The prophet Samuel, the Lamanite, told the people of Zarahemla, "And now remember, remember, my brethrenů for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free. He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you" (Helaman 14:30,31).
The doctrine of man having "free agency" is not unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but it is one of the fundamental tenants on which all of its doctrines are based. In America's first founding document is stated the "self-evident truth that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these is" the right to be free to choose for themselves. This is what is meant by the term self-government.
It has also been said that man's right to choose for himself is so sacred that not even God Himself will violate it, even when man chooses to do evil. But why is it so sacred that even the most powerful Being in the universe refuses to suspend this power that He has given to man? Why does a righteous God allow men to perform such horrific acts of evil when His desire is to save all of mankind and make them holy enough to live with Him forever?
And if God will not violate man's right to choose for himself, why does He allow men to take away that right from others? The history of the world is one of continual subjugation where a few strong men have brutally enslaved the vast majority of humankind. When the Declaration of Independence was written, it's concept that all men have an inalienable right to be free was a radical idea in its time because for centuries before then it was believed and even taught by the Catholic Church that kings had the divine right to rule over their subjects through iron fisted decrees and regulations. In fact, even today, the vast number of nations in the world still follow that same form of governing people.
And what exactly is man free to do? Is he free to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there is no fire? And if not, why not? Doesn't that violate his right to do as he pleases? And what about people's rights in a democratic society? Does a minority of its citizen have to abide by the votes of the majority when their right to decide for themselves have been denied? This is what happened in America in the past when blacks were treated as second-class citizens.
What about allowing gambling, prostitution, pornography, sale of liquor, or gay marriage? It is argued that if we are allowed to govern ourselves then societies have the right to freely prevent these "evils" from existing in their communities by passing laws through majority vote. But then it is argued that in doing so we are denying people their right to gamble, have illicit sex, watch pornography, drink liquor, or marry people of the same sex if they so choose. Does man's right to choose for himself prohibit him from stopping others who engage in activities that the majority of citizens find offensive? And if so, what about the rights of the majority to choose to live and raise their family in a community that is free from unrighteous behavior?
Questions such as these arise only because people do not have a proper understanding of what God means when He says He has given man the freedom to act for himself, yet the scriptures are crystal clear on this matter.
Samuel the Lamanite stated that men are free but the freedom they have is to "choose life or death." The prophet and patriarch Lehi explained to his son Jacob (and to his entire family) "Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil" (2 Nephi2:27).
No matter where we live or under which form of government we are ruled, man always has the right to choose to do what is right or choose to do what is wrong. It was so in the very beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. The choice they were given was whether to obey or disobey the commandments of God to not partake of the fruit from a particular tree. God told them, "thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given thee, but remember that I forbid thee" (Moses 3:17). And that same right has existed in the world ever since.
The sense in which the scriptures refer to man's right to choose for himself has to do with the freedom to follow the commandments of God or follow the temptations of the devil. Every decision we have the freedom to make, such as whether or not to allow gambling, prostitution, pornography, the sale of liquor, gay marriages, or any other matter involving right and wrong, put us in a position to decide whether we will choose to follow God's commandments or Satan's, regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in.
The agency God has given man doesn't have anything to do with his right to decide which tie he wants to wear today, or which job he should take, or which color he wants to paint his house. Those are personal decisions that have nothing to do with what is right or wrong. An employer does not violate a person's agency by enforcing rules of conduct but an employee does have the right to decide whether or not to "obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves" (Hebrews 13:17).
A parent does not violated their child's agency by placing curfews on them, or making them go to church, or refusing to allow them to wear clothing, listen to music, or engage in activities that the parents disapprove of, but parents who do not "train up a child in the way they should go" (Proverbs 22:6), who don't teach their children to obey them (Colossians 3:20; Ephesians 6:1), and who "teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ, the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy ghost by the laying on of hand when eight years old, the sin will be upon the heads of the parents" (D&C 68:25).
On judgment day each of us will have to give an account of how we lived our life and the only criteria that will be used is whether we obeyed God's commandments or not. Jesus explained this principle when He said, "Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). That is the choice that is placed before us and that is the choice we have been given the freedom to make. And it is that choice which is so sacred that God will not, because He cannot in good conscience, take away from us.
To understand why we have to understand what the plan of salvation is all about.
Long before this earth was created, we lived with our Father in heaven as His spirit children. As with all children, we were nurtured, cared for, taught, and grew in knowledge and wisdom under the tutelage of God. Back then all of us worshipped our heavenly Father because of our great love and reverence for Him. And we had every reason to feel that way because, even with our limited understanding, we knew He was all good, all kind, all wise, all glorious, and all powerful. Just being in His presence brought us great joy.
Then, one day, He said to us, "How would you like to have all that I have - all my knowledge, all my wisdom, all my glory, and all my power?" And all of us shouted joyously, "Yes!" After all, who wouldn't? Although our Father presented a plan whereby that could happen to everyone of us, it was not going to be an easy thing to accomplish, but at the time this plan was presented to us, undoubtedly in our innocence, very few of us fully understood this, but our Father did.
Perhaps we can understand this concept better by looking at it from an earthly perspective. If someone said to us, "Would you like to make a million dollars a year?" I'm sure that all of us would excitedly say, "Yes!" After all, who wouldn't, as long as it was legal. Then suppose we were told, "All you have to do to make that much money is to follow my formula for success. I followed this formula myself and I'm making a million dollars a year, and so can anyone who follows this plan."
That sounds easy, doesn't it? But what if the plan calls for starting a small business which requires raising a million dollars in startup money with which to buy inventory, equipment, and renting or buying a building? Once everything needed has been purchased, then it will require working 100 hours a week by yourself until the business has grown enough for you to hire an employee or two. When that happens you will be required to make a payroll with the all the paperwork needed to pay for all the local, state, and federal withholding taxes.
As you work hard, in time your business should grow to the point that you will need either a larger building or open another location in town. This will require hiring and managing more employees. As your business continues to expand, you will open up even more stores in more locations, which will require you to buy more equipment and supplies and add an accounting department to take care of the increased volume of money you are taking in and paying out. Then, to help your business grow, you will need to hire salesmen who go out to sell your product to potential customers, which will require you to buy cars for them to drive, along with the insurance for those company vehicles.
If your business is continuing to do well, you will open stores in other cities within your state with an eye on going national by opening even more stores in other states. Then, the goal will be to become an international company where you are selling your product all over the world. At this point, you will be making a million dollars a year. Because of the freedom that Americans enjoy, anyone can achieve this dream if they are willing to work hard to make it happen.
However, you will be doing all of this at the same time that other companies are trying to compete with your business, selling their products to the same people you are and offering them better prices, or a superior product, or giving them better service. And while this is happening, to be successful you will have to deal with changes in the market place, where new inventions are making the old products obsolete and consumers tastes are shifting. To be successful you will have to deal with changes in governments overseas that may no longer be friendly and who may even want to nationalize your company's assets.
When faced with all of these requirements, many people will decide that, even though they would love to make a million dollars a year, it's not worth it if they have to go through all of that trouble. And the same principle applies to inheriting all that our Father has.
To become an exalted being like God sounds wonderful, and each of us are capable of achieving it, but it will not be an easy road to travel. It will take a lot of effort on our part and, despite our best intentions, we will make mistakes, and some of them may be serious. We will have our good days and bad days in following the plan, we will have to struggle with all sorts of problems, and during all of this we will be in competition with Satan whose goal is to make sure will fail and go out of the exaltation business.
In one of our hymns we sing, "Know this that every soul is free, to choose his live and what he'll be. For this eternal truth is given, that God will force no man to heaven. He'll call, persuade direct aright, and bless with wisdom, love, and light. In countless ways be good and kind but never force the human mind" (hymn 240). If God loves us so much and wants us to have what He has, then why does it have to be so hard for us to become exalted? And if it has to be hard why can't God force us, just a little, to do what is right? What is so sacred about man's agency that God will not violate even a small portion of it?
The answer is that the responsibility that goes with being exalted is far beyond our present ability to comprehend. If someone were to give us the reins of running a multinational company where we were making a million dollars a year and we didn't know how to run it properly, we would cause it to go out of business in a very short period of time. If that were to happen, not only would our yearly income stop and we would go broke, but the people employed by us, who are depending on the company for their livelihood, would be out of a job, thereby putting them in a serious financial situation. Therefore, to run such a large company successfully not only takes a good amount of technical knowledge but great skill that can only come from long experience.
Therefore, it would be unwise and even disastrous to give someone something they were unprepared to receive and unwilling to learn how to handle. The reason why God cannot take away man's agency in the least is because we have to be the ones who decide for ourselves if we really want to inherit all that our Father in heaven has and accept all the responsibility that goes along with it. If God were to coerce us, even a little, to accept all of His power and glory, without us proving we wanted it with all of our heart and soul, we would eventually find ourselves becoming overwhelmed and unable and/or unwilling to successfully handle the responsibilities that exalted beings must shoulder. To understand why this is so important, we need to understand what it is means to be exalted.
The scriptures promise that those who inherit heaven will be made kings, wearing crowns, and will reign with Christ on his throne (Revelation 1:6; 3:21; 5:10). Kings rule over kingdoms and the kingdom in heaven that men will rule over with their eternal wives will be the same as it is here on earth - their family. The reason why husbands and wives are sealed to each other in the temples of the Lord is so they will be legally permitted to bear spirit children in the eternities and raise them to become exalted beings themselves, just like our Father in heaven is doing with us.
But even though we may become eternal kings and queens, possessing all the rights, privileges, glory, honor, and power of Christ, that doesn't mean we will be equal to Him. We will rule over our own kingdom under Christ's authority and by His permission, making Him our Lord and Master throughout all eternity.
This is not an unusual arrangement because it exists even here on earth. During the time of the Roman Empire when Caesar August ruled as the Emperor, he appoint Herod, the Great to be the king over the Jews but Herod served at the pleasure and permission of Caesar. Herod could govern his kingdom as he saw fit, as long as he obeyed and paid homage to Caesar. When Herod died, his son Archalaus was appointed King in his place by the Emperor but after reigning for ten years, he fell out of favor with Caesar and was removed from his position and exiled. His kingdom was then made part of the Empire and a Roman governor was put in charge of it.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, each patriarch is the undisputed head of his family and is honored as such yet, even so, each righteous patriarch has also pledged his allegiance to Christ and has covenanted to obey His commandments. This same organization will exist in the eternities where each eternal family unit will be ruled over by exalted parents who, in turn, will have covenanted to eternally hearken unto the voice of their eternal Lord, Jesus Christ. And it is in this way that the kingdom of God will continue to grow forever as Christ presides over and directing the work of salvation of an ever growing number of spirits.
But to do that, men and women must be free to make their own decisions, including freely submitting themselves to Christ's rule over them. But with that freedom comes the possibility of making a choice that violates the laws of eternity. For example, if men are free to act for themselves, then there is nothing to prevent an exalted man from having an illicit affair with the wife of another exalted man but, if that were to happen, those who engage in such behavior would be guilty of committing adultery.
On earth we live by faith, which means that our knowledge of right and wrong is incomplete, but those who live in an exalted state know, with absolute certainty, what is right and what is wrong. When Lucifer rebelled against God, he did so with absolute knowledge that what he was doing was in violation of eternal laws, but he choose to do it anyway. The atonement of Christ cannot be applied to those who commit blasphemy against the Holy Ghost which is defined a "willfully denying Christ after having received a perfect knowledge of Him" (LDS Bible dictionary).
Since exalted beings live in a state of perfect knowledge (D&C130:7) and have covenanted to obey Christ, if they sin while in this state, there can be no atonement made for them. The scriptures state that those who cannot abide the law of the celestial kingdom cannot live there but must live somewhere else whose laws they are able to abide (D&C 88:22-24). For those who willfully sin against the pure light of knowledge, the only place for them to go to is outer darkness.
If an exalted husband or wife were to sin (as in our example to commit adultery), they would be banished from heaven forever. That, in turn, would leave the faithful spouse without an eternal partner, which would render them unable to fulfill their eternal duties of bearing children. But worse yet, any spirit children already born by them would find themselves either without an eternal father or a mother, which would set a terrible example for them to follow. Even on earth, children whose parents have divorced struggle emotionally to cope with the separation. In heaven, the consequences would be a thousand times worse because it would seriously affect their ability to become exalted beings themselves.
Because of His great love for His children, God cannot, nor will He allow that to happen to them. But the only way He can assure that such a situation will never occur is to put His children under rigorous testing. If they can remain true and faithful to the covenants they make under the worse conditions possible, then He knows, with absolute confidence, that they will never choose to do evil while living under the best conditions possible.
But if God were to ever take away man's agency to decide for himself whether to choose good or to choose evil, even just a little bit, then the possibility exists that they may be tempted, as was Lucifer, to choose to do evil after becoming exalted. And if that were to happen, they would suffer the same fate as Satan, which is eternal death.
This is what Lehi meant when he said that man is free "to choose liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil." That is the reason why our "free agency" is so sacred.