Replies to Thomas

Category: agency

Poem: Mind as a Garden, Thoughts as the Rain

THY mind, O man, is as a garden;
thy thoughts are as the rain,
which nourish seedlings spread throughout,
for weed or flower’s reign.

It is not thou who art the planter,
of seed for grace or gloom,
but the chooser of the growing—
thy yearnings doth give bloom.

Without hands the seeds are sown in
fertile ground ensuring
their steady growth to quickly spread
influence and mooring.

The planters twain are light and dark,
life or sin their yielding;
each seed is set and safely waits
thy mind’s weather revealing.

The dark ones plead and grasp for thirst,
and grow so easily;
The light ones too shall rise and bloom,
but bid thee quietly.

God seeks to dwell in Eden’s lawn,
where thorn nor thistle grow;
“Repent!” he calls to natural minds,
“Uproot! Take spade and hoe!”

The master gardner bought the tools—
the price for change is paid!
“I for you will dig,” he says, “if
“from weeds thy rains are stayed.”

“The seeds of darkness I cannot stop,
“while life’s test you are in;
“Take care, therefore, to wet no more,
“the leastwise seed of sin.”

From birth to death the garden grows;
new seeds arise daily.
Thy rain of thoughts, then, is the crux,
’twill swell thy destiny:

Lush green and fruits to please the Lord,
and walk in cool of day;
or briars, thorns, and noxious weeds,
dim glory: like moon grey.

rain_in_the_garden_by_darkosikman

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The Devil’s Rebuttal

Dear Joseph,

Lately there’s been a lot of discussion in the media about identity. It’s made me think about what you have written before, that I am supposedly a son of God. But when I look about myself, I find that I am evidently just a menial laborer barely scraping by to provide for my family. No goodness here; no greatness here.

You know, I tried praying and fasting, like the Elders told me to do, to see if I was really a son of God. I don’t think they expected my answer: fear. Fear and a little loathing for the blows dealt me over the years that haven’t landed me that executive job in the big city. Thanks for all of that, God.

Maybe you are; but am I not a son of God? I seem to have been made for lesser things.

—Thomas


Dear Thomas,

First things first: we are all children of God. Identity theft has been Satan’s big gig lately, and he’s really stealing the show in our generation—and he’s laughing about it. I’m going to share a story with you that will demonstrate why this particular peculation is so damning.

In the Book of Moses, which is the first few chapters of Genesis with restored material (including some serious prologue), there is an encounter between Moses and Satan that is very applicable to your situation and feelings. In the spirit of Nephi, I will “liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23).

In his instructive, typical experience, Moses, having first been enlightened by the truth of God’s existence, is tempted of the devil—he is given the choice of the two paths: “Satan came tempting him, saying: Moses, son of man, worship me” (Moses 1:12). As the Book of Mormon principally enumerates, “Man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other”—good or evil, God or Satan, etc. (2 Nephi 2:16). In other words, Moses can now demonstrate where his loyalties lie—he can prove his metal. No one can be considered to be truly good unless he has had evil presented before him and he has rejected it; likewise, no one can be considered truly evil unless he has had opportunity to refuse the good. The candle’s light is only bright when compared to the darkness that surrounds it.

So it appears that Moses has a simple task before him: refuse the devil—cast out the evil influence. And this he does, though the fight is far from over. Moses says:

“Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?… Get thee hence, Satan; deceive me not; for God said unto me: Thou art after the similitude of mine Only Begotten…. Depart hence, Satan” (Moses 1:13,16,18).

In essence, Moses is saying what you said, Thomas, though in a more certain tone, ‘Am I not a son of God?’ The implication being that if he is a son of God—if any of us are—then his very nature ought to point his affections and worship to his Father in Heaven and no one else. Yet we are tempted away from that; yet Moses was tempted away from that. Mark it well: the presence of temptation does not constitute inherent evil in our hearts—it is part of our earthly visa. Even Moses, surely one of the greatest prophets to ever live, was tempted of the adversary (as also the Savior, as we shall read).

But, as stated above, the fight doesn’t end with Moses’ refusal to give in to the devil’s demands. After being cast out, something peculiar—yet, again, typical—occurs between the devil and Moses. I call it “The Devil’s Rebuttal.” It is an identifiable pattern in the lives of those who attempt to draw close to God and choose the good path in their daily choosing. Yet it is a subtle and easily misidentified reaction, often considered a reemergent aspect of an inherent evil as opposed to an outside attack.

“And now, when Moses had said these words, Satan cried with a loud voice, and ranted upon the earth, and commanded, saying: I am the Only Begotten, worship me. And it came to pass that Moses began to fear exceedingly; and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell” (Moses 1:19-20).

Now, I know I just said this is a ‘subtle’ reaction though the scripture describes Satan as ‘ranting’ with a ‘loud voice,’ but keep in mind that Moses’ spiritual eyes were open and he could see what most other mortals only feel, which feeling is usually dim and uncertain depending on our spiritual experience. Consider this: if Satan were to scream in your ear, “Thomas, you are nothing!” would you note the intensity of his tone or the depth of what you begin to feel is your nothingness? What I’m trying to say is that though we typically misidentify the source of these feelings in ourselves due to spiritual ignorance, the reality beyond the visible is that Satan’s counterattack is a violent retaliation, and we only sense it in our heart and mind (our spirit).

temptation of Christ

“If thou…wilt worship me, all shall be thine.”

Though we are typically unaware of Satan’s workings, Moses’ described feelings are certainly relatable: he experienced ‘exceeding’ fear and felt a bitterness that could only be described as hellish. And this is “The Devil’s Rebuttal.” It isn’t enough for us to have chosen the better path—to run from Satan’s temptation—but he chases after us and tries to tell us that the choice was wrong after having made the choice. In this case, Moses emphasized that his knowledge of his true identity (‘I am a son of God, in the similitude of [the] Only Begotten’) made Satan’s offer of worshipping him the obvious wrong choice, which led to the rebuttal, ‘[No,] I am the only begotten, worship me’!

The Devil’s Rebuttal was designed to undo Moses’ convictions.

But how could any argument stand against the very bodily witness of God and inspire fear and bitterness? The answer comes in knowing that Satan is the god of this world (see Luke 4:5-6). This world, with its temporary fads and fashions, its towers of wealth, and its pillars of learning, worships a god that is not our Father in Heaven (see 1 John 5:19; D&C 84:49). Satan has dominion over the whole of the earth for now, and so he can rightly be called the god of this world, sometimes referred to spiritually as “Babylon.”

In other words, the world at large has given in to the Devil’s Rebuttal, and they have set up Satan as the only begotten, the one to be worshipped. (This could lead us into the whole identity debate that’s raging right now, but we’ll leave that for another time.)

And with this influence at his sway, the devil can fill our minds with his false credentials, attempting to authoritatively “put us in our place,” so to speak; to use his priesthood to remind us of our nothingness in his kingdom; to bring us to our knees in desperation and resignation when he forces us to realize that we have been seeking the wrong kingdom if it was not his.

If Satan had power to inspire Moses with fear and bitterness, then he can surely bring others of us mortals low with his influence. He makes each of us feel as though we were created ‘for lesser things’ (trust me, it’s not just you).

It may sound strange to your ears, Thomas, if you—as I—have never physically heard the loud voice of a unembodied spirit ranting upon the earth, to think that our own feelings of shortcomings and inadequacies come from a real, foreign source, designed to keep us from lifting our eyes above the horizon of this world. But think of the towering skyscrapers of New York City, or the showy cufflinks of successful suits, or of big returns on smart investments, and so on. All the worldly things you’ve ever wanted, even if just for your family’s sake, any of these things—all of these things—are just the Devil’s illusory kingdom, and the honest seeker of truth will find himself tempted by such things (just as Moses), tempted to worship mammon (Luke 16:13).

When we encounter the Devil’s Rebuttal, he shows us our lowliness in all of his kingdom, which is all of his power, and he says to us:

“All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine” (Luke 4:6-7, emphasis added).

What do you do then, Thomas, when all the world is turned against your spirit to inspire fear and to question your path? You reply as the Savior and as Moses did:

“And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Luke 4:8).

“Nevertheless, calling upon God, [Moses] received strength, and he commanded, saying: Depart from me, Satan, for this one God only will I worship, which is the God of glory” (Moses 1:20-21).

Remind yourself, and Satan (while you’re at it), that you are a Son of God, a stranger and a pilgrim in his world (see Hebrews 11:13), and that your destination and kingdom are not of his world (see John 8:23; 15:19). And then press on as he “rage quits” and tries to make you flinch. He has no power next to the God of endless worlds (our Father). It may take more fasting and praying, and certainly studying the scriptures, but such things constitute that ‘worship’ Moses and the Savior both refused to yield when Satan demanded attention.

I can promise, Thomas, that if you will turn your heart to God fully daily—and especially in the face of violent, ranting opposition—you will receive of a strength and a knowledge of that Father you’ve only forgotten. As Moses experienced after Satan finally left him:

“And it came to pass that when Satan had departed from the presence of Moses, that Moses lifted up his eyes unto heaven, being filled with the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and the Son; and calling upon the name of God, he beheld his glory again, for it was upon him; and he heard a voice, saying: ‘Blessed art thou, Moses…. And lo, I am with thee, even unto the end of thy days….’ And behold, the glory of the Lord was upon Moses, so that Moses stood in the presence of God, and talked with him face to face” (Moses 1:24-26,31, single quote marks added).

—Joseph

Is There No Other Way?

Dear Joseph,

In between this last visit and the one, the missionaries stopped by while I was upstairs and gave my boy (who was in fact Batman at the time and as such they addressed him much to his delight) a printed out copy of an essay by John Sutton Welch entitled Why Bad Things Happen at All: A Search for Clarity Among the Problems of Evil. I read through it once to take it in as a whole and then went through it again highlighting interesting bits and making my own comments in the margins.

I don’t know what the chances are that you’ve read this yourself, but the general impression I got, by way of summary, was this: I should be content to allow others to suffer and die just so that I can be aware of how glad I am that it’s not happening to me.

At one point, Mr. Welch writes, “Slowly but surely I have seen, in case after case, how evil, suffering, and injustice serve as essential creative conditions that allow us to develop nearly every Christian virtue, creating opportunities for goodness and the grace of the Atonement to cure us.”

I pointed out to myself that these are virtues and an Atonement that we would not need to employ or receive if there was no evil in the first place. What point is there in a cure if there’s no disease to begin with?

Welch goes directly on to say, “The development of such interpersonal virtues as forgiveness, mercy, generosity, compassion, and charity logically requires the prior existence of some form of evil, suffering, or injustice.”

Well, sure. But again, who needs forgiveness when there’s nothing to forgive? Who needs charity or compassion when there’s no suffering? Who needs generosity when you want for nothing? God has deliberately facilitated sub-par living conditions just so we could learn to help each other survive them? I don’t throw my kids in a fire pit to teach them how to stop, drop, and roll.

—Thomas

P.S.

I got home about half an hour ago from a Mormon church service. Three hours, they said it’d be. I thought that sounded like a long-winded service, but they included what amounted to a Sunday school class and another gender specific service in there, so we got to stretch our legs in between.

It was a lot less formal than I thought it’d be, for all that they wear ties, button-ups, and slacks when they go knocking door-to-door.


Dear Thomas,

I have never read John Sutton Welch’s essay. From what you are saying, it sounds like he’s trying to explain the existence of evil by saying that it is a necessary element of creation in order to furnish a world where we can develop attributes of the opposite nature. That’s an interesting way of looking at it and, if that is his total explanation, I would say that it serves better as a description of our current circumstances than it does an explanation of the origins of evil.

Before I give my full explanation of the matter, I must give you a little aside. By giving you this essay from a dubious source (I’m actually surprised they didn’t provide you something written by a prophet or an apostle, as this topic has been covered before by higher authorities) it’s apparent that the missionaries are trying to think of anything they can to help answer your profoundly deep questions. I know they’re hoping that something they give you may strike a chord with your understanding at some point. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong to ask such questions; remember, the restoration of the Gospel began with a question! But I do think the Lord allows us to be backed up to the wall of faith at times where we must make our stand or otherwise falter.

This is why they want you to read the Book of Mormon and gain a witness of whether or not it is true. If it is, then—though you may not know the exact reasons behind the forces of good and evil—you can acknowledge their existence with an assurance that the truth of it may be learned when the Lord sees fit to reveal it. I don’t mean to make a witness of the Book of Mormon seem like an excuse for not being able to explain something, but it is the keystone of our religion and if it is true, then all that is claimed by it and the religion it supports is also true; If YOU find out that it is true, then your holdup in logic would transform from a brick high on a wall to a step high on a staircase: at some point, you will be given to understand it step after step.

Nonetheless, I don’t mind trying to help answer your questions where I am able. As you said, it is ‘enlightening and entertaining.’

Let me begin with a scripture:

“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. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
“Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God” (2 Nephi 2:11-12)

What Lehi here is teaching is that some things never had a beginning and will never have an end. This includes good and evil, light and dark, gods and devils, and you and I. Our doctrine teaches that all of us are eternal, meaning that our intelligence (what we might consider as our minds) never had a beginning and will never have an end. The interesting thing is that the implication here is that we are all as old as God Himself.

Accordingly, God doesn’t and cannot see Himself as better than any of us but—within the spectrum of eternal progression (for He is more progressed than us)—He knows that He is greater than us. The words I emphasized in the last sentence carry very different connotations. This is important. What I am trying to say is that to be better than another implies a differing degree of intrinsic worth, whereas to be greater than another implies a differing degree of development or attained attributes.

This is part of the reason God will not take our agency away from us, for if we cannot choose between opposing forces as He does, we lose our ability to act for ourselves, which thing defines existence (I wrote quite a bit to you about this before). Therefore if we are eternal, and if we exist due to the ability to choose, and the ability to choose requires things to choose between, then those options to us are also eternal. Those options are good and evil, or light and darkness, etc.

“God has deliberately facilitated sub-par living conditions just so we could learn to help each other survive them? I don’t throw my kids in a fire pit to teach them how to stop, drop, and roll.”

The thing to understand is that God did not create the evil and the darkness of the universe—like the matter with which He organized this world, it was already there when He came to it (remember that Hebrew bara means “to organize” and not “to create”). I agree that it would be bad parenting to throw your kids into a fire pit under any circumstances, but this analogy simply betrays your limited understanding of what this life really is (which limitation is completely acceptable at this point). This life certainly manifests evil—your ‘fire pit’—in its varied forms, but it is not a unique aspect to existence on this earth; evil is an aspect of all existence.

The difference is that in the holy company of Heaven, evil appears as it truly is: a detestable sludge that you wouldn’t touch with a 40 foot pole (or maybe it’s 40 lightyears); on earth, this same evil appears as a finely dressed gentleman to whom the world gives praise and power. In both places evil is a constant, but from the higher plane its mask is removed.

(It is possible to attain to that higher plane while living down here because perspective is an individual matter. To get there requires obedience to the principles of righteousness so that you may become righteous and more easily distinguish between good and evil. This is provided by obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.)

“…They taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good” (Moses 6:55).

But the question that begs to be asked is why, why must we come to a place where evil is so disguised? The answer brings us back to the fact that many things are as old as God Himself. When God was not yet a god, what was He? Recall my previous letter about the head of the gods, or the family of the gods, wherein I wrote that He was once a mortal, like you and I. The process, then, by which He became God—by which you and I are to become gods—is the way it has always been done on any other world that has ever been.

Combine this knowledge with these two facts:

  1. Our bodies have been created in a fallen world and so the flesh is prone to weakness (sin and evil).
  2. The veil of forgetfulness placed over our minds, which causes us to choose goodness by faith, also causes us to choose the opposite by faith.

Perhaps you can begin to see that this mortal probation is a place where evil can be presented to us in an appealing way because of where we are—a fallen world. We are left relatively alone to pick between good and evil for that is part of the test of this life, but it’s not because God created the evil or that He created a fallen world. The world became fallen when Adam and Eve fell, and they fell “that man might be” (2 Nephi 2:25, emphasis added; also read my letter to you on the necessity of the fall).

The analogy you must consider should not be ‘[would I] throw my kids in a fire pit to teach them how to stop, drop, and roll’? But rather this: would I subject my child to the shocking and undoubtedly unpleasant experience of being torn from the warmth of the womb to breathe cold air and lose all feeling of previous security just so they could learn to walk, talk, and grow?

The answer is a deliberate and ultimately merciful yes because whether cesarian or natural birth there is no other way to further your child’s development.

Think about that. I know that you would not go back and change a thing if it meant not having those precious ones in your life. Likewise is God a good parent to us, and we are born into a fallen world simply because of this same reason: there is no other way. There is only one way by which a body of flesh and bone can be created, and “it is sown in corruption[, and] raised in incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:42).

And when we learned we could come to this world in that premortal council that you and I attended, all of us “shouted for joy” (Job 38:7).

—Joseph

P.S.

You made it through all three hours of church! That can be a feat for someone used to shorter stints. In our ward this past week, my wife and I gave the sermons during the sacrament meeting (that first and longest meeting). My wife spoke about Joseph Smith’s first vision and I spoke on the nature of the Godhead.

What did you think of the services? Anything strike you as peculiar?

Trailing Clouds of Glory Do We Come

Dear Joseph,

The missionaries have explained that in the preexistence we chose to come here so that we could learn and choose to become more like God. I think I understand that point. So what happens now that I’m here and I’m perfectly content NOT to become like God?

Is it possible that even in the preexistence my intention was to come here but not take it any further than that? It doesn’t seem likely, but I don’t know the finer points there. By “intention” I mean to come here and gain a body, to be a generally pleasant sort of fellow, but then leave it at that.

Rereading this, I worry I might be coming across as rather flippant and I want to make sure you know that I’m being very sincere here. I’m trying to correlate this new information about the meaning of life with my general feelings about it; I’ve never felt that God’s ever been up there for me, and I don’t feel like I’m down here for Him. Does that make sense?

—Thomas


Dear Thomas,

I do love and appreciate your sincerity, and your words do come across so, and you do make sense.

You know, there’s a reason none of us are permitted to remember our pre-earth life, for we then wouldn’t require faith to follow God—and this life is the testing ground of our faith. But there are a couple things we do know about the preexistence:

For one, we know that we did not come to earth unprepared; an eternity or eons of preparation preceded this life. It may not seem like it, but we are far limited in our capacities and faculties as intelligent beings than we once were. This isn’t to limit us, it is to narrow the test parameters. Such limitations as we experience in mortality could be seen as a roadblock to becoming like our Father in Heaven if this life was about mastering the powers of God so we can be like Him, but that’s not what this life is about; it’s about mastering our faith and obedience to God so that He can trust us with all that is needed to become like Him. Nevertheless, we know that we all come here having undergone great preparation to do so—including you.

For another, we know that our choices in the preexistence have an influence on our circumstances here. The fact that you are on earth shows that you made the decision to support Christ as savior and king in the council in Heaven (as I said in my last letter to you). The fact that missionaries have come to share the higher truths of your eternal potential with you may be a sign that you once did desire to become more than just a “generally pleasant sort of fellow” and become like God. I don’t know that for sure, but you have accepted to be taught by His servants at a pivotal time in your life. If there is a sense within you that is responding to the missionaries’ presence and words, it is a principle of intelligence that you developed before this life—the ability to recognize truth.

Other talents and certain predispositions are features of your eternal identity—they are part of who you were even before this life. The type of characteristics that we would define as having their beginning before this life can typically be identified by their nature and tendency towards good and truth, such as the ability to recognize truth, the desire to keep one’s body pure, and the love of music. Other predispositions that tend towards the negative are what we would define as an iniquity—an inherited dysfunction whose root is the sins of previous generations.

(We are all composite beings of spirit and flesh, or in other words, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience [which is quite a bit different than saying we are physical beings having a spiritual experience]. The part that comes from our Father in Heaven is perfect in its creation and, well, heavenly; the part that comes from our earthly parentage is imperfect [due to the fall] and predisposed towards sinfulness as a result of being conceived by other imperfect bodies that are also predisposed towards sinfulness.)

“The intelligences… were organized before the world was” (Abraham 3:22).

Scripturally, Paul taught about the fact that our choices before this life have an influence on our circumstance here in his letter to the Romans. Referencing the birth of Esau and Isaac (who were born as fraternal twins), Paul wrote:

“…When Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac;
“…[And] the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand…
“It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger….
“What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid” (Romans 9:10-12,14).

Here Paul is assuming that the reader is aware that, though not the natural inheritor of the birthright, Isaac would go on to receive the birthright and have authority to rule over his elder brother, Esau. If God told this to their mother Rebecca before the birth, was God just being random and playing favorites? ‘God forbid’! If we rule that out as a possibility, seeing that God is perfectly just, then to what can we owe this foreknowledge of God? The answer was poetically penned by William Wordsworth:

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
“The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
“Hath had elsewhere its setting
“And cometh from afar;
“Not in entire forgetfulness,
“And not in utter nakedness,
“But trailing clouds of glory do we come
“From God, who is our home….”

William Wordsworth
“Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

Isaac made certain choices before his birth, which is ‘but a sleep and a forgetting,’ that God did not forget, choices that put him in a position to rule over his brother who apparently did not make the same choices. We really won’t know, however, what those choices were, or my or your full motivation for choosing what we did, until the test of this life is over and the veil is lifted from our minds and our former recollection and friends come to our remembrance. Nonetheless, I agree with Wordsworth: I feel as though sometimes I am not left to ‘entire forgetfulness’ and the veil is gently parted by a cool breeze from our eternal home and to my mind is given the slightest shimmering of a feeling of remembrance. By faith and authority, that veil can be fully parted for each of us to gaze through (a topic for another time, perhaps).

“Is it possible that even in the preexistence my intention was to come here but not take it any further than that?”

It is possible to not want to be like God, for, after all, we have free agency and we will go to that place eternally where we will be most comfortable. For many mainstream Christians, they want to be good people so they can go to Heaven and sing praises to God above with the angels. If you look at the definition of the Terrestrial Kingdom in the plan of salvation (as I once wrote to you in detail), these kinds of good people will get just that: God will be above them and they will be as the angels in eternity, serving God and living in peace and a degree of eternal happiness!

BUT what God wants for all of His children is to reach higher than that: to be where He is.

The motivation to do what is required to reach our highest heavenly home is different for each person, partly due to their choices and desires they brought with them from the preexistence. For those who have seen a glimpse of their mansion prepared above, any sacrifice would be worth it just to spend some time there again. For some, their mansion contains their family. I know that was great motivation for my wife when she was faced with the invitation to be baptized: she wanted to be with her family forever—husband, kids, etc., and in the plan of salvation, we know that eternal families can only exist in the Celestial Kingdom. She knew what she had to do—even with the prospect of great personal sacrifice—to get to that degree of glory. She knew that in the two lower kingdoms people will live as individuals—unmarried and without the defining relationships of parents and children—”it shall leave them neither root nor branch” (Malachi 4:1). For Abby, this was part of the mansion she knew she must have, and so, even without the motivation of her own future glory, she desired to exalt her family, and we define exaltation as being saved in the highest degree of Heaven.

Who knows what your preexistent motivation was, but surely it was inspired of an eternal perspective. At the very least, you chose Christ as redeemer then, and now that His Gospel is once again on the earth in its fulness, the question is will you choose Him again? If so, then “repent, and be baptized,” as Peter so invited, “…in the name of Jesus Christ,” by one having authority, even as Peter had authority (Acts 2:38).

—Joseph

Free Agency: Raise the Hand and Bow the Knee

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