you make. You should not blame your circumstances, your family, or your friends if you choose to disobey God’s commandments. You are a child of God with great strength. You have the ability to choose righteousness and happiness, no matter what your circumstances.”8
How do we make correct choices? A choice involves making a conscious decision. To make an intelligent decision we need to evaluate all available facts on both sides of an issue. But that isn’t enough. Making correct decisions involves prayer and inspiration. The 9th section of the Doctrine and Covenants gives us the grand key. The Lord said to Oliver Cowdery:
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
“But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong.”9
As we look into the future, we are going to need to be stronger and more responsible for our choices in a world where people “call evil good, and good evil.”10 We do not choose wisely if we use our agency in opposition to God’s will or to priesthood counsel. Tomorrow’s blessings and opportunities depend on the choices we make today.
Brethren, it is my belief and testimony that collectively we have the responsibility to set the example of righteousness to all of the world. Under the great leadership of President Gordon B. Hinckley, we must point the way by the inspired choices we make. The power of choice is yours. May we all use our God-given agency wisely as we make these eternal choices. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.