Gospel Principles 4: Freedom to Choose
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.