Selected Teachings on
Agency is Not the Same as Freedom

Dallin H. Oaks (Quorum of the Twelve)

[B]ecause *agency is a God-given precondition to the purpose of mortal life, no person or organization can take away our agency in mortality.

[W]hat can be taken away or reduced by the conditions of mortality is our freedom, the power to act upon our choices. 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.

1. Lehi taught his son Jacob that "men are free [have freedom] according to the flesh" (2 Nephi 2:27). For example, in the flesh we are subject to the physical law of gravity. If I should hang from the catwalk here in the Marriott Center and release my grip, I would not be free to will myself into a soft landing. And I cannot choose to run through a brick wall.

A loss of freedom reduces the extent to which we can act upon our choices, but it does not deprive us of our God-given agency....

2. Other limitations on freedom are self-imposed, such as the immobility we seek when we buckle our seat belt or the commitment we make when we sign a contract. In these examples we limit one freedom in order to achieve a larger and more important one.

3. Many losses of freedom are imposed by others. The science of government is a consideration of the procedures by which and the extent to which the official representatives of one group of citizens can impose restrictions on the freedom of another group. Decisions on the extent to which government power should restrict the freedom of individuals are among the most difficult decisions we face in an organized society. How much should zoning laws restrict a person's right to use his own property? How many taxes should we extract, and what compulsory functions should government perform with them? How much harm can society allow a person to do himself, such as by self-mutilation or drug use? These are all questions of freedom.

We have to accept some government limitations on freedom if we who live in communities are to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A condition of uninhibited individual freedom would allow the strong to oppress the weak. It would allow the eccentric desires of one person to restrict the freedom of many.

Interferences with our freedom do not deprive us of our agency. When Pharaoh put Joseph in prison, he restricted Joseph's freedom, but he did not take away his agency. When Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, he interfered with their freedom to engage in a particular activity at a particular time in a particular place, but he did not take away their agency.

During my nine years at BYU I read many letters to the editor in the Universe that protested various rules as infringements of agency. I am glad I don't see those funny arguments anymore, probably because I no longer have to read the letters to the editor in the Universe. The Lord has told us in modern revelation that he established the Constitution of the United States to assure "that every man may act ... according to the moral agency which I have given unto him" (D&C 101:78). In other words, God established our Constitution to give us the vital political freedom necessary for us to act upon our personal choices in civil government. This revelation shows the distinction between agency (the power of choice), which is God-given, and freedom, the right to act upon our choices, which is protected by the Constitution and laws of the land.

Freedom is obviously of great importance, but as these examples illustrate, freedom is always qualified in mortality. Consequently, when we oppose a government-imposed loss of freedom, it would be better if we did not conduct our debate in terms of a loss of our agency, which is impossible under our doctrine. We ought to focus on the legality or the wisdom of the proposed restriction of our freedom.

[W]e receive assurance from our doctrine that Satan, who sought to take away our agency in the premortal existence, is not permitted to take it from us in this life. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the devil cannot compel men to do evil; he has "power over us only as we permit him" (Teachings, pp. 181, 187, 189). Elder James E. Faust elaborated this in our last conference, when he said, "Certainly he can tempt and he can deceive, but he has no authority over us which we do not give him" ("The Great Imitator," Ensign, October 1987, p. 35).

[A]s suggested by these teachings, Satan is still trying to take away our agency by persuading us to voluntarily surrender our will to his....

[W]e should also avoid any practices in which one person attempts to surrender even part of his will to another person or in which another person attempts to take it. Whether the means are chemical, behavioral, electronic, or others not yet dreamed of, such attempts run counter to the heavenly plan and further the adversary's plan. Agency, the power to choose and direct our thoughts and our actions, is a gift of God, and we should resist any means that would compromise it.

[W]e should avoid any behavior that is addictive. Whatever is addictive compromises our will. Subjecting our will to the overbearing impulses imposed by any form of addiction serves Satan's purposes and subverts our Heavenly Father's. This applies to addictions to drugs (such as narcotics, alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine), addiction to practices such as gambling, and any other addictive behavior. We can avoid addictions by keeping the commandments of God.

[W]e should be aware that some people are more susceptible to some addictions than other people. Perhaps such susceptibility is inborn, like the unnamed ailment the Apostle Paul called "a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure" (2 Corinthians 12:7). One person has a taste for nicotine and is easily addicted to smoking. Another person cannot take an occasional drink without being propelled into alcoholism. Another person samples gambling and becomes a compulsive gambler.

Perhaps these persons, as the saying goes, were "born that way." But what does this mean? Does it mean that persons with susceptibilities or strong tendencies have no choice, no agency in these matters? Our doctrine teaches us otherwise. Regardless of a person's susceptibility or tendency, his will is unfettered. His agency is unqualified. It is his freedom that is impaired. Other persons are more free; though they unwisely sample the temptations, they seem immune to the addiction. But regardless of the extent of our freedom, we are all responsible for the exercise of our agency.

As Lehi taught, in mortality we are only free "according to the flesh" (2 Nephi 2:27). Most of us are born with thorns in the flesh—some more visible, some more serious than others. We all seem to have susceptibilities to one disorder or another, but whatever our susceptibilities, we have the will and the power to control our thoughts and our actions. This must be so. God has said that he holds us accountable for what we do and what we think, so these must be controllable by our agency. Once we have reached the age or condition of accountability, "I was born that way" does not excuse actions or thoughts that fail to conform to the commandments of God. We need to learn how to live so that a weakness that is mortal will not prevent us from achieving the goal that is eternal.

God has promised that he will consecrate our afflictions for our gain (see 2 Nephi 2:2). The efforts we expend in overcoming an inherited weakness build spiritual strength that will serve us throughout eternity. Thus, when Paul prayed thrice that his "thorn in the flesh" would depart from him, the Lord replied, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." Obedient, Paul concluded,

Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9­10]

Whatever our susceptibilities or tendencies, they cannot subject us to eternal consequences unless we exercise our agency to do or think the things forbidden by the commandments of God. For example, a susceptibility to alcoholism impairs its victim's freedom to partake without addiction, but his agency allows him to abstain and thus escape the physical debilitation of alcohol and the spiritual deterioration of addiction.

Eighth, beware the argument that because a person has strong drives toward a particular act that he has no power of choice and therefore no responsibility for his actions. This contention runs counter to the most fundamental premises of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Satan would like us to believe that we are not responsible in this life. That is the result he tried to achieve by his contest in the premortal existence. A person who insists that he is not responsible for the exercise of his agency because he was "born that way" is trying to ignore the outcome of the War in Heaven. We are responsible, and if we argue otherwise, our efforts become part of the propaganda effort of the adversary.

Individual responsibility is a law of life. It applies in the law of man and the law of God. Society holds people responsible to control their impulses so we can live in a civilized society. God holds his children responsible to control their impulses so they can keep his commandments and realize their eternal destiny. The law does not excuse the short-tempered man who surrenders to his impulse to pull a trigger on his tormentor, or the greedy man who surrenders to his impulse to steal, or the pedophile who surrenders to his impulse to satisfy his sexual desires with children.

I suppose it is inevitable that those who have surrendered to impulse would try to use the defense of "irresistible impulse." But in the courts on high, this defense will be transparent to the Great Judge, who sees all our actions and "knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Alma 18:32).

There is much we do not know about the extent of freedom we have in view of the various thorns in the flesh that afflict us in mortality. But this much we do know, we all have our agency, and God holds us accountable for the way we use it in thought and deed. That is fundamental.

God has commanded us not to become entangled in sin (see D&C 88:86). In modern revelation he said:

And go ye out from among the wicked. Save yourselves. Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord. [D&C 38:42]

This principle of individual responsibility and these commands to go out from among the wicked and to be clean apply to a multitude of circumstances. In terms of agency and freedom, I urge you to apply these commands in this way: If you have a weakness or a susceptibility to some particular transgression, especially one that can be addictive, use your agency and your freedom to steer a course far from the circumstances of that particular transgression.

May God bless us to live our lives so as to avoid entangling ourselves in sin and compromising our precious and unique gift of agency. May we accept responsibility for our thoughts and our actions. May we use our agency to make righteous choices and to act upon them as we have the freedom to do so. ("Free Agency and Freedom," BYU Devotional, 11 October 1987; *the word "free" has been removed each time it preceded the word "agency" in this quotation to bring it up to date with the modern usage of this term by the Brethren today; see "Free Agency is Not a Scriptural Term")