“…and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.”                                 Abraham 3:26

Understanding Our Second Estate

Mormons are taught from a young age about the heavenly council and war over agency that highlighted our pre-mortal existence, or First Estate.  These events, taken along with the millennial reign, resurrection, and subsequent judgment, form the bookends of our mortal existence, or Second Estate.  This life on Earth is the proving ground that will determine our eternal inheritance, or Third Estate.  Therefore it is of singular importance to understand what it means to “keep our second estate”.

It would seem that the answer would be relatively simple to understand.  Keeping our Second Estate is obeying the will of our Heavenly Father in all things; easy enough.  Yet, it is the quest of a lifetime to put into practice the ideals that form the basis of the eternal plan of happiness; to truly know his will and make it our own through individual human action, despite the temptations of immediate gratification.  Some, including: Enoch[1]and the city of Zion[2], Elijah[3], Moses[4], John the Beloved[5], Alma the Younger[6], and the Three Nephites[7] have been able to reach that point, referred to as translation, where they can no longer be forcibly kept within the limited bounds of the telestial kingdom, as they have mastered the principles and practices of higher kingdoms; being brought into the bosom of the Father, or themselves given power over death to await a general resurrection.  This state of translation highlights the possibilities of positive or righteous human action versus negative or destructive human action.  As we abide certain laws of nature and principles of righteousness our understanding and hence the scope of our agency is enlarged.

It makes one wonder how these individuals (or in the case of Enoch’s Zion, a whole city) were able to reach this higher state while in the flesh.  Did they have special knowledge?  Did they possess exceptional ability?  Did they create conditions conducive to obedience and progression?  If so, what were these conditions and how could they be recreated?

Considering the central battle of our First Estate was over agency, i.e. the freedom to act for ourselves with the attendant responsibility for the consequences of our actions, it is not so great a leap to assume that agency plays a central role in our progression towards Zion, having our calling and election made sure through the confirmation of the royal anointing we receive in the Holy Temple, and, ultimately, receiving the greatest of all gifts: eternal life and exaltation.  President Benson recognized the ongoing battle over agency,

“It was the struggle over free agency that divided us before we came here.  It may well be the struggle over the same principle which will deceive and divide us again.”               Ezra Taft Benson, BYU Speeches of the Year

Acknowledging the importance of agency[8]in the struggle between good and evil is pivotal.  All God-given rights are derived from agency.  Agency is an a priori right that precedes all human action outside of involuntary, chemical body function.  It was in our affirmation of God’s plan for individual agency, with its resultant actions and consequences, that we received our bodies and live a mortal life in the first place.  Hence, even life itself is a result of our acknowledgment of the importance of agency. Contemplating, then exercising our agency through individual human action to merit further blessings or curses is the exclusive province of mortal man as opposed to the animal or plant kingdom which operates primarily on instinct and environmental triggers.  Consequently, our charge in mortality is be agents unto ourselves, not to be acted upon or commanded in all things[9].

“Usually the Lord gives us the overall objectives to be accomplished and some guidelines to follow, but he expects us to work out most of the details and methods.  The methods and procedures are usually developed through study and prayer and by living so that we can obtain and follow the promptings of the Spirit.  Less spiritually advanced people, such as those in the days of Moses, had to be commanded in many things.  Today those spiritually alert look at the objectives, check the guidelines laid down by the Lord and his prophets, and then prayerfully act—without having to be commanded in all things.  This attitude prepares men for godhood.”          Ezra Taft Benson, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson

Given the fact of God’s deference to self-determinism and human action, it then becomes the goal of the man interested in eternal progression to understand the Plan of Salvation (the “what”) and then prayerfully act (the “how”) according to our several desires for the promised blessings.

Agency and Accountability

When it comes to eternal inheritances (heavens or degrees of glory) I believe we go to the heaven we choose; that we judge ourselves according to the understanding we possessed at the time we made our decisions.  In those instances where we made judgments in ignorance of consequences, the Savior atones for our lack of knowledge as we accept his offer to do so, and enter into a covenant relationship with Him (with its own attendant consequences).

At various times in our lives we are confronted with a choice whose consequence has been purposely augmented to achieve a different result.  This is commonly done by parents and governments to call attention to a particular action, when the natural consequence doesn’t achieve the level of significance that the authority figure desires for it.  More nefariously, the alteration of consequences is intended to inculcate behaviors with the stamp of moral approval or disapproval, which otherwise the actions would not justify, thereby changing completely the natural cause and effect expectation.  It is in these increasingly more common instances that we see the usurpation of the Father’s prerogative and glory.  It is through this operation that Satan subtly leads the children of men captive to his will, by blinding them to the real consequences of their actions; giving them a choice that appeals to their pride, in contrast to what the Father would have them do; ultimately causing them to establish a habit of spiritual deafness through transgression.

How difficult it must have been for the father of the prodigal to indulge his son’s profligate request![10]  Unfortunately, that’s what it took for the boy to experience his mighty change of heart.  Even more instructive for us is the reaction of “the good son” upon his brother’s return.  His anger revealed a personal longing for the chance to “live it up” like his brother had.  He’s angry that he did what he was supposed to and yet now, with the return of his brother, his own inheritance was subject to possible reduction.  However, if we take the rich father as a type of our Heavenly Father we realize that there is no end of his possessions (or power, or knowledge), and no need for us to increase only at the expense of another.

In my early twenties I served as an Elders Quorum President of a low-income ward in South Salt Lake, Utah.  The demand for church welfare assistance was so great that my bishop at the time, Bro. Weaver, requested my help.  He asked me to pre-screen all requests for church welfare by fielding calls and doing interviews in the home of the requesting individual or family, then preparing a report to assist the bishop in making the final determination privately on Sunday.  He asked me to go so far as to look in cupboards and pantries, if necessary, to determine need, but also, to be attentive to the trappings of “the world” that may exist in the homes.  Frequently, in conducting the interviews, I was struck by the manifest contradictions.  Some folks had cable TV, but no food; $400 truck payments, but no rent money; couldn’t buy diapers, but had ashtrays full of cigarette butts.  I remember thinking, as a young married father struggling to pay bills, that these people weren’t without agency, they were just getting more of what they treasured most.  Nevertheless, I performed my duties, prepared the reports, and left the rest to the bishop.

I remember him telling me once that it isn’t merciful to shield people from the natural consequences of their actions.  It’s been 11 years but that has stuck with me, not because it agreed with my own feelings at the time, but because I watched one after another of those people walk out of his office with rent paid and pantry orders in hand.  When I remarked on the apparent contradiction, he told me he was willing to be taken advantage of once by anyone for the opportunity to teach people at their most humble moments.  He opened up the scriptures and read the following to me:

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”[11]

We had several baptisms and countless opportunities for fellowship that came as a result of those interviews.  What words were spoken in his office, I’ll never know, but the standards of provident living he held them to, tempered appropriately with a bit of mercy, ultimately led to the changes I saw repeatedly in the circumstances of some who visited with him.  In all cases along with the mercy came the accountability of knowledge.  Eventually, we will all approach the bar of The Judge as beggars.

The Plan Of Progression – Coming To Zion

I wouldn’t pretend to fully understand the operations of a Zion society, but I believe it will require quite a paradigm shift, one which we can learn more about in another terrestrial habitation:  the Holy Temple.  There, between our washings, anointings, and covenants, we begin to understand the necessary preconditions for abiding Zion.  One of the most important principles of Zion, mentioned in the temple and in scripture is unity.  In one aspect of temple worship Hugh Nibley suggested, “the purpose of the prayer circle was to achieve total unity of minds and hearts, keeping in mind the absent ones”.[12]  The injunction for participants to have no unkind feelings towards another in the circle means “the good son’s” jealousy and my begrudging sense of charity would disqualify us for participation in Zion, a society built on the same “total unity of minds and hearts”.  Likewise, anyone who covets has lost sight of the unity which is the hallmark of a Zion family or society.

The first chapter of Alma contains an example of the surplus that can result from not esteeming ourselves above another, but instead striving for righteous desires together.

“…and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.  27. And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.  28. And thus they did establish the affairs of the church; and thus they began to have continual peace again, notwithstanding all their persecutions.  29. And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceeding rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need-and abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of all manner of good homely cloth.  30. And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.  31. And thus they did prosper and become far more wealthy…”

Agency is a tool for prosperity or destruction.  When exercised properly through righteous human action, devoid of idolatry and covetousness, it can provide us with surplus (“enough and to spare”), even luxuries (“abundance of gold, silver, and precious things”); which state, though short of the spontaneous provisions provided without labor in the Garden of Eden, nevertheless demonstrates faithful stewardship[13]over that which we’ve been entrusted, and justifies our appointment as “lord over many things” which may lead to the reestablishment of Zion.  Book of Mormon communities frequently, though always temporarily, enjoyed the peace that comes with economic prosperity and mutual consideration, i.e. no poor amongst them.  Pride, covetousness, jealousy, and lust for power were the enemies of prosperity and Zion.  The lesson for us should be that we cannot approach Zion with pride in our hearts.

Latter-day Saints acknowledge the part that contrasting choices play in exercising our agency.  Heavenly Father, in allowing Lucifer to tempt Adam and Eve in a terrestrial sphere, did so with the understanding that He cannot reclaim his children (or in Satan’s case, lure them away) without consent, and consent requires agency.  In the temple we are told that we must partake of the fruit so as to comprehend that everything has its opposite: good and evil, virtue and vice, light and darkness, health and sickness, pleasure and pain…that our eyes may be opened to the ultimate choice between liberty and captivity that we each must make alone.

We fought to protect our agency pre-mortally, so that we would have the inborn right to choose Him who is “mighty to save”[14] in mortality.  However, we need to look beyond simply securing our agency.

“We who hold the priesthood must beware concerning ourselves, that we do not fall in the traps he lays to rob us of our freedom.  We must be careful that we are not led to accept or support in any way any organization, cause or measure which in its remotest effort, would jeopardize free agency, whether it be in politics, government, religion, employment, education, or in any other field.  It is not enough for us to be sincere in what we support. We must be right!”                             Elder Marion G. Romney

It is most important, in the context of keeping our Second Estate, that we learn how to act, not just how to choose.  Our choices are not made one time for all future decision points; they are the impetus for actions not yet performed and must be made repeatedly.  I’ve often thought on this principle that is taught frequently in the church, i.e. that we can determine who we are going to be many years from now if we just make all the important choices now, such as: mission, temple marriage, word of wisdom, celestial kingdom, etc.  While going through this practice of envisioning future goals and setting one’s bearings on those future goals is a healthy and important one, these choices we make only matter if they are followed by repeated actions, often in the face of stiffer-than-anticipated opposition.

I’ve been playing guitar for a number of years and I’ve acquired a good ear for music.  I’ve come to appreciate a guitar with new strings because the sound is so crisp and sonorous.  Unfortunately, new strings constantly have to be adjusted so any purity of pitch is short-lived.  So, I prefer playing on older strings that I don’t have to tune up every single time I play.  The older strings aren’t as bright and flashy, but they have more tensile consistency because they’ve been through everything from heavy strumming in campout-cold air to sticky-fingered kids, being recalibrated slightly with each new experience.  Our goals, like the initial tuning of new strings, may set the ideal, but without the steeling, sometimes harsh, experience of choice, action, and consequence, they won’t be realized.

“I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else…all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there.  Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty…”                        Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 304

This is the process of sanctification that must precede any sojourn in Zion. It is made, one decision…nay, one action at a time.

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[1] D&C 107:49; Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5

[2] Moses 7:21,31,69; D&C 38:4; D&C 45:12

[3] D&C 110:13; 2Kings 2:11; Matthew 17:3

[4] D&C 84:25; Alma 45:19; Deuteronomy 34:5–6; Matthew 17:3

[5] D&C 7:1–8; John 21:20–24; Matthew 16:28

[6] Alma 45:18–19

[7] 3 Nephi 28:4–9, 36–40; 4 Nephi 1:14; Mormon 8:10–11

[8] I’ve chosen not to bother here with semantic arguments about the appropriate usage for what I refer to in this essay interchangeably as: agency, free agency, moral agency, free will, liberty, etc. Instead, I’d like to focus on agency, properly manifest in righteous human action, as an essential ongoing characteristic of and precursor to Zion, and restrictions on agency as the trademark of bondage.

[9] D&C 58:26–28; 2 Nephi 2:27

[10] Luke 15:11–32

[11] Matthew 10:16

[12] The (italics added) Early Christian Prayer Circle , Hugh W. Nibley

[13] Matthew 25:14–30 Parable of Talents

[14] Alma 34:18

Image: Beth ScuphamCC BY 2.0

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