“Chapter 3: Freedom of Choice, an Eternal Principle,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (2014), 58–67
“Chapter 3,” Teachings: Ezra Taft Benson, 58–67
Living and working on a farm, Ezra Taft Benson learned about the consequences of good decisions. He recalled: “I grew up believing that the willingness and ability to work is the basic ingredient of successful farming. Hard, intelligent work is the key. Use it, and your chances for success are good.”1 At a young age, Ezra learned that he and his family would have more to eat if they chose to take care of their garden. He learned that if he wanted the family to be successful in their dairy business, he had to decide to get out of bed early every day to milk the cows.2 He saw that when he made the choice to work hard, local farmers hired him to thin their beets and pitch their hay.3 He saw that trials come even to the faithful, but he also saw that individuals and families could decide to respond to trials in a way that would help them be happy and successful.4
For young Ezra Taft Benson, some consequences of good decisions could be measured in buckets of milk, on trucks loaded with hay, and with generous pay for a day of hard work. Others were harder to measure but more lasting. For example, as he observed his parents, he saw the joy, peace, and strength that come when family members choose to be faithful to one another and the Lord.5 He learned that the law of the harvest—“whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7)—applies to spiritual pursuits as well as physical labor.
With this experience as a foundation, President Ezra Taft Benson frequently reminded Latter-day Saints and others of the importance of agency—the freedom “to choose the course they should follow.”6 His teachings about the principle of agency included more than just a reminder to “choose between right and wrong.”7 He spoke of agency as the ability to “make important decisions that will have bearing on our salvation” and that will “affect our happiness in eternity.”8 He encouraged Latter-day Saints and others to use their agency to “act on their own,” without waiting to be commanded in all things.9 The principle of agency, he said, “runs like a golden thread throughout the gospel plan of the Lord for the blessing of his children.”10
I testify that we are the spirit offspring of a loving God, our Heavenly Father (see Acts 17:29; 1 Ne. 17:36). He has a great plan of salvation whereby His children might be perfected as He is and might have a fulness of joy as He enjoys. (See 1 Ne. 10:18; 2 Ne. 2:25; Alma 24:14; 34:9; 3 Ne. 12:48; 28:10.)
I testify that in our premortal state our Elder Brother in the spirit, even Jesus Christ, became our foreordained Savior in the Father’s plan of salvation. (See Mosiah 4:6–7; Alma 34:9.) He is the captain of our salvation and the only means through whom we can return to our Father in Heaven to gain that fulness of joy. (See Heb. 2:10; Mosiah 3:17; Alma 38:9.)
I testify that Lucifer was also in the council of heaven. He sought to destroy the agency of man. He rebelled. (See Moses 4:3.) There was a war in heaven, and a third of the hosts were cast to the earth and denied a body. (See Rev. 12:7–9; D&C 29:36–37.) Lucifer is the enemy of all righteousness and seeks the misery of all mankind. (See 2 Ne. 2:18, 27; Mosiah 4:14.)11
The central issue in that premortal council was: Shall the children of God have untrammeled agency to choose the course they should follow, whether good or evil, or shall they be coerced and forced to be obedient? Christ and all who followed Him stood for the former proposition—freedom of choice; Satan stood for the latter—coercion and force.12
The war that began in heaven over this issue is not yet over. The conflict continues on the battlefield of mortality.14
Freedom of choice is a God-given eternal principle. The great plan of liberty is the plan of the gospel. There is no coercion about it; no force, no intimidation. A man is free to accept the gospel or reject it. He may accept it and then refuse to live it, or he may accept it and live it fully. But God will never force us to live the gospel. He will use persuasion through His servants. He will call us and He will direct us and He will persuade us and encourage us and He will bless us when we respond, but He will never force the human mind. (See Hymns, 1985, no. 240.)15
Abraham was shown the spirit children of our Heavenly Father before they came to earth. He, too, was shown the creation of the earth, and the Lord said to him: “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abraham 3:25.) In that divine statement is embodied also the right of choice.16
This life is a probation: a probation in which you and I prove our mettle, a probation that has eternal consequences for each of us. And now is our time and season—as every generation has had theirs—to learn our duties and to do them.17
That the Lord is displeased with wickedness is true. That He desires that it not occur is also true. That He will help those who oppose it is true. But that He allows wickedness to occur at all through His children here in mortality is proof of His having given them their freedom to choose, while reserving for Him a basis for their final judgment.18
There is no evil that [Jesus Christ] cannot arrest. All things are in His hands. This earth is His rightful dominion. Yet He permits evil so that we can make choices between good and evil.19
Life is a testing time in man’s eternal existence, during which he is given … the right to choose between right and wrong. … On those choices hang great consequences, not only in this life, but, even more important, in the life to come. There are boundaries beyond which Satan cannot go. Within those bounds, he is presently being permitted to offer an unrighteous alternative to God’s righteous principles, thus allowing men to choose between good and evil and thereby determine the station they shall occupy in the next life.20
God loves you as He loves each and every one of His children, and His desire and purpose and glory is to have you return to Him pure and undefiled, having proven yourselves worthy of an eternity of joy in His presence.
Your Father in heaven is mindful of you. He has given you commandments to guide you, to discipline you. He has also given you your agency—freedom of choice—“to see if [you] will do all things whatsoever [He] shall command.” (Abr. 3:25.) His kingdom here on earth is well organized, and your leaders are dedicated to helping you. May you know that you have our constant love, our concern, and prayers.
Satan is also mindful of you. He is committed to your destruction. He does not discipline you with commandments, but offers instead a freedom to “do your own thing.” … Satan’s program is “play now and pay later.” He seeks for all to be miserable like unto himself [see 2 Nephi 2:27]. The Lord’s program is happiness now and joy forever through gospel living.21
We are free to choose, but we are not free to alter the consequences of those choices.22
Clearly, there would be little trial of faith if we received our full reward immediately for every goodly deed, or immediate retribution for every sin. But that there will be an eventual reckoning for each, there is no question.23
While a man may take some temporary pleasure in sin, the end result is unhappiness. “Wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10.) Sin creates disharmony with God and is depressing to the spirit. Therefore, a man would do well to examine himself to see that he is in harmony with all of God’s laws. Every law kept brings a particular blessing. Every law broken brings a particular blight. Those who are heavy-laden with despair should come unto the Lord, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. (See Matt. 11:28–30.)24
The biggest business of any life is making decisions. While one of the greatest gifts of God to man is … the right of choice, he has also given man responsibility for these choices. … We put our own lives in the direction of success or failure. We may not only choose our ultimate goals, but we may also determine and decide for ourselves, in many cases, the means by which we will arrive at those goals, and by our industry or lack of it determine the speed by which they may be reached. This takes individual effort and energy and will not be without opposition or conflict.25
The fate of humanity and all civilization hinges on whether man will use his … agency to govern himself or ignore eternal laws at his own peril and reap the consequences. The real issues of today are, therefore, not economic or political. They are spiritual—meaning that man must learn to conform to the laws which God has given to mankind.26
Agency has been given to all of us to make important decisions that will have bearing on our salvation. Those decisions affect our happiness in eternity.27
Our decisions have made us what we are. Our eternal destiny will be determined by the decisions we yet will make.28
If we are to make proper, Christ-like decisions, we must first of all live so we can reach out and tap that unseen power without which no man can do his best in decision making.
One of the greatest decisions of this age was when the boy Joseph Smith decided that he would follow the admonition in James: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.” (James 1:5–6.)
The very salvation of millions of men and women in the dispensation of the fulness of times depends upon that decision! We must keep in mind that individuals do matter and that decisions they make may greatly affect the lives of others.29
Wise decisions are usually arrived at following work, struggle, and prayerful effort. The Lord’s response to Oliver Cowdery’s ineffective effort makes this clear: “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.” (D&C 9:8.)
Let us begin, therefore, by saying that earnestly seeking our Father in heaven, having faith that he will answer our prayers, is a comforting base on which to begin. … The Lord will not take water from a dry well, so we must do our part. Sometimes attempting to find a correct decision takes great amounts of energy, study, and long-suffering.31
In decisions of crucial importance, fasting combined with prayer can bring great spiritual insight.32
In 1831 the Lord said this to his Church:
“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
“Verily I say, men should 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.
“But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.” (D&C 58:26–29.)
The purposes of the Lord—the great objectives—continue the same: the salvation and exaltation of his children.
Usually the Lord gives us the overall objectives to be accomplished and some guidelines to follow, but he expects us to work out most of the details and methods. The methods and procedures are usually developed through study and prayer and by living so that we can obtain and follow the promptings of the Spirit. Less spiritually advanced people, such as those in the days of Moses, had to be commanded in many things. Today those spiritually alert look at the objectives, check the guidelines laid down by the Lord and his prophets, and then prayerfully act—without having to be commanded “in all things.” This attitude prepares men for godhood. …
Sometimes the Lord hopefully waits on his children to act on their own, and when they do not, they lose the greater prize, and the Lord will either drop the entire matter and let them suffer the consequences or else he will have to spell it out in greater detail. Usually, I fear, the more he has to spell it out, the smaller is our reward.33
We should be “anxiously engaged” in good causes and leave the world a better place for having lived in it.34
In what ways have you seen that “the war that began in heaven … is not yet over”? (See section 1.) What can we do to continue to stand for the principle of agency?
People often wonder why God allows evil to exist in the world. How do President Benson’s teachings in section 2 help to answer that question?
What can we do to help children and youth understand the truths in section 3? What can we do to help children and youth understand the impact of the decisions they make?
Ponder President Benson’s counsel about making “proper, Christ-like decisions” (section 4). What have you learned about combining prayer with diligent effort in making decisions?
What does it mean to you to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause”? How does your life change when you do good things “of [your] own free will” rather than waiting to be commanded? (See section 5.)
Discussions in small groups “give a large number of people the opportunity to participate in a lesson. Individuals who are usually hesitant to participate might share ideas in small groups that they would not express in front of the entire group” (Teaching, No Greater Call , 161).