Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Gift of Agency

This is my Sacrament Meeting talk from two weeks ago.  It didn't come out exactly like this, of course (my brain always makes little additions/subtractions or changes as I go that improve it), but this is the substance of what I said.  Thought I'd share.

I have been asked to speak on “The Gift of Agency”. Agency is the freedom to choose for ourselves what we will do, what we will say, where we will go, who we will be. The first time we know of our agency being exercised was before we ever came to this earth. In the pre-mortal existence, our Father discussed with us His plan for His children; to become mortal and to learn and to be tested so that we could, eventually, be perfected like Him. He knew that His children would make mistakes—that we would fall short, and get skinned knees and broken hearts. The laws of God are eternal and just, and so He also knew a price would have to be paid for those mistakes. He knew that to give us agency would inevitably mean that we would be separated from Him and so that an Atonement would be necessary. A loving older brother stepped forward and said with great love and simple humility, “Here am I. Send Me.”  To paraphrase Elder Maxwell, perhaps at no other time in all eternity has so much been offered to so many with so few words. He asked nothing in return, but said to the Father, “The glory be Thine forever.”

There was another son who came forward also. He pledged to bring all of our Father’s children home, so that not one would be lost, but he asked that in order to do it he be able to control all that they did and then receive the glory for their return. Our Father knew that without the ability to choose for ourselves, eternal progression and eventual exaltation would be meaningless—in fact impossible—because we would never be able to learn and improve in the ways necessary to become like Him, and to have what He has. Just as you can show a child how to ride a bike and tell a child how to ride a bike, he's never going to actually learn to balance and move forward until he does it himself, you don’t teach anything at all if you don’t give someone any options, any opportunities. And so Lucifer’s plan was rejected. The wayward spirit balked at this injury to his pride and chose to rebel. He could think of nothing more important than his own power and prestige and so he was cast out forever—forever alone, forever miserable.

There are many lessons for us in this first recorded history. The first I wish to address is the temptation to unwittingly or even consciously follow Lucifer’s prideful example to impose our will on others, to try to control and dominate people in our lives or in some way impede their ability to exercise the agency that they have been given. This temptation probably occurs most often with loved ones, particularly children. When we do it, we tell ourselves that we are correct in our attempt to control someone because we are doing it for their own good. So argued Lucifer, the father of lies. I’m not suggesting by any means that we ought to let children or teenagers run rough shod over us and always do as they please; that would be a monumental disservice to both the child and Heavenly Father, who has entrusted that child to us. But we must take care to stay within the bounds of loving, righteous stewardship and not cross the line into unrighteous dominion. Often it is clear to us where the division lies, but occasionally it is difficult to see where that line is and so we must pray fervently to have the Spirit with us to guide our decisions.

I credit my parents with teaching me how to exercise my agency. While they have their faults, one thing neither one of them can really be accused of is unrighteous dominion. My father is a very intelligent and extremely well-read man. If I had a question, I knew that the odds were very, very good that he knew the answer. Something that often frustrated me as a child, but that now I find myself immensely grateful for as an adult, is that he rarely ever just told me the answer to a question. Frequently, he would answer my question with a question, so that I would have to think about it harder and by so doing perhaps come to the conclusion on my own. If he didn’t think I could get there on my own, rather than telling me the answer he would show me how to find the answer. This is a skill that has served me well in life, in academic endeavors, my relationships with other, and my spiritual development. My mother was also very good at putting the ball in my court, so to speak. I remember when I was a 4th grader, my softball team was going to spend the day at the waterslides and the activity was going to be held on a Sunday. My mom told me she thought I should go to Church, but she would let me decide what to do. Whether it was go to church or go to the waterslides, she wouldn’t impede my decision. All she asked was that I take a few days to think about it and pray about it before I made up my mind. That is just the first example of many, of a pattern of behavior my mom displayed throughout the time I was growing up. Within reasonable limits, my parents not only allowed, but encouraged me to make my own decisions and then to accept responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.

Which brings me to the second topic I’d like to address: accountability. Every decision we make, for good or bad, carries with it consequences. Sometimes those consequences are expected and obvious, and other times they are surprising and quite unintended—actually, most decisions have a few results that fall in both categories. It is human nature to want to shift the blame for bad decisions or unfavorable circumstances in our lives onto others. We tell ourselves that we would be different or our life would be different if this person would just stop doing this to us, or if that person would just do this for us. I remember some time ago going to a friend’s web page and seeing a quote at the top that caught my attention. It read, “Failure is no accident”. That made me think of a scripture in Nephi, which says: “Therefore, cheer up your hearts and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life.” Failure is no accident because we are free to choose. Very, very few people consciously choose to fail, but if we are failing, it is undoubtedly due to our own choices—no matter what our families, friends, or enemies have done to us, or failed to do for us—and when we succeed (as individuals and particularly as families), it is because we have chosen the way of eternal life, right here and now. Sometimes we’re allowed to succeed, temporarily, in spite of ourselves. But if we are trying hard to do the right thing and make the right choice, the Lord will not let us fail—at least in any way that matters.

The fact is that others have their agency, too, and so there will be times when we are hurt or wronged by someone else, and we may be tempted to give in to anger or despair, but we must remember that we are agents of choice—we have the power to act, not merely be acted upon. If we blame others for our challenges, disappointments or frustrations, we have no chance to truly improve. Using our agency to make good decisions gives us freedom—it does not preclude difficulties in life or guarantee smooth sailing. But choosing the right, using that precious gift correctly, brings us the freedom of a clear conscience, the freedom to be one with our Redeemer, to more readily and worthily ask for His aid. The Lord gave us agency so that we might choose Him.

Keilana often asks me to sing is “If the Savior Stood Beside Me”. The lyrics ask, “If the Savior stood beside me, would I do the things I do? Would I follow His example and try harder to be true?” Sometimes knowing what the right thing to do is takes careful study and much time listening for the Spirit, but often we would know the answer if we just asked ourselves very honestly, “If the Savior were standing next to me, what would I do?” The Lord gave us the power to choose, but He only gave us that power over ourselves. We must be mindful of the fact that our decisions may have consequences for many people beyond us or even our families, but the truth is we can try all we want to change the actions, attitudes or behaviors of others—and we may even be correct in our judgment that they are wrong. But it doesn’t matter. The only person you can do anything about is you. You will have more good fortune in influencing the behavior of others by following the Savior’s example of turning the other cheek and showing an increase of love and patience than you ever will by trying to convince them they are wrong.

If we sincerely seek the Lord, seek to be obedient, we can and will have peace, even when we are surrounded by tumult or chaos or opposition. He has readily paid the price for all of that, and so if we seek Him, we will find Him and when we find Him we will find peace.
With that, the last topic I would like to address is the Atonement. There is no way to speak about agency without speaking of the Atonement. Other faiths often have a difficult time with Mormon doctrines about salvation because of our heavy emphasis on good works and continual repentance. Often they mistakenly think that we believe men can work out their own salvation and we do not properly appreciate or emphasize the Lord’s Sacrifice on our behalf. They fail to understand that we find the two—faith and works--inseparable. We cannot be saved without the Atonement of Jesus Christ. And the Lord cannot save us in our sins. As Nephi so succinctly put it, “It is by grace we are saved, after all we can do.” The Lord has done the heavy lifting for our salvation, make no mistake about that. But that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. Quite the contrary—because He has given so much, we are expected to give all that we are capable of giving.

"Jesus Christ entered a garden called Gethsemane, where He overcame sin for us. He took upon Himself our sins. He suffered the penalty of our wrongs. He paid the price of our education. I don't know how He did what He did. I only know that He did and that because He did, you and I may be forgiven of our sins that we may be endowed with His power. Everything depends on that. What then shall we do? We will 'take upon [us] the name of [the] Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given [us]; that [we] may always have his Spirit to be with [us]' (D&C 20:77). Everything depends on that."

As I said, a loving Father knew that to progress we must be able to choose, and that His beloved children, as yet unperfected, were going to fail frequently and the price for those failures must be paid. Christ’s example of love in using His agency for our sake did not end when he said, “Here am I, send me”. It continued throughout His flawless life and cluminated in the act of the Atonement. We must remember that at any point, the Savior could’ve put a stop to what was happening to Him. At every stage of that process, He had the power to say “enough”: to stop the lashing of the whip and the spitting and jeering of the crowd; to stop the long, lonely trek up the hill Golgatha and the pounding of nails through His flesh; to stop the process of His own death. We cannot forget that He chose to endure it. As He said to Pilate, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above. . .I lay down my life, that I may take it up again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” The Lord was not forced to endure the brutality of Gesthemane, the humiliation of mock justice or the lonely death upon the cross. He chose to endure it, for us. In order for the Atonement to have efficacy it was absolutely essential that it be voluntary. To right the wrongs of our bad choices a perfect Son offered Himself a sacrifice. We sometimes use the phrase, “free agency”, but I’ve never cared for the use of the word “free”, because it makes it easier to forget what an astounding price has been paid for our liberty to choose.

The importance of agency to the Lord was brought home to me very powerfully some time ago. About three years ago now, my aunt was murdered by my cousin. Losing two family members in such a sudden and dramatic fashion can be difficult on a testimony. When tragedies of this kind befall us, it is not uncommon for people to blame God and become angry with Him. A refrain that I’m sure our Father hears all too often, and which we may be guilty of saying ourselves, is “How could you let this happen?” In the midst of this family tragedy I was reminded that the Lord has paid an unspeakable price to give us the liberty to choose and so He will not interfere with our ability to exercise it--even when His children choose evil. In knowing that it becomes a reminder to me of the heavy obligation I carry, as one who has taken upon me His name and promised to always remember Him, to use that agency wisely; it is incumbent upon me to follow the example of the one who has bought us with such a precious price in saying, as He did, “Not my will, but Thine be done”—not with defeated compliance, but with grateful obedience. In what other way could I possibly show my gratitude for my freedom to choose than by choosing His perfect will?

C.S. Lewis wrote that “There will be two kinds of people in the end: Those that will say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God will say, ‘Thy will be done’.” Sometimes in His love and mercy He will send us stumbling blocks here or there to help us out if we’re headed in the wrong direction, but ultimately the decision is always ours. When we choose obedience, we have the Lord to help us along. When we behave as a willful 4 year old or headstrong teenager refusing to listen to her parents and insisting that we know what we want, more often than not we end up miserable, frustrated and lonely.

Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” Through His pain and His blood, Christ sets us free. Yet over and over again we place ourselves in bondage through bad and unwise decisions. How very foolish and how horribly ungrateful! I have often laughed in retrospect at what I thought would make me happy and didn’t. I have often looked back, however, with fond gratitude on times when I followed a prompting (even sometimes begrudgingly) and realized in the long run how very, very happy it made me. We think we know what will make us happy, but the Lord really does know. There is nothing He wants more than for us to be joyful and at peace, but me must come to Him. He has paid that price for our agency—out of love—and so because of love, He will not rob us of the opportunity to use it. It is not enough merely to make a choice; we must make the right choice. Ultimately, we are saved by grace after all we can do, but what we do is up to each one of us.

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