You and Your Free Agency

Angel Abrea June 26, 1984 • Devotional
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Lately I have been reading some of the discourses of the prophets and the Church presidents and I have found some interesting thoughts, which, in my opinion, are applicable at the present time.

In October conference of 1867 George A. Smith said:

It is very desirable that all of our brethren who are not acquainted with the English language should learn it. We do not wish to blot out the original languages that they may have spoken, but we want them all—men and women, old and young—to learn the English language so perfectly that they will be able to thoroughly understand for themselves the teachings and instructions and the published works of the Church, as well as the laws of the country. And while we preach to all classes—all the boys and girls under ninety—to go to school and educate themselves in the various useful branches, we do not want our brethren who do not speak the English language to think that they are neglected or without the pale of this call. We hope the bishops and teachers will make every reasonable exertion to stir up the minds of the brethren and sisters who do not thoroughly understand English to the importance of this particular item of counsel. [JD, 12:138]

Then I read what President Brigham Young said in April 1852:

I have asked the Board of Regents to cast out from their system of education, the present orthography and written form of our language, that when my children are taught the graphic sign for A, it may always represent that individual sound only. But as it now is, the child is perplexed that the sign A should have one sound in mate, a second sound infather, a third sound in fall, a fourth sound in man, and a fifth sound in many, and in other combinations, soundings different from these, while, in others, A is not sounded at all. I say, let it have one sound all the time.[JD, 1:70]

And so, I am trying very fervently to follow the counsel of President George A. Smith, and even though the records of the Church show that some attempts have been made to do as Brigham Young requested, you don’t know how much I do wish they had been more successful in that endeavor, since I come from a country where the alphabetical letters have one pronunciation only.

That’s enough about the problems with the language—or, I should say, my problems with the language. Let us go on to what I would like to discuss with you today.

A Good Moral

There’s a story told to the children in Argentina that will serve to introduce the theme I wish to present. It goes like this:

A pack of dogs was gathered on a street corner. The dogs were telling each other the woes and troubles they had suffered in their lives. There was a large number of them and the conversation became very loud. Suddenly the most observant one let out a loud cry, “The dog-catcher!” Immediately animals scattered in every direction as fast as they could go. About one or two blocks away one of them stopped and asked, “Why am I running? I’m a cat.”

It’s a story for children, but it has a good moral, don’t you think?

Many times we act like that cat of that group that are swept along with the current, as the style may be, and, because of what others do, we lose our individuality and don’t exercise one of the greatest gifts God has given to man, that of making choices—the gift of free agency, or standing on one’s own feet.

We all have our free agency and we will each be responsible before our Heavenly Father for what we gain from it, since our exaltation depends on it.

Let us see if with the help of some good examples, some reasoning, and a few passages and comments from the scriptures, we can stop for a few moments and ask ourselves, “Why am I running?” and analyze the use we are making of our free agency.

We Are Constantly Faced with Decisions

Concerning the misuse of free agency, I have observed many times that the error is not necessarily what others do to limit our free agency, but rather our lack of making the correct decisions; it is the lack of courage to exercise this agency.

From the time the power of reasoning first begins in the early stages of the journey through life, men are continually faced with decisions, with the constant challenge of choosing, of determining which of two roads to take—the right one leading to progress and happiness or the wrong one leading to frustration and unhappiness. Man determines his own destiny by the decisions and choices he makes, which is definitely an eternal law. Our success or our failure, our peace of mind or our anxiety, all depend upon the choices we make day by day.

Certainly Samuel the Lamanite expressed emphatically and clearly that same concept:

And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free.

He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you. [Helaman 14:30–31]

President Wilford Woodruff emphasized the responsibility that each individual assumes when he exercises his right of free agency:

This agency has always been the heritage of man under the rule and government of God. He possessed it in the heaven of heavens before the world was, and the Lord maintained and defended it there against the aggression of Lucifer and those that took sides with him, to the overthrow of Lucifer and one-third part of the heavenly hosts. By virtue of this agency you and I and all mankind are made responsible beings, responsible for the course we pursue, the lives we live, the deeds we do in the body. [Millennial Star51:642]

President David O. McKay said, “So fundamental in man’s eternal progress is his inherent right to choose, that the Lord would defend it even at the price of war” (CR, April 1942, p. 73). The reason is that without this gift the responsibilities of men having to answer for their own acts would be totally invalid. No one can be judged for acts committed under circumstances and conditions which deprive the individual from exercising completely his ability to choose, in determining the direction to follow.

President John Taylor explained this idea in the following manner:

If man be not a moral agent, he cannot be responsible for the present position of the world; and it would be unjust in God to punish him for acts that were not his and for circumstances over which he had no control. [Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Latter-day Prophets Speak (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1977), p. 157]

So free agency then makes it possible to exercise justice to the fullest extent, and this results in what James E. Talmage explains:

Man’s accountability for his individual acts is as complete as is his agency to elect for himself. The ultimate result of good deeds is happiness, the consequence of evil is misery; these follow in every man’s life by inviolable laws. There is a plan of judgment divinely foreordained, by which every man will be called to answer for his deeds; and not for deeds alone but for his words also and even for the thoughts of his heart. [The Articles of Faith, 12th ed. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1924), p. 55]

Through Our Choices We Determine Our Future

We need to remember when we make decisions that as we sow, so shall we reap. We cannot be idlers and expect to reap the same fruits as those who labor. We cannot sow seeds of the slothful and of less effort and expect to receive the blessings of dedication and diligent effort.

By our daily decisions we determine whether we will live according to God’s commandments or whether we will just follow along with, as Paul said, “commandments of men, that turn from the truth” (Titus 1:14).

Each day of our life, through the choices we make, we determine whether we will augment the building of our eternal dwelling with Heavenly Father or whether we want to slide along on a path which deprives us of the blessings of life eternal.

As everyone knows, frequently it is easier to go along with the current than to row upstream toward the mountain. However, once recognizing the importance of free agency, we come to the conclusion that self-discipline is fundamentally important in the task of making decisions.

We often see examples of how free agency is inhibited. For instance, sometimes we slip backward, instead of going forward, by letting others make decisions for us. We follow the decisions and goals of others and do not appreciate the blessings of free agency.

We Have All the Time There Is

Let us consider first those who go along with commonly used phrases, those who use them without reasoning through their meaning—phrases which become popular, and in many cases determine one’s manner of action.

Let’s talk a few minutes about those who say, “There is not time for anything,” and see if they are not a typical example of those who unthinkingly leave it to others to make their decisions for them.

There is a true paradox with regard to time. Many persons declare daily that they do not have sufficient time. Nevertheless, each one has all that there is. Others say that time flies when actually it moves at a set rate. Or they speak of saving time, but time cannot be saved, lost, or borrowed.

How many times have you heard someone say that they want to make up for lost time? Once time has passed it cannot be replaced. Still others say, “The time just goes.” The truth is that we are the ones who go, and time remains the same.

In my past professional work I recall many times, when there were deadlines to be met, hearing, “Time is against me.” The fact is that time is on our side the very minute we have it organized. You have heard it said, “There is not sufficient time.” We have all the time that there is; it all depends on how we distribute it.

All of these erroneous ideas lead to wrong actions, and if we think about that for a moment, we realize they are commonly used—in some cases we ourselves use them unthinkingly. What we need to ask ourselves is this: “Is the problem with the time or is it with myself?”

There is no question about time being the most scarce commodity, so unless we manage it wisely, there is nothing else to manage. Unless we use our head and are not fooled by these meaningless phrases, we will be caught in the current with those who do not make decisions, but allow others to make them for them; we will not be standing on our own feet.

President Kimball explained this idea in the following manner:

Waste is unjustified, and especially the waste of time—limited as that commodity is in our days of probation. One must live, not only exist; he must do, not merely be; he must grow, not just vegetate. [TSWK, p. 359]

So we see that the solution is not to complain or join with those who declare “There is not time.” The solution is to act and use time wisely, following the words of Paul to the Ephesians:

See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise,

Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.

Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. [Ephesians 5:15–17]

Procrastinators

Now let us look at another interesting situation, putting off doing things that should be done.

Try to imagine this scene: It is almost midnight and the report, the research paper, or whatever other type of assignment that has been sitting on your desk for two weeks or more, is due tomorrow. You’ve had a hard day of work and study and are tired, but you also know that if your report or paper is not in on time you could lose credit or get a low grade.

You look at the desk and start to wonder in your mind why you put off doing the report for so long in the first place. You knew it had to be done—that was well understood—and now you feel guilty and uncomfortable for having procrastinated.

What is procrastination? In simple terms it is postponing unnecessarily, and in an irrational way, something that one knows should be done.

Why do people procrastinate? Many reasons can be given, but it all boils down to the protection of a vulnerable feeling of self-esteem. Individuals who do this can be classified in the following categories:

Test Avoiders. These are people who fear they will fail in their attempts to reach their own standards, standards which demand outstanding effort each time. By waiting until it is too late to do a great job, they justify the situation by convincing themselves, “I didn’t have sufficient time.”

I believe that here we could apply the scripture which we find in Doctrine and Covenants 67:3:

Ye endeavored to believe that ye should receive the blessing which was offered unto you; but behold, verily I say unto you there were fears in your hearts, and verily this is the reason that ye did not receive.

Rebels. These are the people who believe that if they follow in someone else’s footsteps they are being controlled or dominated. For them, to procrastinate becomes a way of retaining a feeling of power and control. In this case the words of President Brigham Young are applicable, since the answer for those who act in this manner is found in the spirit of his words:

In rendering . . . strict obedience, are we made slaves? No, it is the only way on the face of the earth for you and me to become free, and we shall become the slaves of our own passions, and of the wicked one, and servants to the devil, if we take any other course, and we shall be eventually cast into hell with the devils. Now to say that I do not enjoy the volition of my own will just as much when I pray as I would to swear, is a false principle, it is false ground to take. You take the man who swears, and he has no more freedom, and acts no more on his own will than the man who prays; and the man who yields strict obedience to the requirements of Heaven, acts upon the volition of his own will and exercises his freedom just as much as when he was a slave to passion; and I think it is much better and more honorable for us, whether children or adults, youthful, middle-aged or old, it is better to live by and better to die by, to have our hearts pure, and to yield strict obedience to the principles of life which the Lord has revealed, than be a slave to sin and wickedness. [JD, 18:246]

Myopics. Some people procrastinate because they believe that certain jobs, obligations, or assignments are not rewarding, or that they demand too much sacrifice. So they decide to put their efforts in other directions that appear to be more worthwhile or necessary. They seek immediate rewards rather than rewards obtained in the long run, though they are more valuable.

The words we find in Doctrine and Covenants 78 show the promised blessings for those who live with their vision toward eternity:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye are little children, and ye have not as yet understood how great blessings the Father hath in his own hands and prepared for you;

And ye cannot bear all things now; nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. The kingdom is yours and the blessings thereof are yours, and the riches of eternity are yours.

And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more.

Wherefore, do the things which I have commanded you, saith your Redeemer, even the Son Ahman, who prepareth all things before he taketh you;

For ye are the church of the Firstborn, and he will take you up in a cloud, and appoint every man his portion.

And he that is a faithful and wise steward shall inherit all things. Amen. [D&C 78:17–22]

Revengers. Procrastination can take the form of anger toward someone, a professor, a boss, or an assignment one does not like. The scriptures give us a solution to this case as we read in Ecclesiastes 7:9, “Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.”

Self-Defeaters. Some people become so depressed that they postpone working toward goals because they have a fear of being successful, then that procrastination guarantees that they don’t attain the success they fear.

If people who behave in this manner would apply the words of the Savior to their lives, it would totally change their attitude. “Wherefore, be of good cheer, and do not fear, for I the Lord am with you, and will stand by you” (D&C 68:6).

Excuses for Not Acting

If you will analyze the before-mentioned cases, you will notice that without fail each one of them condenses down to fear of doing the job as an excuse for not acting, or to an irrational assumption such as, “I’ll be able to get that work done the night before it is due.”

The solution is simple (the Prophet has said it), “Do it now.”

Slaves to Customs

There is another false concept, an idea frequently implanted in the minds of many persons, not necessarily placed there by themselves, but by others and by customs. I refer to the tendency to do certain things because everyone else does them.

Even though this seems to be a simple matter, I will try to illustrate it with a story. I once knew a man who attained a high position in a company. He portrayed the image of a very successful man with a great personality and of being an independent person. Each day he would go to his office with a briefcase (and sometimes he carried two briefcases). One day his wife asked him, “Tell me, why do you carry that briefcase to work and back each day?”

He replied, “The executive vice president of the company is a very important person, and the paperwork which he manages is also important, don’t you agree?”

The wife agreed and then inquired, “How many times do you open the briefcase and use the papers?”

“The truth is, very few times,” he responded.

His wife continued with another question. “Well then, if the briefcase gives you a feeling of importance which you enjoy, wouldn’t it be better and easier to carry an empty one?”

It was a logical suggestion, but then she added, “But if you carry it only for status, let me remind you that at the hour you leave the office, the only person who sees you is the caretaker.”

We often become slaves to routines, we act conforming to custom or as the surrounding conditions dictate. Just because most of the people do it does not mean that it is right. The important issue in determining our salvation is to be certain and know with a clear conscience what the motives are that move us to actions, and what the thoughts are that we hold within us and which later lead to actions.

Agency Regarding Our Minds

We exercise our agency in our thinking process just as much as we use our agency in our actions. President McKay expressed it in this way:

Each one of us is the architect of his own fate; and he is unfortunate indeed who will try to build himself without the inspiration of God, without realizing that he grows from within, not from without. [“True End of Life,” Instructor, January 1964, p.1]

If we do not learn to grow from within and make effective use of our agency regarding our thoughts, our actions will lack direction; they will lack significant meaning, since what we wish to accomplish will not be clearly defined in our mind, and our mind will not be trained in setting goals, desires, and objectives.

Opposition

There is also another of Satan’s snares which lures many people, another of the common phrases used as justification for not acting, for not getting the job done, for not exercising fully the right of free agency. How many people do you know that say (with a type of defeat and resignation), “The opposition is strong, and I’m only human.”

What does this mean? How can anyone justify himself with such reasoning to fail or to not act positively? How can anyone think of the opposition as a limiting factor or condition in exercising our free agency?

In 2 Nephi 2:11–12, Lehi, speaking to Jacob, said:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, . . . righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation.

The trials, the opposition, the conditions which some would define as unfavorable, will ever be with us throughout this life of probation. It is a principle which has been with us from the first; therefore we must not complain—we must not lament or fail to act positively when we are confronted with one of these situations in our lives.

There are those who believe that because we are human, that is justification for our weaknesses. This is to deny the wisdom and justice of God, since that is implicitly saying or thinking that he has sent us here to earth on the preconceived condition that we would fail, yielding inevitably to the temptations of Satan. This is one form of succumbing to tradition and customs to which the scriptures refer when they say that they make us lose the vision of the eternal truths of the gospel.

Let us see what the Prophet Joseph Smith said in regard to this point.

He commenced his observations by remarking that the kindness of our Heavenly Father called for our heartfelt gratitude. He then observed that Satan was generally blamed for the evils which we did, but if he was the cause of all our wickedness, men could not be condemned. The devil could not compel mankind to do evil; all was voluntary. Those who resisted the Spirit of God, would be liable to be led into temptation, and then the association of heaven would be withdrawn from those who refused to be made partakers of such great glory. God would not exert any compulsory means, and the devil could not; and such ideas as were entertained [on these subjects] by many were absurd. [Teachings, p. 187]

There are various other examples which we could analyze. However, we will consider only one more aspect of free agency.

Proceed with Vigor

In the Doctrine and Covenants we read:

For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.

For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.

But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned. [D&C 58:26–29]

I believe that these verses clearly indicated the attitude which we should develop as we confront each task or undertaking—an attitude of proceeding with enthusiasm, vigor and good will. In that quotation from the Savior we find several word phrases such as compelled in all things, anxiously engaged, own free will, the power is in them, and do good,each one being a message in itself, but all of them together motivating us to use our talents and our free agency willingly.

In those words the Savior indicated that we should serve willingly because of a desire to do so which we have developed, rather than doing the job dutifully because we are obligated.

In order to find the joy of living in accordance with the Savior’s will, there should be a sincere desire to please him, doing it correctly, since this will bring us peace of mind and a rewarding feeling which cannot be obtained in any other way.

Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me. [D&C 19:23]

And so we have reviewed several concepts which I am sure are well known by you, but at times forgotten—the purpose being to pause in the midst of our daily careers and meditate on the great blessing that free agency is in our lives.

Be Found on the Lord’s Side

It is my desire that in our daily struggle to make decisions, we will always be found on the Lord’s side. As President George Albert Smith expressed it,

There are two influences ever present in the world. One is constructive and elevating and comes from our Heavenly Father; the other is destructive and debasing and comes from Lucifer. We have our agency and make our own choice in life subject to these unseen powers. There is a division line well defined that separates the Lord’s territory from Lucifer’s. If we live on the Lord’s side of the line Lucifer cannot come there to influence us, but if we cross the line into his territory we are in his power. By keeping the commandments of the Lord we are safe on His side of the line, but if we disobey His teachings we voluntarily cross into the zone of temptation and invite the destruction that is ever present there. Knowing this, how anxious we should always be to live on the Lord’s side of the line. [George Albert Smith, “Our M.I.A.,” Improvement Era, May 1935, 38:278]

Brothers and sisters, the purpose of this life is to prove ourselves, to allow us the opportunity of choosing and to gain a dwelling place in the mansions of our Father. I testify to you that this will be our reward if we have the faith, the determination, and the deep desire to follow the words of the Lord to Enoch, “Choose ye this day, to serve the Lord God who made you” (Moses 6:33).

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Angel Abrea was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this devotional address was given at Brigham Young University on 26 June 1984.

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