“Free to Choose,” Ensign, February 2019
Part of our earthly experience consists of being enticed by both good and evil and then learning how to choose good over evil. By using our agency to choose the right, we begin to put on the divine nature—to pattern our lives after the Savior’s life. We find peace, happiness, and freedom as we make right choices.
In the pre-earth life, “Satan rebelled … and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him” (Moses 4:3). Our Heavenly Father did not allow him to destroy the precious gift of agency. In fact, Satan’s attempt to destroy it is one of the reasons he was cast out of heaven. We also learn from the scriptures that “he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice” (Moses 4:4).
This sounds like a contradiction. Satan tried to destroy agency. Our Heavenly Father wouldn’t allow it and cast him out. Satan now deceives and blinds men, and he leads them captive at his will. If he is leading people captive, doesn’t that sound like he is destroying agency?
The fact is, he couldn’t destroy agency in the pre-earth life, and he can’t do it now either. But he leads us captive by enticing us to sin. When we sin, we subject ourselves to him. We, in effect, give part of our agency to him. He can’t take it from us, but we can relinquish it.
This concept is explained in the context of events in the Garden of Eden: “Wherefore, it came to pass that the devil tempted Adam, and he partook of the forbidden fruit and transgressed the commandment, wherein he became subject to the will of the devil, because he yielded unto temptation” (Doctrine & Covenants 29:40).
Phrases from other scriptures illustrate this important principle:
“Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34).
“To whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey” (Romans 6:16).
“They chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house … , and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil” (Alma 40:13).
Lehi taught his sons plainly: “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” (2 Nephi 2:27).
Lehi pleaded with his sons not to “choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Nephi 2:29).
The Prophet Joseph Smith observed: “Satan was generally blamed for the evils which we did, but if he was the cause of all our wickedness, men could not be condemned. The devil could not compel mankind to do evil; all was voluntary. Those who resisted the Spirit of God, would be liable to be led into temptation. … God would not exert any compulsory means, and the devil could not; and such ideas as were entertained [on these subjects] by many were absurd.”1
Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933) wrote: “Satan exerts a mastery over the spirits that have been corrupted by his practises; … he seeks to molest and hinder mankind in good efforts. … Yet in all these malignant doings, he can go no farther than the transgressions of the victim may enable him, or the wisdom of God may permit; and at any time he may be checked by the superior power.”2
Satan’s ultimate goal is to make each of us miserable, as he is (see 2 Nephi 2:18, 27). Because he can’t impose this misery, he has to find a way to convince us to choose it. Does this even sound like a feasible business plan? “Convince people to choose to be miserable.” It sounds more like Mission Impossible: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to convince people to choose misery over joy, bondage over freedom.”
And yet, by all observations, Satan has been fairly successful in the world at large. And to the degree we commit sin, he is even successful with each of us.
How is he able to convince so many to choose a path through life that leads to misery? How is he able to convince even good people to commit sin?
We have to remember that to exercise our agency in a way to help us become more like the Savior, we must be enticed by good and evil. The evil has to be enticing, or it would be no test—and thus we would not experience real growth. But as we choose good in the face of an alternative that is truly enticing, our characters are shaped and we reap the rewards of freedom and peace. We learn more deeply that we trust in a God who cannot lie (see Enos 1:6), and our faith increases.
So what makes it possible for the adversary to make evil and sin enticing? How do you sell misery, bondage, and disappointment? Well, you have to lie. Satan is a liar. In fact, he is “the father of all lies” (Moses 4:4).
The only way he can sell sin is to portray it as something it isn’t. He has to convince people that evil is good—that momentary pleasure equates with long-term joy and that sin leads to freedom and happiness instead of to bondage and misery. He also throws in the idea that good is evil and that righteousness is bondage. Satan is a master at marketing. He has been at it a long time, and the foundation of his marketing scheme is always lies.
Let’s look at a few examples from the scriptures.
Cain bought into Satan’s lies and chose to sin and kill Abel. “And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands” (Moses 5:33). His exclamation “I am free” has to be in the top-10 list of the most deluded statements in all of scripture. He soon found out that he was anything but free and anything but happy because of his actions.
After the Nephites had become wicked, Samuel the Lamanite preached repentance to them: “Ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head” (Helaman 13:38).
The Nephites had not learned the lesson Alma taught his son Corianton—that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Corianton, for a time, had fallen for the lie that breaking the commandments leads to happiness.
The adversary doesn’t stop after we have decided to commit one sin. He wants us in his power. The Book of Mormon teaches us about his tactics to bring people into bondage by degrees: “He leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever” (2 Nephi 26:22).
We also read, “Others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains” (2 Nephi 28:22).
Satan carefully leads people into bondage. Just as we progress line upon line in righteousness, we move to bondage sin upon sin.
This is one reason parents and leaders are so concerned when a young person starts to make wrong choices. Once we get entangled in the adversary’s cords, getting out is much more difficult than getting in.
As Nephite civilization declined in Mormon’s time, he lamented that his people were “led about by Satan, even as chaff is driven before the wind, or as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves, without sail or anchor, or without anything wherewith to steer her” (Mormon 5:18).
That imagery doesn’t convey much freedom, does it? When we yield ourselves to the adversary, we become “things to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:14) instead of free to act for ourselves.
One of Satan’s most effective tools is to clothe bondage in the costume of liberty. Peter warned the early Saints about individuals among them who would try to pull them away from the path of righteousness. He described these wicked individuals as “having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin. … They speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh. … While they promise … liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage” (2 Peter 2:14, 18–19).
These people tried to lure others to sin by promising them liberty even though they themselves were in the bondage of sin. In the Book of Mormon, Korihor tried the same stunt, with a twist. He taught doctrines that brought people to the conclusion that sinning would bring them freedom and happiness, but he also focused on convincing people that the commandments and ordinances bound them down—that belief in God, Jesus Christ, and the prophets kept them in bondage (see Alma 30).
That is a lie. The truth is that living the commandments makes us free. In fact, the irony is that Korihor was the one in bondage. We don’t know all of his sins, but one that bound him down was his lying. He always knew there was a God, but he repeatedly denied this fact and lied to others about it (see Alma 30:42, 52).
Today many individuals promote or condone sin, and parts of modern culture carry dangerous messages. For example, we see in the media a lot of modeling of sins with seemingly no negative consequences. We see meanness, lawbreaking, disrespect, immorality, immodesty, and profanity in an almost constant stream. Goodness and righteousness are often portrayed as naïve and silly at best or evil at worst.
Because we have sinned and thus have subjected ourselves to the will of the devil to some degree, we need to somehow be freed from the bondage of sin. Through His Atonement, Jesus Christ has power to break these bonds, these chains, this captivity.
When the Savior began His public ministry, He referenced a prophecy about Himself and His mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18). Deliverance and liberty come through Him and His Atonement.
No matter our sins and weaknesses—dishonesty, pride, hypocrisy, laziness, greed, immorality, addictions, anger, Word of Wisdom problems—we can be freed from any degree of bondage. Each of us has experienced this as we have repented. We have felt true freedom as we have been forgiven and have jettisoned the behavior that tormented us.
Sometimes these bonds seem to burst, and we are immediately freed. At other times the cords are loosed rather than burst (see Alma 5:9–10). But whether this happens all at once or gradually, the long-term effect is the same: we are free! Either way, it is miraculous.
When we obey Satan, we give him power. When we obey God, He gives us power. This is not the message we get from the world, but it is the truth. Real power, the power to become like the Savior, is found only in obedience. Real freedom is found only in obedience—in subjecting ourselves to God’s will rather than to the will of the flesh or the will of the devil. Obedience brings freedom, power, joy, peace, and hope.
While obedience protects us from spiritual bondage and the misery associated with sin, it doesn’t bring us a life without challenges. Things in this fallen world can bring misery and suffering, such as sickness, death, physical pain, and the actions of others. But the Savior’s atoning power covers misery from these sources, and if we endure our challenges faithfully, they will have no eternal negative consequences for us. The misery resulting from sin, however, can be completely removed only if we repent.
A prophecy about the Millennium teaches that “because of the righteousness of [the Savior’s] people, Satan has no power; wherefore, he cannot be loosed for the space of many years; for he hath no power over the hearts of the people, for they dwell in righteousness” (1 Nephi 22:26). This scripture speaks about the condition that will exist in the world when the people as a whole live in righteousness, but the principle can be true today for us individually.
By living righteously, we can be free from any power the adversary would like to exercise over us. He gains power only as we allow it by our choices. If something in our life bothers us and binds us down, let us repent. Let’s get rid of it and increase the freedom in our lives.
Agency—the ability to make choices—is a crucial and wonderful gift, and we rejoice that we are here on earth, able to choose good over evil and to progress toward exaltation. As we use our agency to choose the right, reject evil, and love God, His grace is sufficient for us, and by that grace we will become perfected in Christ (see Moroni 10:32).