Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Agency

Due to a fluke of D.C. weather and a prophetic mandate, our stake conference was postponed this past weekend, which meant that our Elders Quorum and Relief Society enjoyed the Gospel Principles lesson that most Church units will be having this weekend on agency. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we tend to use the words agency and choice interchangeably, but the two words are not synonymous. Choice refers to a specific act of selection, while agency refers to the power of acting. It is, perhaps, worth noting the etymology of both words. Choice derives from the French choisir, “to perceive,” while agency is from the Latin ago, agere, “to act.” In other words, agency refers to the exercise of decision-making power, while choice is more closely related to the perception of different alternatives. To say that we have agency is to acknowledge that God has empowered us to choose between good and evil in all circumstances, whereas choice involves a more limited understanding of a singular and particular set of options. To wit: I have been empowered by my wife to choose the dinner menu every week; I have agency when it comes to meals and can eat what I wish (or at least what I am willing to pay for, which is somewhat more problematic). My children, on the other hand, have a rather limited choice when it comes to meals; they cannot eat candy and cereal (which is what they would select if they had been given agency with regards to the menu). Instead, they have to eat what is on their plate or sit on the stairs and go hungry (and if you’ve read our annual family Valentines update, you know that this is not always an easy choice).

But agency and choice are also different in another sense. Agency is linked to the word agent and suggests that the power to act is exercised on behalf of someone, either another individual or ourselves. At times my actions represent only myself (as when I give a grade to a student in one of my classes), but I can also, on occasion, act as a representative of someone else (as when I give a grade in my current capacity as a teaching assistant; the professor is ultimately responsible for that grade, but I am empowered to act on his behalf). Now, when you and I come to the earth, the Lord has made it clear that our actions represent only ourselves; in describing the children of Adam and Eve, He said that “it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore they are agents unto themselves” (Moses 6:56). The challenge of mortality is learning to transcend this starting point.

The worst thing that could happen is that we could become self-absorbed, using our agency only to benefit ourselves. This is the result described by Mormon, who describes it as “a cause of much sorrow among the Lamanites; for behold, they had many children who did grow up and began to wax strong in years, that they became for themselves, and were led away by some who were Zoramites, by their lyings and their flattering words, to join those Gadianton robbers” (3 Ne. 1:29). We begin as agents unto ourselves, but if all we do with that agency is become for ourselves—lose ourselves in a ceaseless and, inevitably, fruitless search for self-satisfaction—we have failed. But if we are not to become for ourselves, what is the alternative?

The goal of this life, as it pertains to agency, is best described in the Old Testament, where the Lord commands Moses to “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When a man shall make a singular vow, the persons shall be for the Lord by the estimation” (Lev. 27:2). Here singular is an adjective that describes separation, so a singular vow should be understood as a vow that sets the individual apart. The word persons might likewise be better understood if we read it as something like passions, appetites, will. Thus, the entire verse might be more clear if it was translated: “When a man makes a vow to separate himself (from the world), his passions, appetites, and will shall be—or become—for the Lord.” God was really telling Moses that covenants help us become for the Lord by aligning our will, appetites, and passions with his. That is the reason for which we have been given agency, so that we can become for the Lord.

Once we have made covenants and become for the Lord, we are His agents, no longer agents unto ourselves in the way that Adam and Eve’s children were but agents unto the Lord. This is the point of the Lord’s message to Newel K. Whitney and Sidney Gilbert in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord’s errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord’s business” (D&C 64:29). Once we have made covenants, we have exercised our power as agents unto ourselves for the last time; from that point forward, we are agents unto the Lord. You occasionally will hear rebellious individuals who have a rudimentary understanding of agency say something like, “I don’t have to go to church if I don’t want to; I have my agency.” But these individuals have missed the point. As baptized members of the church we still have agency—power to act—but we have already agreed to use that power as agents of Jesus Christ. We’ve already made our choice. Our agency or power to act will, paradoxically, continue to increase in strength as we abandon the idea of choice and remember that we have already made the only choice that really matters: the choice to become an agent for the Lord.

3 comments:

Jo Jo said...

That has to be one of my favorite posts. I like learning from you. I wish you were my teacher, wait, you are! Thanks for the weekly lesson I miss while I play in Piano.

Jenny said...

Hee hee...
now let them eat cereal!
xo

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