The prophet Nephi explained, "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 mediation of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil" (2 Nephi 2:26,27).
One of the basic doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the belief in each individual's right to free agency - the right of each person to decide for themselves how and what they want to do. We teach that it is a sacred gift that God will not interfere with or ever take away from us. It is also taught that this was the very reason a war was fought in heaven. God, our Father presented a plan of salvation in our pre-mortal existence that gave us the right to choose, but Lucifer offered a plan that would force us to do his bidding (Moses 4:3). When Lucifer's plan was rejected, he rebelled and fought a war as a means to force his ways upon us. However, he was defeated, cast out and fell from God's grace, thereby allowing us the opportunity to decide for ourselves how we want to live.
The opposite concept of free agency is known as predestination which states that our fate is already decided and that there is nothing we can do to change it. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we reject the notion of predestination and contend that all men are the masters of their soul, the captains of their fate and the planners of their destiny. We have the freedom to do whatever we want. However we are not free to chose the consequences of our actions.
But if we can't choose the consequences of our actions, are we truly free? Stately differently, if we do have full free agency, then why can't we also choose the results of our decisions? What's wrong with us making that choice freely?
However, if we say that true free agency does mean that we can't choose our consequences, then, if we lived as spirits prior to our life here on earth, why can't we remember it? We're told that a veil of forgetfulness was placed over our minds, but if we truly have free agency, then we should have the right to remember our past if that's what we chose to do, so long as we realize there is a consequence to be paid for that action. But we don't even have the right to make that choice in the first place, regardless of the consequence. Why not?
At death, our spirit separates from the body and goes into the spirit world. However, our spirit can't decide on its own just to leave it's physical body and go into the next world anytime it want to. Why not? Jesus had that ability (John 10:17,18). Furthermore, once our spirit leaves its physical body it's not allowed to return to mortality. If that was the case, the dead would be able to come back to life anytime they chose to do so. Jesus was able to bring Lazarus back from the dead (John 11:41-44). Then how come we don't have the freedom to choose to return on our own? Doesn't that interfere with our right of free agency?
While on this earth we are subject to the laws of gravity, our bodies need air, water and food to remain alive, and we are prevented from going through solid objects. Yet spirits are not hampered by such limitations. If we truly have our free agency and want to defy the laws of gravity, go without air, water and food, and pass through solid walls, why should we have to pay a negative consequences for such behavior when spirits don't? And what about reading people's thoughts? Spirits can do it but we can't, regardless of the consequences. Isn't that limiting our free agency?
Let's look at the concept of free agency from a different perspective. In the former Soviet Union the government told it's citizens where to work, what their wages would be, how much their food would cost, and, in many cases, where they could live. Almost every facet of their life was regulated and dictated. Yet, they had freedom to choose - they could choose to obey or not obey the government. The consequences for disobedience was a long prison sentence or death, but they had a choice.
In India they have what is known as a cast system. In this society you must stay within the economic station of life into which you were born. For example, if your parents were farmers, you must become a farmer. It is forbidden for you to become a doctor. If your parents were doctors, you too must become a doctor. If you want to become a farmer it is forbidden for you to do so. The people of India have a choice - they can chose to live the cast system or not live it. If they violate this system, the consequence is to be banished or ostracized by their society.
In Europe there are over a dozen countries, but in order to pass from one to another you are required to have a visa for each nation you wish to enter. If you chose to enter a country without a visa the consequence can be imprisonment, paying a large fine and/or having your travel privilege taken away for a period of time.
In America, we are free to determine where we want to work, we can barter for our wages, determine the price of the food we sell, and decide where we want to live without breaking any law. In America we have the freedom to chose whatever line of work we want to pursue without any fear of violating society's standards. In America we can freely travel to fifty different states without the necessity of a visa. In America we are more free to do what we want than the people of the Soviet Union, India or Europe. True free agency means having the freedom to chose without the fear of retribution, punishment, or penalty.
We often hear it explained that free agency means we can decide for ourselves whether to obey God's laws or not. However, that's about as much freedom as people have living under communist rule. If God has given us true free agency, why aren't we free to do more than we are presently permitted to do? Why is our free agency extremely limited?
In America, which is considered to be the home of the free, most of the choices we are allowed to make are not contrary to the laws of the land. As such, we are free to make many choices without fear of penalty. If God's gift of free agency is greater than any man-made law, then why must we have to pay such negative consequences for many of our choices under His laws?
Furthermore, if God never interferes with our free agency, how is it that we can pray for Him to affect the outcome of certain events? For example, missionaries often pray that the people they're teaching will have their minds enlightened and their hearts touched so they will accept the gospel. Isn't that acting in such a way as to affect the decision of the investigator? In that case, aren't we, in effect, asking the Lord to interfere with that's person's ability to choose for himself whether he wants to accept the gospel or not?
What about asking the Lord to protect our house? If a thief has decided to break into it, and the Lord, answering our prayers, prevents the thief from carrying out his intended decision, isn't He interfering with the thief's free agency?
And what about premonitions, dreams and prophecies that predict what will happen in the future? Aren't they evidence of predestination? In a vision, Nephi was shown the future of his descendents. He saw two nations come from his father's children and how one nation would try to destroy Nephi's people. He saw the coming of the Savior to the new land and he saw his descendents utterly annihilated four hundred years later (1 Nephi 12). If man is truly the master of his own destiny, how could such visions be so accurate?
Nephi was further shown how Gentiles would come across the ocean to where his people once lived, carrying a book called "the Bible". It was shown to Nephi that an abominable church would have taken many plain and precious parts of Christ's gospel out of this book (1 Nephi 13). But what if things had gone differently and those parts weren't taken out? Then the prophecy would have been false. Does that then mean it was inevitable this was going to happen and there was no chance it could have turned out any other way?
In the days of Moses, after many Israelites died in the desert because of the bites of poisonous snakes, God instructed Moses to make a brass serpent, put it on a stick of wood and lift it up. Moses was then told that if any stricken Israelite looked at the brass serpent they would be healed (Numbers 21:6-9). This represented the redeemer who would likewise be lifted upon wood and who would save His people from death if they would but look to Him. Isaiah and Jerimiah told the people of Israel that if they didn't turn from their evil ways they would be taken into captivity. The Romans were the only nation who used crucifixion - hanging people from two cross-beams of wood - as a means of death. Consequently, if the Israelites had been obedient to the Lord's prophets, the Romans would never have taken over their country and there would have been no method of lifting Christ up onto wood for Him to die as a means of redeeming the sins of His people. Yet this event occurred exactly as it had been prefigured and prophesied hundreds of years before it happened! But how can the future be so accurately foretold if men are free to choose for themselves what they want to do?
What did Nephi mean then when he said, "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 mediation of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil" (2 Nephi 2:26,27, italics added).
Nephi said that man is free in "all things", but obviously he isn't, as we've just seen. Was Nephi mistaken or over zealous in his statement? Upon a cursory reading, it might appear that way, but Nephi said that "all things are given them which are expedient unto man." We are free to choose only those things that are expedient - i.e., useful, advantageous, beneficial, desirable and worthwhile - for us. Those things which God determines are not expedient, we are not allowed to choose from.
Free agency doesn't mean we are free to chose anything we want; it means we only have the freedom to decide among the choices presented to us. In other words, we can't decide the choices we have and we can't chose the consequences of our decisions; we can only chose between whatever choices we're given. In some areas we may have many choices, while in other areas our choices may be quite limited.
To illustrate this, let's say you are a parent and your five year old daughter needs to wear a dress to church. You tell her she can wear either the blue dress, the red dress, or the yellow dress. She says she doesn't want to wear a dress; she wants to wear her dirty sweater and blue jeans. As a responsible parent you inform her that a sweater and bluejeans are not part of her choices of what to wear to church. The only choices she has are the three you are offering her.
In the same way, God, our Father, gives us the choices He wants us to select from, and He determines those choices according to what He feels is expedient for us to have. If He doesn't feel the choice is useful, advantageous, beneficial, desirable, or worthwhile, He doesn't allow us the opportunity to decide on it.
Consider this: Many people have a goal in mind of what they want to get out of life. That goal may be going on a mission, selecting the type of work they want to do, achieving the kind of material possessions they wish for or becoming involved in certain desired activities. However, even though we're the masters of our fate, fate often throws us a curve. Everything could be going just the way we've planned when suddenly something beyond our control sends our life in a very different direction than where we had chosen to go. It could be due to hurricanes, floods, accidents, sicknesses or a host of other things that totally disrupt our well chosen plans. We don't choose these circumstances of fate; we can only chose how to respond to them.
Since we don't select our choices but God does, according to what He feels is expedient for us, then what kind of choices does the Lord feel are expedient for us to choose from? Nephi gave the answer when he said, "And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great mediation of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil."
The purpose of this life in mortality is to grow in righteousness. Therefore, the choices which God, our Father, has given us to freely chose between are those which are expedient in helping us to grow to become more like Him. When Adam and Eve were placed in the garden of Eden, "the Lord God, commanded the man saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee, but, remember that I forbid it" (Moses 3:16,17).
The choice Adam had was to obey or disobey God's instruction. In obeying Him, Adam and Eve would remain innocent and ignorant. In disobeying Him, they would gain the knowledge of good and evil. In order for the plan of salvation to be implemented, it was expedient for Adam and Even to be given this choice. However, even though it was their desire to obey God, the two of them did eat of that which was forbidden and they did gain the knowledge of good and evil.
Notice, however, that after they exercised their free agency, the Lord "drove out the man and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life" (Genesis 3:24). Even if Adam and Eve wanted to partake of the fruit from the tree of life, they couldn't. With a show of force, the Lord deliberately prevented them from having access to it. Is this not denying their freedom to choose for themselves?
Alma explained it this way to his son Corianton: "After the Lord God sent our first parents forth from the garden of Eden... he placed at the east of the garden of Eden, cherubim and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the tree of life... for behold, if Adam had put forth his hand immediately, he would have lived forever [in his sins] according to the word of God, having no space for repentance; yea and also the word of God would have been void, and the great plan of salvation would have been frustrated" (Alma 42:2,5). Nephi put it this way: "But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things" (2 Nephi 2:24).
In other words, it was expedient, - useful, advantageous, beneficial, desirable or worthwhile - to prevent Adam from having that choice. His free agency was intentionally limited to only those choices which the Lord felt was expedient for him to have.
As a result of obtaining the knowledge of good and evil, Adam, Eve and their descendents were now able to exercise a different kind of choice than they were previously able to make in their innocent and ignorant state. The scriptures explain, "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... It must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other being bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it would be that he was enticed by the one or the other." (2 Nephi 2:11,15,16)
"Wherefore, he gave commandments unto men,... placing themselves in a state to act according to their wills and pleasures, whether to do evil or to do good" (Alma 12:31).
"And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given." (2 Nephi 2:26)
"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)
"For the power is in them wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward." (D&C 58:28) "[but] 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)
"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)
The scriptures refer to our freedom of choice in terms of selecting between things that are righteous and evil, good and bad, right and wrong. Many times the choices we face are not easy or desirable and we are forced to select the least of the evils or the best of the good. But, since the purpose of earth life is to grow in righteousness, the thing that is most expedient for us to chose between are those choices which pertain to eternal life and everlasting death.
Since there is no evil in heaven, while we lived there, we didn't have the opportunity to decide whether we wanted to be righteous or wicked. Under Lucifer's plan we would still be denied this choice, but God's plan has given us this right as a sacred and inviolate gift. But just because God allows us the freedom to choose between good and evil doesn't mean that He permits us to do everything and anything we want. Our free agency is limited to the choices which God provides us with. As such, He is free to control everything else without fear of infringing on the gift we refer to as free agency.