“Moral Agency: A Precious Gift,” Liahona, July 2018
Each of us a beloved son or daughter of Heavenly Parents1 and lived with them prior to coming to earth. Our Heavenly Father wanted to give us the opportunity to become like Him and instituted His plan so that we could receive immortality and eternal life.2 Eternal life is God’s life, the greatest of all the gifts of God.3 Our Heavenly Father’s plan is the only way that we can become like Him and receive all that He has.4
Our moral agency is essential to fulfill the purpose of His plan. Agency is our God-given capacity to choose to act and not be acted upon.5 It is the power to act according to the eternal truths and law that make God what He is and heaven what it is—and to be happy.6 It is also the power to reject God and His laws—and to be miserable.7 Agency has its risks: it can produce great good, and it can also produce misery.
When the Father’s plan was presented in the premortal realm, most of His children accepted it and shouted for joy.8 Others rejected the plan. This led a war of right against wrong, good against evil.9 This war was in part over the gift of agency. Our agency is so important that our Heavenly Father permitted us to make the choice of whether or not to support His great plan of happiness.10
Satan wanted power over everyone and everything, so he rejected the plan and sought to destroy the agency of man.11 He claimed that not one soul would be lost.12 This was a lie, because every one of our Father’s children would surely have been lost forever without the gift of agency.13 This is because it is impossible to return to the presence of Heavenly Father, receive eternal life, and become like Him without experiencing the growth that can only result from making the choice to follow Him and His laws. It is by making and carrying out righteous decisions that we grow. Our agency is essential and necessary to develop the divine potential within us.
Because you and I supported the plan, we were allowed to come to this earth to be tested and to grow.14 Thus, we should not be surprised or dismayed when we encounter opposition, for opposition enables our agency. Opposition gives us the opportunity to grow by making a gospel-centered choice. So, think of opposition as opportunity: opportunity to exercise our agency with faith in the Lord and to grow closer to God:
“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness, nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. …
“… There is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon. …
“Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself” (2 Nephi 2:11, 14, 16).
This God-given power to choose the right can be strengthened or diminished by the choices we make. This is because those who choose to be governed by the law of the Lord will be “preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same” (D&C 88:34). Those who break the law of the Lord and choose to not be governed by His law “cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still” (D&C 88:35). In short, those who choose to be governed by His law and commandments will grow to become like Him. Those who choose not to be governed by His law will diminish and remain filthy.
I recently heard a missionary in the Ghana Accra Missionary Training Center share a story from his childhood. When he was about nine years old, he and a group of his friends came to the market and saw someone selling groundnuts. He and his friends were hungry. So, they decided to walk, one at a time, by the place where the man was selling groundnuts and take some while he was not looking. The missionary watched his friends, one by one, walk by the groundnuts and put some into their pockets without paying for them. When it was his turn, he heard a voice speak in his mind: “You should not do this. It is wrong.” He looked around and did not see anyone, so he walked over to the mound of groundnuts, only to hear the Spirit again say: “You should not do this. It is wrong.” He decided to not take any groundnuts; instead, he just walked away. When his friends asked him why he did not take any, he repeated what the voice had told him: it was wrong.
By choosing that day to listen to the Holy Ghost and follow the law of the Lord as a boy, he grew closer to God and became a little more like the Lord. In contrast, his friends were diminished by their unrighteous choice and distanced themselves from God. The only way to grow, draw close to God, and increase our capacity is to choose to follow Him and His laws and to repent when we have made a wrong choice.
If we do not quickly repent, one wrong choice usually leads to another, and those who walk that path gradually diminish their desire and capacity to choose the right and distance themselves from God and His power. Happily, the converse is true: one good choice often leads to another, drawing us closer to God and His power. Because the missionary chose as a boy to not take the groundnuts, it led to other good choices. As he made one good choice after another, he continued to grow through the years step by step, here little, there a little, until he was prepared to become a strong missionary.
Exercising our agency with faith in Christ brings us hope, the expectation of good things to come. While God will not force our agency, He encourages us to exercise our agency to follow the teachings and example of His Son. If we choose to follow the Savior, we can do so with the confidence, even the expectation, that He will give us power far beyond our own to overcome our difficulties, become like Him, and be raised unto life eternal. We can choose to fulfill our divine destiny.
A short history will illustrate this point: Isaac of Ghana returned honorably from his full-time mission with the desire to continue on the covenant path, and he knew that meant finding a young woman to whom he could be sealed in the temple. He came to know Edema, a wonderful returned missionary from Nigeria. The two fell in love and wanted to be sealed in the Ghana Accra Temple. Isaac did not have a job, and Edema’s extended family presented a list. Isaac’s parents were both deceased, and his uncle forbade him from getting married, telling him that he was crazy to think of marriage when he did not even have a job. Isaac prayed about what to do and heard these words spoken to his mind: “You should not fear man more than God.” So, he went to his uncle and told him that he respected him, but that he respected God more and would put God first. So, he and Edema decided to be sealed and set the date. Then, miracles began to happen. Isaac was offered a job. With the help of Edema’s mother, they did not need to be concerned about the list. They were sealed in the temple and are happy in their marriage.
In this short history, we see that Isaac and Edema faced strong opposition and difficult trials. Because they had decided to put God first, the opposition they faced became an opportunity to choose the right. Once they moved forward in faith, they had hope, the expectation of good things to come; the miracles followed.
The principle of agency means that we are 100 percent responsible and accountable for our choices and actions—we cannot blame others or our circumstances for our decisions and the consequences of our choices. Each person has the opportunity in this life to “act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101:78). With the opportunity to choose comes the accountability for our decisions and actions.
This connection between choice and accountability means that how we exercise our agency will shape our souls for eternity:
“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.
“He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you” (Helaman 14:30–31).
In other words, we become what we choose to become. We are our own judges15; we are responsible for our choices. If we do evil, evil will be restored to us unless we repent. If we do good, good will be restored to us.16 We can act for ourselves and are accountable for the consequences of our choices!
If we have made wrong decisions, we can choose to repent, to change, and be cleansed and forgiven. We must remember that as part of His plan, our Heavenly Father sent His Son Jesus Christ to earth to save us from death and sin. The Savior chose to fulfill His mission and submit to the will of the Father, even when it was terribly difficult.17 By exercising His agency to atone for our sins and die and be resurrected, He has given us hope, light, joy, and the possibility of eternal life. Because of His good choices, He pleased our Father in Heaven and has been given all power in heaven and earth “to save every man that believeth on his name and bringeth forth fruit meet for repentance” (Alma 12:15; see also Alma 34:15–17). We can choose to repent and be saved by Him.
Our Heavenly Father has given us the opportunity to grow through the wise use of our agency. The growth will come only to the degree we choose of our free will to do good. For this reason, the Lord desires that His children be “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
“For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward” (D&C 58:27–28; emphasis added). Let’s not waste this one-in-an-eternity chance to choose the better part and receive all that the Father has offered—which is all He has!18
I invite you to choose to put the Lord first and more fully live the gospel. Making that choice will transform your soul for the better. Choose a commandment that you should do better at living: do you obey the law to search the scriptures? Do you read the Book of Mormon daily? If your answer is no, you might offer the excuse that you have to study or work too many hours or that you are so busy that you do not have time. Remember, you are not an object to be acted upon, but you can act for yourself. So, decide when you will read the Book of Mormon every day, and do it!
Do you live the law of tithing? If your answer is no, you may offer the excuse that you do not have enough money to pay a full tithe. Remember, you are not controlled by your circumstances or opposition unless you choose to be. You do not lack the money to pay tithing; what you lack at the moment is sufficient faith. So, decide to exercise whatever particle of faith you have to pay a full tithe, and do it.
By choosing to obey these laws—or any law or commandment of God—you will experience growth of character and increased faith. The Holy Ghost will be your companion, teacher, and guide.
Our Heavenly Father loves us, for we are His children. The precious gift of agency is the power to choose for ourselves and is essential to our growth. Let us use this precious and essential gift to draw His strength and power into our lives19 to grow, progress, and become like Him.