Jacob, the son of Lehi and younger brother of Nephi, told the people of his day, "Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves-to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life" (2 Nephi. 10:23).
One of the fundamental beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that man has been given the divine freedom to choose for himself. In the church we sing, "Know this that every soul is free to choose his life and what he'll be. For this eternal truth is given, that God will force no man to heaven" (hymn #240). This concept is known as the doctrine of agency which is defined as "the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and to act for ourselves. Agency is essential in the plan of salvation. Without agency, we would not be able to learn or progress or follow the Savior."
This concept has become so ingrained in the mind of Latter-day Saints that it has given rise to all sorts of applications. For example, does it violate the right of children to choose for themselves when parents pick out their clothing or insist on them eating their vegetables? Does it violate the rights of a teenager when parents establish curfew times?
And what about people who live in countries where they have limited freedom, especially in worshipping as they choose? If agency is so essential to the plan of salvation that without it we are not able to progress and follow the Savior, then is the plan of salvation frustrated or thwarted by the politics of certain kinds of governments?
And what about when God destroys the wicked or prevents the wicked from hurting the righteous? Isn't God violating the divine right of those individuals to choose for themselves what they want to be and what they want to do?
Questions like these and many other similar questions arise when we don't have a clear understanding of exactly what "agency" means and what its bounds and limitations are. To many people, agency means that we are free to do whatever we want but that we aren't free to choose the consequences of our actions. In other words, we are free to violate the law if we choose but if we get caught then we have to pay the penalty. While that is true, it misses a crucial point which is that we are not free to do anything and everything we want. To understand why we have to have a clear understanding of God's plan of salvation for His children.
Long before the earth ever came into existence we lived in heaven with God, who was the literal father of our spirits. It was there that He begat us as spirit beings and it was there that we grew up as His children just as children here on earth grow up with their parents. And, just like parents on earth send their children off to school to further their education, there came a time there when it was necessary for us to leave our heavenly Father for a short season in order to further our education.
The education that we needed but couldn't acquire in heaven was to gain a knowledge of both good and evil. Since evil cannot exist in heaven, we had to leave that place we called home and go to some place were evil could exist. At the same time, since all we knew in heave was happiness and perfection, we really didn't know how good we had it there, and the only way we could truly understand and appreciate what was good was by experiencing for ourselves what was bad.
However, to expose us to evil meant there was the possibility we would succumb to its temptation and once we had done that then we could no longer return and live with our Father in heaven. But, God had a plan that, if followed, would save us from our sins, thereby allowing us to return back to our home in heaven
To put this in perspective, imagine a child who grew up in a wealthy family where he was not only loved but who loved being at home with his parents. Now imagine this child being told that they were going to be sent away to school where they would be trained as a soldier, just like his father. If the child does well in this school he will come back home and inherit everything his father has. But, if he doesn't learn his lessons well, and doesn't pay careful attention to his instructors, he could be killed or, worse yet, be so severely injured that he will spend the rest of his life as an invalid living in a hospital.
However, the father gives the child a choice of either staying at home and remaining as a child forever, or taking the risk of going through combat training and gaining all the wealth his father has or losing everything. That's the kind of choice we were given in heaven before the earth was created because the plan to save us depended on us following our Father's instruction completely. If we didn't follow it well enough we would never see our heavenly Father again because we would not be allowed to return to our home in heaven.
To understand why, we have to understand the different degrees of heaven.
Our Father lives in what is called the celestial kingdom and the reason why He can live there is because He abides by the laws that govern that kingdom, which is that no unclean thing is permitted to exist there. Those who cannot live up to the laws of this kingdom cannot dwell there, therefore they must live in another kingdom.
The Lord has revealed that there are three kingdoms of glory - the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial - and each of them is governed by a different set of laws. For this reason, those who are willing to abide by the law of the celestial kingdom cannot live in either the terrestrial or telestial kingdoms. And the same is true for those who live in the lower two kingdoms (see D&C 88:21-22).
However, God doesn't live just in the celestial kingdom but He lives in the highest degree of that kingdom. To put this into perspective, a king rules over a kingdom but he doesn't live in a house among his subjects. Instead, he lives in a palace. A king may leave his palace and go out among his people to visit with them from time to time but he always returns back to his own palace. However, even though the people of the kingdom may have an opportunity to occasionally see their king, they are not allowed into the king's palace unless officially summoned to appear there.
In ancient China, the country was ruled over by someone called an emperor. The emperor could, if he so desired, go out among his people but it was forbidden for the people to even enter the city where the emperor lived. For this reason it was called the Forbidden City.
And the same applies to God. As an exalted being He lives in the highest and most exalted degree of heaven. He may visit with those in the lower two-thirds of the celestial kingdom but they cannot enter into the highest degree unless they have obeyed the law that governs that degree of heaven.
The Lord has revealed that those who qualify to live in the terrestrial kingdom "are they who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men... These are they who receive of the presence of the Son, but not of the fulness of the Father" (D&C 76: 75, 77). These are those who have not followed the law governing the celestial kingdom sufficiently to live there. As such, they can't receive the presence of the Father but they can receive the presence of the Son. And those who are worthy of only abiding by the law of the telestial kingdom cannot receive the presence of either the Father or the Son.
What this means is that those who are not willing to abide by the laws that govern the celestial kingdom will be forever separated from their Father in heaven. But more than that, we didn't agree to come to earth just to make it back to the celestial kingdom. When we lived with our Father in heaven we lived with Him in the highest degree of that kingdom. That is where our "home" was and that is where we want to return. Anything less than that is to lose what we once had.
The question is, how do we return "home"? In other words, what do we need to do to become worthy to live in the most exalted realm of heaven? What are its laws that we must learn how to obey in order to qualify ourselves to live there? The answer is: Know the difference between good and evil and demonstrate that we are willing to consistently choose the good over the evil. That is what our freedom to choose is all about. It's not about the freedom to choose what kind of clothes we want to wear, or what kind of job we want to have, or what system of government we want to live under.
Notice what the scriptures tell us:
"Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves-to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life" (2 Nephi. 10:23). Eternal live is the kind of life that God lives. It's living with God in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, and everlasting death is everlasting separating from God, i.e., living in the terrestrial or telestial kingdom.
"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; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself" (2 Nephi 2:27). The devil seeks to prevent as many of God's children from reaching their full potential - i.e., exaltation - so the choice that is placed before us is to follow the path that leads to eternal life, through Christ's atoning sacrifice, or to choose the path that the devil wants us to follow which will separate us from God.
This is what God told the Israelites when He said, "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day: And a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which ye have not known" (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). This is the same thing that Joshua told them (see Joshua 24:15).
Nephi prophesied to his people that, "when these things have passed away a speedy destruction cometh unto my people; for, notwithstanding the pains of my soul, I have seen it; wherefore, I know that it shall come to pass; and they sell themselves for naught; for, for the reward of their pride and their foolishness they shall reap destruction; for because they yield unto the devil and choose works of darkness rather than light, therefore they must go down to hell" (2 Nephi 26.10).
Notice that the choice we are given is to either yield ourselves to the devil or yield ourselves to God. The freedom we have been given is to chose whether we want to do works of darkness or whether we choose to do works of light. That is the choice we have been given the freedom to make, and the choice we make will determine which kingdom and which degree within that kingdom we will qualify for.
When we left our heavenly home we were convinced that we would always make the right choice but once we have both physically and mentally left the presence of God (a veil of forgetfulness having been placed over our mind when we came to earth) it isn't always clear what the right choice is. That's why God has given us commandments . If we always follow His commandments they will always help us make the right choice.
Jesus described the path that leads to eternal life as being straight and narrow. That is true but it is also rough, rugged, and steep. In order for us to reach the highest level of heaven we have to rise above the things of the world and the higher we go the more difficult the way becomes. To achieve exaltation it is deliberately meant to be hard; it is meant to be a struggle, but it is in struggling that we become stronger.
Exaltation may sound like a wonderful goal to strive for but it also involves taking upon ourselves tremendous, and eternally significant responsibilities, and only those who are willing to shoulder those responsibilities have the right to be exalted. Those who are not willing to gain the skill and knowledge to always choose good over evil are not prepared to assume the responsibilities that exalted beings must take upon themselves.
If we image a straight road going up the side of a rocky mountain, every so often we will come to a fork in the road and we will be faced with a decision of which road to take. God will not make that decision for us. "He'll call, persuade, direct aright, and bless with wisdom, love, and light. In nameless ways [He'll] be good and kind, but [He will] never force the human mind" (hymn #240) because God wants to see which choice we will make.
Often times the choice we will be asked to make will be between following a narrow, difficult path that will take a lot of internal strength for us to travel or to follow a broad, easy path that doesn't take much effort. Sometimes that other path may look like it goes upward, but before long it levels out and then slowly takes us downward into the valley.
However, God is gracious and even as we travel away from the straight and narrow path, we will come to another fork in the road that will give us the chance to make another choice. This choice will be to continue going away from God or to follow a path that will take us back to Him. That path will not look easy to travel but, as before, the choice will be totally ours of which one we want to follow.
This situation was illustrated in Disney's classic animated movie, Pinocchio. In the story, a wooden puppet named Pinocchio is trying hard to be a good boy but he keeps being confronted with decisions of which way he should go in life. In one incident he is met by a fox named J. Worthington Foulfellow who calls himself "Honest John." The fox tells Pinocchio that he's working too hard and that he should enjoy life more. When Pinocchio accepts this line of reasoning, Honest John tells him about a place called Pleasure Island where lots of boys go to have fun.
When Pinocchio makes the decision to go there Honest John takes him to "The Coachman" who then ferry's Pinocchio and his friend Lampwick across the water where they land on Pleasure Island. Once there they begin doing whatever they want. Some smoke cigars while others drink alcohol, and do other things that are forbidden off the island. Some get into fights, others go around wantonly breaking things just for the fun of it.
But after awhile a strange thing begins to happen to the boys. First, they begin to develop donkey ears, and then a little latter they grow a donkey tail. Next, their faces begin to look like a donkey and then their feet and hands turn into donkey paws. At last, even their voice turns into a donkey's bray. When the transformation is complete, they are no longer boys but have become "jackasses" who are then sold as mules to work in the salt mines.
While the story is fictional, it does dramatize how Satan entices us into making poor choices that eventually lead us into captivity and robs us of our eternal reward. We see the same situation dramatized in episode III of the Star Wars movies where Anakin Skywalker is enticed into making bad decisions by Chancellor Palpatine that ultimately turns him away from the good and turns him into someone only capable of doing evil.
The war that was fought in heaven was all about whether we wanted to choose to follow our Father's plan of salvation or follow Lucifer's plan. God gave us the freedom back then to make that choice for ourselves and one-third of our Father's children chose, of their own free will, to follow Lucifer. Today, we still have the same freedom to choose for ourselves if we want to follow God's ways or follow those of Satan.
God has given us the freedom to choose the right when a choice is placed before us. When we choose the right there's safety for the soul. Therefore, choose the right in all labors you're pursuing and always remember to let God and heaven be your goal (see hymn #239).
That is what the power to choose is all about.