Agency: A Divine Power

hands-planting-philippines-service-group-607180-wallpaperWhen 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.

Necessary Opposition

one-way-sign-845356-gallery“And there was war in heaven,” the Revelator writes: “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:7-9). As a result of this war in heaven, we live in a world full of opposition, adversity, and differences of opinion. It can be difficult to accept that sorrow, tragedy, or sin could have any place in God’s plan for His children. An eternal perspective, however, helps us to see not only that opposition is necessary but also that God has provided a way for each of His children to overcome whatever difficulties they may face.

The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi taught that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so…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” (2 Nephi 2:11). In other words, without opposition, there can be no difference and, consequently, no significance. Let’s imagine, for example, that we thought it was silly to punish people for speeding. The only way to remove the penalty for speeding would be to abolish the law that makes speeding a crime. Once we had gotten rid of the law against speeding, we would have freed ourselves from the burden of having to prosecute speeders. However, we would also have made it impossible for anyone to keep the law. What difference would it make whether a person drove the speed limit or not if there were no law that mandated obedience to the limit?

A law against speeding is not just an excuse to punish people who drive too fast. A law against speeding is a law that protects those who drive at a safe speed. Further, just because the existence of the law makes speeding possible (you can’t speed if it’s not illegal), the existence of that law does not make speeding an equally valid option. So it is with God’s law. The laws of God, His commandments, are not designed to punish the sinner but are, rather, meant for the protection of the obedient. Further, though His laws distinguish between right and wrong, that does not mean that either option is equally valid. A plan that made no distinctions between right and wrong would be a plan that made no distinctions—and would, therefore, be as good as no plan at all.

Of course, the significance of opposition is not limited to matters of right and wrong. If there were no distinction between joy and sadness—if we eliminated sadness from the world—our joy wouldn’t be significant: it would just be the status quo. Similarly, if being warm were never an option, being cold wouldn’t be uncomfortable: it would just be the way things are. Thus, if we are to be happy, if we are to obey God’s will, if we are to find satisfaction in this life—the opposites of all those things must also exist. Otherwise, our decisions and experiences would be utterly meaningless.

But while these oppositions can and must exist—they do not all come from God. Though He created the world and instituted the law, He is not the source of sadness nor of sin. As the Revelator recorded, the devil was cast out of heaven, being an enemy to God, and he continues to fight his war against God’s plan, spreading misery and persuading God’s children to sin. “Wherefore,” the Book of Mormon teaches, “all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil” (Moroni 7:12).

Thus, it is not God’s fault when we sin (if only He hadn’t issued the commandments as He had)—but it is also not God’s fault when we suffer. All good things come from God—and only good things come from God. He cannot produce suffering, and He will never be the source of it. Though His plan allows for suffering, that doesn’t mean He is just as pleased when we suffer as when we rejoice. Because He is a good, loving God, I’m confident that He would always prefer for us to rejoice. However, because His plan is for us to rejoice eternally and because we can only fully understand and appreciate joy in opposition to sorrow, He allows us to endure sorrow in this lifetime.

Yes, God allows sorrow to exist, but, again, He is not its source. God is the source of happiness, and we can find solace and support by turning to Him, whatever difficulties we may face. Because “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world” (2 Nephi 26:24), we can be confident that we will never go wrong by following Him. Eternal happiness is founded on this understanding: that opposition exists, that opposition can be overcome, and that God is the One with the solutions to every problem we may come across in this life.

The perspective of an eternal plan

yosemite-half-dome-sunrise-1090321-wallpaper“O my Father,” early Latter-day saint poet, Eliza R. Snow, once asked, “In thy holy habitation / Did my spirit once reside? / In my first primeval childhood / Was I nurtured near thy side?” In her lines, she asks, essentially, whether her life began at birth—or whether her existence had its origins even earlier. There are glimmers of the doctrine of a premortal existence in the Bible (see Jeremiah 1:5; Job 38:4–7); however, a fuller understanding of that doctrine and its marvelous implications has come only through modern revelation.

Summarizing our place in the eternities, President Gordon B. Hinckley taught: “We are sons and daughters of God. God is the Father of our spirits. We lived before we came here. We had personality. We were born into this life under a divine plan. We are here to test our worthiness, acting in the agency which God has given to us. When we die we shall go on living.” In this succession of simple sentences, we see that the life we experience now is only a small part of our eternal existence and that we are here under a divine plan. Latter-day Saints know that plan as the Plan of Salvation, and it is the foundation for all of our beliefs and practices.

We believe that, before the creation of this earth, God the Father presented a plan to all of His children, a plan that would allow us to receive physical bodies and to qualify for the quality of life that He enjoys. In His infinite love and wisdom, God knew that life in the world would be rife with temptations, calamities, disappointments, and tragedies, so He also promised a way to overcome the opposition that we would face in mortality as we made our way back to His presence. As Elder Robert D. Hales once explained, “Father knew we would stumble and sin as we learned by experience in mortality, so He provided a Savior to redeem from sin all who repent and to heal the spiritual and emotional wounds of those who obey.” Of course, that Savior is Jesus Christ, and we can have the assurance that, as we follow the plan and strive to live after the example of the Savior, we can return to live with our Father in Heaven, to live in a state of eternal joy with our families.

That, in its most condensed form, is the basis of an eternal perspective, a paradigm that includes the reality of our existence beyond this life. But, while a knowledge of the eternal nature of God’s plan is interesting and worth having, the real power of that knowledge is in the way that it can transform our lives and give us a deeper sense of purpose. “The Plan of Salvation,” in Elder Hales’ words, “is one of the greatest treasures of knowledge ever given to mankind because it explains the eternal purpose of life. Without it, we are truly wandering in the dark.” He then goes on to say, “Understanding the plan clarifies our spiritual vision and allows us to see things as they really are.”

Being able to situate myself within an understanding of God’s plan has given me a sense of confidence and purpose that I couldn’t have otherwise. Knowing that my existence goes back far earlier than my birth gives me a reassuring sense of identity. Knowing that this life is all a part of God’s plan for my eternal success gives me the confidence to press forward despite difficulties and uncertainties. Knowing that there is much to my existence beyond this life encourages me to work hard to be my very best in order to return to my heavenly home and help others to do the same.

Without the knowledge of God’s eternal plan, our perspective would be limited to the short decades of our lives on earth: the commandments would be arbitrary restrictions, religion would be a fruitless pastime, and morality would be as flexible and negotiable as the latest fashions. With the perspective that comes from His plan, however, everything changes: commandments become guideposts to a happier eternity, religion becomes a binding link between God and His children, and morality becomes the bedrock of a successful life founded on eternal principles. To know the plan is to know God’s love, to know that, even though we must sometimes pass through heart-wrenching difficulties, He has provided a way for us to overcome all sorrows and to return to His presence, where He “shall wipe away all tears from [our] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Belief in God

cloud-sun-829206-wallpaperWhen Latter-day Saints talk about the principles and doctrines of the gospel, we often use the phrase I know. It makes sense to speak in such terms: ours is a world fixated on knowledge, a world that distrusts something as impossible to measure as belief. So I think that, when we say that we know, we’re attempting to speak to a world that only wants the facts. But there is more to faith than information: there must also be belief. President N. Eldon Tanner, who once served in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declared the importance of belief, saying, “In addition to a belief in the existence of God, we must know something of his character and attributes or our faith will be imperfect and unfruitful.” Thus, to know that God exists is good, but to believe in God—in His fatherly love and incomparable power—can change our lives, suffusing them with hope, purpose, and significance.

The word believe has a history of rich meaning. Beyond the modern sense of “accepting something as true even if it can’t be proven scientifically,” believe has roots in words meaning “to hold dear,” “to care,” or “to love.” To declare belief, then, is not to admit a lack of evidence—no, it is to announce an attitude. Believing in God, then, means loving God, holding Him and His word dear, and allowing His influence to shape the course of one’s life.

How can belief in God change our lives? Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once declared, “I bear personal witness this day of a personal, living God, who knows our names, hears and answers prayers, and cherishes us eternally as children of His spirit. I testify that amidst the wondrously complex tasks inherent in the universe, He seeks our individual happiness and safety above all other godly concerns.” I’ve written before about how, during my first year of teaching, I had prayers answered with ideas for lesson plans that were more effective and successful than I could have anticipated. As a result, I approach teaching with confidence, knowing that, when I’m at a loss, I can appeal to heaven for help and receive what I need. Believing that God is individually and personally invested in my well-being, I can have the assurance that He will help me in things both great and small. When I witness His hand moving through my life for my benefit, my belief is confirmed and strengthened. As John put it in his first epistle: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us” (I John 4:10).

Belief in God comes from a knowledge of His perfect character. The more we experiment on His word by applying it in our daily actions, the more we’ll experience the fruits of His love and goodness. The more we experience the fruits of His love specifically for us, the more our hearts will be drawn out in gratitude and love for Him. This is not a process reserved for those of us who have spent a lifetime going to church. President Tanner taught “that every human soul can receive this personal testimony,” coming to know of God’s divine reality and to believe in His unfailing love. Anyone can develop a life-transforming belief in God by seeking Him out and acknowledging His marvelous influence their life.

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that God “is the Great Parent of the universe…[who] looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and a paternal regard.” True belief in God entails a belief in the fundamental truth of His identity as our Father. I believe in God, which is to say that I believe in His fatherly care and paternal regard for me and for each of us. Because I believe in God, I know that His help is always near, that His counsel and commandments are always for my benefit, and that nothing will ever go permanently wrong if I stay close to Him. My belief is not a baby step towards knowledge, nor is it a sheepish admission of insufficient evidence—rather, my belief is the measure of how I feel about my God and about my faith. Ultimately, my belief is a decision to let God’s reality matter to me, encourage me, and lift me above the troubles of an increasingly troubled world.