In the last General Conference of the Church, many talks discussed the principles of agency and choice. This has been a very active topic among the members on LDS Liberty’s discussion group recently. We have discussed the subtle nuances of various definitions. We have asked questions. Is agency inviolable? Can agency be denied through force, loss of liberty, or captivity?
The various correspondents showed a great deal of insight, yet there were disagreements. These disagreements centered on the general use of the term “agency” and various shades of meanings from the statements of Church leaders throughout the history of the Church.
If you were to search Church resources for the term, you’d find various definitions. Sometimes it is used to mean the ability to choose. Others equate it with freedom. The question naturally arises, particularly in discussions of politics and political systems, does a person who is not free have agency? At what point can it be said that a person has lost his agency?
The Gospel Libarry found at www.lds.org defines agency in the following way:
“God’s children have power to choose; they had this ability even before they were born. In the premortal life, Heavenly Father presented His plan, which included the principle of agency. Lucifer rebelled and “sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3). As a result, Lucifer and all those who followed him were denied the privilege of receiving a mortal body. All who have been or will be born on earth chose to follow Heavenly Father’s plan.
In this life, people continue to have agency; even if their personal freedoms are restricted or taken away, they can choose how to feel and react. Their use of their agency determines their happiness or misery in this life and in the life to come. People are free to choose and act but are not free to choose the consequences of their actions. The consequences may not be immediate, but they will always follow. Choices of good and righteousness lead to happiness, peace, and eternal life, while choices of sin and evil eventually lead to heartache and misery.”
In a recent discussion on agency and liberty, I wrote the following, which I would like to reiterate and expand upon with an example:
Agency and existence are linked in ways we don’t comprehend, because we don’t yet completely understand our eternal nature as spirits or intelligences before becoming spirits.
D&C 93:29–36 gives us the following information. I’ll intersperse come comments amidst these verses.
29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
We are eternal beings, not created ones. Abraham uses the word “intelligences” to describe a part of our premortal condition. We say that the Lord created spiritual bodies for us and later, physical ones. Since physical bodies come about as part of a natural process, I would guess that a similarly natural process exists for spirits. We don’t have any revelation about the process by which intelligences become spirits. Joseph Smith taught that man is co-eternal with God during his King Follett Sermon.
30 All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.
If we are eternal beings (e.g., not created from “nothing”), then our progression may come from being placed in “spheres of truth” to act for ourselves. The independent nature of truth, the spheres of truth, and intelligences are the very nature of existence itself. Without those conditions, there would be no existence, thus perception of existence, and no progression. Awareness and the ability to discern truth in its sphere is what leads to progression. Abraham goes into this in the discussion about Kolob. (See Abraham 3:6–8) We also learn in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 93:
31 Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.
32 And every man whose spirit receiveth not the light is under condemnation.
Agency consists of being able to discern truth in its sphere and being able to choose our way towards it or away from it. Agency and condemnation are linked here, indicating that accountability is linked to agency. Sentient beings exercise agency whereas lesser animal life forms operate on instinct almost completely. I would venture to guess that “truth in its sphere” means that an individual can exercise agency whether or not the ability to act with a fullness of the truth is available to him at the time. People exercised agency before the Restoration, even though the fullness of gospel truth was not in their midst. They acted in the sphere in which God placed them to act. It must be possible, as one responds to truth, to enter different spheres.
This can be illustrated by what happens to people who apostatize from the Church. Many of them were faithful and obedient once upon a time. They operated in a “restored gospel” sphere. When they transgressed and lost their light, they entered a different sphere. In that sphere, their recollections of truth and their present perceptions of it are not the same. They can become embittered and hostile as a result. The truth didn’t change, but their perception did because they forsook the light of truth in the gospel sphere. I imagine that there is a sphere for people who have made their calling and election sure. They must certainly see truth from a different perspective from those of us who are still working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
Applying these principles to telestial politics or political systems may be an exercise in futility. Agency is still active among subjects in a monarchy, someone in a republic, and someone in a gulag. Agency can’t be taken away without destroying existence. Since we are eternal beings, destroying our existence may be impossible. Perhaps limits on political freedom constitute a category of a sphere in which intelligence and truth are placed to act. Agency is never diminished and accountability is always present, except for persons who are unaccountable due to mental disability, etc. (That’s beyond the scope of this article.) However we may be limited by the amount of truth we are able to perceive based on the sphere in which we exist at any given moment in eternity.
After listening to some of the comments made by the general authorities of the Church in the October sessions of the 180th semi-annual conference, I have pondered over these preceding thoughts and warnings that sin can cause us to lose our agency. Seeking a simple metaphor for these concept, I stumbled into the following example.
Imagine a large Venn diagram with an expansive circle that represents all truth. Then overlay it with various smaller “spheres” of truth that connect into it to a greater or lesser degree. These smaller spheres can vary almost infinitely in size. Some are almost completely encompassed by the larger sphere of “all truth” and only have small portions of error that lay outside the largest circle. Others are tiny and barely intersect on one single point. These smaller circles are almost completely composed of error and possess very little truth.
Imagine now driving your car on a sunny day. The light of the sun illuminates everything you see. Your visibility is only limited by your location, elevation, nearby obstacles, distance to the horizon, etc. Your sphere of truth is only limited by what you can see, perceive, and experience. Because it is almost unlimited, you can change your location, drive to a high plateau, or up a winding mountain road and change your perspective. So long as you obey the laws that govern your freedom to drive, your ability to move, act, and choose is nearly limitless.
All truth is independent in the sphere which God placed it to act independently. If you violate the laws of driving, you could lose your license. This limits your ability to act and move within your sphere of truth. You become dependent upon another to transport you. Loss of independence doesn’t mean a loss of agency, just a limitation on your ability to act upon your desires. Your sphere of truth became limited by your disobedience. You gave up some of your independence to act.
The greater and more persistent the disobedience, the smaller the sphere of truth becomes. Now imagine driving a car at night with headlights. The greater sphere of truth is still there, but you are limited only to what you can see ahead. You must navigate more carefully. If your alternator goes out, you’ll eventually drain your battery down and the headlights begin to dim. Your ability to perceive the larger sphere diminishes to almost zero. This hampers your progress. You are unable to make decisions with a full range of options, because you may not see opportunities that are just to your right or left because your degraded headlights reduce the possibility of seeing them. This is another effect of disobedience. We read the following in Doctrine and Covenants 93:49.
49 And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers.
Have you ever been in the position of watching someone struggle with making good choices?. You can plainly see the options before him or her and you can pretty much anticipate the consequences of the decisions. Yet you can perceive that they don’t see the potential dangers and consequences. If you were to counsel them and advise them of the potential harm, they dismiss it out of hand. That’s because their sphere of truth has been diminished by disobedience. Although both of you are connected to the larger sphere of truth, the one whose “alternator” is still charging has a more advantageous point-of-view. He can see farther down the road.
For this reason, counsel from wise and good family members and Church leaders can be invaluable. We can trust them to see down the road a little farther than we can. If we can train ourselves to pray and to listen to the voice of the Spirit of the Lord, we gain the benefit of an eternal perspective. This process makes our “eye” be single to God’s glory:
And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things. (D&C 88:67)
If we refuse to repent and conform to the laws that govern the greater sphere of truth, we can end up in total darkness, with no truth at all:
I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. (Alma 34:33)
Perhaps you have met a person you once knew as a member of the Church who fell away and returned to his former, sinful ways. You may have been surprised to discover that he seemed to have no recollection whatsoever of truths he once knew. Willful denial of one’s testimony drastically contracts the sphere of truth. In profound darkness, it becomes difficult to recall the things of the Spirit that one had previously experienced. In the darkness of Satan’s influence, fewer choices are apparent. Satan is careful to shove the choice to repent well to the side, out of one’s immediate field of vision.
However, the situation isn’t irreversible. The Lord is merciful. Alma the Younger is one such example. When Alma lay near death in a comatose state after being called to repentance by an angelic messenger, he thought his soul was lost and he wished for annihilation instead of coming face to face with his Maker. Then, the testimony of his father rang in his consciousness. A ray of hope appeared–a possibility of deliverance. Alma remembered the teachings of his father concerning Jesus Christ. Alma called out in desperation and faith and received forgiveness of his sins. He was born again. That moment restored him back to the greater sphere of truth that had been concealed because of his rebellion. This brought him immense joy.
And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy. Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there. (Alma 36:18)
In the end, that’s what our agency can achieve. When we exercise agency–the ability to choose responsibly–in spheres of truth that operate independently in the larger field of ultimate truth, we can achieve a fullness of joy. The purpose of our lives, our existence is to obtain joy. (2 Nephi 2:25, John 15:11) Satan’s premortal deception was intended to deceive us, to make us believe that joy could come in some other way.
Our agency cannot be limited by force, coercion, despotism, or incarceration. We retain agency unless we surrender to temptation and disobedience and even then, it is only limited because of the effect disobedience has on our perceptions of the available choices. Repentance offers the potential of turning the tiniest flashlight into the glorious brilliance of the noon-day sun. Walking in obedience brings greater light, higher vistas, broadened perspectives, even unto an understanding of the things of God. The greater the light, the greater the range of visible options. Eternity is our horizon if we are willing to use our agency wisely to overcome disobedience and sin, following the teachings of Jesus Christ.