For the past 6 years, interrupted by an 18 month mission abroad, I have taught Sunday School at my local county jail. I have felt compelled for a while now to share some of the lessons that I teach. This has been a unique and rewarding experience for me personally, and I have probably learned more than any of the students – hence the title of this series: “Lessons from the Jail”. (Read lesson 1 here) I hope and pray that you, readers, will find in them a perspective and an honesty that will brighten your own understanding of the miracle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Lesson #2 – Agency
There are 7 definitions of the word “sacred” in Dictionary.com. I would highlight two of them:
1) Devoted or dedicated to a deity or some religious purpose; consecrated
2) Secured against violation, infringement, etc. as by reverence or sense of right
Gentlemen, agency (free will – the ability and freedom to choose for ourselves) is sacred; so sacred, in fact, that a war was fought in heaven over it. We are told that fully 1/3 of all God’s children were condemned to an existence without the opportunity to fulfill the purpose of their creation because they did not respect it as much as their creator did. (Rev. 12: 4-9, Moses 4:1-4, 2 Nephi: 2:17-18) God Himself has demonstrated repeatedly that forcing us to make a choice against our will is outside the bounds of what He will do. In other words, he will never compromise our individual agency. He has established a system of laws that govern, even define, the universe, the transgression of which necessarily results in consequences that we typically consider to be undesirable, but He will never force us to choose to honor those laws. He has even made it clear that “everlasting life” results from choosing to live within “the law”, while spiritual death results from choosing to transgress the law (2 Nephi 2:27). The consequences of transgression are dire – as much for Him as for us – but He will never force us to obey. You see, that is part of the law. His power, His Godhood itself, is derived from the fact that each of His creations trusts him to perfectly honor the “the law”. They trust him so much to be completely fair and just and consistent in all things, that they choose to willingly obey Him. He is perfect, and they know it. Power that is derived in any other way would imply force, and would be nothing less than tyranny. Benevolent as it may be, tyranny is tyranny, and God is not, in my opinion, a tyrant. Agency, therefore, is the source of God’s power and authority. If He were to compromise it, He would cease to be God (Alma 42:22-25, Mormon 9:19). Imagine if He were to say to you or me, “All these others have obeyed the law, but you…well, you don’t have to.” The universe would descend into chaos because he betrayed their trust, He became no longer perfect, and His creations ceased to obey Him. Yes…agency is truly sacred – set apart, preserved, inviolable – the veritable building block of the universe. All of God’s creatures recognize it, honor it, preserve it.
Except for man. Of all of God’s creations, only man has ever been known to rebel against God. Helaman 12:6 says:
Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.
Only man rejects the perfect counsel of his creator. Only man forces his will upon others in seeking power and glory. Only man exhibits pride motivated by fear. Only man aspires to a higher place within God’s kingdom than that which he was created to occupy.
Ironically, though, only man has the opportunity to grow to become like God, having been granted a probationary period during which he would be tested and tried and proven, “ to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25). By our knowledge, man occupies an honored place among the creations of God. He has been promised a seat next to God Himself; but that seat must be occupied on the Lord’s terms – terms defined, again, by the law. Man’s rebellion is in wanting to do it his way. Yet, without agency, without the opportunity to choose between good and evil, growth would be nonexistent, and man’s destiny would be left unrealized. (2 Nephi 2:11)
So, we have been given this sacred gift of agency which, if exercised properly, can ultimately place us at the right hand of God the Father; yet how easily we sacrifice it. While Satan cannot take it from us, he has become a master at inducing us to surrender it. And we have become masters at taking it from each other. How, you might ask? Let’s look at the obvious:
– Murder – taking away someone’s choice to live
– Stealing – taking away someone’s choice to use their property as they desire
– Lying and cheating – taking away someone’s ability to make decisions based on truthful inputs
There are many other variations that would fall into these categories such as home invasion, battery, assault, drunk driving, embezzlement, etc., each of which in one way or another compromise another’s agency. If we think about it, pretty much all serious crime involves taking away someone else’s agency either by force or through deceit. Now, let’s look at some ways that are less obvious, examples where rather than taking someone else’s agency, we surrender our own instead:
– Drug and alcohol addiction – how many of you have addiction issues? Who’s in charge of your life when you’re addicted? Do you still have your agency to choose freely? What about cigarettes? What about coffee? There are differences in degree, perhaps, but are they really different in nature?
– Food – this is a tough one. We need food, right? But if taken to excess, too much food (or too little food) can become an obsession, and our lives are lived and compromised by the amount of food we eat and what we do to get it.
– Health – if we don’t stay healthy, not only do our minds suffer (they are not as sharp, we have less mental energy), but we are also physically unable to do the things we want to do, not to mention the things the Lord wants us to do. By neglecting our health, we, to some extent, surrender our agency.
– Pornography and sex – like food, sex is something that is healthy and natural in the right circumstances, but pornography can take over our lives and ruin the intimacy of relationships; it is one of the most powerful addictions once can experience. Adultery obviously falls into the category of lying and cheating. But what about fornication between consenting adults? Nobody’s surrendering their agency, are they? Perhaps not, but what about the unwanted children that, despite all the modern “protections”, still seem to result far too often from engaging in casual, extra-marital sex. I would maintain that every child deserves to be born into a home with two parents who are committed to the child and to each other. How casually we toss around the agency of the innocent! And think about this:
Sex is a very powerful force in our lives. Many consider it, too, a sacred gift. Consider next that the sexual relationship between two people – the way these two people express themselves, together, sexually, is unique in all the world, even in all the universe…through all time. It never has been and never will be duplicated. Both partners in that relationship have the right to be able to develop that unique expression between each other without interference from anyone outside the relationship. Yet, when one or both enter into that relationship with previous sexual experiences, well…sex is such a powerful force in our lives that it is practically impossible to keep those other experiences, those other partners, out of this beautiful new relationship. And if that other experience comes through pornography, the invasive influence is a filthy fantasy; stylized and specifically choreographed to dredge up the most base of animal reactions. I ask you then, gentlemen, how many people are in your bedroom? Why would anyone want to have that be part of this unique, private, precious…yes, sacred relationship between you and the love of your life? The only way, gentlemen, to guarantee the purity of this relationship is to abstain from sexual experiences, including masturbation, outside of marriage. This is why the Law of Chastity is such an important part of the gospel, and this is why the Lord considers sexual sin next to murder in its seriousness.
Gentlemen, I conclude with a scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants. Now, I don’t care if you consider this to be scripture or not (actually, I do care…a lot…but it’s your choice, and I would never want to take that away from you); but I ask you to carefully consider the message that is contained here. In my mind, it is the seminal statement of the reverence in which the Lord Himself holds the agency of man. Personally, I want to tell you that the first time I read this, I knew immediately that this was the type of man I wanted to be. It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand that this doctrine of agency was at the very core of the gospel itself. I encourage you to read D&C 121:34-46, but right now we will just read verses 41-46:
41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood only by persuasion, by longsuffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
45 Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God;
and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
46 The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.
I encourage each of you to become conscious of your sacred agency, and to learn to guard it jealously. Consider the insidious ways in which Satan tempts us to surrender it. Protect yourselves against those who would take it from you by force and deceit, hopefully by recognizing and avoiding such associations. Perhaps most importantly, never, ever do anything that compromises someone else’s agency.
I love you and the Lord loves you. He wants you to become all that He created you to be. That greatness which is in you will never be realized unless you come to understand and honor this critical doctrine. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen