When Latter-day Saints speak of agency, it is most commonly defined as “the freedom to choose,” and there is truth to that definition. However, I’ve started to find that definition to be both limited and limiting: agency is far more than a freedom—it is also a power, a power to change our circumstances and to influence our world for good.
Early in the Book of Mormon, we find the teachings of the prophet Lehi to his son Jacob, wherein Lehi explains agency and its role in the Father’s plan for His children. Lehi teaches that “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” (2 Nephi 2:14, emphasis added). In describing the distinction between creations with agency and creations without it, Lehi does not call his son’s attention to things that can choose and things that can’t. Instead, Lehi emphasizes the difference between things that can act and things that cannot. Lehi’s distinction makes a lot of sense when we think about the word agency, which comes to us from the Latin agere, meaning to do or to perform. In the word itself, then, we see that action, not choice by itself, is at the heart of agency.
Thus, “the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself” (2 Nephi 2:16), and, while the proper use of agency does require sound decision-making, we are only truly agents when we decide and then act. If we see agency as only a matter of choice, we could be satisfied with Christian discipleship in name only—if we have chosen Christ and accepted Him, what else need we do? However, if we see agency as a matter of action, we cannot be satisfied with our discipleship until it is reflected by our daily actions.
To illustrate the true nature of agency, we can turn to a later chapter in the Book of Mormon and an account of war between the peoples of the early Americas. At one critical period in the war, Captain Moroni, with his soldiers worn out and badly in need of supplies from the capital, wrote a complaint to the governor of the land, whose name was Pahoran. In his letter, Moroni accuses Pahoran of ignoring the armies, saying, “[H]ave ye neglected us because ye are in the heart of our country and ye are surrounded by security, that ye do not cause food to be sent unto us, and also men to strengthen our armies?” (Alma 60:19). Moroni then called on Pahoran to send support, saying, “repent of that which ye have done, and begin to be up and doing, and send forth food and men unto us” (Alma 60:24, emphasis added).
To Moroni, it was not enough that Pahoran flew the same flag as the defending armies. In order to be a true friend and supporter of the war effort, Pahoran needed to be “up and doing,” or acting out the support that he had a responsibility to provide. So it is with us. It isn’t enough to have fond feelings or sincere wishes: unless we are “up and doing,” we are failing to take advantage of a divine power to act and influence our circumstances.
And agency really is a power. God did not create us to be acted upon but, rather, to act, to do good things in the world and to mold our eternal destinies. Pahoran did send support to the armies on the front, and, in so doing, he became an agent for change and made a positive contribution to the war effort. Similarly, when we get past the phase of merely wishing things were different and start acting on our desires and pursuing our righteous goals, we gain the power to change our lives. As Elder Robert D. Hales explained: “Agency used righteously allows light to dispel the darkness and enables us to live with joy and happiness in the present, look with faith to the future, even into the eternities, and not dwell on the things of the past. Our use of agency determines who we are and what we will be.” I know that God will bless and magnify our efforts to be agents for good: in this, He truly wants us to succeed.