The Lord has explained that "men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of their own free will." He further explained that men "are agents unto themselves," and warned that "he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with a doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned" (see D&C 58:27-29).
This statement has given rise to two different schools of thought among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are those who say that God gives us only general guidelines of what to do and that He sits in heaven watching to see if we will use the agency He's given us to think and act for ourselves rather than being lazy and waiting to be told everything we must do. But there are others who say that before we do anything we must first ask the Lord in prayer if what we want to do has His approval.
The first group argues that seeking God's approval before doing anything is no different than waiting to be told by God what we should do. They contend that if people are "agents unto themselves" then God has given us the right to do what we want, as long as it is righteous. Their argument is that God has given us a brain to think, reason, and ponder with and therefore God wants us to use that power to make our own decisions, as long as they are within the bounds that the Lord has set.
For example: God has commanded that we should care for the sick and needy. That is the general principle, therefore God expects us to come up with ideas on our own of how to fulfill that commandment. It is their belief that if God has to specifically tell us to go help this person or that individual then we are not acting for ourselves but are waiting for God to tell us what to do. They further believe that if we make mistakes in judgment we are still showing God that we are striving to use the talents He's given us and that we learn from our mistakes.
However, the other group says that even though we have our agency to do what we want, and that we have brains to think for ourselves, that doesn't mean that we should do whatever we want. It is their argument that, just like a child first asks their father if they can do something, so we, as children of our Father in heaven, seek His wisdom before acting on our thoughts or ideas. To them, this is a wiser way to make a decision. It's no different than seeking counsel from an expert as part of our decision making process.
For example: suppose someone thought it would be a good idea to go into the restaurant business. That is certainly a righteous desire and it incorporates the principle of work and self-reliance, but they may not be aware of all that's involved with creating a successful enterprise, therefore they might seek advice and counsel from someone who knows the restaurant business. Since God is all knowing, it would seem not only logical but sensible for someone to seek God's approval first before doing anything.
The key to determining which of these arguments, if any, is correct, is to understand what it is our Father in heaven is seeking to accomplish.
As members of the LDS Church we believe that before the earth was created there was a great council held in heaven where God presented to us, His children, a plan to help us become just like him. We refer to it as the Plan of Salvation which is that we would be sent to earth to gain a physical body, be tested to see if we would keep God's commandment, die, go to the spirit world, and then be resurrected where we would be judged to see which kingdom of heaven we will inherit for eternity.
Although that is God's plan for us, it is a very superficial and highly over simplified version of it. In reality, our Father's plan is much more complex and infinitely more detailed than that. For starters, the plan called for several different eras or dispensations when the gospel would be available to the inhabitants of the earth in varying degrees. In fact, one era called for a time when the gospel would not be on earth at all.
Then there had to be people chosen, prior to the earth being created, to perform various duties or missions. Adam was not chosen by the roll of the dice or the picking of straws to be the first man, and neither was Noah, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and all the other prophets of the Old Testament chosen on the spur of the moment after they were born into mortality. Peter, James, John, Paul, and all the other early apostles were not picked by Jesus by happenstance. They were all pre-ordained to fulfill the very missions they eventually performed.
God's plan called for the restoration of the gospel and was prophesied by Isaiah nearly three thousand years before it happened. In fact, Joseph, the son of Jacob, alluded to it, even stating the prophet who would do this work would likewise be called Joseph as would his father (2 Nephi 3:15).
There are many prophecies concerning the wars that will take place before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord when He returns in power and glory, and all of them are part of God's plan for our salvation. If this was not so, there could be no such thing as prophecy. As such, prophecy is nothing more than the revealing of God master plan.
In that plan, it not only called for wars in the last days but was very specific about how long certain events relating to these wars would last and how long it would be before these events even occurred. There are prophecies concerning what will happen to certain kingdoms and nations, and about the kinds of wicked people who will rule during these terrible days of tribulation.
For all of these things to happen, specific nations have to rise and fall in a way and at a time that would shape mankind's history so that everything prophesied would happen exactly as it was foretold. And knowing about all of this is still just barely scratching the surface of God's intricate plan for the salvation of His children.
We are saved as individuals and not as a group, but in order for that to happen, God has to care about each and every person who lives on earth and make sure that no one is denied the opportunity for salvation. To do that, God must have a plan that is so detailed that it includes the needs, that fits the unique circumstances, of every single person who is born into mortality.
But God's plan is more complicated than that because there are needs that people have that are unrelated to our salvation and when people pray to God for help in times of distress, His plan provides a way for those needs to be met. However, God most generally performs His miracles through other human beings rather than through inexplicable supernatural acts of nature. That means, we humans are subject to God's directing influence as He shapes events to bring about the fulfillment of His plan of salvation.
To illustrate this, let's look at just one small but significant event - the restoration of the gospel.
Christopher Columbus was a devout Catholic who strongly believed in God, and as he read the Bible, he saw that God's plan called for the gospel of Jesus Christ (which he believed was what the Catholic Church taught) was to be preached to every "isle of the sea" before the second coming of Christ. Not only did this make a profound impression on Columbus but he was convinced that he was the one whom God had chosen to take the gospel to every island in the sea.
In the Book of Mormon we read how Nephi saw in a vision Columbus being guided by the Spirit of God to discover what we now call the American continent, and Nephi was shown how it was necessary for this land to be discovered so that other Gentiles could bring the knowledge of Christ to this land. This Spirit of God filled Columbus with such an unquenchable and passionate belief in this mission that he was able to endure rejection after rejection as he persevered in his quest to find someone to finance what others called his "mad," "crazy," "illogical," and "unscientific" idea.
Some may not believe what the Book of Mormon says, but in his own account Columbus wrote that he felt the hand of God on Him, inspiring and motivating him to do what he did. But Columbus didn't go to God in prayer asking if his idea was the right thing to do. Although he prayed for God's help, he never doubted that what he was doing was what God wanted him to do.
A little more than a hundred years later, a small group of persecuted Christians who called themselves Puritans made a pilgrimage to the new land that Columbus had brought to the attention of European powers. But before they came here they had prayed to God, asking for help and guidance about how to escape the severe persecution they faced in England. After much heartfelt prayer they decided to move to Amsterdam in the Netherlands but that proved to create other problems for them. Next, after much prayer, they moved to Holland but eventually they realized that was a mistake.
Once more they went to God in prayer, seeking a place where they could live their religious beliefs in safety. They considered several locations and only settled on America because it was the only place of refuge available to them. However, about half of their group chose not to go because it was too risky a venture.
When the small band of pilgrims finally reached America, they did not arrive at the place where they had intended because bad weather had prevented them from going anywhere else. Although they were acting as agents unto themselves, seeking the direction of the Lord in their decisions, the Lord was leading them according to His plan rather than according to theirs.
A little more than a hundred years later, America was made up of thirteen different, independent colonies with each one having their own religious beliefs. At that time in England there was a young man named George Whitefield who was going to Oxford University preparing to become a minister in the Anglican Church when he had a spiritual experience that changed his entire outlook on what he believed about God and salvation.
When he began preaching his new found belief from the pulpit in 1738 rather than the orthodox doctrine of the Anglican Church, he was told to stop preaching his heretical ideas. When he refused to do so they evicted him from the church. With a fiery passion for his new concept of salvation, but with no church to preach in, he did something revolutionary for that time - he started preaching out in the streets and in the woods and anywhere where people would listen to him.
A few years later he came to America to preach. Since each colony had its own religious beliefs, Whitefield was not welcomed to preach his brand of salvation in any church so he did what he had done in England, which was to preach outdoors. He traveled from one end of the American colonies to the other, traveling on horseback or walking. By 1740 he had become so popular that thousands of people came to listen to him preach wherever he went.
As a result, and unbeknownst to him, he was singlehandedly uniting all Americans into one nation by breaking down the various religious beliefs that were keeping them separate. During this time there were young men by the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and many, many others who would someday use many of the words and ideas they heard Whitefield say in his sermons as they contended against England's rule over them. But in 1740 Whitefield had no concept that what he was doing was laying the ground work that would shortly become the foundation on which the American Revolutionary War was based.
As England kept putting more onerous demands on their American colonies, the colonists became more and more defiant in resisting them. It is true that the founding fathers were deeply religious men who prayed mightily to God for guidance yet, in hindsight, events were pushing the colonists inextricably and irreversibly toward seceding from their mother country.
After the revolution, fifty-two men met in Philadelphia to frame a new form of government, but for three months these deeply religious men argued fiercely with one another as they each presented their own ideas and strongly disagreed with the ideas of others over how this new government should operate. In fact, some of the delegates became so angry that they left the convention and never came back. Yet, despite this chaotic meeting, the Spirit of the Lord rested over it until they had eventually produced one of the finest forms of government this world had ever seen. In the end, the final version of what they produced was not the idea of one man, or even of many men using the freedom of their own agency. Although, to the eye of an atheist that's the way it may appear, in reality it was God's directing Spirit that moved them to form the kind of government He wanted and, indeed, needed in order to restore His gospel.
Eighteen years later Joseph Smith was born and fourteen years after that the Lord began the process of bringing back the gospel of Jesus Christ that had not existed on the earth for over a thousand years. This too had been prophesied (Acts 3:21). But the restoration of God's plan of salvation would not have happened if any of the preceding events just mentioned had not taken place as they did. And none of these events came to pass because someone used their own agency to do what they wanted.
It could be argued that if Joseph Smith had not gone to the Lord in prayer that he would never have had the vision he saw that one Spring morning in a grove of trees on his father's farm. But what prompted him to pray?
He and his family had been going to various churches, listening to them preach different doctrines about salvation, many of which were preached outdoors in the style that George Whitefield had used. However, among the members of his own family, there was much discussion as to which religious belief was the correct one.
Confused yet wanting to know for himself what to believe, one evening young Joseph found himself reading the Epistle of James, first chapter, fifth verse. In writing about that day he said, "Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine." Joseph didn't decide on his own to pray to know which church was the right one, and it wasn't so much what he read in the epistle of James that impressed him. The idea that he should pray vocally to God wasn't something he came up with on his own. It was how that scripture struck him at that particular time that opened his eyes to the thought of praying. It was as though he heard a telephone ringing and decided to answer it. He heard God's Spirit calling him to pray, and he answered the call.
In the same way, Columbus, the Pilgrims, George Whitefield, and each of the founding fathers were moved upon by the Holy Ghost to do what they did. In fact, in speaking of the men who wrote the Constitution, the Lord Himself said, "And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood" (D&C 101:80, emphasis added).
The framers of the Constitution didn't come up with the idea of a new form of government on their own. It was God who deliberately raised up these men to accomplish this very deed, inspiring them, guiding them, and motivating them to accomplish their divinely assigned mission in life. And the same could be said for all the other men whom God used to bring about His plan for the restoration of His gospel. Even the American Revolution was a necessary part of that plan because it brought about the redemption of the land by the shedding of blood, and the land needed to be redeemed before God could restore the gospel of Christ.
Then what does it mean in D&C 58 when it says that men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of their own free will and that he that doesn't do anything until he is commanded, and receives the commandment with a doubtful heart, and keeps it with slothfulness, the same is damned?
Perhaps we can answer that question by answering a different question: What is "a good cause?" Most people would probably answer that it is any cause that is just and righteous, but is that really true? Consider the following examples. When Jesus walked the earth, Satan did all in his power to prevent Him from preaching His message of salvation. Finally, Satan resorted to a tried and true method of his - killing God's prophets. Is not the saving of life a just and righteous endeavor, especially if it is the life of someone who has done no wrong? Yet, if somehow someone could have actually saved Jesus from being crucified, it would have completely destroyed God's plan for the salvation of His children. When Peter drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane to protect and defend Jesus from the guards who came to arrest his master, he was using his agency to do what he thought was a just and holy act but Christ rebuked him for his action.
The early LDS Saints were driven from Colesville, NY to Kirtland, OH, to Jackson, MO, and to Nauvoo, IL because of horrific persecution. It would certainly have been a just and righteous cause for someone to do all in their power to stop this unholy and illegal violence against God's chosen people, but the persecution was a necessary part of God's plan.
All of the cities they moved to were within the boundaries of the United States. When the persecution started again in Nauvoo, which included the murder of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young was now opened to the idea of moving the Saints far outside the borders of the United States and settling his people in the Rocky Mountains. Yet, this is where prophecy alluded to as the place where the headquarters of Christ's church would be (Isaiah 2:2). Had someone actually been able to stop the persecution of the Mormons, they would have interfered with divine prophecy by taking away the reason for why the saints moved to the tops of the mountains.
In fact, in D&C 58 the Lord explained "Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings" (vs 3,4). Tribulation is a necessary part of God's plan, and if we were to join a cause that would seek to stop what God has ordained, in the name of justice and goodness, we would actually be working against God, rather than with Him.
T.S. Elliot once said, "Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions." There is another saying which states, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Good intentions are not enough. In fact, good intention can many times led to something very bad. Then what exactly did God mean when He said that men should be engaged in "a good cause" of their own free will?
One day a certain man came to Jesus saying, "Good master, what shall I do to gain eternal life?" Instead of answering his question, Jesus corrected him on his choice of words saying, "Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God" (Luke 18:18-19). Jesus didn't even allow someone to call Him good. If the only person who is truly good is God then it follows that "a good cause" is one that is in agreement with God's cause. Therefore, when we want to become involved in a good cause we need to ask ourselves, "Is what I want to do assisting God in bringing about His plan or is it working against His plan, despite how honorable my intentions may be?"
Many people read the words, "he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with a doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned" and assume it means that we are being slothful if we sit around and do nothing until God tells us to do something, but that's not what this verse is saying.
It says that if someone does nothing until he receives a commandment, and then, when he does receive a commandment, he doubts he's supposed to keep it or, if he does keep it, he does so with slothfulness, then that person is damned. In other words, a person isn't damned because he waits to be told what to do but rather he is damned if he doesn't do what he's commanded or if he is slothful in keeping that which he is commanded.
Then what are we supposed to do? The Lord said that He has given us our agency and expects us to use that agency to be anxiously engaged in "a good cause." That can easily be understood as saying that God expects us to use our agency to choose to become engaged in His cause of our own free will without having to be coerced or compelled to do so.
With this understanding, let's look again at the full statement God made and rephrase it slightly: "Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in God's cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness. For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves and are free to choose for themselves what they want to do. But inasmuch as men choose to do God's good they shall in nowise lose their reward. But he that does not do anything to become engaged in God's cause until he is commanded, and then receives a commandment with a doubtful heart, and keeps it with slothfulness, that person is damned."
In the Old Testament we read of a story where Samuel the prophet told King Saul that the Lord wanted him to go utterly destroy the Amalekites. King Saul was specifically told to kill every man, woman, child, and every living animal belonging to the Amalekites. Saul took his army and killed all the men but he spared some of the women and children and also kept alive some of the animals.
When Samuel returned to Saul he asked if he had done as the Lord had commanded and Saul said that he had. Then Samuel asked, "What is that bleating of sheep that I hear?" Saul tried to excuse his disobedience to God by saying he was going to use the sheep to offer sacrifices to God, however Samuel replied, "Hath the Lord as great [a] delight in [offering Him] burnt offerings and sacrifices, as [He does] in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey [God] is better than [offering a] sacrifice [unto Him], and to hearken [to the Lord is better] than [offering Him] the fat of rams" (1 Samuel. 15:22).
God's cause is all about His plan to save His children. We don't fully understand that plan because we cannot see, at the present time, the design of God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow. For that reason we need to trust in the Lord with all of our heart; and lean not on our own understanding. In all our ways we need to acknowledge Him, and if we do that He will direct our path so that we end up doing the things He wants done (see Psalm 3:5-6). If we are anxious to become engaged in God's cause then we need to lean not on our own understanding of what we think we should do but allow God to direct our path.
Doing things our way is not God's plan for us. In one of our hymns we sing, "I'll go where you want me to go, dear Lord, I'll say what you want me to say. I'll do what you want me to do." (hymn #270, emphasis added). Even Jesus said, "Not my will be done but thine."
God is not sitting in heaven watching to see if we will do something good on our own. He's looking to see if we will follow Him and His ways. In that great council in heaven, after our Father explained His plan for us, He said, "I need someone who is willing to sacrifice their life to save my children. Whom shall I send?" And one answered like unto the Son of Man saying, "Here am I, send me" (see Abraham 3:27).
In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah was caught up to heaven and saw the Lord sitting on his throne. Concerning that experience he wrote, "I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me" (Isaiah 6:8).
To be engaged in God's cause, we must be anxious to say, of our own free will, "Lord, thy will, not mine, be done, on earth, just as it is done in heaven. Therefore Lord, here am I. Send me."