Editor’s note: This post is part of a collaborative effort of Mormon bloggers who are reading and writing about General Conference talks. We call it the General Conference Odyssey. This article at Meridian Magazine explains more about the Odyssey, and includes some thoughts from those of us participating in this project.
One of the things I appreciate about being a part of this effort is to read the words of my fellow brothers and sisters. Their perspectives and experience enrich my experience engaging the words of the prophets. Of course, we don’t want our posts to replace the words of the prophets, but we hope perhaps this project will inspire you in some way, as it has us.
The other posts from this week’s reading, which focused on the Friday Afternoon Session of the April 1973 General Conference, are at the bottom of the post. (I’ve also included links to last week’s posts, because, again, I’m batting about 500 right now in getting posts written.)
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I love the doctrine of agency. I used to stress a lot about it, because I was (am) a (recovering) perfectionist who believed that the goal of mortality was to never make mistakes. Oh, how I misunderstood the doctrine! I was trying to save myself! What need is there for a Savior if I can save myself?
That’s not to say that I’m here justifying making mistakes or sinning. That’s not it at all. It’s just that I’ve come to not fear the process of engaging my own imperfect, mortal, fallen messiness in the process of trying to live in obedience to God’s commandments.
I also have come to understand that two of the greatest hindrances to faith are shame and fear. I’ve heard it said that shame lives in the past and fear lives in the future. The only place we can exercise agency as mortals, however, is in the present.
Even Eastern philosophies, psychology, and other fields recognize the power of being present, being mindful, being deliberate. What these philosophies don’t have is the understanding of the Atonement — which is what buys us time and space — a probationary period — and makes it possible for us to surrender and learn from the past (learn from it but don’t live in it, paraphrasing Elder Holland).
One of the principles of healthy living that I have learned is “just do the next right thing.” This is one way I remind myself to stay in the present — to not look back at mistakes in shame or to look ahead to the future in fear. All God asks is for me to exercise agency in the now. The Atonement can cover the past as I learn from it, and God has the future of my life in His hands. [My] days are known and [my] years will not be numbered less.” I can follow His plan for me when I plug into doing whatever the right next thing is. The Spirit can help me know through the flow of my day what the next right thing is, if I will keep myself open to God’s guidance and will, and, as the scriptures say, not to the “will of the flesh.”
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.
And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit;
And not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.
This principle was so beautifully taught in the talk by John H. Vandenberg entitled “The Agency of Man.”
[A]ll individuals are confronted with decisions to make every day, and whatever the choice, it is commensurate with the persuasion of the heart.
These persuasions of the heart are related to two opposing forces constantly at work within every human being. They are the forces of good and evil, which the Master referred to as God and mammon. Coupled with these forces is the individual’s power to reason, which only man, of all God’s creations, possesses. This enables him to make choices.
I like how Elder Vandenberg talks about how reason is part of the process. When we talk about following the Spirit, it’s a choice that we make, consciously, with our minds, to follow God and our best knowledge of what the next right thing will be.
One of the things that used to trip me up about all of this was the fear that maybe I would misread the Spirit and make a wrong choice. So I would still be in fear, still afraid of what might happen if I make the wrong choice. I now understand so much better that the very nature of this existence is to learn to make choices, and, as Elder Scott would often teach, sometimes the next right thing will be something we are left to reason out alone for a time. When our desires are right, eventually God will clarify for us in His way and time. This process of making choices, learning from our decisions and mistakes, and constantly seeking to understand and align ourselves with the Spirit of the Lord is what builds character. This is something Elder Scott would teach, and I loved reading similar words shared in this talk by Elder Vandenberg:
The forces governed by his own reasoning determine the nature and quality of the choice made. Thus, that which we call character is formed. We refer to this privilege of choice as the agency of man.
It was a timely talk, too, seeing as as I write, election day in my state has just passed. Elder Vandenberg quotes a Jim Love who says,
“[E]very day is election day, for throughout every hour of every day we each exercise our right of choice. We don’t have to have a local or national election in order to elect or vote. … A man’s election can determine the deciding vote for or against his own success. … You elect to gain a thorough knowledge of your business or you don’t. You elect to be honest or you don’t. You elect to save a part of what you earn or you don’t. You elect to always do your best or you don’t. And by your own election you will be defeated or you will succeed.” (Jim Love, R&R Magazine, Research and Review Service of America, Inc., vol. 10, p. 64.)”
(That’s a powerful concept for an election year, too, wouldn’t you say?)
“Choice is an element of human dignity,” says another person quoted in this talk.
One of the things I appreciated about Elder Vandenberg’s talk is that he made it clear that true reason is aligned with truth. (It’s hard not to just make the observation that in light of this idea, with which I agree, arguments about faith vs. reason really are false arguments.)
The knowledge on which to pursue our reasoning is in [the scriptures]” and words of the prophets.
I’ve been watching my 17-year-old son bring these principles to light. As he prepares for his mission, which is a short year away, he’s pondering how he can more closely align his life with God. I have been inspired watching him humbly take counsel from his dad and me, notice patterns in his life and the quiet nudgings from the Spirit to get off of plateaus that he was sensing, a desire to align his life with what the prophets are teaching (including using missionary preparation tools and assignments to reason through what that means). I told him tonight that one of the unexpected blessings of being a parent is to watch God at work in my children’s lives. It strengthens my testimony to see them wrestle through their problems and weaknesses, and engage true principles and practices, especially personal scripture study and prayer, to connect with God so that they can know what the next right things are in their lives.
As a mom, part of what it means to me to love the doctrine of agency is to watch myself and my tendency to want to control their lives, rather than let them learn by experience and live their lives. Of course, we do all we can as parents. We do daily scriptures and prayers, Family Home Evening, church meetings on Sundays, temple attendance, etc. We talk about prophetic teachings a lot as well.
But none of those things will have their full power unlocked in my life or in my children’s lives unless choices are made to act and align and assess and repent and continuously seek God’s personal guidance for the things that only God knows about their lives. I’m reminded of another teaching from Elder Scott who said that once you start to understand how personal revelation works, the surety you can feel can exceed what you can see with your natural eyes. Elder Vandenberg uses the words ‘convincing logic’ but to me it’s more than just logic. It’s light and light makes sense when you learn to trust and follow it.
The Lord’s call to us is: “Come now, and let us reason together. …” (Isa. 1:18.) He wants us to listen to and consider his doctrine. The scriptures tell us this: “… that men might be made partakers of the glories which were to be revealed, the Lord sent forth the fulness of his gospel, his everlasting covenant, reasoning in plainness and simplicity.” (D&C 133:57.)
He wants us to become acquainted with his gospel, to test it, to prove it, to participate in it, and to use it as a base on which to make our decisions. This is that men might base their choices on truth. When reason is joined with truth, there is convincing logic that sets up the path in our hearts that leads upward and onward to a nobler life.
Did I mention that I love the doctrine of agency? There is no Atonement without it. It is exciting to take one day at a time and to learn and grow “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.”
That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light [and reasons in the light of truth], and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.
I am so grateful to know of the doctrine of the plan of God, within which the doctrine of agency is central. I used to be afraid of all the choices, but now I am learning to embrace the delightful discovery process of learning to trust light and truth, to trust God, and to seek for the divine help and courage to act upon whatever truth becomes clear through study and faith. I find that God’s mercy is greater than I ever imagined, even when sometimes I make mistakes or get lazy. But I really find His power when I act. Faith truly is a principle of action and of power.
I would recommend this talk. It is full of great quotes and many powerful scriptures too numerous to share here.
And I would recommend reading thoughts from my friends about what inspired them from this week’s reading (and last week’s reading).
– Reason and Truth Rattling Around My Brain by Nathaniel Givens
– Watchman, Warn the Wicked by G
– Moral Foundations and Sacred Testimony by Daniel Ortner
– Doubts and People by Walker Wright
– That Which is of Most Value by SilverRain
Are We Listening to Their Warnings? by Jan Tolman
– The Political is Personal by Marilyn Nielson
Here’s the list of posts from last week, featuring thoughts from the Friday morning session of the April 1973 General Conference:
– Leadership in the Kingdom by Nathaniel Givens
– Japan is for the Japanese by G
– Individual Testimonies of the Divinity of this Work by Daniel Ortner
– “In the Kingdom of Our Heavenly Father No Man is a ‘Nobody.’” byWalker Wright
– So Simple a Call by SilverRain
– It must begin with you personally by Marilyn Nielson