Free Agency: Raise the Hand and Bow the Knee

by Joseph

Dear Joseph,

Thank you for that in-depth breakdown of Hebrew and Genesis 1:1. That’s the kind of stuff literally no one knows or would ever feel comfortable talking about. But you laid it out like you were teaching me how to use a fork or something simple like that. I like it, and it’s quite profound.

You’ll be surprised to learn that I’ve enjoyed having some Mormon missionaries coming to visit the last three weeks. I like talking about theology and it’s not easy to find people around here who are both interested and knowledgeable on the subject. They’ve ended each get-together with a question. The first one was like “if you come to know that the Book of Mormon is true, and if you gain a testimony of that, and if you decide that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the true path to God, then would you want to be baptized?” Something like that. And I was like, “well, there’s a lot of ‘ifs’ in there, some really big ones, but I suppose the only possible way to answer that rather loaded question is with a yes. So… yes.” It was a true answer, but I’m not sure how honest it was. I don’t feel like I was lying, I just think there were a lot of variables that went unaddressed.

Today, the question was if all of that happens by August, would I be willing to be baptized on that date. I told them I’ve got a lot of obligations on my time, promises and commitments I’ve already made over the years to a lot of things; as in, I’ve got kids to raise, a job to do, things to write, so forth and so on. I can’t ignore everything else I’ve committed to do in order to hunker down and study The Book of Mormon, and receive whatever expectations I do or don’t have.

I do want to give it an honest effort. I said I know August is months and months away, but I just don’t feel like I can promise I’d be ready by then if I ever am ready. But again—all those ifs! So IF I have received a divine message from God that the Book of Mormon is true BY August, then again, the only way to answer that is with a ‘yes’ whether I feel that way NOW or not because IF all those things come to pass I assume I WILL feel that way THEN.

I like these chats, but I don’t want to waste these boys’ time. If I spend months on this, do all the things they’re asking me to do to get that testimony and then it doesn’t take, I’ll feel bad. They said I had to read it with a “real intent.” I don’t know if I can muster that intent. Not because I am completely closed to the idea of The Book of Mormon being l true, but because I am of two minds about God to begin with: part of me no longer believes he exists at all and is quite comfortable with the surprising peace of mind that realization brings; the other part of me believes God may exist but does not understand why he is a being worth worshipping and is actually rather upset at the prospect. No, upset isn’t the right word: angry.

Here’s the bit that has these two wonderful people and I at an impasse:

God has given us free agency—the ability to make whatever decisions I want. And along with that comes a world full of sin and evil and despair, but it also means the opportunity to ascend to something better—a better form of being, a better place to be. But what, I ask, is so great about free agency? I don’t feel like it’s worth all the horrible things it allows people to choose to do. “But,” they say, “if there’s no free agency then there’s no chance of becoming better.” Then I pointed out that if there’s no free agency then there’s no evil and therefore nothing to be better THAN. There’s no point to any of it.

They didn’t really have any reply to that, so I re-broke the ice by assuring them that I was aware that they must have thought I wasn’t making any sense at all. They agreed but seemed bemused by the whole thing, like we all realized there was something each of us was trying to say here that neither side was able to adequately express.

I understand what you’ve said about the fall and such, but my concern is that the world needn’t have fallen in the first place. Why did things have to get much worse before we could have the choice on whether or not to make ourselves better than that which is worse? We’re not really ascending then, we’re just getting back to where we were in the first place. That’s not really improvement, and so much hurt has had to happen for us to get back to where we were before we fell. Some won’t make it back either. Makes me think of the old adages, “leave well enough alone” and “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

The world wasn’t broken until God gave us our free agency.

What are your thoughts?

—Thomas


Dear Thomas,

Your heartfelt honesty is refreshing for the missionaries, I’m sure. I mean, they asked you to have real intent and you’re honest enough to say that you’re not sure you can muster it, therefore you should not be surprised if a divine response is just out of reach for the next few months. I don’t say that to sound like a detractor or anything, but I’m simply restating what you said yourself. Thus you can’t blame the missionaries, the message, or God if the heavens remain closed to you. In other words, you know what you must do if you really want an answer.

“…’If there’s no free agency then there’s no chance of becoming better.’ …[But] if there’s no free agency then there’s no evil and therefore nothing to be better THAN.”

Your question about free agency is an interesting one, not because it’s impossible to answer—it’s not as paradoxical as it may seem—but because the answer may fundamentally imply truths that I think you may find hard to accept.

Now, before we delve into the logic that I want to employ here, an important point to keep in mind through all of this is that—with reference to the Gospel—when logical conversion precedes and/or takes the place of spiritual conversion the result is, usually, a fad-like commitment to the principles you will covenant to keep at baptism and onwards. What I mean by that is that—unless you have a spiritual witness of the truthfulness of the Gospel—the winds of doubt and the latest “scientific” finding could easily take your conviction (or conversion) away from you, which, you see, constitutes no real conversion in the first place. Put scripturally, you must plant the word deep in your soul if you don’t want it to be taken away (see the parable of the sower in Mark chapter 4).

My point is, despite any perceived hang-ups in logic, your spiritual witness is far more important in the short- and the long-run of things. Logic has its place—and let’s be clear that when I refer to logic I’m referring to logic arguments, not sanity itself—but this same logic would have kept Isaac tucked safely in bed the morning Abraham was commanded to offer a sacrifice in the similitude of the Son. Logic, if a precedent to faith, would have kept Moses away from Egypt for good, let alone on the dry floor of the Red Sea. Yet these and many other figures of faith were convicted in spirit long before the logic of the Lord was ever revealed to them. If the foolishness of God is wiser than anything of men (1 Cor. 1:25), then surely the perfect logic of eternity will always take faith on our part to accept (1 Cor. 2:14).

With that said, here’s my two logical cents on free agency:

“The world wasn’t broken until God gave us our free agency.”

First, free agency did not begin at birth. In fact, free agency is a principle that enables existence itself (see Doctrine and Covenants 93:30). With a little bit of applied thought, this truth can be made self evident fairly easily. Just think about it. Are you thinking about it? Well then your exercising the most basic principle of existence right this moment simply by thinking, which thinking is defined by your choice of what to think about. If we did not have agency before this life, then a third of our spirit siblings before this life could not have chosen to uphold Lucifer’s plan and thus miss out on progression (Doctrine and Covenants 93:29).

When you realize that when God speaks of giving man his agency He is really speaking of allowing man to retain his agency, and that agency exists as a principle independent of God’s operations (for He too would have no existence without it), it becomes easier to accept that man’s wickedness is not God’s doing—and certainly not His will—but the devil raging in the hearts of man (like wild beasts, remember?). A man left to his own devices without principle of refinement or civilization—qualities of God’s society—will naturally become an enemy to God (see Mosiah 3:19 and 1 Corinthians 2:14).

Surely the missionaries introduced you to Lucifer’s counterfeit plan, right? Recall that in the council in Heaven before the world was, two plans were championed before us, God’s spirit children. One plan was authored by “the Head of the gods” and the premortal Jesus Christ upheld it and volunteered to fill the needed role of a Savior to make it work, and the glory would be to the Father; the other plan was championed by Lucifer who proposed that no Savior would be needed because—without free agency—there would be no chance for wickedness to occur (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) and thus no need for an atoning sacrifice needed to save, and the glory would be his. As Joseph Smith interestingly worded it:

“The contention in heaven was—Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he could save them all,  and laid his plans before the grand council,  who gave their vote in favor of Jesus Christ. So the devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down, with all who put up their heads for him.

“…For Jesus will save all except the sons of perdition.”

Joseph Smith

How exactly Lucifer proposed to take away agency is a mystery to me, but the only conclusion I can come to is that it would be less like a utopia and more like an Auschwitz—bound hand and foot to literally be slaves to Lucifer’s will to all gain salvation. Granted, we wouldn’t see him as the devil in that scenario, but as God to whom all are forced to obey whether you like it or not—whether you choose to or not. But, luckily, the God to whom we ‘gave [our] vote in favor’ (we were part of that ‘grand council’) is a being of justice and truth. He too desires all to gain salvation, but will not—nay, cannot—force us to obey those principles of truth that would result in salvation.

This then explains Joseph Smith’s wording above. What is the price for respecting our value as free agents—to respect us as much as He respects Himself? It is, unfortunately, that a few of us would will ourselves away from God and into oblivion.

“…[But from the preexistence to the Celestial Kingdom] we’re just getting back to where we were in the first place. That’s not really improvement….”

Second, you will recall that Heavenly Father’s purpose in sending us here is multifold: one aspect is to be tested; another is to gain crucial experience; yet another is to gain a body. It is this last aspect that I’d like to emphasize. Remember that though we once lived with God, we were not like Him—we were not matured as His offspring. He gave us the choice to continue the path to become like Him (again, agency being key) but to do so would require us to know the good from the evil, so we had to come to this fallen world. Why? Because it is the only place where we could gain a physical body and keep climbing the ladder of eternal progression. (I know it’s sometimes hard to think of this life as a step in progression, but that just brings us back to the testing aspect of this life.) Remember, “Adam fell that man might be” or the striking corollary, “Had Adam not fallen man could not be” (2 Nephi 2:25; also, I wrote much more on this before).

So, no, we’re not ‘just getting back to where we were in the first place’; we’re moving onward and upward, just some not as upward as others, and a select few (the ‘sons of perdition’) are going backward. Let me put this ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ talk in perspective for you:

The plan of salvation teaches that every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ (Philippians 2:10-11), and we know that the lowest degree of glory that any man (excepting the sons of perdition) will inherit, the Telestial Kingdom, will be a place in the “Kingdom of Heaven,” a place greater than this existence. So, it follows that the ordinance required to enter into God’s secular ‘kingdom’—literally the dominion of the King—is the bowing of the knee and admittance of Christ’s rulership as King (makes one wonder where medieval kingdoms got their pattern, eh?). I want you to remember this for later.

Now, to believe that man in his wickedness will land nearer to God eternally than he now is almost makes sin appear to be nonexistent. But sin is still sin—and a fire of guilt, for lack of a better word, will always burn in the hearts of the Telestial who realize they have fallen short of their potential (this is the true meaning of the fire and brimstone of the Bible)—but to understand that a glory yet awaits even the sinner in this life is to understand what this life really is: a test to ‘[give our] vote in favor of Jesus Christ’ again but under more trying circumstances.

To do this, to choose Christ again, requires sacrifice that will prove to God who the King’s truest servants will be, who He will make His truest rulers in His kingdom.

The ‘sons of perdition’ are those who sin against the Holy Ghost. They are those who have had the heavens opened to their view and they deliberately choose to deny it. They move backwards because they essentially change their ‘vote in favor of Jesus Christ’ that they made before this world. For them, bowing the knee and admitting Christ as King would be contrary to their will (that’s why I once alluded to the fact that accepting the Gospel and then rejecting it is worse than never having accepted it in the first place).

So the story changes from the all-too-familiar mainstream-Christianity one of “Okay mankind, you get one shot to pick the right answer. If you do, you win a big prize, folks!” to one of “You each get to choose just how much you’d like to follow Christ, as you all have already said you will before this life, but the closer you want to be the more that will be asked of you. Will you really be happier there? That’s up to you.”

“Why did things have to get… worse…? …So much hurt has had to happen….”

Remember, God has placed us on this earth—a Telestial sphere itself currently, the bottom of the bucket eternally speaking—to see if we will choose light over darkness. If we remain true to our choices in the preexistence, we will have an “exceeding and eternal weight of glory” added upon us (2 Corinthians 4:17). But mankind, as a whole, loves darkness more than light, and this is the condemnation the world is under (John 3:19). A man may choose to be vile and use his agency for evil—you and I see it everyday almost everywhere—but that man will fall short of the glory of God, which thing is eternal damnation by definition, never having more than the angels (I wrote about this a while back).

So it’s not that sinning will land you in a glorious state, for it is a matter of perspective: you’ve forgotten that relative to all creation, you’re standing in the refuse pit—for a reason! Sinning—or specifically not repenting—will prove the end of your glory, for in all the kingdoms except one there is an end to glory, and though Telestial glory is greater than that which we now experience, it is still a lamentable end.

When we, as part of the ‘grand council,’ put up our hands for Christ, we understood that Christ would be our king after all was said and done. When that future day comes when we bow the knee and formally sustain Him as such, it will not be a surprise to us or a begrudging notion to accept that we are under His rule. We will rejoice in the happy day. The question you are faced with by the missionaries is this: “Will you be baptized by authority to enter Christ’s ecclesiastical Kingdom? You are here, evidencing that you are part of his secular Kingdom, but He desires for you to be part of His inner circle of disciples.” Those who will take that ordinance upon themselves in this life and endure faithful to it (the sacrifice part) are those who will be given dominion with the King to rule and organize the heavens along side Him, to inherit all that the Father has (Doctrine and Covenants 84:38).

That is the definition and the difference between the Celestial Kingdom and all the others.

Christ invites men unto Him, to be joined to Him in ordinances and covenants that they must obey, that they—through Him—may be “joint heirs” of the Father (Romans 8:17). And all of this requires faith, born of a witness, born of real intent—which ofttimes precedes logic.

—Joseph

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