As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I grew up with the word “agency” as a part of everyday life. When I made a choice, I was using my agency. I was able to make a choice because I had agency. Agency was fought over in the pre-mortal life, in a council where all of God’s spirit children were taught God’s plan. And in that plan, we needed agency. Satan (i.e. Lucifer) wanted to take away our agency, and force us to live right in this life. Jesus Christ defended our agency (our capacity to learn and choose for ourselves) and offered to be our Savior. It went on and on. (Abraham 3:23-28, Moses 4:1-4, Doctrine & Covenants 29:34-50)

Listen to the Mothers Who Know Podcast on Agency: the power to let go where I present!

I knew all the factual answers about agency. But though I was raised in an amazing home and was taught better than most, I didn’t really know anything about agency. Not really. I didn’t comprehend its depths and importance, I didn’t have sufficient understanding of the conditions of this life that made agency possible, and I certainly didn’t know how to reconcile the agency of others with how it impacted me and what that meant with regards to the atonement of Jesus Christ (grace).

When did I get a wake-up call? When my marriage of ten years began to crumble around me. It was a marriage solemnized by eternal covenants. It was a temple marriage.

What do you need to let go?

Before I continue my story, I’d like you to consider a few questions:

  • What part of your life causes you the most unease, fear, inner turmoil, distraction, anxiety, or despair?
  • Does it involve a relationship with another person?
  • Does it involve a relationship with yourself?

You might be surprised to find that “what you need to let go of today” can be identified by answering those questions. No matter what you began this article thinking you needed to let go of. When, if while you were considering those questions something else came to mind, then that is what you really need to let go of today.

Salvation and condemnation cannot be pronounced upon the ignorant

In Doctrine & Covenants 131:6 we read: It is impossible for [us] to be saved in ignorance.

If this is true then it also means the following: It is impossible for [us] to be condemned in ignorance.

But the question then becomes, “Ignorance of what?”

In John 17:3, Mathew 25:12, and JST Matthew 25:11 we learn that the knowledge we cannot be saved in ignorance of is a knowledge of, and a relationship with, God. Let that sit for just a minute.

Note: these scriptures don’t say anything about keeping a list of commandments, or ticking off any boxes. They don’t say anything about acting perfectly and never making mistakes. However, they indicate very clearly that whatever we do in this life, it had better lead us to a deep relationship with God and an understanding of our Heavenly Parents.

Thus, the first true goal of agency is that we might learn from our choices and experiences #whatgodislike and if we want a deep relationship with Him, and then to choose to develop that relationship. All of the rest, the commandments, covenants, ordinances—they are a catalyst to that eternal and saving relationship.

Too often we like to condemn people for imperfection or weakness. Too often we consider people saved because they appear to be ticking off all the boxes. But, if instead we changed our perspective to paying attention to the relationship they have developed with Jesus Christ and with Heavenly Father, then all of their weaknesses or kept commandments would mean far less—except in how they have helped these individuals develop that divine, critical relationship.

The power of agency is founded upon 6 conditions

The primary thing that I learned in the process of my failing marriage is that agency is not simply the power to make a choice. That is only a piece. What I learned is that agency is almost entirely about accountability: our ability to be saved or condemned based upon the relationship we have developed with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.

Agency = power to choose to develop a relationship with God + ability to be accountable for that relationship

The 6 conditions we need for full agency are:

  • Home away from home (our own space, stewardships, and possessions)
  • Law and consequence
  • Correct and complete instruction
  • Enticement
  • Experience
  • Atonement of Jesus Christ

Let’s look at each of these conditions separately.

Home away from home

When I first got remarried to Luke, my current husband, I’d had very little opportunity to get to know and develop a relationship with my eldest stepdaughter, Elizabeth. The month we got married she graduated from high school and headed straight to college. I didn’t get to know her really well until she came to live with us after I got pregnant with my youngest, and only biological, daughter, Anna.

While Elizabeth was living with us, she had chores and responsibilities. And, she didn’t always do them. When she failed to do them, I was always under the dilemma: 1) enforce her chores and responsibilities, or 2) do them myself and build the relationship. As a mom, enforcing rules and teaching children responsibility holds a lot of weight. But I was petrified of damaging the small relationship we had, and she had a lot of emotional and psychological injuries from her parent’s divorce. I was in a quandary.

While laboring over this quandary, the Spirit said to me, “She’ll very soon have a home of her own. She’ll learn by her experience then these responsibilities you’re worried about now. Let them go. Keep building the relationship.”

That was the answer. When Elizabeth had her “own home” she would learn by her experience the responsibilities I was so worried she’d never learn. When I came to understand that, I could “let go” of the quandary and simply love her.

One of the reasons we have been born in a mortal world away from our heavenly home is because there are some things we can’t learn without “having our own home” away from God. This is a critical condition of our mortal agency that allows us to choose for ourselves to develop a relationship with Heavenly Father. Out of His presence we are not compelled to develop that relationship. We have the opportunity to choose it.

Law and consequence

Law is established by God, and I am thankful for that. I haven’t met a person in this life that is capable of establishing right and wrong perfectly. So, we don’t have to worry about that. God has given us the law, and it is the law which creates accountability. It says what it right and wrong.

Consequences (eternal and mortal) are also established by the law. They cannot be changed, avoided, or transmuted. (Doctrine & Covenants 130:20-21)

Correct and complete instruction

The year before my first marriage ended, I was prompted repeatedly (and with great force) to preach at my spouse. I’d been praying so hard to save the marriage, then when these promptings came I was certain that by preaching at him I was going to say something to make him come around. I spent months saying the things and having the discussion the Spirit put upon me. Then, in the end, to my bewilderment, my spouse chose to end the marriage anyway. I was baffled.

However, a few months later I was open enough to learn, from the Spirit, that I had not been saving the marriage, I had been making my ex-spouse accountable. Accountable? How?

I thought my ex-spouse knew and had a testimony of the covenants he’d made with God next to me in the temple. But, after spending a year preaching to him about those very covenants and then to have it end, it occurred to me two things:

  • What he didn’t know, he now knows, and he was invited to act on truth and chose not to, and
  • Because I know that he knew those things and then he still chose an alternate path, I can “let go” of any concern I have that the marriage ending is my fault.

Did I make mistakes? Yes. But the Spirit taught me that ultimately, the accountability laid in keeping the covenant or rejecting it. I kept the covenant. He rejected it.

In our relationships with spouse, family, children, and friends; if we are invited by the Spirit to offer correct and complete instruction to them, thereafter we are free from the accountability. How many times in the scriptures do the prophets say that they are preaching to “rid my garments of your blood”? (See Testimony of Three Witnesses, Mosiah 2:28, and Mormon 9:35, etc.) This is accomplished by offering correct and complete instruction to those we love and then inviting them to act on it. Then, we can “let go.”

In Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, the character named Dr. Ransom is kidnapped by two professors, smuggled onto a spaceship, and flown to another planet—against his will. The two professors won’t tell Ransom anything about the planet or its inhabitants. Thus, when Ransom arrives, “He saw nothing but colors—colors that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are.”

We tend to expect people to “see” their errors clearly when they still know very little, or insufficient, to know what those errors look like—in all circumstances—and what they are. This is the purpose of correct and complete instruction. We need to lower our judgment and increase our instruction.

Enticement

I think we often expect people to know what God’s voice sounds like (or what it feels like) when they haven’t yet come to understand what Satan’s voice sounds like (or feels like). We expect them to identify the positive with as little experience with the negative as possible. This is an expectation we need to let go of.

Certainly, it would be nice if we all recognized the voice of the Spirit and never made any mistakes. But that is not the point of this life. The point of this life is to develop a relationship with God, a deep one. That involved learning to understand, recognize, and follow His voice, and to feel what it is like to have Him a part of our lives. For most of us, we cannot do this without some—and sometimes a lot of—experience with Satan’s voice, and what it feels like to have him in our lives.

Enticements by both Satan and God are necessary (both!) for us to gain experience and validate our knowledge of the instruction we have received.

Satan’s enticements look a lot like this:

  • Doubt, fear, feelings of worthlessness, encouragement to self-deprecate and despair,
  • Temptations to sin, to value the knowledge of men above that of our own spiritual feelings and experiences, to gossip,
  • The feeding of anger and the feeding of hopelessness,
  • The false belief that by controlling others we can save them

God’s enticements look a lot like this:

  • Light of Christ (gut feeling, or telestial guidance)
  • Power of the Holy Ghost – clear validation that we are hearing a truth (terrestrial guidance)
  • Gift of the Holy Ghost – constant validation of our gut feeling, reminders to act on validations of truth, and an actual change made in our central being toward sanctification (celestial guidance)
  • Spiritual Interventions – warnings that we are straying and what will happen if we continue
  • Spiritual Ultimatums – an immediate loss of some blessings combined with a call to repentance (a probationary period in which we have the opportunity to come back into compliance or will lose all blessings)

For more on spiritual interventions and ultimatums please check out my FREE book on PDF: Finding Greater Happiness, Peace, and Rest in the Covenant of Marriage.

I think it is easy to feel powerless as a spouse, parent, family member, or friend when those directly involved in our lives are heading away from the Lord or are openly fighting against Him. But we are not powerless. And, we can increase our power to “let go” by making use of spiritual interventions and spiritual ultimatums.

When I met my current husband, Luke, I wasn’t looking for marriage. But when it seemed clear that the Lord was offering me this path, I accepted it. Yet, I was tired. My divorce had taught me so much about agency, that I was determined to set some clear relationship boundaries with my new spouse.

So, I told him two things:

  1. I enjoy exercise and it’s a part of my life. I do it because I want to. I do it to be healthy enough to serve the Lord and my family. But I also love to eat. Good, really good, food is one of the most important things in my life. If you expect me at any point in our marriage to look like a super model, you can let go of that expectation and hope now. It’s not going to happen. Because it’s not important to me.
  2. Your salvation and exaltation are between you and God. Though I will enter this covenant with you, I have no intention of micromanaging, or even worrying, your relationship with God. So, don’t expect me to bug you or keep you in line. I’m going to be worrying about my own relationship and do not resent me for how I pursue that relationship. The only way I will ever bug you is if God inspires me to.

To date, I have only ever been prompted to bug Luke once. I have occasionally allowed myself to fear and bug him on my own—which didn’t help either of us. But as for the rest, God hasn’t prompted me to get involved. So, I have been able to “let go” of worrying about his salvation from the start.

I also prayed for the first several years only to ever see the good in him and to “let go” of the rest. Those prayers worked, and now I never worry. If I am ever tempted, I renew that prayer.

If, however, his salvation ever interferes with my working toward mine, then I am not powerless. I can use spiritual interventions and ultimatums. After which, I can again “let go.”

Experience

This is the condition of mortal agency that no one likes. Why? Because we want our spouses, friends, family members, and children to somehow develop a relationship with God by only making good choices, and never experiencing any negative consequences. If this is you, I hope this is a wakeup call.

Negative experience is scary to us, but it is not ever a loss. Experience with God’s opposite only teaches us more about God. Because of the atonement of Jesus Christ ALL experience is good experience if we learn from it. Remember that, and do not ever allow yourself to fear.

There is a popular book called The Giver by Lois Lowry which is about a society which has been created out of fear. By trying to avoid all the negative they produce a colorless, bland world where all but the Giver (in the society) see no color and feel no extremes in emotion. They don’t get to choose anything for themselves because:

  • It is scary
  • Because they might make the wrong choice
  • Because they might choose the wrong mate
  • Because they might choose the wrong job

However, in the end, the Giver—and the Giver to be—determine that this system must end. The Giver, alone, simply can’t bear all the negative memories and feelings, nor all the beauty and color, by themselves. It needs to be shared. And the most important reason, “so that people can choose for themselves.”

I often say these days “#GoAndDo” because the Spirit has taught me that no experience is a loss. So, when loved ones seem to be making choices that will make them miserable, I simply say, “#GoAndDo.” And I can say it with peace, and I can “let go” of fear and worry because I know that the sooner they choose and EXPERIENCE the consequences of their choices for themselves, the sooner they’ll learn. How they learn is not as important as that they do learn.

When loved ones do start down paths that lead to hard experiences, even negative experiences, I simply ask the Lord;

“If there is instruction I can give, and invitation I can extend, and example I can set, or love that I can show [this individual], let me know. Otherwise, it’s in Thy hands.”

The atonement of Jesus Christ

I’ve already said it, but the beauty of the atonement of Jesus Christ is that it allows us to gain experience and to choose a relationship with God with full accountability without being condemned by our mistakes or negative consequences in the learning process.

Read that again and again until you understand it well. It’s the primary key to “letting go!”

My eldest stepson, Daniel, was living at home with us. He’s always been exceptionally responsible. So, at the age of 17 my parents bought him a laptop. After having it a bit, he came to me and asked, “Aren’t you worried at all about the time I spend on my computer gaming or what I might be doing?” I was reading a book and at first, I didn’t look up. I just spoke, “No, not really. You know what’s right and wrong and healthy and unhealthy.”

Then, I looked up at him. He was standing in the doorway to the living room where I sat. “You’ve been taught. It’s your computer. Also, you know that if you make any mistakes or need help you can come to your Dad, and I, and we’ll help you…” Then, I laughed, “All your time on that computer is on you.”

Was I worried at the things he might do? No. I really wasn’t. I could let go because the 6 conditions of agency had been met—and I didn’t need to micromanage his relationship with God:

  1. The computer was his.
  2. We’d taught him right and wrong and the correct use of time and of his computer and the consequences of its use in certain ways.
  3. At the age of 17, he’d had experience with the voice of God and of Satan. He knew enough to be his own master.
  4. He’d already had experience with being tempted to play computer games too long and feeling the consequences.
  5. This was the first computer he’d had that was only his. It was time he began to learn from that experience.
  6. The atonement is in place, so if he makes mistakes, wastes time, or commits sin, he will learn from that experience and strengthen his relationship with Heavenly Father through repentance.

We often don’t realize this:

The entire purpose of agency is to allow us to gain sufficient experience to choose to become like, and develop a relationship with, our Heavenly Father with full accountability (Doctrine & Covenants 131:6). We can’t ultimately choose Him in ignorance (ibid.).

Agency is how we gain that accountability. The atonement takes care of all the rest.

A closing thought

The Israelites wanted someone else to have the relationship with God, to have the experience, and to bear the accountability. The result was a set of commandments I consider to be micromanagement. They had to get all their relationship and messages from God second-hand. They chose to deny themselves of the opportunity for that direct relationship with God. Why? They were afraid of accountability. Moses—and later their kings and judges—was their metaphorical Giver.

If we find ourselves micromanaging others choices, then are we getting in the way of them developing a relationship with God?

On the other hand, we have the Nephites, under the reign of King Mosiah II. When none of his children wanted the throne, King Mosiah II persuaded the Nephites to establish a system of judges and personal accountability.

Mosiah 29:38-39 says:

…yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins…and they were exceedingly rejoiced because of the liberty which had been granted unto them.

When the conditions for agency are met in our relationships with ourselves and others, we can LET GO.

As adults, we often ignore our experience and trade it in for our expectations. The Phantom Tolbooth by Norton Juster, one of my favorite books, proudly teaches us that we can’t get to where we’re going without first getting past expectations.

BT

Doctrine: Learning to treat others as Moral Agents is critical to us becoming like God. Others certainly won’t become like God if we use any other lesser tactics. Just getting people to go through the motions of righteousness does not mean that they desire and want to become like God.

One of the biggest dilemmas all of the god-fearing have is how to love others without condoning sin. But, we often forget that we are also trying to be godly–we need to learn this not just for others, but for our own progression.

If you believe in a God of any kind and try to follow godly ways, then you have been taught that those ways are right and to go against them is wrong. So, how do you encourage others to live those godly ways, to “come unto Christ and be perfected in Him,” without forcing your beliefs on them?[i] How can you accept them for who they are and where they are in their own journey to God (because ultimately all journeys lead back to God, whether we believe in and acknowledge His laws or not)?

I’ve been working my way to this for years. But, I think I’ve finally come up with a digestible way to explain how to love others without condoning sin.

The answer is to treat them as Moral Agents. I’ve discussed the details and the whys behind Moral Agency in a previous blog Treating Others As Moral Agents. If you don’t understand the basics of moral agency, then this blog won’t be quite as helpful. This blog is more simplified and direct focusing specifically on how to do it.

In order to have Moral Agency we need several conditions in place. These conditions are the fundamental equation required to achieve the sum of Moral Agency. An equation would look like this:

The Conditions of Mortality = Moral Agency

The Conditions of Mortality must be in place to allow us to have Moral Agency. If even one is altered or changed, or removed, free will/agency ceases to exist. And, we need that Moral Agency to figure out if we want to become like God—the purpose of this life.

So, here are the Conditions of Morality, or the Conditions for Moral Agency/Free Will

  1. 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
  2. Knowledge of good and evil (established by the law) communicated to us and taught to us
  3. Enticements to do good and enticements to do evil (marketing from God and Satan)
  4. 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)
  5. Sufficient autonomy to act without interference (this includes the environment/world and even God, Himself out of our immediate presence)
  6. Ability to learn from mistakes and sins without being condemned by those mistakes and sins when we learn to do otherwise

So, how do you treat others as Moral Agents? How do you love them without condoning sin? How do you lead them to God without using coercion, fear, or other unrighteous tactics?

Answer: establish and maintain the conditions for Moral Agency in all your interactions with others.

Remember, you don’t want people to simply DO what’s right. You want them to LOVE GOD and BECOME LIKE HIM. We can get people to “go through the motions” using all sorts of tactics that we may justify as OK, but they aren’t. So, the goal of maintaining the conditions for Moral Agency in all your interactions has nothing to do with creating or evoking a specific reaction. But, it has everything to do with creating an environment where individuals will be encouraged to:

  • Ponder
  • Self-evaluate
  • Self-judge
  • Be open to spiritual impressions
  • Feel and share love

I refer to only one scriptural account of Christ interacting in such a way that all of the above were accomplished, as there are many. But, if you wish more, you’ll have to study the scriptures with the specific intent to notice how God treats others as Moral Agents and maintains the conditions of Mortality.

In John 8 we read the story of the woman taken in adultery. Please take note of the bolded and highlighted words which I will elaborate on further down:

Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.

And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,

They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.

Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

There is so much beautiful stuff going on in this story. First, note that Christ had been up in the Mount of Olives communing with God. Thus, we see that His own spiritual strength was firmly intact. He met the conditions to be in tune with God and the Spirit. He submitted to His Father’s will, despite the fact that He himself was a God.

Next, we note that though we was repeatedly taunted, He reacted in three very interesting ways. First, He didn’t respond to the question initially because it was a blatant act of contention. Though Christ had been teaching up to that point, He stopped responding because the negative intent was clear. Note also that physically He brought Himself low to the ground in a non-threatening body position. This is so interesting to me. Also, He drew in the sand. Did He really need that time to think? I don’t think so. But, He set an example for each of us because we do need to follow His example and take the time to think in similar circumstances.

After it was clear the Pharisees were not going to leave Him alone, Christ does rise up. And, notice He doesn’t say, “Well, I know the law says to stone adulterers, but we really should give this woman a second chance.” He doesn’t say, “I’m the Son of God and I choose to let this sin pass.” He doesn’t condemn the Pharisees by saying, “How dare you? Each of you is sinful and how could you think to condemn this woman?”

Christ’s response to their contentious question is nothing short of pure godly artistry. He says, “He that is without sin, let him first cast a stone,” indicating that they were right, the law did say to stone adulterers. So, He actually validated that the law was “the law,” and yet, His statement invites each one of them to self-evaluate and self-judge. Which of them—who probably actually thought they were nearly sinless—was going to publicly proclaim to be perfect? The result? Mercy for the woman and mercy for the Pharisees slowing taking their leave of guilt. Christ’s response to the Pharisees was also an act of love. He didn’t judge them publicly, they judged themselves publicly.

Next, Christ turns to the woman, “where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?” (Note: condemnation is the act of final judgment) He invites her to recognize and ponder her current situation. She has escaped immediate judgment for her sins. An act of mercy. “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more,” He finishes indicating that though she has sinned, she has another chance to set herself right. She is not under “final condemnation,” IF she will repent and sin no more.

Not only was the woman publicly ridiculed, but because of Christ’s actions she was publicly acquitted and given mercy, the chance to repent and become better.

  • Did Christ change the law defining right and wrong to make anyone feel better? NO.
  • Did Christ ensure the woman (and the Pharisees) were aware of their sins in a loving way? YES.
  • Did Christ interfere with their ability to choose? NO.
  • Did Christ allow them to feel the tangible impact of their choices (good and bad)? YES.
  • Did Christ allow them to ALL go and repent without being under final judgment or condemnation? YES.

I don’t know if it’s possible for each of us to let go of our desire to get others to do what’s right in the wrong ways. I don’t know if we can master loving them without condoning sin perfectly. I don’t know if we can treat others as moral agents as perfectly as God and Christ do. But, I do know that as I’ve understood this doctrine and tried to implement it that I’m learning to understand it better, and implement it better. The more I try the better I get. And, since my goal is to become like God, I’ve got to keep trying, because these conditions are why we have Moral Agency to begin with. These conditions are so important for our eternal progression that it’s why we’re here, on this earth, out of God’s presence. These conditions are how God treats each and every single one of us in every single interaction we have with Him. We must learn it too!

So, avoid unrighteous dominion. Avoid using fear tactics to get people to “go through the motions.” And embrace Treating Others as Moral Agents because that’s the only way they will ever actually BECOME like God.  And, it’s the only way you will ever BECOME like God.

BT

[i] Moroni 10:32

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:

  1. 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
  2. Knowledge of good and evil (established by the law) communicated to us and taught to us
  3. Enticements to do good and enticements to do evil (marketing from God and Satan)
  4. 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)
  5. Sufficient autonomy to act without interference (this includes the environment/world and even God, Himself out of our immediate presence)
  6. 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.volunteers with hands up

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.

BT

Doctrine: There are two things faith cannot do: it cannot violate another person’s agency, and it can’t force our will upon God. Agency is the preeminent doctrine of heaven and earth–it cannot be overthrown. Covenants can only secure/bind us individually to God when we keep them. Our kept covenants cannot bind others to God. Sealing covenants bind eternally only those family members who keep their covenants.

The Abrahamic Covenant. It’s something most Latter-day Saints have barely thought about, let alone studied. It’s something they’ve heard bits and pieces of and like to quote ideals from; but they have no idea of the context of what they are quoting. And, most often, this covenant is misunderstood in regard to wayward family members.

Next, Agency. It’s another thing Latter-day Saints claim to understand—better than most, even. And yet, they only understand it as far as they like it. The parts of agency they don’t like, they disdain, ignore, or push away and purposefully remain ignorant of. And, the one place people like to pretend they can remain ignorant is in regard to wayward family members.

The word “wayward” means: difficult to control or predict because of disobedient behavior, having turned, or turning away from what is right or proper, etc.

Now, when I say “wayward,” I mean the children, or grandchildren, or other descendant posterity (from a man and woman who have been sealed in the temple and who are bound by the Abrahamic Covenant i.e. the New and Everlasting Covenant) who have rejected the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, gone inactive from it, or who even actively fight against it.

So, what is the big misunderstanding? Many people who have been sealed in the temple falsely believe that if they (meaning the two of them) keep their sealing covenant and are faithful, that their wayward children will be forced by God to someday repent and “make it” to the celestial kingdom. And, they think that this will happen because of the Abrahamic Covenant by which they are bound. They mistakenly believe that their covenant with God will save their children despite the actions of their children. [See Elder Bednar quote and reference at the end of this blog post for the reason many people have strayed into this belief.]Bored Teenage Girl Being Told Off By Mother

It’s the hard truth, but this is simply not the case. It can’t be the case because it is contrary to all the foundational doctrine upon which the gospel is founded—upon which this life is founded. In Doctrine and Covenants 82:10 and 132:21 teach quite clearly that kept covenants are what bind us to God and give us access to His fullness. We cannot bind others to God by our kept covenants (Matthew 25:1-12). They must make and keep their own.

So, not only is this mistaken belief not part of the Abrahamic Covenant, but it totally goes against the whole plan of salvation which is designed to allow, encourage, and protect agency. God makes no covenant with any of His children which overrides the agency of any of His other children. If agency was that easily sidestepped then the Atonement of Jesus Christ would never have been necessary, or God’s plan, for that matter.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently taught in his October 2016 General Conference address, Fourth Floor Last Door:

Faith is powerful, and often it does result in miracles. But no matter how much faith we have, there are two things faith cannot do. For one, it cannot violate another person’s agency.

One woman prayed for years that her wayward daughter would return to the fold of Christ and felt discouraged that her prayers had seemingly gone unanswered. This was especially painful when she heard stories of other prodigal children who had repented of their ways.

The problem was not a lack of prayers or a shortage of faith. She needed only to understand that, as painful as it might be for our Father in Heaven, He will not force anyone to choose the path of righteousness. God did not force His own children to follow Him in the premortal world. How much less will He force us now as we journey through this mortal life?

God will invite, persuade. God will reach out tirelessly with love and inspiration and encouragement. But God will never compel—that would undermine His great plan for our eternal growth.

The second thing faith cannot do is force our will upon God. We cannot force God to comply with our desires—no matter how right we think we are or how sincerely we pray. Consider the experience of Paul, who pleaded with the Lord multiple times for relief from a personal trial—what he called “a thorn in the flesh.” But that was not God’s will. Eventually, Paul realized that his trial was a blessing, and he thanked God for not answering his prayers the way he had hoped.

Christ himself said to the Jews (the blood descendants of Abraham) who continued to reject Him (Matthew 3:8-9; JST Matthew 8:35-36):

Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Why is it that ye receive not the preaching of him whom God hath sent? If ye receive not this in your hearts, ye receive not me; and if ye receive not me, ye receive not him of whom I am sent to bear record; and for your sins ye have no cloak. Repent, therefore, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance; And think not to say within yourselves, We are the children of Abraham, and we only have power to bring seed unto our father Abraham; for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children into Abraham.

Christ declared that being of the literal blood of Abraham was not sufficient for salvation or Priesthood authority. The Jews had to also bring for fruits meet for repentance in order to fulfill their calling as God’s people.

So, what is the Abrahamic Covenant for if not to force people back to God?

The Abrahamic Covenant is THE COVENANT God made with Adam and Eve, and all the righteous who lived thereafter. It was renamed after Abraham because of his faithfulness. The Abrahamic Covenant contains many smaller covenants, promises, obligations, powers, and assignments; which, if undertaken will help us become like God. That is its sole purpose: TO BECOME LIKE GOD.Hipster girl with beanie hat showing attitude

The following covenants are all a part of the Abrahamic Covenant:

Baptismal covenant (Abraham 2:9-11)

In the baptismal covenant we agree to try to become like God by keeping His commandments, serving our fellow men, and sharing God’s plan with others. We accept the command to receive the Holy Ghost and live worthy of His companionship. By entering this covenant, we become the seed of Abraham (whether we are already blood descendants or not).

The Gift of the Holy Ghost covenant (Abraham 2:9-11)

When we enter the baptismal covenant we are commanded to receive the Holy Ghost. This power is the baptism of fire. Different from the power of the Holy Ghost, and the Light of Christ, the Gift of the Holy Ghost is what cleanses us and changes us—over time—into a godly being. As we exercise our agency to do good, the “fire” of the Holy Ghost is able to make permanent changes in our nature (like a blacksmith using a forge to heat metal and change it into something; the heat is necessary to create the malleability needed to make long-term change to the metal).

Priesthood Ordination covenant (Abraham 2:9, 11)

Both men and women act under the authority of the Priesthood of God. Therefore, the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood (found in Doctrine and Covenants 84:5-44) applies to all; especially endowed members (who have gone to the temple to receive “the fullness of the Priesthood”. We are to live by every word which proceedeth forth from the mouth of God. We are to receive, embrace, and keep our baptismal covenants and temple covenants.

Part of having access to the Priesthood is using it to spread the gospel and offer its saving ordinances to all mankind. This is one of the chief responsibilities of the Abrahamic Covenant—of God’s people. It is not just to preach the gospel, but to make available its saving ordinances to all. This is a responsibility and a command. It is not just a nice thing to do.

Endowment covenant (Abraham 1:2-4; 2:8-9)

A primary part of the Abrahamic Covenant is taking upon us deeper covenants to live in such a way that we can become like God. The endowment is not just about “living with God.” It’s about “becoming like God.”

The covenants that accompany the endowment are critical to us binding ourselves more firmly to God (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10) and His plan for His children, and for us. As we receive greater knowledge and power to be righteous and godly, we become “like God.”

Sealing covenant (Abraham 1:2-4; 2:8-9)

God promised Abraham eternal seed (family). This is what God has. If we want it also, we must enter into the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage. It doesn’t guarantee that all our children will be exalted. It does, however, guarantee that those of our children who keep their covenants with God will be bound to us forever, as we are bound to God by keeping His covenants.

Contrary to the generalized belief that most Latter-day Saints have, getting married in the temple is not “about them.” The sealing covenant is an individual covenant made with God to live worthy of having eternal family. It is a covenant made in the pursuit of receiving godly privileges. Even if one member of the marriage fails to keep their covenant, the covenant is still in force for the person who remains faithful. Those who take upon them the New and Everlasting Covenant agree to join God in His work and glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. That’s what the sealing covenant is!

This is the covenant that so many people think means God will force their posterity to repent and live the gospel. This is not the case. The sealing covenant, however, does provide something that often gets mistaken for God forcing people to give the gospel. What is it? Well, let me tell you.

In Jacob 5 we read the olive tree allegory. This allegory is long. Most people skip over reading it. They are overwhelmed by its symbolism. But, this allegory is a strong visual of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Throughout the allegory we see God do everything He can to get his olive trees (the primary tree being the House of Israel) to produce good fruit (or to be righteous). He takes wild (wicked) branches and grafts them into good (righteous) trees. He takes good branches and grafts them into wild trees. He takes good branches and plants them in different places and soil trying to preserve the righteousness of the tree they came from. He slowly prunes away wild branches trying to give those that remain a chance to turn good.

Back and forth, and back and forth, the Lord goes trying to save The House of Israel, the Covenant People, the Children of Abraham so that they might “salt/save” the rest of the vineyard. The House of Israel carries the responsibility to preach the gospel and carry the ordinances to all the rest of God’s children! So, the Lord promises, because of the covenant, that He will work extra hard to provide conditions for those “children of the covenant” to choose to fulfill their covenant responsibilities. But, He will not force them to change. He will merely go back and forth, back and forth, pruning, grafting, dunging, planting, etc. trying to get “His people” to keep their covenants and bless the lives of each other and the rest of His children.

“For of whom much is given, much is required (Doctrine and Covenants 82:3)” which is why the Lord works extra hard to make sure that those of us who have entered into, or who have been born into, His covenants, don’t end up with “greater condemnation.” This is also why He tries to encourage us to make those covenants only when we are prepared to embrace them. God’s covenants are not just membership in a church, or saying we want to be affiliated with the church. They are a firm contract between we and Him about our responsibility to do His will and learn to become like Him.

Divorce in the family
Divorce in the family, the husband leave the family

Now, let’s talk about agency.

In order to have agency we must have:

  1. Law defining right and wrong
  2. Opposing choices
  3. Opposing enticements
  4. Power to choose (to act and not be acted upon)
  5. Environment that does not interfere with choice

If we take away wrong choice in order to make things nice and to keep people from feeling bad, then we also take away right choice. Law defines both. Remove law, neither exists. Remove wrong, the other disappears also. So, we can’t say, “But, I love my son/daughter. I cannot imagine heaven without them. Even if they are unwilling to keep such and such commandment, surely God will still let them in—for my sake.” Not going to happen, “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:13).

Notice God said He cannot look upon sin with the least “degree” of allowance. That’s why they are several “degrees” of glory. The degree of sin any of us is determined to hold onto, and not repent of, will also determine the degree of our glory (Doctrine and Covenants 88:15, 18-24, 33-39).

But, here’s something else to consider: if we love our children more than we love God…or if we love our version of God’s plan more than God’s version; so much so that we would force our children to live in a kingdom of glory they would not be prepared for, would not like, nor appreciate (Doctrine and Covenants 88:33), then perhaps we don’t really understand what degree of glory we really desire.

If our children don’t succumb to the pruning, grafting, dunging, etc.; if they don’t succumb or submit to the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost, then we cannot manipulate them into becoming godly. It’s terribly sad. It’s heartbreaking. But, that is simply not the plan. We cannot override their power of choice. God is the one who has given it to them, and who are we to try to fight against God?

If there is anyone out there who still struggles with this concept, please read, Faithful Parents and Wayward Children: Sustaining Hope While Overcoming Misunderstanding by Elder David A. Bednar.

But, here is one quote from it:

The statements by Joseph Smith and Orson F. Whitney are construed by some members of the Church to mean that wayward children unconditionally receive the blessings of salvation because of and through the faithfulness of parents. However, this interpretation is moderated by the fact that the most complete account of the Prophet’s sermon was not available to Church historians at the time they compiled an amalgamated version of his teachings from the notes of Willard Richards and William Clayton. In the more complete set of notes recorded by Howard and Martha Coray, Joseph Smith is shown to have qualified his statement to make the promised blessings conditional upon the obedience of the children:

“When a father and mother of a family have [been sealed], their children who have not transgressed are secured by the seal wherewith the Parents have been sealed. And this is the Oath of God unto our Father Abraham and this doctrine shall stand forever.”

So, I’m posting this blog, not to dash hopes. But, to hopefully influence the actions of those lovingly, but sadly, misdirected parents. Salvation is dependent upon our individual relationship with God (St. John 17:3; Matthew 25:12). We cannot make our children have a relationship with God. If they are to have His image in their countenances, then they must do their part to become like Him.

So, if you’re a parent and you’re trying desperately to be more righteous, in an unbalanced way, in order to save wayward posterity, then you are missing the point. You can’t be more righteous on their behalf. You can only be righteous on your own behalf.

So, what can you do?

You can focus your faith and your energy on what you can control. You can focus your faith and energy on helping them come to know God “through you” by showing charity, grace, and love to them where they are in their spiritual journey and no matter what degree of glory they choose. You can invite them to serve and love you and their family and friends. You can pray for opportunities to speak to them by the Spirit. You can focus on using your agency to invite (not manipulate or coerce) them to use theirs—to choose God.

You cannot visit the temple an extra ten times, or read your scriptures an extra fifteen minutes, or serve yourself into exhaustion in order to force the Lord to save your children despite their agency. What a useless burden to carry? How little trust in the Lord and His plan? How selfish to force our desires on others?

The beautiful thing about God’s plan is that we will all get exactly what we want. Sure, those of us with a testimony of what’s best will always mourn when others choose less than the sum that’s available to them. But, ultimately, we all end up exactly where we want. And that, alone, should give us peace.

Alma 29:4:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.

So many people have often said to me, “I wish I could do <fill in the blank> like you.” But, they don’t really want to. They think it would be nice to do <fill in the blank> without any practice, study, or effort. But, when it really comes down to it, they put the effort into the things they really want. And, if they wanted to do <fill in the blank> just like me, then they’d put the effort into it. It’s as simple as that. And that’s what God is asking of all of us, whether parents or children. We must bring forth our own fruit.

BT

Doctrine: Agency is sacred and we should not attempt to manipulate or control it. We must view others as moral agents and treat them as moral agents. Love should not be used to exercise unrighteous dominion. The Savior, Jesus Christ, is the best example of treating others as moral agents.

One of the hardest things any sincere Christian will ever have to do is learn how to love a sinner without condoning the sin. The sinners we face on a day to day basis include: spouses, children, extended family, close friends, acquaintances, and everyday people out in the world. Whether it’s a small sin or a large one, we all struggle with the balance of loving without condoning sin.

It seems to be this big issue facing us every moment we are interacting with others. We devote a major portion of our brain power, when we are with them, to thinking, “How can I get them to change? How can I get them to repent and want to get back on the right path?”

Whether you’re a Christian parent struggling with a willful teenager or a Christian commercial baker wondering what to do with a client who wants a cake for their same-sex marriage reception, your struggle is identical. The person, or persons, you encounter who are sinning in ways you feel hurt or offended by can be anyone—even yourself.

As I have pondered this topic, I have come to the conclusion that it would be unwise to provide detailed, generalized scenarios. It is not my role or responsibility to tell anyone how to interpret their personal situations. I can, however, present the doctrines that underlay this issue. Then, as each of you ponders these doctrines, I am absolutely certain—if your heart is open—you will be inspired to know what to do for your personal struggles on this issue.

This blog will be broken up into a few different headings. I suggest that as you read you ponder each section before proceeding to the next.

Who is a Moral Agent?

The answer to loving the sinner and not the sin is to view them and to treat them as a moral agent. To do this we must first understand what a moral agent is and the power of personal choice and external influence.

At a high level, moral agents:

  • are old enough to not only receive instruction but to understand it and realistically apply it

  • have been sufficiently instructed to know the basics of right and wrong

  • are capable of reading and/or hearing and understanding the written and spoken word of God

  • are within a range of minimally accepted mental functioning that allows them to be rational and capable of independent, reasonable thought and action

(Note: This is a generalized list. It is meant to illustrate a point, not to be comprehensive or detailed)

You Can’t Control a Moral Agent

One of the first struggles we all have is our desire to come up with the right words or actions that we can do to get others to change. This, is the wrong attitude and view to have. It is not our job to get people to change. Since Christians are commanded to spread God’s word, this may not make immediate sense. However, God has asked us to “invite” others to repent not to “make them” repent. This minor difference in meaning makes all the difference.

We cannot force people to make choices. God’s plan is set up in such a way that free will/moral agency is paramount. The atonement of Jesus Christ is what makes this agency possible. Christ overcame physical death, physical and psychological ailments, and of course sin and its effects. Therefore, Christ has power over life and salvation. If we mess up and then sincerely repent—which is the condition He has set—He can forgive, and fix (whether now or in the next life) anything we do wrong, or any damage we inflict upon others. He can even accept us back into His presence based upon this use of our agency to repent. If, and when, we die, He has—through the power of the resurrection—already ensured that at some future point our bodies will be perfected and restored to us and that we will never die again.

Therefore, because of the atonement of Christ, there isn’t any threat or violence anyone can subject us to that removes our ability to choose. This is because they can’t take anything from us that God can’t restore. However, though the atonement provides mercy to those who meet the conditions, it doesn’t remove Justice. So, for those who refuse to repent—who willingly use their agency to ignore the atonement of Christ—they do not reap the benefits of salvation. So Justice will be served upon them for their actions, whether in this life or the next. Justice has to be met. And it will—in God’s own time.

So, even if we, or our family, are threatened with death unless we do something for someone, it cannot remove our ability to choose otherwise, and be accountable for our choices. All that matters is that we choose what is right. We have no excuse. There is no caveat or fine print that overrides our ability to choose and to be accountable for our choices.

However, while we can’t truly force people to do what we want, or control them, we can exert significant influence. We can invite, entice, persuade, coerce, instruct, or even threaten. Yet, it is how we use our influence that determines whether we are loving the sinner and not the sin.

Love is an Incredible Influential Force

Love can be given or withheld. In both cases, it is a powerful influence. How it is offered, shown, or removed and denied, can impact those on the receiving end in deeply spiritual, emotional, and psychological ways. It is, in fact, likely the most powerful influencer of moral agency that exists.

It is how love is offered and shown that is key to understanding how to treat others as moral agents.

It is often common for pious Christians to define/label an individual by their most heinous sin(s). That sin somehow clouds out all other perspectives of the individual. Therefore, the individual is then treated from that perspective. Which is an incorrect perspective. It is focusing on the beam while we have a mote (Luke 6:42).

For example, Joan sees that her good friend Jesse is struggling with a nicotine addiction. Therefore, whenever she interacts with Jesse, she chooses to refrain from praising him for the other good things he is involved in; or if she does offer a compliment it’s clearly not sincere or has a hint of restraint. And she does so with the underlying intent that her disappointment and displeasure will be felt—even if only in a tiny way. She’s afraid that if she fails to show her disappointment and displeasure in some way that Jesse will somehow think it’s okay to smoke and won’t try to quit. She’s also afraid that if Jesse doesn’t feel her displeasure in some way every time they’re together that he will think she’s okay with him smoking; and she really doesn’t want that. Then, during a longer visit, when Jesse asks where to go to smoke in or around her house, Joan tells him that smoking isn’t allowed and that if he wants to smoke, he’ll have to leave.

Similar to this above example, it is the tendency of many good people to believe that 1) they are responsible to fix others who are sinning, and 2) that focusing on the sin and communicating ongoing displeasure with the sinner is the only way the sinner will somehow realize they need to change.

 Ponder these questions for yourself:

  • If you sin, do you know it? Yes, or No. If yes, how do you know you’ve sinned?

  • If you are struggling with a sin/weakness and others focus on it, or define you by it, how do you feel?

  • If God refused to bless you and pour out His love upon you for the commandments you did keep simply because you hadn’t yet mastered others, or had a few sins you were struggling with, how would you feel about Him?

  • Are you solely defined by your sins? Yes or No. If no, then what are you defined by? Who are you?

As Latter-day Saints we preach, rather ceremoniously, that we are all children of God. And yet, we often treat sinners as though their identity is in their sin, not in their divine parentage.

Good and evil come with their own side effects and consequences (Doctrine & Covenants 93:2). We do not need to remind people that they are sinning. We do not need to use every interaction we have with them to express (whether subtly or openly) our displeasure. They know they’re sinning, or on the wrong track. Whether they choose to acknowledge it, every man and woman born to this earth has the light of Christ. Latter-day Saints have been given the gift of the Holy Ghost. They can’t go against that light without experiencing certain effects. God has seen to that. It is in His hands. And yet, we act as though we have to take over the role of subjecting sinners to guilt, ridicule, and displeasure—just in case they aren’t feeling it strongly enough from God.

All the withholding of love and kindness does to sinners is make them feel that we, who claim to be Christians, are hypocrites. We preach love and spread guilt. We preach grace and dish out condemnation and judgment—which authority we do not have. As well, this misuse of love as an influencer is a form of unrighteous dominion. It does not have its source in Christ. So, why do we do it, either on purpose or accidentally?

Well, we love God. We love His truths and we honor His laws and commands. We have received personal witnesses of them. So, when those we love or respect willfully rebel against the God we love, or try to ignore His will for them, we are hurt. We are also hurt because it also feels like a purposeful jab at us and the bond we share with them through these beliefs. So, we react to the hurt instead of stepping back to look at this person (or people) as God sees them. We want them to feel the lack of love so that they will be coerced into changing by added misery. I say “added misery” because sin, in and of itself, always naturally brings about misery. So, we are trying to add to it, or to make the misery more acute, or to have the misery show up sooner just in case the misery from their sin has been delayed.

Sometimes we may also gloat or have a “told you so” attitude when the misery and consequences do come. This is a terrible breach in the command to love others. This is not love. This is pride.

So many good Christians misuse love, or withhold love in a negative way to influence the actions of others. They use it as a bargaining chip. They  do not respect other’s moral agency and they do not encourage them to act on their own free will. They try to manipulate and control it.

Another way people often misuse the influence of love upon a moral agent is using that love as a justification to deny others the ability to suffer the consequences for their choices. We use love to justify protecting them from consequences of poor choices, when what we are really doing is prolonging their ability to understand the weight of their choices and actions. We are prolonging their ability to find the power to change—which consequences grant. At some point the people we love will get beyond our protective reach; and when they do is when they finally learn. This is why kids grow up and leave home. This is why God sent us to this earth. For a moral agent to act we have to also allow them to reap the consequences of those actions.

Treating Others as Moral Agents

So, how do we treat others as moral agents? How do we use love, the greatest influencer, to invite them to repent and come unto Christ?

  1. We must respect their agency and power to choose (2 Nephi 2:27).

  2. We must never withhold love to manipulate other’s feelings in an attempt to coerce them into repentance (Doctrine & Covenants 121:36-37, 39, 41-45).

  3. We must create opportunities for others to feel our love and God’s love based on their divine identity (Matthew 25:40; Mark 2:16-17).

  4. We must not try to replace God in passing judgment (Romans 14:10).

  5. We must not try to assist, add to, or replace the natural order of guilt that follows all sin put in place by God (Lamentation 1:12-16).

  6. When opportunities come to teach those who need to repent, we must do so with pure doctrine, understanding, love, support, and by the guidance of the Spirit (for if receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach—Doctrine and Covenants 42:14).

  7. We must love others sincerely; because we see them as God sees them; because we want to develop charity; not because we want to make them change; and even if they do not change.

Treating others as moral agents is using our interactions with them as opportunities to get them to think for themselves, feel for themselves, and choose for themselves. It’s the proper use of love. This is rarely outright preaching and testimony. It is most often giving sincere genuine service in the hopes that these children of God will feel both our love and God’s love whether or not it leads them to change or repent. It is being a good example in a genuine and loving way—without ulterior motives. It is inviting these children of God to be a part of the events in our lives where we know the Spirit will be present so that they have the opportunity to be taught by Him, not us. Our job is to love and invite, not to manipulate, judge, or coerce.

How do I know if my actions are condoning their sins?

Consider the following questions (regarding the people with whom you struggle to love despite their sin):

  1. Do they know your beliefs? Yes or No.

    1. Yes – How?

      1. My life is an example of what I believe

      2. I am always preaching what I believe to them, so they should know

      3. Others have told them my beliefs

    2. No. – Why not?

      1. My life is not necessarily the perfect example of what I believe

      2. I haven’t really come out and stated my beliefs in a kind manner

      3. I’m waiting for others to tell them

  2. When people are kind to you, do nice things for you, compliment you, and serve you, how does it make you feel? (You may choose one, several, all, or none, of the following answers.)

    1. I feel loved and it eases some of the stress in my life

    2. It makes me want to be better

    3. It makes me want to do other things to please them

    4. I appreciate their goodness

    5. It makes me feel admiration for them

    6. It makes me trust them

    7. Other

  3. When people are unkind to you, bring up faults or problems whether past or present, insult you, refuse to be genuine with you, and refuse to serve you, how does it make you feel? (You may choose one, several, all, or none, of the following answers.)

    1. I feel hurt and it adds to the stress in my life

    2. It makes me feel terrible

    3. It makes me feel like I can’t do better or that even if I do no one will notice or care

    4. It angers me so that I sometimes want to do other things to annoy or hurt them

    5. I resent their judgment and unkindness

    6. It makes me not trust them

    7. Other

If the people you struggle to love know your beliefs, then acts of service are not going to lead them to believe you are condoning their sins. Your acts of service will serve to strengthen the love they feel from you despite your disparate views on a sin/commandment. They will be more inclined to trust you, watch you, learn from you, and will have more opportunities to be invited by the Spirit to repent. Yet, they still have the power to choose not to repent, and you must respect that.

Showing genuine, sincere love is never condoning sin. However, this does not mean that there are never conditions to be met in order to receive certain blessings. Christ loves and serves us all. He performed the atonement for all. Yet, access to the atonement for spiritual rebirth is conditional upon our faith, repentance, and efforts to be better. Christ will not forgive sins we do not repent of. He cannot. He will not. And, many of God’s blessings are conditionally based upon our good works (Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21).

In summary, love is not a tool to manipulate the agency of others. Love is a trait we seek to create opportunities for divine influence no matter if a person chooses to repent or not.

BT

Doctrine: Politics has never been about picking the perfect leader. There is only one perfect leader, and that is Jesus Christ. Therefore, national and world politics has always been about our responsibility to seek to support good, honest, and wise candidates, and to uphold moral agency in the land that all may be accountable for their own sins in the day of judgment.

I have always loathed politics, and I’ll tell you why. Politics seem to breed contention, back-biting, slander, dissension—even among friends—and a long list of other negatives. In fact, I struggle so much with the political “environment” that I often check out completely. When it is time to vote, I seek out the least biased material I can find and research the issues and the candidates for myself. Then, I make my selections based on some very clear gospel doctrines—which will follow.

Politics, however, are not completely bad. In a very real way, government is a godly institution. God is our King. He is a perfect ruler, but He does expect us to be subject to His laws if we are to gain the glory of His divine leadership both now and in eternity. Learning to be subject to law is something we must to do learn to become like God, and to live with Him.

So, though earthly government is a poor substitute, it is indeed an actual substitute, therefore it is godly-instituted. God has said, “Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land. Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:22)

However, though government is a form or substitute of being subject to God, it is intended to be enacted and carried off in such a way that moral agency is preserved. Moral agency is our right to choose between opposing choices of all kinds and to be accountable, as an individual, for our choice. That accountability includes consequences, whether positive or negative.

God “raised up men” to design our current constitution and He has commanded that the constitution: “should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment…And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land…” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:77-80).

God has also said in Doctrine and Covenants 98:6-11:

Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land: and as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this [constitution], cometh of evil.

I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free. Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn.

Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.

And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God.

In the scriptures, God always tried to set up governments that preserved moral agency and allowed for as much individual choice and accountability as possible. That’s because, ultimately, in God’s plan, we do not approach Him as a nation, state, city, or town. We approach Him as individual children. Every choice we make is, in the end, individual.

So, in the scriptures, laws and consequence were dispensed from God through His prophets. God intended to have His people governed by prophets, apostles, pastors, teachers, etc. However, almost without fail God’s people always wanted to be “like everyone else.” They begged for kings and monarchs—absolute rulers. They wanted governments led by men. Not God.

In the Old Testament and Book of Mormon there are several accounts where the righteousness or wickedness of the ruling monarch often caused, by default, the subjected people to be righteous and or wicked. That’s because if a wicked king said something wicked in God’s eyes was okay, people could engage in it and avoid godly consequences (for the present), and the rest of the people had to bear with it. Therefore, as well, the king or ruler carried the majority of the accountability for the righteousness or wickedness of the people. There was still individual accountability, of course, but not quite full accountability.

In the Old Testament God tried to give the Israelites what they wanted through a compromise. He instituted judges. The judges were public intermediaries (similar to a democratic system) and unlike prophets were not always as righteous or as fair or as helpful as they could have been. And because of this they often failed in saving Israel and were often destroyed themselves. In the Book of Mormon, during a particularly righteous period the Nephites had a very righteous king, Benjamin. When he died his son Mosiah became king. He was also very righteous. The people enjoyed both righteousness, peace, and prosperity. Then, when Mosiah was dying there was contention about who should be the next king. To avoid the political turmoil, Mosiah encouraged the people to elect a system of judges instead.

“And I command you to do these things in the fear of the Lord; and I command you to do these things, and that ye have no king; that if these people commit sins and iniquities they shall be answered upon their own heads.

For behold I say unto you, the sins of many people have been caused by the iniquities of their kings; therefore their iniquities are answered upon the heads of their king. And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land…but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike…that the burden should come upon all the people, that every man might bear his part.

And now it came to pass, after king Mosiah had sent these things forth among the people they were convinced of the truth of his words. Therefore they relinquished their desires for a king, and became exceedingly anxious that every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land; yea, and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins.”

So, politics and the type of government we choose are something God certainly cares about. However, He can counsel us on what to seek for and then the accountability for our choices is left up to us. He will allow nations to fall or rise based on the consequences of our political choices.

However, it seems in our country, that we long ago forgot about what was most important in choosing a candidate. We have gotten caught up in financial concerns, welfare concerns, and many other worthwhile and interesting issues. And these issues are critical and important. And yet, in the concern for these issues we have cast aside the importance of individual moral agency. We still talk about it and preach it, but we sidestep it when something else we want for our city, state, or nation takes precedence in our mind. We place some other objective in the line of importance over agency when agency is the one objective/right God will never breach.

C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, Book 1, Chapter 2 Some Objections, roughly paragraph 5:

“…The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs.  There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide.  You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not.  If you leave out Justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity’, and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.”

In the place of “man” I might insert “nation.”

While our nation and its main political candidates preach equality and opportunity and the love of humanity, they absolutely and unequivocally leave out the need for honesty, justice, and personal moral agency and personal accountability. In fact, much of the legislation in the past years has been about protecting people from the power and the personal effects of moral agency.

Currently, we have a very strong two-party system—though it seems to be weakening a bit based on this most recent presidential election. People are afraid to step outside this two-party system. In fact, people limit themselves to two choices because any other choice, they argue, won’t matter. Why vote for someone I like who won’t actually have a chance to get elected? So, people justify voting for a candidate they really don’t like because they feel that their vote has to change the election outcome in order to matter. But, what people have forgotten is that the vote is about trying to elect a good and honest person to office—as God commanded. It’s about doing our part to support moral agency—as God has commanded—for “more or less than this cometh of evil.” In fact, we are to “forsake all evil.” We are not to support a lesser evil.

So, if there is no good or honest person to elect, do we simply pick the best of the worst? Do we vote for someone who is not good or honest and wise simply because that’s all there is to pick from? Do we vote for someone to keep someone else who is less terrible out of office? What motivation are we placing as the justification for our vote?

Each person must answer these questions for themselves. I can’t tell anyone how to vote and I would never dare. I can only state the doctrine. That God has commanded us to seek good, honest, and wise men (and or women). He has commanded that we forsake all evil, not just some of it. He has never suggested that we settle for evil simply because good can’t be found. He has asked us to uphold moral agency. He has said that if the majority uphold evil (even a small bit of it), then we will individually, and as a nation, mourn.

Finally, as a last note. Popular vote is not what elects our president. It is the electoral college. And even though those who sit in the electoral college are supposed to uphold the popular vote, they don’t have to. We have elected them to uphold our best interests and if they don’t agree with what we’ve chosen, they can choose differently. So, does our vote matter if it doesn’t actually contribute to or effect who gets elected?

Yes. And I’ll tell you why.

Each of us is accountable for our political choices to the same being for which we are accountable for everything else: God. God has given clear guidance on how His people are to act politically. Whether our vote contributes to the election of an official we like or dislike; whether our vote keeps the greater of two evils out of office, won’t matter in the eternal scheme of things. What will matter is our intent behind our votes. Did we seek to uphold good and honest candidates who would also maintain the doctrine of moral agency? Did we uphold God’s laws? This is what matters about our votes. This is a hard doctrine to swallow, but it is nonetheless true.

Our votes are about our souls. Our votes are about our willingness to follow God. We are commanded to make these votes. We are encouraged to choose honesty and goodness. When honesty and goodness cannot be found, our votes still are a part of our individual eternal makeup. If we make them so that we are in good conscience with our God, then we can have peace that He will manage the rest. Nations come and go under His all-seeing eye, and yet we know that the Kingdom of God will break down and absorb all the rest (Daniel 2:44). So, what are we so afraid of?

Though politics make me upset and frustrated and frankly, I can’t stand them. I know my role as a citizen of this country, and more importantly as a child of God. That is how I make peace with the current political environment. That is how I weigh what matters most in my individual political contribution. I do what I feel is right in my standing before God; and I don’t just hope He’ll take care of the rest. I know He will.

BT