Agency: You Got It

In our Primary class this week we are talking about agency. I remembered this post I wrote a few years back that might help with basic understanding of agency. I dusted it off and revised it.

One of our kids came to earth with a built-in love for agency. Either that, or a built-in dislike for authority. From a very young age he did not like being told what to do. When he was about four, he composed a song about it, which he would walk around singing. It was sweet and sing-songy. The lyrics went something like this:

“You’re not the boss of me,

I can do what I want,

You can’t tell me what to do,” etc.

He would walk around the house singing this song – for years. It was equal parts adorable and exasperating. He clearly embraced the concept of agency early on and blessed us with the opportunity to develop additional parenting skills.

Agency is vital, although I feel it is misunderstood by many, often by the very people who defend it. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say one of the following three sentences:

“You are taking away my agency.”

or “You are denying him his agency.”

or “We are giving him his agency.”

Any one of these three sentences is a sure-fire way to know that the person who spoke it does not actually understand what “agency” is.

Why? Because all three of those statements, and any variation of the same, are not correct. They are not even possible. Here is the simple reason: Agency cannot be taken away.

Here are three supporting quotes from some very reliable sources:

• “Agency is precious. We can foolishly, blindly give it away, but it cannot be forcibly taken from us.” (Boyd. K. Packer, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel)

• “…free agency is a God-given precondition to the purpose of mortal life, no person or organization can take away our free agency in mortality.” (Dallin H. Oaks, Free Agency and Freedom)

• “We are not disposed, had we the power, to deprive any one of exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.” (Joseph Smith, Teachings, p. 49)

Three witnesses, making the following points:

1) Agency is a precious gift from God

2) Agency cannot be taken away from us by any person or organization.

3) Agency is an essential part of our mortal lives.

So why do so many people misunderstand? I think it is because there is often a confusion between two different words which are crucial to understanding the concept:

Agency & Freedom: They are not the same thing. How about an example?

Let’s say that I have a two-year old whose greatest desire in life is to toddle out on the highway and try and catch a car. Right – like I’m going to let that happen. He can exercise his agency all day long in attempting to get out the front door, back door, or doggy door, but I will not allow it. I will restrict his freedom in order to keep him safe. Even when he is securely tucked away in his playpen, he can still desire to escape, but he doesn’t have the freedom to exercise his agency.

Maybe I should let Elder Oaks finish his quote to explain it:

First, because free agency is a God-given precondition to the purpose of mortal life, no person or organization can take away our free agency in mortality.

Second, what can be taken away or reduced by the conditions of mortality is our freedom, the power to act upon our choices. Free agency is absolute, but in the circumstances of mortality freedom is always qualified.

Freedom may be qualified or taken away (1) by physical laws, including the physical limitations with which we are born, (2) by our own action, and (3) by the action of others, including governments.(Dallin H. Oaks, Free Agency and Freedom)

While agency is unassailable, the giving or taking of freedom is at the discretion of the person with the authority and/or power. In the example with the toddler, I have the power to constrain the child’s freedom. Not only do I have the power – I have the responsibility to limit that freedom for the sake of the child’s well-being and safety.

I have had conversations with parents who claim to believe in un-fettered agency for their children, (And their young kids behavior often reflects that.) Of course, when asked about the ‘playing on the highway’ example, they quickly backpedal.

I believe that is where the struggle exists between those who have authority and those who decry their loss of agency. While the toddler story makes it obvious, it gets more complicated as life goes on – and the stakes can be raised.

A teenager says to his parents, “I don’t want to go to church” Does he have the agency to say that? Of course!

Does he have the freedom to stay home? Perhaps.

It depends on what the authority figures think- who are they? Mom and Dad. I have heard parents excuse their youth from attending to their church responsibilities by saying, “I’m not going to make him go – I won’t take away his agency.” As we know, that is a flawed argument. What they actually mean is, “I’m not willing to interfere with the exercise of my teenager’s agency.” Depending on that specific child, it could be a good choice, or a total cop-out. Such are the joys of parenting…

That said, even if the teenager stomps into the church under duress, he still has his agency, and can march right out the back door if he so desires. Agency remains intact.

(Yes, I admit, my parents “grounded me” now and again – one of the most effective forms of freedom denial. But believe me, I still had my agency to want the curtailed freedom, or even ignore the restriction – which was a bad idea.)

When there are two sources of authority, it gets even more complicated. For example, when one voice of authority condones a freedom, and another voice of authority condemns that same freedom, the “agency” issue always becomes a talking point. There are several such struggles currently being played out in the world and the church that highlight this divide.

Let’s talk recreational marijuana as an example: One authority, (whether it be the voice of the people, or the government) has extended the freedom in many states to partake of recreational pot.

The other authority has declared that such a freedom has not been extended to members of the Church. Who is that “other authority?”


Agency is still intact. It is always intact. In this instance the choice is to follow the freedom offered by society, or the restricted freedom offered by God. As members of the church, we already committed to follow the latter, but as society embraces such freedoms, many expect the Lord to change.

He hasn’t. Yet each member of the church always has the agency to embrace society’s trends, or the Lord’s edicts. If someone in the Church wants to smoke pot, no one in the Church will stop them – precisely because they have their agency.   However, if we deliberately choose to follow society rather than God, we would be naive to expect that no consequences would come from that choice. Whenever a choice is made, consequences must follow. It has been that way since Adam and Eve were in the Garden.  Choices offered, consequences explained and administered.

“Nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Moses 3:17). They did…and they did.

Depending on the issue, exercising one’s agency can have tremendous consequences. Immediate consequences, and eternal consequences. Sometimes we can anticipate the consequences, sometimes we can’t. Exercising agency and embracing the freedoms society offers may result in loss of blessings, or membership. Exercising agency and embracing the limits imposed on those freedoms by a higher authority can result in blessings, and membership. The Church cannot make that choice for us, nor can it force us to choose one or the other. When someone shouts that the Church is denying someone their agency, the shouter, again, is showing that they do not really understand the word they are using.

Just because multiple choices are offered does not mean all choices are equal, or that more than one choice is the correct choice.

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.

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 2:26–27)

Or more simply put, as Joshua said, “Choose ye this day who ye will serve…” (Joshua 24:15)

We always have our agency. It is what we choose to do with it that matters.

Choose wisely.

Other resources on the topic:

“Agency: Essential to the Plan of Life,” Robert D. Hales

“To Act for Ourselves: The Gift and Blessings of Agency,” Robert D. Hales 

“Atonement, Agency, Accountabilty,” Boyd K. Packer

“Choices,” Russell M. Nelson

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