What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
A tragically large number of God’s children decided to reject His plan and follow Lucifer. This “war in heaven,” which continues today, was triggered by a cunning, counterfeit proposal that seduced many.
We know that Lucifer’s supposed plan would have, if implemented, destroyed the agency of man. This scriptural signal conveys to us the importance of agency, for if the enemy of all righteousness attempted to undermine it, we should therefore value it. But in my experience, it seems that while many Saints understand its importance, few understand its purpose.
We often talk about the things necessary for agency to exist—commandments, choice, consequence, etc.—but the analysis often ends there. This would be like talking about what the process of birth entails without addressing the miracle of procreation or the purpose of life. Things are defined not by their circumstances, but by their characteristics. Even then, descriptions often fail to convey intent. Agency is more than its environmental elements, and even more than the inadequate synonyms often used to define it, such as “choice” or “free will.”
We’re taught that agency is “The ability and privilege God gives people to choose and to act for themselves.” I’d like to show why I think this misses the picture.
What is agency? Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary—giving us a snapshot of the contextual interpretation of the word at the time it was used by Joseph Smith—defines it both as “the quality of moving or of exerting power” and the “business of an agent entrusted with the concerns of another.” It’s this second definition (though the first is also quite relevant) that takes us to a clearer understanding of what our agency is.
An agent is a person who represents another; we are familiar with how they work in the world of sports, music, writing, and other industries. To help an individual see to the affairs of their business, agents are empowered to transact this business on behalf of their employer. The same relationship exists when using the synonym steward. In either case, the representative’s authorized and commissioned work becomes their agency or stewardship. The creator or employer holds this person accountable for the work performed in his name and with his authority, in an effort to ensure that it was done as directed.
This relationship is abundantly clear in scripture. For example, in Christ’s parable about the unjust steward he taught:
There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.
And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.
Speaking to the Saints in Corinth, Paul employed the same analogy to describe our relationship to God:
Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.
By now it’s likely apparent where I’m headed with this. You and I are God’s agents, or stewards. This agency we speak of so often is not merely “the ability and privilege… to choose and to act,” but rather, the specific things we are directed to do. Yes, we have the discretion to obey or disobey, as any earthly agent does, but it’s clear that we have something to do. We will be held accountable for our agency. It means more than that it simply exists; how can we fulfill our stewardship if it’s not even clear to us what it is, and that it is actionable?
So again, what is our agency? What does God want us to do? And for what things will we be held accountable?
I believe that our agency is closely tied to the greatest commandment. Our stewardship is to love God’s children—our fellow brothers and sisters—acting as representatives of God, who is not with us in person to bless and support His children. Of course, this makes functional sense; if an employer told his agent, “this is the most important thing I want you to focus on,” it readily becomes clear that the agency pertains to that specific thing, first and foremost. So, too, with us and God’s commandment to love Him and our proverbial (and literal) neighbor.
One might say that the Pharisees were obsessed with understanding and defining their agency—though they were, as we know, way off the mark. Their desire to rank the importance of certain mandates over others, and badger fellow Jews into compliance, provides the backdrop for a famous Biblical scene in which a lawyer from the group asked Jesus, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” The question was designed as a trap; the Pharisees had debated the question exhaustively, identifying more than 600 commandments after categorizing, dividing, and subdividing the Mosaic law. If erudite scholars in their sect struggled to sort through hundreds of laws to pinpoint the most important, then surely the unlearned son of a mere carpenter would be exposed to the people as a fraud.
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” Jesus replied. “This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In one simple response, the fundamental precept of Christianity was established: love. Jesus had penetrated the purpose of the law that had for so long been mangled and manipulated. “On these two commandments,” he concluded, “hang all the law and the prophets.”
This meant something to the Jews who heard it. It was a common phrase that referred to the entirety of God’s teachings—the law, meaning the five books of Moses at the beginning of the Old Testament, and the teachings of subsequent prophets who followed Moses. What Jesus was teaching his disciples is that love is the entire purpose of the gospel.
It was their agency, and it is ours.
Satan sought to destroy this agency—and he seeks to do so now. In our day, “he rage[s] in the hearts of the children of men, and stir[s] them up to anger against that which is good.” He is the “father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger,” which is inconsistent with our agency. Satan works tirelessly to harden our hearts, so that we fight and hate one another. He’s trying to undermine our agency, and too many Saints don’t even realize it’s happening.
Jesus, our perfect example of love, understood that he was given an agency, and went about his Father’s business. So should we.