Gospel Principles 4: Freedom to Choose

by Caroline

For all you Relief Society teachers out there, I have one important piece of advice. Do yourself a favor and buy some Chieko Okazaki books. (They can be bought used on Amazon for a couple of dollars, usually.) Invariably, whenever I need to come up with a lesson or a talk on any topic, Chieko Okazaki comes through with something profound, something insightful, something wonderful to say. Given the spartan manual we’re now using, her insights might prove doubly helpful to teachers.


I like brainstorming questions to start out lessons. I think it gets people comfortable and immediately involved. So I might ask, what comes to mind when you hear the word agency? What associations do you have with it? You can list some of their ideas on the board. When you or someone else brings up some of these ideas (choice, respect, Christ, plan of salvation, action, etc.) throughout the lessons, you can refer to the list.

I might go into the root of the word. It’s from the Latin verb, ‘ago’ which means do, drive, discuss, or act. It’s a word that is clearly about acting, about doing. There’s nothing passive about it. We are the agents, the actors, the subjects of our lives. It’s up to us to use our agency wisely, to proactively make good decisions.

Agency is an Eternal Principle

This section talks about the War in Heaven, in which God rejects Satan’s anti-choice plan in favor of one that honors agency. You might want to read through some verses about the war in heaven and ask your class what insights they gain about agency from the story. If you need to be more specific, you can narrow it a bit. What do they learn about God our parent and agency? What do they learn about spirit children and agency?(This might seem a bit simplistic, and you may have to prime the pump by first talking about an insight you gain from the story, but I actually think there’s a lot to say here.)

These are some possible ideas that the class (or you) might want to bring up:

– that even God lost 1/3 of his children due to the bad choices – the agency – of those children. It strikes me that given the fact that God himself wasn’t able to succeed with a good number of his children, it’s rather a miracle that any of us succeed to any degree with ours.

– that we should be suspicious of people who tell us that they will make decisions for us. Chieko Okazaki in Being Enough has a great quote on that.  She writes, “It’s Satan who sought to take away our agency in the premortal existence…If you are getting messages from any quadrant that say, ‘We will make the decisions for you’ or ‘Just do what we say,’ I hope little warning bells go off to say, ‘Why am I getting this message?’ and ‘What will the results be if I let someone else make this decision for me?'” p. 168. She goes on to warn us as parents and as members or leaders of the ward that we need to be wary of giving those messages to our children and to other ward members.

This point brings up a really interesting question for me: What is the Christ-like way to interact with others, to honor others’ agency, when we are in positions of authority (as parents, bosses, or church leaders) over them? Chieko suggests making sure that people know they have a voice that is valued and that their concerns are listened to and understood. Another question along those lines is how we honor the agency of our friends, our peers, when we see them making problematic choices. Do we retreat, do we lecture, do we quietly support our friends?

Thinking about God as a parent who honors and defends our agency, I think it’s interesting to further relate that to us as parents or leaders. It occurs to me that God gives commandments, some specific, but some very general. He commands us to love our neighbors, not to bring dinner over to the person who just moved in next door. He often gives us leeway to try to figure out how best to fulfill his commandments, with those commandments serving as guide posts.  How do you seek to likewise balance between being specific, but not overly domineering? What principles have you used in determining where to provide specific guidelines?

Agency Is a Necessary Part of the Plan of Salvation/ Agency Requires that There Be a Choice.

As I read these last two sections, it seems to me that there’s quite a bit of overlap in them. So I’m just going to treat them as one section.

The manual mentions that “because we are able to choose, we are responsible for our own actions.” I think there is a lot of truth in this, but I think it can be nuanced a bit. Can we refine or qualify the first or the second part of that quote. Are we always able to choose? What can we choose? People often work within constraints, often choices are limited. Given that reality, what is usually within one’s power to choose?  (Perhaps people can mention that there are opportunities to choose kindness, no matter the desperate situation a person lives in. Perhaps there are times when attitude can be chosen.)

Agency is talked about as something that we fully have, but in reality, what I think we have is a range of options. What the gospel does for us, among other things, is to allow us a greater range of choices. With the opportunity to repent and change our lives and improve ourselves, over and over again,  we continually broaden our range of good choices. The effects of sin can hold us back, but the atonement reconciles us, brings us together, and opens good doors.

In your own lives, how has choosing righteously opened up more opportunities of choice for you? How has it broadened your sphere, your ability to act for good? (You may want to consider asking beforehand one or two women to briefly talk about choices they’ve made that have expanded their opportunities for greater choice.)

Also, regarding the second half of that quote, are we always responsible for our actions? Certainly in a general sense we are, but I think it’s good to take a step back and recognize those constraints that people are working within. For instance, most of us have a lot of sympathy for people who use their agency unwisely because they struggle with mental illness, etc. This of course, is once again where the atonement comes in.

This section also mentions that agency was given to us as a test to see whether or not we make the right choices. This idea of the test is an effective metaphor in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t capture the idea of eternal progression so well. So even if this life is a test to see whether or not we can be the people God would like us to be, I think it’s good to keep in mind that we have an eternity to work on ourselves, to constantly improve.


I would probably end the lesson on an uplifting note like eternal progression and a Jesus who undoubtedly understands the constraints we work within as we slowly work to refine ourselves and use our agency for good. Cheiko Okazaki mentions Jesus listening to us, loving us, being with us, so that “choice by choice, decision by decision, effort by effort, line upon line, we learn what do with our free agency in this wonderful world.” 118

Miscellaneous ideas to potentially weave in

I like to think about God’s profound respect for agency. Interestingly, Chieko Okazaki addresses the problem of evil/God’s apparent unresponsiveness and relates it to God’s respect for agency. She says, “Because we live in a world that operates according to law and because god’s respect for agency is one of the most important facts we know about him, next only to his love for us, then there are some prayers of ours he cannot grant without violating the agency of others in ways that are unacceptable to the laws that govern our wold. Because we cannot see all of the consequences of an action or a choice for ourselves, let alone for all of the people it might affect, there are doubtless some prayers he cannot grant.” 155

What do you think of relating God’s unresponsiveness to his respect for agency? Does it resonate? Does it satisfy? What do you like about it? What questions are left unanswered?

I am also interested in the way that agency interacts with both actions and beliefs. Here are a few terms from religious studies.  Orthopraxy means ‘right doing’. Orthodoxy means ‘right thinking.’ Some religions emphasize one over the other. Judaism and Islam tend to emphasize orthopraxy – they are not nearly as concerned with beliefs as they are with how you act, how you live your life. Christianity on the other hand, often emphasizes orthodoxy. Born Again Christians might be on the extreme end of the orthodoxy scale. Where do you see Mormons fitting in on the orthodoxy/orthopraxy scale? (I see it falling in the middle somewhere.) And to relate this to agency, can we choose our beliefs like we choose our actions? Does anyone have any anecdotes in which they deliberately chose to believe? Why? Was it effective?

**note** quotes taken from Okazaki’s book, Being Enough.

Please contribute your own ideas about agency below. Also, feel free to comment upon which ideas listed here strike you as particularly usable.

Note: This lesson was originally written for the Relief Society audience in 2010-2011, when the Gospel Principles manual was temporarily used as curriculum for Relief Society, Elders Quorum and High Priest classes. The lesson may require adaptation for Gospel Principles classes, which are mixed gender and primarily serve new members and investigators of the church.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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29 Responses

  1. Colleen says:

    THANK YOU for sharing your thoughts and ideas. I teach this lesson and always enjoy reading and studying all I can!

  2. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you Caroline!

    The focus on the war in heaven from both lessons 3 and 4 really intrigues me. I don’t necessarily like it (the manual’s take, not the overall drafted lessons)but can’t pinpoint why.

  3. Caroline says:

    Glad you find this helpful.

    Kelly Ann,
    Perhaps you were uncomfortable with the way the manual kind of makes it sound like God kicks Satan out because he brought up an idea he didn’t like. I read that section of the manual to my husband and it struck him as off.

  4. Rob osborn says:

    Agency is not what we think it to mean generally speaking. If we can use the word “freedom” in it’s place we would be much better off. The BoM uses the word “free” in the place of “agency” to discuss the atonement and what it does. “Freedom to act” is the application of “agency” in action. It’s opposite is quite intriguing- “to be acted upon”. If we put the two on a scale- one on one end and the other on the opposite end and have apointer representing us in the middle then we can see that any action leading to “freedom to act” is because of obedience to eternal laws and principles. A move towards “to be acted upon” means a loss of choice, mobility and action due to result of sin.

    Thus we can see that Satan wanting and seeking to destroy our agency is nothing more than his wanting to control us and “act upon” us through the causation of sinful choices.

  5. lesli says:

    I have considered talking about addiction and how a big part of recovery is–after realizing you can’t do it on your own–taking responsibility for your actions. My worry is that it will take the lesson another way, and may or may not be useful.

  6. Stuart says:

    Thank you for your ideas. Very nice. I also thought about discussing examples from the scriptures of how people exercised their agency, what was the result of their choices, how it might apply to us, etc. Examples might include Adam & Eve, Abraham, Jonah, Alma the Younger, and Christ.

  7. Maureen Adams says:

    Are there easier or cheaper ways of obtaining these books you speak of.?. I live in Australia and do not have a lds book shop or an Amazon book shop or any other way of obtaining these insightful books or any lds publications at great cost and postal.

  8. Caroline says:

    Thanks, Rob, Lesli, Stuart for sharing your ideas.

    Maureen, that’s a good question. I think your best bet, unfortunately, is to buy them from amazon.com. The international shipping rate appears to be about $12, so hopefully you could get a book for about $17. Still a lot of money, I’m afraid.

    Though perhaps you could convince your ward to buy a few of these books for your ward library as a resource for teachers…? Might be worth a shot to ask.

  9. Corinna says:

    I am enjoying the fact that the manual is ‘back to basics’ and the freedom I have to elaborate on principles as they apply to the sisters here and now. Thanks for the insights and suggestions.

  10. Sharon T says:

    Caroline, thanks so much for the great ideas for this lesson. I must say that sometimes these lessons seem so “easy” that it makes them “difficult”. I looked up Chieko Okazaki on Amazon and found lots by her. I am not familiar with her work and don’t have any of her books, so my question to you is…..If I’m getting a couple or few, which ones would you suggest? Thanks again for your lesson ideas. It will make teaching mine this Sunday much easier.
    Have a great week.

  11. Alisa says:

    I think I’m going to start the lesson by asking the sisters how they feel when they are going to take a test. But this test is the biggest and most important test they will EVER take…bigger than the ACT or SAT or MCAT, etc. Relating right from the beginning the responsibility that we took on in the pre-existence to venture forth in our mortal state and where it falls in the eternal scheme of things…

    I love how you talked about God losing 1/3 of his children due to the freedom of choice that existed in our pre-mortal state…and how miraculous it is for us, as parents, to have success with our children that make good choices. I’ve never thought of that in the context you brought up.

    I agree that these lessons are so simple that we make them harder to teach! May the spirit guide, is all I can say!

  12. Caroline says:

    Corinna, you’re welcome.

    Sharon T, great question. I think the book I’ve used the most for lessons is Aloha!. I also really liked Being Enough. After that, Disciples might be a good choice and I’ve heard good things about Lighten Up. I don’t have Cat’s Cradle, so I can’t comment on that one. Good luck! By the way, if you want to get a couple of these books for about 2.50 total, think about signing up for paperbackswap.com. I’ve gotten a few of her books there (even though they’re not paperbacks.)

  13. Claire says:

    Thanks Alisa for your idea on how to start the lesson. I think i’ll try that one too. I’m also gonna use the warning sign analogy that is suggested at the bottom of page 20. I’ll use this to talk about the consequeces of our actions. Thanks Caroline and everyone else for all your great ideas. They’re always such a help to me.

  14. Venice says:

    Thanks for your insight. I appreciate the thoughts of Robert Millet in his book “When a Child Wanders” concerning ‘The Joy and Agony of Agency’ (page 34) dealing with the struggle parents have with children who wander. Also helpful are the promises of the covenant in the section “Power in the Covenant” (page 108). Children exercising their agency can be a painful experience for parents.

  15. *Camille says:

    wow this is some great stuff! venice i really appreciate your comments because i was just finishing up the last touches on my lesson and your thoughts are just another needed outlook.
    a few things i came up with…
    this one just for fun…
    i broke the word up and related alot of the info to the words
    YOU! I put YOU here because alot of time, I think esp. as women, we are oft too concerned with the choices OTHERS are making…when we need a reality check…how firm is OUR foundation. I have a friends who is dealing with a husband who has recently gone inactive over the past year and when she recently wanted to discuss some of the issues with me and asked for my opionion..i told her…quit worrying about his choices because her concern for his choices is weakening her own foundation on many levels.this YOU section goes so greatly with the two paragraphs caroline wrote starting with:
    “that we should be suspicious of people who tell us that they will make decisions for us. Chieko Okazaki in Being Enough has a great quote on that. She writes…..”

    *i am also squeezing into my lesson a little 3-4 minute highlight on RUTH…i am going to try and highlight one woman from the scriptures every lesson. although eveyone might be familiar with Ruth’s choice and not think much of it…it shows conviction, sticking with the choice you make, making the best of it, growing from it, and taking seriously the decisions we make in our daily lives.

  16. sandra says:

    I found a beautiful story in a manual called (FAMILY HOME EVENING) about a man named (Viktor Frankl)who lived during world war|| and was kept in a Nazi concentration camp for three years.This story help us to recognize some of the choices we overlook.Also in the manual there is a chart showing the consequences of obeying or disobeying our Heavenly Father`s laws.

  17. Ida Buck says:

    I have just found this web site and I can’t thank you enough. I have always been in Y.W. and there is sooo much help for teachers. I am thrilled to know this help is available. I was given an idea about agency as an ice breaker. You have two bags one labled good choices with legos inside and the other “bad choices” with sticks inside and give to two sisters and ask them to build a house. Sometimes when making better choices we will end up with a better house. I don’t know yet if I will use that but I am so visual I thought it could be woven in to the lesson somewhere. thankyou soooo much

  18. Leslie Hall says:

    Thanks for lots of good ideas. I want to point out that it was God’s plan, then Satan and Christ chose how to implement it. Also, the scriptures say a third part of Heavenly Father’s children followed Satan, not necessarily a third of all his children. In “Chances Are You Will Be Exalted” I read that God is a very successful parent. I like that idea.

  19. Shelley says:

    I’m teaching this lesson tomorrow, and I’m drawing a lot from President Monon’s Oct. 2004 General Conference talk entitled “Choose You This Day.” I especially like his three-fold formula to help us make good choices: fill your minds with truth, fill your hearts with love, and fill your lives with service.


  20. mtboston says:

    Thank you so much for your insights. I was sort of panicking wondering how to teach this lesson, which reads a little too “basic” and cut-and-dry for my taste.

  21. Diane says:

    I am teaching this lesson today. One example I will use is “ants.” Ants accomplish great things, yet have no choice in their individual contribution. An ant will never refuse to do his job, or ask to sleep in, or aspire to greatness. Insects have no agency — they don’t even know that there are choices to be made. This is what our life would be like under Satan’s plan, in my opinion.

  22. Diane says:

    One other note — for those of you looking for used books at reasonable prices, try http://www.thriftbooks.com. They have millions of books available, and ship world-wide. The three owners (one of which is my son) are all returned missionaries, and most of the upper management are also LDS. 🙂

  23. Aimee says:

    What a wonderful lesson, Caroline. Reading this after my own church experience today has been healing.

    I’m sort of amazed at how often a lesson on agency can still become a lesson on how to be better subjects to authority of all stripes. I am much more thrilled by the possibility that our Heavenly Parents are eager for us to use this life to become more like them by choosing to develop a relationship with them, exercising our individual agency and honing our unique righteous desires. Too often in my ward it seems we shy away from the responsibility and freedom real agency offers and we end up putting God and ecclesiastical leaders back in charge of all our choices. Which plan was that again?

    Diane, your ant analogy was a particularly good one. I only wish I’d read your comment before class as it may have been a good way to take the discussion in another direction.

  24. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Thanks for the ideas! I got to use some of them today during my class. And if the comments I received were any indication, you are doing some great work with these lesson suggestions.

  25. Caroline says:

    thank you, everyone, for all your comments and suggestions. I’m happy to know that these ideas were interesting or helpful in some way.

    Aimee, how depressing that that was the direction your lesson went. Agency is such an inspiring idea. Muffling it under authoritarian ideas is a wasted opportunity.

  26. Karen says:

    Thanks everyone for all of your ideas on Lesson 4.
    I am looking to reading your thought and ideas on Lesson 5: The Creation.

  27. Kristine says:

    I very much enjoyed your comments and shared several of your quotes from Okazaki in my lesson. Unfortunately my ward is not ok with this! I was told I can only use the manual and scriptures and to leave other books, no matter how interesting out of it. I am a little frustrated about this. Has anyone else run into this?

  28. Caroline says:

    I think it’s ridiculous that your ward came down on you for using a couple of Okazaki quotes. She was in the General Relief Society Presidency, for goodness sake!

    A woman just gave this lesson on my ward and used several quotes from various books and magazines to help make her points. In the past, she’s even used poetry. My RS pres had no problem with it.

    Anyway, I wonder if it would be helpful to have a further conversation with your RS pres or her counselor about this. Using these quotes as interesting contributions to the gospel discussion only enhances these spartan, sparse lessons we have. To bring interest and insightful ideas to these lessons (even if they come from a RS presidency person) is a good and thoughtful thing to do for your sisters. There’s my two cents, for what it’s worth. Good luck with all this. I hope you won’t give up trying to get insightful and spiritual voices, particularly women’s voices, into your lessons.

  1. February 6, 2015

    […] wrote a lesson plan on this exact topic 7 years ago, so I’m going to heavily borrow from that earlier lesson, particularly in the beginning […]

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