Agency: Its Nature, Origins, and Power

Christopher J. Garvin, “Agency: Its Nature, Origins, and Power,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2003 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2003), 59–68.

Agency: Its Nature, Origins, and Power

Christopher J. Garvin

The scriptures are replete with teachings on agency and the consequences of using it. The principle of agency—freedom to choose—has been a crucial issue since the great Council in Heaven before we came to the earth (see D&C 29:36). Agency also existed in the Garden of Eden (see Moses 7:32) and has been a fundamental principle of this world ever since. With the power of agency come many commandments and instructions on its use, with severe penalties for its misuse. In a classic speech, Lehi taught his children that “men are free according to the flesh” (2 Nephi 2:27) but cannot alter the consequences of their choices, for good or for bad.

All modern prophets have also emphasized the importance of agency and the necessity to use it according to the commandments of God. [1] It seems that nearly every talk given by General Authorities at least implicitly emphasizes the need to “choose ... this day, to serve the Lord God,” rather than to choose the enticements of the adversary (Moses 6:33). Priceless sermons can be and have been written on the importance of choice and mankind’s accountability for those choices in the eternal perspective. We can deepen our understanding of agency and its importance in an endless existence through a peek into its nature, its source and origins, and the extent of its power.

The Nature of Agency

The term agency always implies a choice, but the word includes much more than simply making a choice. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, agency is the means “through which something is accomplished.” Some synonyms of agency are words such as will, choose, desire, and intend; also, self-discipline, self-mastery, self-control, and willpower. The definition of the first synonym, will, is very enlightening. The dictionary defines will in several key ways, among them a “wish or desire often combined with determination, “a choice or determination of one having authority or power,” “a disposition to act according to principles or ends,” and the “power of controlling one’s own actions or emotions.” Agency, then, is a principle of action that implies mastery over the self in all circumstances.

The dictionary definition of agency above has special significance when compared with the scriptures. In Doctrine and Covenants 58:28, the Lord commands that “men should ... do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.” When people choose to employ their agency for good according to the commandments and the will of God, His designs are fulfilled through them and great works, even miracles, can result. Thus, agency, or the ability to choose between good and evil, can indeed be the means to accomplish many great things. Whether our works are of righteousness, darkness, or neutrality all depends on our exercise of choice.

The Atonement of Jesus Christ empowers mankind to exercise choice. Lehi teaches that men are “free forever ... to act for themselves and not to be acted upon,” (2 Nephi 2:26). He goes on to explain that the only infringement upon this power to act is self-inflicted, as poor choices result in punishments for disobedience to the commandments of God.

Many members of the Church refer to agency as “free agency,” but is this an accurate term? Is agency really free? The Lord may have implied that agency is free when He stated, “In the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 7:32). If agency is a gift from God, perhaps it could be considered free. Yet President Boyd K. Packer’s observation that the term “free agency” does not appear in the scriptures highlights a significant challenge to this idea. [2]

While mankind may be free to choose, a price was paid to secure agency. Lehi teaches, “And the Messiah cometh in the fullness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall” (2 Nephi 2:26). He continues, “And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever” (2:26). This scripture clarifies that our freedom to choose results directly from the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Without His infinite sacrifice, agency would remain inactive and God’s plan would be frustrated by the wicked choices of His estranged children here on earth. The Savior Himself described the greatness of His sacrifice:

Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your suffering be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.

For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—

Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men. (D&C 19:15–19)

Indeed the price for freedom was great, above anything any mortal could give. Thus, agency is not free. Though the Savior gives our agency freely and does not restrain our freedom to use it, each man, woman, and child carries a great debt to Him who paid the ultimate price for the salvation of mankind, and bought the priceless power of agency. Were it not for the Atonement of Christ, mankind would have but one choice: eternal damnation. Through His sacrifice, the scope of the available options increased infinitely. The terms of the resultant contract between us and the Savior and how to fulfill that debt are clear in the scriptures. We will discuss how to fulfill them is discussed later in this paper.

The Origins of Agency

In Mormon Doctrine, Elder Bruce R. McConkie outlines four necessary elements for agency to exist. [3] First, there must be laws given by God that govern right action. Second, “there must be an opposition, one force pulling one way and another pulling the other.” [4] Revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith confirms the need for opposition, stating that the implementation of agency requires the temptations of Satan (see D&C 29:39). Third, agents must possess knowledge of good and evil and the ability to differentiate between the two. People who lack such knowledge, such as young children, are exempt from responsibility for any offenses they may unknowingly commit (see D&C 29:46, 49–50). Last, agents must have unencumbered power to choose. After commanding His children to use their agency for righteousness, the Lord taught that “the power [to choose] is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves” (D&C 58:28). Without these four elements—law, opposition, knowledge, and freedom—agency cannot exist.

While these four points provide an excellent explanation of the necessary conditions for the release of agency, they alone do not illuminate agency’s origins. Certain questions arise in considering this topic: Where do we get this power to discern and choose between good and evil? Does Satan author agency by providing the world with temptations and alternative choices? What is God’s role in the employment of agency?

The search for the origins of agency first requires an appeal to the story of the Creation. The Lord taught Enoch that He gave agency to mankind in the Garden of Eden (see Moses 7:32). Thus, the scriptures affirm that God gave mankind their agency—a great blessing from a loving Father. However, Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught that agency is the one thing we have that is uniquely ours. As everything else already belongs to the Lord, our agency is therefore the only true offering we can make to Him. Elder Maxwell clarifies: “The submission of one’s will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on God’s altar. The many other things we ‘give’ ... are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us. However, when you and I finally submit ourselves, by letting our individual wills be swallowed up in God’s will, then we are really giving something to Him! It is the only possession which is truly ours to give!” [5] If it is true that God did not give us agency but it is truly ours, then what are the actual origins of our agency, and what did God mean by saying that He gave it to us? The scriptures illuminate the answers to these questions.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, we learn a very significant truth about the origin of agency: “Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence” (D&C 93:29–30). Intelligence and truth have always existed. Abraham learned in a vision that intelligences were organized, not created (see Abraham 3:22). Likewise, truth was organized, as Elder McConkie wrote, into laws through which the Lord established a sphere in which intelligences and truth could act as agents for themselves. Indeed, verse 31 of section 93 declares: “Behold, here is the agency of man” (emphasis added). Agency finds release in a sphere in which it can act—a sphere much like the one Elder McConkie described. However, agency is an inherent part of intelligences and, likewise, neither was nor can be created. Agency, a natural product of God’s organizing power, is inherently ours, and thus constitutes the only true offering we can present to our Maker.

What did the Lord mean, then, in proclaiming that He gave us agency? Verse 30 mentioned above partially answers this question, indicating that the Lord’s role in the employment of agency was to create the sphere in which intelligence and truth could act for themselves—the conditions in which intelligences could exercise their agency. It seems that agency lay dormant until the creation of the proper environment. Heavenly Father, understanding the role of agency in the salvation of mankind and knowing that intelligences had an inherent capacity for agency, created the conditions necessary for its release—a world in which good and evil could exist—thus setting His plan into motion. It follows, then, that the Lord did not literally create agency. Rather, He created the realm in which agency could operate and thus enable Him to fulfill His plan.

The Power of Agency

Agency possesses great power within this sphere God created. In our earlier discussion on its nature, we defined agency as the means through which things are accomplished, whether for good or for bad. The array of choices is almost limitless, and, according to God’s established laws, those choices can bring about eternal joy, endless misery, or anything in between. He asks that we turn to Him and His prophets for instructions on how to use our agency (see D&C 82:8–9). He who exercises agency perfectly and the individuals He authorizes and instructs are always the best sources for knowledge and understanding.

At this point, one might wonder whether God indeed possesses agency. Is He not bound to perfection and unable even to hint at changeableness? If He is unchangeable, can He have agency? The answer to these questions must be in the affirmative. All intelligences possess agency, and God is “more intelligent than they all” (Abraham 3:19). He is also more free and powerful “than they all.”

Recall that our earlier definition of agency also defined it as a desire or purpose. The scriptures often refer to the Father’s will (see Matthew 7:21), a word which we defined previously in several key ways. Chief among those definitions is “a disposition to act according to principles or ends.” God chooses to do certain things in certain ways, and His purposes are so clear that they are unalterable. Because He sees and comprehends those purposes with perfect clarity, He never needs to deviate from them in any way. [6] Even opposition becomes a tool for the fulfillment of His plans (see 2 Nephi 2:11–12), yet this opposition does nothing to alter His purposes or desires. Nor does opposition have any effect upon Him or His perfection (except maybe to magnify His glory). Therein lies, at least in part, the power of God—in the perfect operation of agency and the total rejection of sin.

The scriptures elucidate God’s clarity of purpose and the breadth of His desire. Moses learned the Lord’s specific purpose with great transparency: “Behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of [all men, women, and children]” (Moses 1:39). Moses later witnessed Lucifer’s opposition to the Father. One can imagine the great Council in Heaven, when the plan of salvation was revealed. God the Father would have called His children around and explained His plan—that we would each have the opportunity to enter mortality, gain a body like our Father, exercise agency, and return to our heavenly parents. But bad news followed: in learning to use our agency, we would make mistakes and sin, which would render us ineligible for salvation in the Father’s kingdom. Possibly then, with the dilemma fully revealed, Father asked for a volunteer to pay the price and redeem His children. Although Jehovah, the Firstborn, was the One foreordained to become the Savior of all Father’s creations, He had to volunteer Himself for the mission. Jehovah presented Himself before the Father and humbly declared, as He would later in a garden called Gethsemane, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2).

Satan immediately followed and, standing before the Father, declared, “I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost” (Moses 4:1). What a seemingly attractive plan! The God and Creator of innumerable spirits, which He loved, would surely rejoice at the proposal that each of His children would come home and enjoy the eternal bliss and glory that only He could offer them!

However, Satan’s alternative route was fatally flawed, for it would usurp God’s authority and deny His children their agency. With flawless clarity, Father saw past Satan’s ploy and perfectly understood its consequences: by accepting Satan’s plan, God would relinquish His throne of majesty to a lesser, selfish being, for Satan sought to replace God. “And surely I will do it” he boldly declared, “wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). Not only would he dethrone the God of the universe, Satan would also destroy everyone else’s opportunity for salvation by negating their power to choose. Agency is essential for salvation, as we can walk that path by choice only; coercion has no place in the kingdom of God. The enticement ignored and the tempter cast out, God’s purposes were not altered—nor was His plan. In the face of evil persuasion, the Lord Omnipotent did not falter. He whose knowledge and power expand to the ends of the universe and whose righteousness and glory know no bounds could not be trapped in the feeble snare of a selfish and greedy child.

Perfect use of agency and its attendant power have something to do, it seems, with perfect purposes and perfect intentions. God is glorified through the exaltation of His children. Thus, He has the most to gain through the fulfillment of His plan and purposes. It seems, then, that He would have the greatest motivation for selfish behavior. Any mortal with so much to win would likely go to great lengths to maximize those gains. Mortals often use their agency for such purposes. But our Father is God, not a mortal, and does not succumb to the flesh as mortals do. Somehow, in some way, He can put forth every effort toward a work that will bring Him great majesty and glory but without any hint or shadow of selfish maximization. His purposes and intentions are perfectly pure. For this reason, all can trust and worship Him with perfect faith.

Similarly, we worship His Son, for “the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do” (John 5:19). Jehovah, the perfect Son, willingly became the Savior of mankind by giving His agency to the Father—what all men everywhere must someday do. Not only was His surrender immediate; it was complete and unconditional. Nothing was withheld, no bargain required. By exercising His agency in perfect harmony with the perfect agency of the Father, Jesus became the Lord of all, the Savior and Redeemer, the Mediator between God and fallen mankind. Because Jesus chose perfectly, all mankind may be cleansed from every indiscretion and made worthy of the kingdom of the Father—if they choose Him as their Lord. Through His righteousness and incomparable freedom, God can accomplish the most significant of works—even the salvation of men—and enjoy the greatest of glory. Indeed, there is great power in righteous choosing.

Conclusion

In summary, agency is eternal in nature, divine in origin, and powerful in its use. An innate characteristic of intelligences, agency was released through the creation of a proper sphere in which to act. The examples of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ provide perfect models for correct use of agency and the power that attends righteous living. Indeed, God is God because He learned to control agency, master His will, clarify His purposes, and purify His intentions, and the Savior is identical to Him in every respect.

However, this discussion in no way exhausts the subject of agency. While its origins can mostly be identified, mankind’s ability to comprehend uncreateable entities is miniscule. Most can see only that they exist, but precious few have dipped into the knowledge of the eternities. More needs to be explored regarding the Lord’s definition of agency, the eternal effects of agency, and how to relinquish one’s agency to the Father. We can learn many truths on this earth. The revelation of other truths—such as how to progress from making good choices to godhood—must inevitably be delayed. Though much remains for future study, the confidence that one day we will know all brings comfort to the soul and eagerness to the mind. May we all exercise our agency such that the free flow of pure knowledge will never cease.

Notes

[1] For excellent sermons on agency by modern prophets, in the software GospeLink, under the Search Wizard, look under “Teachings of the Prophets” followed by “Agency.” See especially President Brigham Young’s talk titled “Free Agency” (in Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, comp. John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954]).

[2] Boyd K. Packer, “Our Moral Environment,” Ensign, May 1992, 67. However, President Packer notes that the scriptures contain the phrase “moral agency,” given from God to mankind “that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (D&C 101:78). This moral agency affects each mortal on different levels, from the most basic level of the Light of Christ to the most advanced stage of the gift of the Holy Ghost.

[3] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], 26–28.

[4] McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 26.

[5] Neal A. Maxwell, “Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father,” Ensign, November 1995, 24

[6] This in no way suggests a notion of predestination. Though mankind cannot alter God’s purposes or desires, scriptures indicate that mankind indeed has the ability, through prayer and supplication, to sway the Lord. For example, Hezekiah’s life was lengthened because of his prayers (see Isaiah 38:1–5); the people of Ammonihah were spared because of the prayers of righteous people (see Alma 10:22–23); and prayer is a prerequisite to be gathered in by the Savior (see D&C 29:2). The subject of prayer and its relation to agency—namely God’s agency—must remain for another time. Nonetheless, it is clear that the “fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).