Timothy G. Merrill, “Spiritual Forensics: Dusting for God’s Fingerprints in a World Filled with Agency,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium, 2004 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 93–105.
Spiritual Forensics: Dusting for God’s Fingerprints in a World Filled with Agency
Timothy G. Merrill
Is God conducting a controlled experiment upon His children, testing them to see which ones will “make the grade”? One often feels that way when reading the scripture, “We will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:4–5). But if a passing grade is so important, why did the Lord make the final exam so hard? Life is prepackaged with adverse conditions; it is like trying to grow soybeans in bad soil with hot sun and marauding wildlife too. Why can’t life be lived in a greenhouse?
“God [hath] made the world and all things therein . . . and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:4, 6).  The Lord made a big sandbox (earth) and then piled us into it, so to speak. He chose the school we are sent to, how long we have recess, which children will play together, and who will have the best sand for castle building and who will have coarse gravel. He even leaves the bullies in the box. In fact, He leaves pretty much everything the way it is. And sometimes we may think of Him with a clipboard, circling the sandbox, taking notes as He observes the behavior of the children. After a while, some children forget He is there at all.
How can our understanding of agency enhance our appreciation for life and improve our chances for success? What is the principle of agency? Agency is like a fragrance you cannot place. You know it is there, but what exactly is it? In this explorative essay, I will examine the nature and scope of the agency of man and its purpose in God’s plan. This paper is intended to stimulate prayerful pondering rather than provide concrete answers. Nothing presented here should be viewed as definitive. All conclusions are subject to further light and knowledge.
“She dumped me, so she must not be the one,” or “I didn’t get the job, so I guess I’m not supposed to work for that company.” Comments like these are common and lean heavily towards fatalism. In a world built upon agency, is anything “supposed” to happen? The Lord’s fingerprints are everywhere—but is He the cause? While Latter-day Saints are not doctrinally deterministic, we are told, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things” (D&C 59:1). In a world where God is the Architect, what does He ordain and what does He merely permit?
The Lord taught, “In the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 7:3). When Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “the eyes of them both were opened” (Moses 4:13). They became “as gods, knowing good and evil” (Moses 4:11). Not like Gods, but “as gods.”  There is a difference: God sees all things. He knows the end from the beginning. On the other hand, we are as gods, swimming underwater through the murk of mortality without the use of goggles—at night.
I make this distinction in order to correct a common misconception of the Fall. Adam and Eve did not partake of the tree of knowledge. They ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Now read these words the Lord spoke to Adam: “And it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore they are agents unto themselves” (Moses 6:56). Therefore, the agency of man is not based upon knowledge generally, but rather upon the specific knowledge of good and evil. This is why the body of agency must be dressed in the light of Christ, for the “Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil” (Moroni 7:16). The essence of agency, then, is the ability to distinguish and choose between good and evil, right and wrong, light and dark.
Agency cannot survive in a vacuum. It must be wedded to at least three other principles. The first is opposites. “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” ( Nephi :11).
The second principle builds upon the first. It is, “And it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet” (D&C 9:39). Being tempted by Satan is a necessary evil for our mortal experience. Enticement enlivens our agency.
The third principle is freedom to act. “Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself “ ( Nephi :16). Freedom is distinct from agency, but they must cross-pollinate in order for both to ripen. It would be pointless to let your son buy a toy but then forbid him to play with it. The symbiotic relationship between agency and freedom was taught by Samuel the Lamanite, “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” (Helaman 14:30). Opposites are the roadmap; temptations are the billboards; freedom is the car; and agency is our ability to choose the destination.
Agency and Accountability
In mortality our knowledge is fragmentary and distorted, like the performance of a concerto in which the musician has only the two middle measures and cannot see how the other parts work together. With such limited capacity, how can we truly choose between “the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life?” ( Nephi 10:3). Can we handcuff our eternal soul with mere mortal knowledge? Can we be condemned for choices we make, when we are blind to the ultimate consequences and outcome of those choices? If we only knew what our choices really meant, might we be wiser in choosing?
Despite our ignorance, the Lord has endowed us with sufficient knowledge to make us accountable for certain choices. Lehi said, “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man” ( Nephi :7). In a way, we are free from an immediate realization of the full consequences of our actions. Such freedom allows us to vent our desires without reprisal, thereby revealing our true nature. Perhaps this is why God engineered life so that “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17), while the wicked are allowed to sunbathe in sin undisturbed (see Matthew 5:45).
Imagine, in the alternative, a world where we experienced and knew the consequences of all our choices: the moment we sin, our hand gets slapped; the moment we do good, our head gets patted. Such a pattern would defeat the purpose of life. If we were punished at the moment we made a wrong choice, life would become an aversion therapy session. If we were rewarded instantly for doing good, our choices would be based upon pleasure-response. Therefore, by holding our rewards and punishments in escrow, God allows us to show our true colors now.
The extent of our accountability is measured by agency, which is the key that triggers accountability. Since agency is rooted in the Light of Christ, we are accountable for whatever choices we make between darkness and light. Only those choices carry eternal verdicts, where our conscience serves as both judge and jury. Other choices do not likely have eternal significance, like whether to lay carpet or hardwood in your home. Choices that are not between light and dark are matters of preference. “But wo, wo unto him who knoweth that he rebelleth against God! For salvation cometh to none such” (Mosiah 3:1). Really, there is only one sin: to willfully choose darkness over light (see John 3:19; James 4:17).
But at what point do we become accountable? When we make the choice, or when we carry it out? When we plan our trip to hell, or when we drive there? And if it is when we drive, are we accountable when we get in the car, turn on the ignition, make it halfway, pass through the gates, or when we get out of the car and register in a hotel? Who has the algorithm to untangle this? The Lord alone.
In Sunday School one often hears, “You are free to choose, but you are not free to choose the consequences.” While this is true, the relevant question becomes, “Then am I accountable for those consequences if I did not choose them?” It seems reasonable to say that we are accountable for all actions we specifically intend. But can we be culpable for the unintended consequences of our actions? Think of a boy who illegally sets fireworks off in the canyon. He is accountable for that illegal and willful conduct. But if the fireworks accidentally set the mountain aflame, is he guilty of arson? While he may be responsible for the fire, he may or may not be accountable for it. Typically, we are only accountable for our willful acts. Perhaps one might be accountable for consequences under a sort of “spiritual negligence” theory; but from the standpoint of sin, only the Lord can know how much we know, what warnings we received, and what our hearts intended.
Scope of Agency
Some people exaggerate the scope of our agency as if agency meant we could choose anything. The only sovereign choice we have is between light and dark, and we control that choice absolutely. All other choices are made in a complex jumble of competing interests and pressures. For example, the choice of career is influenced by natural aptitudes; the choice of a spouse by those you know; the choice to walk by healthy legs. All decisions, except between right and wrong, are constrained by other factors. Can a man with only a thousand dollars choose between a Porsche and a Ferrari? So while we are free to choose between good and evil, agency does not permit us to choose all the circumstances of our life. But if we do not choose them, who does? The Lord? Nature? Chance? We know we chose to come to earth, but immediately upon arrival we are thrust into circumstances over which we may have no say at all. Some of those things are
• parents, siblings, and extended family
• period of earth’s history we live in
• our body
• when and how we will die
Significantly, life casts us into roles we may never have chosen. Despite the principle of agency, there are many things in life we simply have to “live with,” like being handicapped. We just are. We are so many things we wish we weren’t, and yet we cannot change them. These things I call invariables. Invariables appear to be unfair because it seems unjust to force a person to lie in a bed not of their own making. Life throws us automatically into unequal slots, but most of us wish for a level playing field.
While it is likely that much of our life here is governed by previous choices made in the premortal world, the danger of that statement is obvious. It would erroneously imply that those who are less fortunate here deserve what they get—as if they were born on the wrong side of the railroad tracks because they were “less valiant” in the past life. We must never judge each other’s condition here to reflect upon past performance there. Only God knows those answers, and it is fruitless to speculate this side of the veil.
I propose, then, four possibilities to explain the existence of invariables:
• God ordained them.
• We chose them.
• Satan created them.
• They are as they are for whatever reason, and God allows them to exist.
As far as I can tell, these four possibilities are exhaustive, but they may not be exclusive, meaning they may mix and overlap.
I will eliminate number one because, while God is all powerful, He does not use “compulsory means” (D&C 11:46) upon His children. And no Christian could blame Him for the unfairness of life, when He is “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:35). If the invariables were all God’s handiwork, then He would be a poor craftsman indeed. I cannot ascribe to God the suffering and inequality of life, when He Himself commands us to “be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:7).
Number two is just as unlikely. If God (who is perfect and just) would not create such inequality among His children, surely we (who are selfish and conceited) would not. If the angels were passing out good looks in heaven, we would all form a line. If they were booking reservations for loving families on earth or well-paying jobs, we would join the mob to get our name on the list. It seems unlikely that we chose the invariables.
Number three is appealing. Satan makes a tempting fall guy, but I do not think he created the invariables because he is a destroyer rather than a creator. He chips away at the pottery but does not fashion it; he perverts rather than builds. Additionally, the Lord has set certain bounds to Satan’s influence that he cannot break.
Number four is left. The Lord indicated to Abraham that life is filled with inherent inequalities. “These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all” (Abraham 3:19). But God ultimately will make up the discrepancies among His children. “And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. . . . God hath . . . given more abundant honour to that part which lacked” (1 Corinthians 1:3–4). So those children who draw the short stick and get straw instead of a double mattress bed will have it made up. How will the Lord make it up to them?
In ancient times, Christ’s disciples fell into the judgmental trap of wanting to blame either man or God for life’s invariables. “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:). Like the disciples, we are often eager to judge, jump to false conclusions, and act self-congratulatory. “Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). I suggest this provides a key to understanding life’s invariables. This scripture could be misconstrued to say that God caused the man to be born blind. But it does not say that at all. The blindness existed, and God restored the man’s sight, thereby adding to His glory. Rather than making life unfair, the Lord will rectify the situation. So we stand in the middle of a galactic tug-of-war where “nature” is the rope, God is pulling for the salvation and “oneness” of His children, Satan is struggling on the other end for selfishness and inequality, and we get to choose which side we will join.
Agency and the Foreknowledge of God
Another question that is often raised in a discussion of agency and freedom is, “How can we be free, when the Lord already knows exactly what we will choose?” Not only what, but when, and how, and why. He doesn’t make it happen but watches it happen. God resides on “a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things . . . are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord” (D&C 130:7). As Alma taught, “All is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men” (Alma 40:8). We must not think of God in terms of time. That is like sticking eternity into a thimble and telling it to stay put. God is thus not only everywhere, but everywhen. We can only understand agency when we begin to understand God’s perspective. It is a bit presumptuous (and all too common) for mortals to expect God to conform to their own notions of linear time.
A good example of God’s timeframe is found in 1 Nephi. An angel showed Nephi the history (future) of his people, Christ’s ministry, and the end of the world—all in 600 BC. In the vision, Nephi watches the Lord call twelve disciples from among his seed, and the angel says, “And these twelve ministers whom thou beholdest shall judge thy seed. And, behold, they are righteous forever; for because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood” (1 Nephi 1:10). Ponder it. Six hundred years before these twelve men were even born, their mortal lives had already been lived in the eyes of God. And the Lord could say (before they stepped one baby foot into mortality), “They are righteous forever.” That is what some call the foreknowledge of God. But that term is in some ways an oxymoron. Technically, there is no such thing as the “foreknowledge” of God because God knows all things now, not “afore.” God resides at the center of the hub in eternity as the spokes of man’s time spin through mortality.
The scriptures imply another stunning truth, frequently overlooked. It is: God not only knows everything that does happen, but also what would happen. The “would have” principle is well illustrated in the following scripture written by Joseph Smith, “Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God” (D&C 137:7).
It is even plainer in President Wilford Woodruff’s explanation of the Manifesto, when he said, “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice [plural marriage].” He concluded, “All these things would have come to pass, as God Almighty lives, had not that Manifesto been given” (Official Declaration 1).
The “would have” principle implies that the Lord anticipates alternate realities. The Lord really does know all things! This means that the Lord knows what we would do under whatever conditions. At the judgment bar I will not be able to say, “Lord, I know I messed up. But if only you had given me or let me, then I would have turned out all right.” The Lord’s perfect knowledge invalidates all “if only” arguments.
Because of the Lord’s love for us, He may handpick the circumstances best suited for our good. However, He must work within the framework created by mortals through the exercise of their agency and freedom. “The God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept. . . . And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep? . . . And the Lord said unto Enoch, . . . should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer? And it came to pass that the Lord spoke unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (Moses 7:8–9, 3, 37, 41).
Faith in Our Father and His Plan
God is our Father. Day after day He witnesses the most sickening crimes one can imagine. And it is real. The pain is real. The prayers for deliverance are real. Why doesn’t Father stop it? Shouldn’t He? The great Father of us all is bound. He gave us agency and made us free. Who can comprehend His sorrow as He views the suffering of His children? He knows the cost of agency.
People talk of God’s restraint when Christ suffered upon the cross. How He must have longed to come and hold His Son! But is it any easier for Father to hold Himself back when a child cries out for comfort, or a victim pleas for mercy? There are things even divine Patience cannot endure. Sodom. Gomorrah. Apostate Zarahemla, which He “burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof,” or wicked Moranihah, which He “covered with earth, and the inhabitants thereof, to hide their iniquities and their abominations from before my face, that the blood of the prophets and the saints shall not come any more unto me against them” (3 Nephi 9:3, 5). Thus, when the anger of the Almighty erupts, God may choose to curtail our freedom to prevent us from further self-incrimination. Even his punishments are part of a compassionate plan.
But for God, it is even worse than we suppose. He is omniscient—knowing the end from the beginning—and therefore knows now of all the terrible atrocities that will befall His children. He watches it. Everything. And He can only wait it out. See it through. Hear the prayers. He is bound. He gave us agency and made us free. He knows the cost.
No sermon on agency was ever as powerful as Father’s dedication to it. He holds it inviolate, even when His heart is breaking for His children. How terribly offensive Satan’s plan must have been to Father. Lucifer stabbed the plan to the heart. “Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, . . . I caused that he should be cast down” (Moses 4:3). Note that the devil attempted to destroy man’s agency, not freedom. It is probably incorrect to suppose that Satan’s plan would have “forced” us to be good. Coercion would have struck our freedom but not our agency. Lehi’s discourse in Nephi indicates that if we were forced to do “good,” it would not be counted as righteousness, if in fact righteousness would exist at all under such a system—or wickedness; for without Christ there is no law (see Nephi :11–13). In addition, it appears improbable that Satan had the power to compel our hearts or desires since intelligence must stand independent and act for itself, “otherwise there is no existence” (D&C 93:30). Because our hearts could not be forced, actions performed without real intent would still be evil (see Moroni 7:6). There seems, therefore, to be serious flaws in the idea that Satan would have forced us to be good.
Rather, if Satan wanted to destroy agency, he would have needed to abolish, somehow, the Light of Christ itself—and conceivably the only way to do that would be to displace Christ Himself (see D&C 88:13). Thus the Lord recalls, “[Lucifer] rebelled against me, saying, Give me thine honor, which is my power.” As impossible as that seems, Satan must have made it plausible enough to seduce “a third part of the hosts of heaven.” It is remarkable that “a third part of the hosts of heaven turned . . . away from me because of their agency” (D&C 9:36). By giving us agency, God permitted Himself to be betrayed. Fathom it. Agency is one of God’s greatest gifts—yet a third part of His children used it to desert Him. Why would a third part of the hosts of heaven rebel against Him?
Perhaps a better question is, “Why would two-thirds part choose to follow Him?” Why would the majority choose to come to earth, when life is filled with suffering and packed with pain? So much heartache. Can we blame the devils for not wanting to go through the fiery furnace? Did we realize what we were getting into “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:7). Were we naïve, uninformed, or simply sadists? And we wonder why one-third part of heaven chose not to come. I reverence the two-thirds who had faith enough to come at all. Every person I meet on earth is a hero.
Are we God’s experiment?
If so, then I am eternally grateful for a loving and tender Father who listens to my every prayer, who desires life to be as painless as possible, and who sent His Son to share my burden. With them—and for them—I can pass the test. And that is perhaps the greatest choice of all.
 Italics and other formatting changes show author’s emphasis in this and all future verses.
 Alma 12:31 says that Adam and Eve became as “Gods” with a capital G. However, in order to illustrate the following point, I have chosen to use the Pearl of Great Price rendering.