In order to learn to make wise use of our eternal gift of agency, we must understand that each choice we make has consequences. These consequences can affect our entire lives and even our eternities. They also affect others. When we learn to evaluate the consequences of our choices, we are better able to make wise choices and get the most from our agency.
In the past, many Mormons used the term “free agency” to describe our God-given right to choose for ourselves. Today, church leaders discourage that term, because agency is not free, and they want us to understand this. Instead, they encourage the use of the term “moral agency.”
Agency is not free because it comes with a price—consequences. We may choose what to do, but we may not choose the consequences, nor may we choose how our choices affect others. The consequences may result from eternal laws, or they may be the result of natural consequences. They might even result from choices others make in response to our choices. Each choice we make limits other choices we might have made, for good or for bad. All of this is beyond our control, and so we must train ourselves and our children to look at the big picture when we’re faced with a choice.
Throughout the scriptures, we find examples of people who used their agency and faced the consequences. When Noah preached to the people to repent, they chose to ignore him. He warned them of the impending flood. They continued to ignore him. They had every right to do this. God would not force them to repent. They had to choose for themselves whether or not to trust the prophet. They chose not to do the hard work of finding out whether or not Noah was a true prophet of God, and this was their eternal right. However, they could not choose the consequences of that decision. God had decreed that anyone who did not choose to repent—in effect, anyone who chose not to gain a testimony and then act on the knowledge received—would be killed in the flood. God always keeps His promises. Therefore, while they could choose to ignore the prophet and the need for a testimony, they could not choose to get on the ark anyway once the flood began. When the rain began, and it was too late to repent, some might have felt it was unfair that they couldn’t do a last second “conversion,” but choices have consequences and even time limits. They had a certain amount of time allotted them to gain a testimony that Noah was a true prophet of God, repent of their sins, and live the gospel. Once that time ended, the time for decision was over. They could still repent, but they could not board the ark.
Ordinarily, the choices and their consequences are not so explicitly spelled out for us. They may be more subtle, and we may not be able to easily see the consequences. In order to make sure we’re happy with the results of our choices, we must pray for guidance. God alone knows what the consequences of our choice will be.
However, although prayer should always be a part of our decision-making, we must also practice using wisdom ourselves. We can take time to think through the possibilities to which our choices might lead and then make a decision. Following this, we can take our choice to God for confirmation.
Let’s look at the life of one young man who has to make a decision with short-term consequences, or at least, the consequences seem to be short-term. It’s Thursday. Sam has an important test to take on Friday. He also has a last-minute invitation to attend his first professional football game on Thursday night. He doesn’t feel well-prepared for the test, and would need to study all evening to even have a chance to pass it, but he doesn’t want to miss the game, either. He’s always wanted to go to a professional football game.
Because Sam doesn’t feel he is prepared for the test, we know he has already been making choices that have affected his choice now. Clearly, he has not been keeping up with his studies, regularly putting other things ahead of his coursework. This is why he’s not ready for the test. He can’t undo the past, so he must now deal with the consequences as they stand. The consequences are that because he has not already prepared for the test, he cannot choose the game without seriously harming his grades.
His right to choose has not yet ended. He can still choose the game or the study session. However, his choices have narrowed. Were he well-prepared, he might have been free to attend the game without risking failure. As it stands, though, if he chooses the game, he is most likely choosing to fail the test. The next day, when he sits at his desk, pen in hand, it will be too late for choices. He will take the test with whatever knowledge he has and he will receive the grade he earns. He will be unable to choose the grades, or the results of those grades.
In the future, Sam may recall the results of his choices. He might decide to keep up with his studies, so he can take advantage of interesting opportunities once in a while without harm. He might, however, continue on the path he seems to have chosen and constantly choose other things over his studies. Eventually, these choices will lead to poor grades. Enough poor grades might keep him from being allowed to attend a university, or may even set a pattern he finds it nearly impossible to undo, so that he is consistently choosing fun over work. While the choice to neglect his studies just once may seem unimportant, the total of many such choices can impact the rest of his life, as he struggles to earn enough money to care for his family and neglects to meet his responsibilities when fun awaits.
A single failed test might seem to only affect Sam. It may, of course, upset his parents, but Sam cannot control this. If he chooses to fail the test, his parents will experience whatever feelings come, and however sad he might be at having hurt them, he won’t be able to prevent it. If he chooses to continue the path of academic destruction, many will be hurt in the future—his parents, his future spouse, and the children he will have. He will not be able to control this.
He may choose to undo these decisions at some point in the future, perhaps developing a work ethic or returning to school under much more difficult circumstances. He cannot, though, undo whatever bad effects happened in the past.
Our choices often set a precedent for future choices. Every choice has a consequence, and one consequence might be the impact the choice has on our character or personality.
Choose a plan for making decisions. Take time to think ahead to short-term and long-term consequences and learn to pray for guidance as you make the choices that will affect your life.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.