The Precious Gift of Agency

Jessica Williams, “The Precious Gift of Agency,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2005 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 213–226.

The Precious Gift of Agency

Jessica Williams

As a blossoming psychologist, I have found in my study of human behavior a great need for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Throughout my undergraduate study of this important and influential field of science, my yearning to help and strengthen my fellowmen is often left unsatisfied by worldly standards of counseling and therapy. I have come to know the necessity of gospel principles in the process of human healing and growth as I have contrasted divine teachings with those of mortal men. The foundational doctrine of agency has been of particular interest to me because the understanding and implementation of agency is a key step to drawing men and women closer to the Savior. Opinions on agency vary radically within the field of psychology, but conventional methods and theories reject this doctrine completely by accepting the opposing philosophies of modern science. There is a great misrepresentation of agency in the field of psychology, yet the necessity of understanding this principle is unquestionable. I wish to address the critical doctrine of agency and the influence the application of this doctrine would have on contemporary psychology if applied more widely within the discipline.

A starting place for the discussion of agency is a definitional understanding. Common definitions of agency usually include some form of choice and freedom or right. However, causal definitions may lead us astray if they are not carefully examined. The two components of choice and freedom deserve a careful examination in order to better understand the true nature of agency. By exploring the meaning of these words, important principles become clear that deepen the understanding of agency from a shallow comprehension to a deep doctrine that can change our lives. [1]

Evident in the investigation of the word choice are three clarifying principles that illuminate more deeply the doctrine of agency: opposition, morality, and accountability. The first principle of agency is that choice requires opposition in all things. The ability to choose implies options from which to choose, but the possibilities of this life are not all of the same nature; they are in opposition to one another. In the scriptures, the importance of opposition is clear. “Man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16), and “it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves” (D&C 29:39). The temptations and trials we experience in this world because of the influence of Satan or as a natural consequence of telestial life are all a part of God’s plan for the exercise of agency. Elder Neal A. Maxwell wrote, “Of necessity, God’s gift of agency operates in the context of genuine alternatives among which we choose. This is a condition fully consistent with God’s plan of happiness. Without the very important condition of agency amid alternatives, life would be an undifferentiated ‘compound in one’ (2 Nephi 2:11). God’s creations would then be without real purpose, and His plan would certainly not be worthy of being called the plan of happiness.” [2]

Opposition is such a key feature of agency because without it choices would loose their distinctiveness. Elder Maxwell continues, “If things were in a ‘compound in one,’ we could not learn from our mortal experiences, because we would not experience the opposites. Furthermore, we could not be held accountable either, because no real and clear choices would be before us, given the ‘compound’ circumstance.” [3] Therefore, without opposition the challenge of obeying God would be muddled into choices that reflected no discipleship because they would be like all other choices.

The second principle of agency is morality as defined by God. It is clear in the scriptures that not all choices are of equal moral value. Some possibilities are right while others are clearly wrong as determined and taught by God. After the Fall, Adam and Eve were placed in a state “to act according to their wills and pleasures, whether to do evil or to do good” (Alma 12:31). Moral judgments of good and evil distinguish the alternatives in which agency is exercised. The moral quality of our choices is judged by God because He is the creator of our agency. In the book of Moses, Heavenly Father explains, “In the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 7:32). Agency is a gift from God. All gifts of God have a purpose and plan, and so agency is “given for the benefit of those who love [God] and keep all [His] commandments” (D&C 46:9). The power of agency is given to man that he may come to know God and become like Him; and only by obedience to God’s moral standards can individuals fulfill this purpose of their gift of agency. Therefore, it is better known as moral agency.

The idea of moral agency is introduced in the scriptures through the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants, “Every man may act in doctrine and principle . . . according to the moral agency which I [the Lord] have given unto him” (D&C 101:78). The significant feature of moral agency as stated in this scripture is to act in accordance with doctrine and principle given by Heavenly Father. Obedience, not choice, is the central element of agency. The gift of agency in Heavenly Father’s plan does not sanction the choice of immoral behavior, for this would be contrary to the purpose for which agency was given. We do not have the right to choose wrong. Serious consequences will result for those who abuse agency by choosing sin. In summary, choice requires possibilities in opposition to other possibilities, each with distinguishing moral value. However, agency is not simply choosing from among these stark moral possibilities. The careless exercise of choice in the direction of sin is distinguishable from the righteous exercise of moral agency. Agency, as a gift of God, has a requirement of righteousness.

The third principle is accountability, which measures the righteous use of our agency. Since God judges the moral quality of our choices and gives us our power to exercise agency, we are accountable to Him for the use of this gift. Brigham Young taught, “There are limits to agency. . . . The agency which is given to [man] is so bound up that he cannot exercise it in opposition to the law, without laying himself liable to be corrected and punished by the Almighty.” [4] Accountability allows blessings to be extended for the righteous exercise of agency. God is the great master who extends blessings. As we obey His moral standards and are accountable to Him for that obedience, He rewards us. The principles of morality and accountability in moral agency illuminate the great need for a deeper understanding of this marvelous gift.

Without understanding the role of morality and accountability in agency, moral obligations attached to agency are easily misunderstood. Joseph F. McConkie taught that focusing on the power of choice without a full understanding of agency is dangerous in two ways. First, God is not recognized as the giver of a sacred gift that comes with a responsibility to act righteously. Second, since choice suggests that no moral responsibility is involved, agency may be mistaken as providing the right to choose evil. [5] Those who lack a deep understanding of the principles of agency may feel that their evil choices are as equally justifiable and as equally warranted as righteous choices are. This common misunderstanding is reflected in comments like, “I can do what I want; it’s my life,” or “I can choose to sin; I have my agency.” Statements like this reflect a distortion of the sacred doctrine of agency and a lack of a deep understanding of the accompanying principles of opposition, morality, and accountability.

These three clarifying principles that define agency as choice—opposition, morality, and accountability—make it clear that agency is more than just good intentions or passive decisions, as the word choice may wrongly suggest. Elder Maxwell said, “The act of choosing is more than nodding assent or passive shoulder shrugging. It reflects real choices made over time that form definite patterns.” [6] The scriptures explain that the power of agency forms definite patterns in our lives, since “God gave unto man that he should act for himself” (2 Nephi 2:16; emphasis added). Therefore, the act of choosing is merely one manifestation of moral agency. Our agency is also manifested in our thoughts, words, and feelings. In essence, agency is the means by which every pattern in life, whether good or evil, is developed. However, the patterns of life formed by our agency are not simply means of expressing our freedom.

The second word for special examination in the definition of agency is freedom. The scriptures discuss freedom in conjunction with our agency; for example, “[We] are free to choose” (2 Nephi 2:27). However, the term free agency is never used in the scriptures and should be avoided in our common language because the term free can easily be misunderstood. Freedom understood as independence may wrongfully suggest that agency does not involve responsibility to God. Individuals who do not fully comprehend the freedom discussed in the scriptures may believe that when choices arise they can act in submission to God’s will or they can turn away and choose their own independent path. This error is a clear violation of the principle of accountability that comes with agency. Elder Henry B. Eyring said: “When we reject the counsel which comes from God, we do not choose to be independent of outside influence. We choose another influence. . . . Rather than the right to choose to be free of influence, it is the inalienable right to submit ourselves to whichever of those powers we choose.” [7] The exercise of agency is a submission to the will of one of two masters: Jesus Christ or Satan. The choice between these two masters plays a large role in our spiritual and eternal progression. By our own agency we move closer to or farther from God as a consequence of our choices.

The role of agency in choosing a master is quite clear in the scriptures: “If a man bringeth forth good works he hearkeneth unto the voice of the good shepherd, and he doth follow him; but whosoever bringeth forth evil works, the same becometh a child of the devil, for he hearkeneth unto his voice, and doth follow him” (Alma 5:41). Obedience to Christ can lead us to a sealing with Him (see Mosiah 5:15) whereas disobedience can lead us to a sealing with Satan (see Alma 34:35). Agency plays a central role in determining which of these two sealings we experience in our lives, and each will have very different effects.

We accept Satan’s influence when we sin. Moses taught, “And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door, and Satan desireth to have thee . . . and it shall be unto thee according to his desire” (Moses 5:23). Yet Satan has “power over us only as we permit him.” [8] Therefore, sin is akin to “subjecting [ourselves] to the devil” (Mosiah 16:3). The result of subjection to the devil is “becoming carnal, sensual, devilish” (Mosiah 16:3), and individuals who accept Satan’s influence “are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction” (Alma 12:11). In short, humans make themselves enemies to God through the misuse of agency. Elder Maxwell eloquently expressed this somber realization, saying, “At this point you and I may feel a little nudging. Yes, our freedom to choose is truly a shining and shimmering gift, but it is also one that can cause some shivering at times. . . . Hence this soul sigh: Choosing is no picnic after all.” [9]

A stark contrast to the captivity and destruction of Satan is the light and freedom offered by Christ. King Benjamin teaches, “And under this head [Jesus Christ] ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. . . . Take upon you the name of Christ . . . that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives” (Mosiah 5:8). This witness of Christ as the freedom-giver is repeated by ancient and modern Apostles who testify that “he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant” (1 Corinthians 7:22). The ultimate call comes from the Savior Himself, who says, “Hear my voice and follow me, and you shall be a free people” (D&C 38:22). The freedom which Christ offers is not independence; it is freedom from sin, deception, and false happiness, through repentance and the Atonement. He is the teacher of truth by which we are set free from the falsities of this world. Recognizing Christ as our Savior provides for true freedom and happiness. It is through a submission of our will to Jesus Christ that we as sons and daughters of God become truly free.

Choice and freedom are deeply meaningful terms that we must understand to exercise our agency correctly. The power of agency requires opposition in all things, with a moral standard firmly in place to guide decisions. Accountability is an unavoidable result of this gift of agency. Every choice reflects dedication to a master, and by exercising moral agency in thought, word, and deed, we can form the pattern of discipleship.

The doctrine of agency plays a critical role in the plan of salvation, individually and as children of God collectively. President David O. McKay taught, “Free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress,” [10] and that “next to faith as an essential to man’s advancement is free agency.” [11] It is therefore imperative to understand truth in order for agency to be exercised in the way that will fulfill the purposes of this life. However, truth cannot be compartmentalized into a separate spiritual container, particularly when concerning the doctrine of agency. In order to make an effect, moral agency must be applied in every aspect of our lives and every discipline of our world.

The disciplines that most affect the children of God must correctly teach the principles of agency. Outside the gospel, psychology is proclaimed as the teacher of truth for human beings in the modern world. As “the discipline [which] embraces all aspects of the human experience,” [12] psychology has acquired social authority as the profession of teaching truth as it pertains to human beings since it claims to be the foremost expert on human behavior. This discipline cannot escape a question so fundamental to human action as agency. Yet, “no concept in contemporary social sciences has shown itself to be more resistant to clarity, closure, or even consensus than has the concept of human agency.” [13]

The philosophy underlying scientific explanation is determinism. Determinism is defined as the position that every event, act, and decision, is produced by some prior event or reason. [14] Logic asserts that if events are not dependent to some degree on prior occurrences, predictability is impossible. Therefore, “determinism is an attractive explanatory strategy in the social sciences because it appears to be a necessary assumption underlying any genuine science of behavior.” [15] Determinism has become so widely accepted in the social sciences as the method for explaining human behavior that philosophical alternatives seem impossible. [16] Moreover, as determinism has gained support, it has become more narrowly defined, as illustrated by the term necessary determinism. Necessary determinism implies that present events are not merely related to past events, but are absolutely fixed by and necessarily consequential to past events. In the study of human behavior, the acceptance of necessary determinism has serious consequences. Because it holds that human beings are completely controlled by the past, the role of agency is disregarded. “This forms the foundation of mainstream social science and current therapeutic practice. It holds that reality is grounded in some ultimate abstraction, and that such abstractions in the form of laws, principles, or forces govern all aspects of the world including human behavior. . . . Within this tradition all who would attempt to understand human beings and the human condition must assume that our behavior is governed by strict principles of determinism and lawfulness.” [17]

The deterministic perspective is employed in the psychodynamic, cognitive, and behaviorist models of psychology. It is rampant in educational training at the undergraduate and graduate levels. It is promoted by the American Psychological Association through standards of experimentation and explanation established for publication. Behavior does not arise from agency in the social sciences, but from controlled and determinative past experience. The foundational approach to human behavior in psychology is the antithesis of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though psychology would deny the claim of defiling faith, the prevalent rejection of agency in the field is appalling.

The results of such a truthless perspective are detrimental, both temporally and eternally. Elder Maxwell identified three frightening results ensuing from the rejection of agency that are directly evident in psychology. First, if determinism is accepted in psychology, human behavior is determined by past events. As Elder Maxwell said, “Without the very important condition of agency amid alternatives, life would be an undifferentiated ‘compound in one’ (2 Nephi 2:11).” [18] In psychology, all things can be said to be a compound in one—the unchangeable past. Determinism holds that all behavior and action is controlled by the past, which cannot be influenced by the present or future. In a deterministic framework, sin can never truly be “washed clean” (D&C 138:59) because it is fixed in time. In the present, feelings of hopelessness or guilt are fully dependent on the past and therefore cannot be changed. Likewise, the future cannot be shaped by dreams and goals because it too is merely a result of the past.

All things being compounded and being reliant on the past leads to the second disconcerting result forewarned of by Elder Maxwell. Without agency, “God’s creations would then be without real purpose.” [19] Meaning and purpose are acquired through possibility. Like the principle of opportunity cost, when a human being makes a choice from a number of different alternatives, the value of their selection is measured by the cost of those not selected. When a choice is made from a variety of possibilities, the choice takes on value or meaning. Possibility, however, is not an option in necessary determinism because human behavior is constrained and fixed by the past. If all things are determined by the past, no possibility for change and no real choices exist. Without real possibility for change and the exercise of agency, life becomes meaningless. Dr. Richard N. Williams described it, saying, “Unless our pasts and our futures are in some fundamental sense open-ended and not merely given, it is impossible to attribute real meaning to our actions, or maintain a sense of meaning in our lives and relationships.” [20]

The third warning from Elder Maxwell suggests that if human behavior is controlled by natural forces, assignments of moral or immoral behavior cannot be made. Williams said, “If we are not human agents, since we simply are what we must be, we simply do what we must do. And since necessitated acts are neither good nor bad, we cannot behave morally or immorally.” [21] The destructive loss of agency culminates in an overarching belief that behavior is controlled by the past, that forgiveness and repentance are impossible, and that no moral framework exists. All of these results deny the plan of salvation created by Heavenly Father. The meaningless, hopeless, and directionless view of human existence without moral agency would “certainly not be worthy of being called the plan of happiness.”  [22]

From the position of necessary determinism, children of God are hopeless and helpless, and these regulated individuals are left without motivation to exercise moral agency because it is said not to exist. Those who have accepted this empty, controlled life stare into the abyss of a meaningless existence and declare with Nietzsche, “God is dead.” [23] What sorrow, fear, and pain come from such beliefs. Yet these beliefs exemplify the common experience of many people in the contemporary world because of the deterministic theories of psychology. There are scientific and cultural trends that do not matter much to the progression of God’s children; but there are some that do matter. A misunderstanding of moral agency through the erroneous teachings of psychology is one of these significantly damaging cultural trends. The continued propagation of these theories will result in “a morbid sense of despondency about life itself, a feeling of futility about man’s purpose [that] could depress a people to a point where they do not extract from this second estate those things which really matter and which are intended to happen here.” [24]

The underlying theories and practices of psychology are damaging to the souls of Heavenly Father’s children. Some good has been done in psychology, and much good can still be done, but the positions and postulations must be considered carefully—the price of error is too great to blunder. In a clinical setting, the true doctrine of agency may not be able to be discussed in so many religious words, but the knowledge that is imparted in this setting will lead to the correct or incorrect exercise of this gift and will therefore play a role in the exaltation and eternal life of sons and daughters of God. Psychology cannot be the study of human beings, the children of God, while continuing to teach meaningless and immoral behavior. Agency must be recognized as a fundamental aspect of human nature. It is innate because it has been endowed upon us by Heavenly Father, who also sets the bounds and the moral standard for the exercise of this agency. Agency demands accountability to God, not to ourselves and the fruitless pursuit of self-indulgence.

The gift of agency allows every person the opportunity to know Heavenly Father by learning truth and living truthfully. [25] By exercising moral agency, mortals fulfill their divine potential and become like God. The exercise of moral agency, in obedience to the Father’s plan, brings innumerable blessings for individuals, families, and generations. This generation must face new challenges in defending the principles of agency; the task is imperative. Elder Delbert L. Stapley said, “Every dispensation of the gospel since the beginning of time has come to a close, not because God has failed, but because man has failed God by the improper use of his free agency.” [26] In these last days, psychologists who assist others to exercise their agency will be held accountable for the righteous teaching of this fundamental doctrine. I pray that those who seek to better others’ lives through psychology will reflect upon this responsibility with greater solemnity.


[1] Neal A. Maxwell, Men and Women of Christ (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 2.

[2] Neal A. Maxwell, Whom the Lord Loveth (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 124.

[3] Neal A. Maxwell, One More Strain of Praise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999), 82.

[4] Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966), 63.

[5] Joseph F. McConkie, Understanding the Power God Gives Us (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2004), 11.

[6] Neal A. Maxwell, “Free to Choose”? (2 Nephi 2:27), in Brigham Young University 2003–2004 Speeches (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Publications & Graphics, 2004), 220.

[7] Henry B. Eyring, “Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, May 1997, 25.

[8] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1972), 181.

[9] Maxwell, “Free to Choose”? 218.

[10] David O. McKay, quoted in Stanley E. and Amydee M. Fawcett, comps., God’s Prophets Speak: 3,300 Statements on 97 Doctrines and Practices by the Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1998), 40.

[11] McKay, quoted in Fawcett and Fawcett, God’s Prophets Speak, 40.

[12] American Psychological Association, “About APA” (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004), (accessed October 18, 2004).

[13] Richard N. Williams, Agency: Philosophical and Spiritual Foundations for Applied Psychology (n.p., 2001), 1.

[14] Williams, Agency, 11.

[15] Williams, Agency, 11.

[16] Brent D. Slife and Richard N. Williams, “Determinism,” in What’s Behind the Research? Discovering Hidden Assumptions in the Behavioral Sciences (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1995), 96.

[17] Richard N. Williams, “Restoration and the ‘Turning of Things Upside Down’: What Is Required of an LDS Perspective,” AMCAP Journal 23, no. 1 (1998): 8.

[18] Maxwell, Whom the Lord Loveth, 124.

[19] Maxwell, Whom the Lord Loveth, 124.

[20] Williams, Agency, 7.

[21] Williams, Agency, 7.

[22] Maxwell, Whom the Lord Loveth, 124.

[23] Robert Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (fall 2004);

[24] Neal A. Maxwell, “Some Thoughts on the Gospel and the Behavioral Sciences,” BYU Studies 16 (1976): 595.

[25] Williams, Agency, 18.

[26] Delbert L. Stapley, “Using Our Free Agency,” Ensign, May 1975, 22.