Summary: One of the most cherished rights we have is that of moral agency – the right to decide for ourselves what we want to do. Because of this doctrine it has been said that God allows us to do whatever we want and that he will not interfere with any of our decisions. This sort of thinking then leads to the attitude that our life is our own and that we can do with it as we please, which can further lead to the notion that no one has the right to tell anyone else what they can and cannot do. But much of this kind of thinking results from a misunderstanding of what agency is all about. This article helps explain the reason why God has given us our agency in the context of his purpose for creating man.
In the book of Proverbs we read, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord ponderth the hearts” (Proverbs 21:2)
One of the most cherished rights we have is that of moral agency – the right to decide for ourselves what we want to do. In the beginning when our Father in heaven presented a plan for our advancement to become like him, there was a war fought over the very issue of compelling us to do what was right as opposed to us being given the freedom to choose whether we wanted to do what was right or not.
Because of this doctrine of agency, it has been said that God allows us to do whatever we want and that he will not interfere with any of our decisions. This sort of thinking then leads to the attitude that our life is our own and that we can do with it as we please. This then further leads to the notion that no one has the right to tell anyone else what they can and cannot do.
A variation on this is when people say that we can’t impose our morality onto others. In other words, what is right for one person may be wrong for another. And once this kind of thinking takes hold in a person’s mind, it’s easy for them to conclude that if there is a God then he too has no right to tell us what we should do or how we should behave because that would be imposing his morality on us.
Each generation seems to have its own label, such as “the Greatest generation,” “the X generation,” and the “Millennial generation.” Now there is the “Me generation,” which is so labeled because they seem to be focused on themselves. This is the era of the selfie where people are obsessed with taking pictures of themselves. It is a generation where people are in love with themselves and, not surprisingly, more and more we hear the philosophy being espoused of “finding” one’s self or “finding self-fulfillment” or “finding your own happiness.”
We see such slogans as: “Don’t just find yourself; create yourself,” “You are unique; be yourself,” “Don’t be afraid to be different,” “Follow your dreams,” “Pursue your passions,” “Life is too short; enjoy yourself while you can,” “You are as good as everyone else,” and the list of similar slogans goes on and on. Although the purpose of each of these sayings is to promote a positive self-image in people, what they also do is encourage people to put their own interests first in their life and focus on doing those things that makes them happy.
But it wasn’t that long ago when the slogan that people followed was: “God first, others second, me last.” Clearly there has been a shift in attitude away from serving others to serving one’s self. However, people will say that today we are more enlightened as psychologists and social educators have better learned what makes us happy in life. Yet, at the same time, as people have sought to do what is right in their own eyes, several studies have shown that people have actually become less happier with themselves and in their relationships with others, and less satisfied with life in general.
Much of this kind of thinking has come as a result of interpreting the role of agency to mean that God allows us to do whatever we want, but is that the correct understanding of this God-given right? To find the answer to this question we need to gain a clear understanding of why God put us here on earth. In other words, what is God’s purpose in creating man?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that in a grand council in heaven, God, our Father, presented a plan whereby we, his spirit children, could learn to become like him. To do that we had to possess several things that we did not already have. The first was a physical body and so God proposed to build a physical earth on which we could obtain such a body. The second thing was that we needed to learn the difference between good and evil, and since evil cannot exist in heaven, it was necessary for us to leave our heavenly home and go somewhere else to gain that knowledge.
But just learning about good and evil isn’t enough. Our Father in heaven knows about evil but he always chooses to do that which is good and right. This is what makes him righteous, and if we want to become like him then we too must learn how to be as righteous as he is, which can only happen through learning to always chose to do good when choosing evil is always an option.
We also have to learn to have faith and develop it to the point where it is as great as our Father in heaven. In addition to this, the scriptures tell us that God is love and so we have to learn to love as he does. Therefore, we have to learn how to develop the same kind of faith, hope, and charity that God has if we want to become like him.
Of course, in order to learn anything, we have to be taught about it and so our life on earth is meant to be a school whereby we can be instructed about the myriad of things it takes to become like our Father in heaven. And our teacher, instructor, guide, coach, and mentor in this course of divinity is God himself.
However, we didn’t come to this earthly school against our will. We were given the choice of whether we wanted to live here in mortality and experience all the things that we need to grow spiritually, or whether we wanted to stay in heaven and remain as innocent spirits for the rest of eternity. The fact that we are alive here on earth means that we choose, of our own free will, to come here and wanted to go through this training course.
We also knew, before coming here, that some of the lessons we would encounter would be hard. We knew back then that part of our training would include experiencing pain, suffering, heartaches, disappointments, frustrations, and sorrows, and yet we still elected to come here because we knew that this is the only way to truly develop the divine attributes we desired.
It has often been said that we learn from our mistakes and failures and one of those mistakes is choosing to do evil. However, with proper training we can learn from those mistakes and better understand through the consequences we suffer why it is important not choose to do evil. But without the proper instruction it is possible for us to make the same mistakes over and over again without ever learning from them.
Since we don’t know what will happen to us in the future such uncertainty provides us with the opportunity to develop the divine attributes of hope. When we encounter situations that seem to be beyond our ability to cope with, we can be taught how to strengthen our faith in God. When we have to deal with someone who is hateful, mean, rude, or violent towards us, with proper instruction we can learn how to show love to even those who despise us.
These are all things we have to learn if we want to become more like our Father in heaven, and many times we learn these lessons only after going through hard times that stretch us almost to the breaking point. But that’s why we came here. We choose to be born into mortality knowing full well what the curriculum was like.
For this reason, coming here to earth is very much like deciding to go to college. The first thing a person has to do is decide which college they want to apply to and, in part, that decision is made on what a person wants to learn as their career. For example, a person who wants to become a doctor doesn’t apply at a college that is known for its engineering classes, such as M.I.T., and neither does a person who wants to become a teacher select a college that specializes in political science such as Harvard.
We choose to come here to earth because we wanted to learn how to become like our Father in heaven and as such, our life here is like living on the campus of the University of the gods. And, just like college, there are times when we can have fun and do some of the things we want, but there are also classes we have to attend that we signed up for when we enrolled in this university.
However, unlike going to college, in God’s university we don’t have the option of skipping classes. The lessons God teaches are going to come whether we want them to or not and that was part of the understanding we had before we came to earth. But as these lessons come, God, our instructor, is willing to teach us how to handle every situation so that we learn how to become spiritually stronger. However, he leaves it up to us to decide whether or not we want to listen to his instructions.
Imagine a student going to college and saying that they don’t want anyone teaching them. Imagine a student saying that instead of following the rules of the college they want to do whatever they want. If that were the case then there would have been no point to that student paying thousands of dollars to come to a college where they didn’t want to learn anything, which would be a complete waste of their time and money.
We fought a war in heaven as the price of admission to attend this earthly course of instruction, but when we refuse to listen to what God is trying to teach us by not following his commandments and instead choose to live our life the way we want to, then we are squandering our valuable time here on earth rather than learning the lessons, gaining the knowledge, and developing the skills we came here to acquire.
Satan is like the rich, spoiled, college frat boy who wants to encourage us to party and have fun rather than study and prepare for our exams. He’s like the college agitator who incites students to protest and destroy property in the name of social justice to the point where we become distracted from achieving our educational goals. He is like the huckster who wants to sell us on living life the easy way where we end up depending on others to provide for our needs rather than learning how to provide for ourselves.
Those who say that our life is our own and that we can do with it as we want are believing a lie. Going back to our illustration of college, imagine a wealthy father sending their child off to school after having paid their tuition, along with providing them with clothing, transportation, and money enough to pay for all their needs. All the child has to do is attend their classes, learn their lessons, and get good grades.
Then imagine what will happen when that child returns home from college and has to tell their parents that the reason why they failed their classes is because they wasted their time partying instead of studying. For that child to say to their father that they can live their life anyway they want after their father has paid for their entire education would be an insult that only an ignorant person would make.
God, our Father, has created an earth where everything we need is here to sustain us. He has provided the means whereby we can be clothed, fed, sheltered, and cared for, and has even sent his only Begotten Son to pay the penalty for our sins. But more than that, when we left our heavenly home we agreed to come here to earth for the express purpose of learning how to become more like God. As such the way we live our life has already been determined by us before we left our heavenly home, and once here we are duty bound to honor that agreement.
As such, our life is not ours. In the first place, it is God who has placed us here on earth for a very specific reason and, therefore our life has a God-given purpose to it. If he wants, God can take back that life any time he wants, and the scriptures are replete with instances where he has done just that. Furthermore, it is God who has provided for all of our needs, and it is God who has saved us from our sins. Therefore, we are indebted to him just like a college student is indebted to those lending institutions who have paid for their education. In like manner, there will come a time when our schooling will end and we will return to God to give an account of how we used the time he gave us to learn our lessons, and how well we kept the agreement we made with him before coming here.
But God’s university is not like a typical college environment where we sit in a classroom and memorize facts. God’s university is more like a vocational school where we learn by doing. Earth life is more like a mini-version of what God does where we can learn through practice how to do what he does. In that sense, we can think of earth as a laboratory or a vocational shop where we get to gain hands-on experience doing what God does.
For example, if we are children of God and he is our parent, then to become like him we must learn what it is to be a parent ourselves and how to raise children in righteousness just like God does with us. If God created the world through faith then we need to develop the kind of faith God has, but to do that we have to have our faith put to the test so it can grow and be strengthened. If God knows about evil but always chooses to do good then we have to learn to do the same, and the only effective way to do that is by experiencing the consequences of sin and learning from our mistakes.
Another lesson we must learn is to love those who we don’t like, and we learn how to do that through our efforts of serving people. In this way we can learn how to develop a greater capacity to love and care about people from all walks of life, who are living in all kinds of situations, and who have different beliefs and attitudes than our own. This is God’s attitude towards us, and the scriptures tell us, God loved us so much that he sent his only Begotten Son to die in order to save us from our sins while we were yet sinners. As such, serving others is one of the best ways to learn how to become more like Christ.
However, to serve others requires forgetting about ourselves and focusing on the needs of others which is just the opposite of the modern philosophy of focusing on our own needs, wants, and desires before caring about the needs, wants, and desires of others. Godly service embodies the slogan: God first, others second, and me last, and it is when we lose ourselves in the service of others that we truly come to find ourselves.
But if we genuinely want to become like God then we have to learn to serve others in the same way that God does, and God’s work is all about bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. It is when we serve our fellow beings in a way that assists God in doing his work that we truly become more like him. This is why Jesus said that the greatest commandment in the law is to “love the Lord thy God with all of thine heart, mind, and strength, and… to love thy neighbor as thyself” ((Matthew 22:36-40).
Related articles can be found at The Nature of God