Doctrine: Free will has one specific goal and purpose: God’s desire to help us become like Him and to have all that He has. It allows us to decide, and ultimately prove to ourselves (through experience), if we desire what God desires for us. To enable its purpose, free will (agency) has set conditions; which if we try to obscure or alter (superficially) results only in misery and suffering. Moral agency may be the highest law of heaven because it has sponsored the greatest applications of God’s love: His plan for us to gain access to His life and power, and the atonement performed by Jesus Christ (John 3:16).
Agency, i.e. free will, is one of those doctrines that many people believe they understand. And yet, I find that they understand it very little. Some think free will means no law, no guidelines, no rules, no restrictions and no consequences. Others believe laws, commands, rules, and consequences are necessary but then they use unrighteous dominion and fear to enforce them.
These are extremes, but many of us struggle to find the middle ground and thereby fail to understand our own moral agency and how to treat others as moral agents. Because we don’t grasp the doctrines behind agency we end up frequently misapplying it. We adopt false doctrines that guide our behaviors and impact our relationships. But, there is a correct place to sit along the spectrum of communication and treatment of others. And, it all comes down to understanding Moral Agency.
Moral Agency is the product of one specific goal or purpose: God’s desire to help us become like Him and to have all that He has. Our agency is a gift from Him. Moral Agency is what allows us to decide, and ultimately prove to ourselves (through experience), if we desire what God desires for us. That’s its purpose.
In order to preserve the purpose of God’s gift or Moral Agency, we need several conditions in place These conditions allow us to have free will and exercise to figure out if we want to become like God:
- Law defining right and wrong choices that will lead us toward godhood or away from it; and the blessings and consequences that accompany those right and wrong choices
- Knowledge of good and evil (established by the law) communicated to us and taught to us
- Enticements to do good and enticements to do evil (marketing from God and Satan)
- Ability for our actions to have tangible impact, or in other words, the mortal conditions (of pain and joy) that make our choices matter (this is not a simulation or a video game)
- Sufficient autonomy to act without interference (this includes the environment/world and even God, Himself out of our immediate presence)
- Ability to learn from mistakes and sins without being condemned by those mistakes and sins when we learn to do otherwise
I don’t have the luxury of going into great detail on these items without writing a book. But, suffice it to say, if God removed one of the above items, our agency would become null and void; of which the final consequence would be that our choices wouldn’t matter. And, if our choices don’t matter this life becomes pointless. If our choices don’t matter, they lose power to damn us or exalt us. No agency = an eternal limbo without sorrow but also without joy. No agency = the state of constant suspense with no hope of any fulfillment. Yuck.
God has established a world where we have true agency (Abraham 3:24-28). And, He never changes the above conditions. Agency has the power to help us become like God. Preserving agency is the truest form of love God can give us. And, it is the primary reason there was a need for an infinite atonement. The atonement allows us to exercise our agency in the godly learning process without being condemned by that process. Thus, moral agency may be the highest law of heaven because it has sponsored the greatest applications of God’s love: His plan for us to gain access to His life and power, and the atonement performed by Jesus Christ (John 3:16).
So, here we are. And, purposefully, life isn’t ever fair or idyllic. We have marriages suffering. We have parent-child relationships suffering. We have sibling relationships suffering. We have friendships suffering. We even have cultural and societal relationships suffering. And, they are all suffering because of the lack of understanding of God’s plan and the conditions of Moral Agency.
Neal A. Maxwell said (The Great Plan of the Eternal God, 1984):
So vital is this framework [of God’s plan] that if one stays or strays outside it, he risks provinciality and misery. In fact, most human misery represents ignorance of or noncompliance with the plan. A cessation of such mortal suffering will not come without compliance to it [the plan]. Hence, the Lord, who has freely shared this vital knowledge with us, has urged us to teach the fundamentals of this plan “freely.” (Moses 6:58)
So, let’s look at the issues that happen when we fail to teach the fundamentals of Moral Agency and its critical purpose in God’s plan. If we superficially change even one of the conditions, all sorts of extra misery and suffering results.
First, society keeps trying to change the law defining what is right and wrong in order to remove guilt and the idea of moral consequences. But, all removing such law does is prevent people from taking the time out to see if they want to become godly or not. Changing the societal law doesn’t actually change God’s law or the very real and inescapable moral consequences (both immediate and eternal). It only keeps people from understanding why they are here on earth and deciding if they want to be like their Heavenly Father or not.
Second, a lot of religious people do more than enough instructing and informing their children on godly laws and yet fail to also inform and instruct their children about the “other side,” accurately. They apply blind generalities that canvass the real experiences of sin thinking it will prevent their children from experimenting with evil. And, they do so because they are worried their children will be more curious if they are more informed. Yet, what they accomplish is removing the power their children need to make an educated and accurate choice. It’s difficult to make a honest choice without honest information. They are too worried (and afraid) about what their children will do rather than trusting them with all the information so they can determine the true desires of their own hearts.
These parents give the knowledge of good (in detail) and then only the knowledge of bad (in generalities and statements/threats using fear) and believe that this will keep their children from choosing the evil. However, what this well-intentioned plan does is leave children blind to their own hearts and desires until they are truly confronted with the sin. Then, when actually confronted with sin’s enticements and realities they are unprepared to fight it properly. They don’t know their own hearts and so they are more likely to succumb to such sin. If not in their youth (while at home) then possibly later when out of their parents’ purviews.
Knowledge increases the power of agency. And, relationships that are managed by the withholding of knowledge are those in which one party does not have a true testimony of the atonement, its accompanying grace, or God’s actual plan. In Alma 12:32 we read:
Therefore God gave unto them commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption, that they should not do evil, the penalty thereof being a second death, which was an everlasting death as to things pertaining unto righteousness; for on such the plan of redemption could have no power, for the works of justice could not be destroyed, according to the supreme goodness of God.
In this verse we can see that God didn’t give rules, guidelines, or commandments until AFTER expounding to Adam and Eve the fullness of the plan. I’m pretty sure God was thorough with His information. Yet, so often we give rules and commands without helping our children to understand the purpose of the rule and the full, detailed information of why breaking said rules will hinder their progress in God’s plan.
Third, Some of us are afraid of being too religiously pushy. Thus we err by eliminating proper and godly enticements and invitations to do good in order to not “impose” upon another’s free will. All the while Satan’s side has no qualms about imposing and inundating all of us with enticements and invitations to do evil. Thereby, our reluctance to invite and entice leaves our beloved ones overwhelmed by all the wrong propaganda. Now, granted, if we entice or invite in ways that stifle moral agency, such as: using fear tactics, coercion, manipulation, guilt trips, etc., then obviously we need to learn to entice and invite as God does. But then we should do it! By eliminating enticements to do good we decrease the power of an another’s agency because they have little chance of choosing the right because they are unaware of it or have forgotten it.
Fourth, some people, albeit understandably, would like to remove all the pain and suffering from the world. And, I don’t blame them. But, unfortunately (and fortunately) pain and suffering (all of it) is what makes this life and our choices matter.
Think about it. A tornado strikes. You can get mad at God for letting the tornado strike and deprive people of their homes (and possibly their lives), or you can gain peace in the fact that it generates an opportunity for Christlike service, gratitude, perseverance, sacrifice, long-suffering, etc…(all godly attributes). Take away the calamity and you take away the refining conditions it provides. As well, Christ has overcome death. Death is tragic, but it is not permanent. Such an event should arouse our relief and gratitude that God has already, in a past sense, reversed the calamity.
Or, a woman has an abusive husband. After years of verbal and physical abuse she finally gets out. Was the whole experience a total loss? No. First, because the atonement will eventually completely heal all of her mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical wounds. Second, it’s not a loss because she will understand Christ’s suffering better than most—innocent suffering. And by understanding Christ she will feel greater love for Him and have a chance to draw closer to Him and become like Him. Third, she will be able to entice others to get out of their abusive situations sooner than she did. She will be able to counsel them, comfort them, and understand their struggles. Her own experience has granted her power to become a Savior of others.
There is deep doctrine attached to all suffering. Suffering makes wrong choices wrong and also means that justice has to be paid. And, though Christ paid for all wrong choices, for those who don’t repent, they will eventually have to suffer, even as Christ did, because the ability to be hurt and to hurt others makes the hurt they caused matter; and it’s what makes it necessary for them to pay for it if they do not repent. (Doctrine and Covenants 19:15-19)
Fifth, and finally, people want God to step in and stop all suffering. They want Him to interfere and remove our necessary autonomy…especially in major crimes and catastrophic suffering. Little do they realize that removing the impact of choice removes the reality of choice. God can’t condemn those who sin if He stops them from sinning and removes the impact of their choices. And, if He steps in to stop a murder then He must also step in and stop you from gossiping, committing adultery, and other sins. There is no middle ground. Either we are allowed to condemn ourselves by our actions (and access grace by our actions) or we are not. And, if we are not allowed to choose and be impacted then there is no need for an atonement. (Alma 14:10-11; Alma 60:13; Helaman 14:29; 1 Nephi 18:11; Doctrine and Covenants 136:39)
Additionally, removing the negative also removes the positive. If the impact of choice is removed or preempted, then the good we do won’t matter either. If only the good matters and not the evil then there is no true free will (because we only have one choice) and there is zero power to become godly—which, do not forget, is the whole purpose of being here on this earth under these conditions and circumstances in the first place.
The atonement of Christ did not take place to remove all suffering. It took place to pay justice for the suffering we would all experience for all the various variables (conditions of morality) that cause suffering. It took place to bring us back into the presence of God, so that we don’t have to remain out of His presence forever—if we repent. It took place to resurrect us and get us out of these fragile and corrupted mortal bodies after using them to learn to become godly, or not. The atonement took place to give us the chance to learn to become godly (which requires agency) while also ultimately allowing us to change, repent, and improve. Without the atonement there is no agency and there is no plan and this life would never have happened.
As a last note, I have to mention that many Latter-day Saints take to heart the command found in Doctrine and Covenants 68:25-29. And yet, they subconsciously and inadvertently change the word “teach” to “coerce, threaten, manipulate, guilt, shame, or force.” God commands us to “teach” not to exercise unrighteous dominion. He commands us to “persuade,” not to threaten (Doctrine and Covenants 121:39-46).
People who struggle with this tendency to change the meaning of the word “teach” to “coerce…” need to ask themselves, “What does a teacher do? How do they help their class master a topic? How does a teacher encourage application? How does a teacher determine the level of understanding students have and their ability to apply that information and understanding?” As parents, are we teachers or taskmasters? Just food for thought, here.
So, as we consider how to treat people with love, and as moral agents, we need to be certain we maintain the conditions of agency (i.e. God’s love) (as listed above). As well, a study of Christ’s ministry and His treatment of people in the scriptures will reveal many principles and applications for “how” to apply our knowledge of true Moral Agency. If we are prayerful about our scripture study and want to know how to treat others as moral agents and invite and entice them to come unto Christ, then we will find guidance in abundance.