Agency, in Latter-day Saint theology, is the innate ability of humans to act deliberately instead of being controlled by God like puppets. God tells us what to do but lets us choose whether to obey or not, and in so doing choose what goals and values to align ourselves with. He respects our ability to choose so much that He will never take it away even though its misuse is responsible for a good chunk of the suffering in the world. As I understand it, the only things that can truly compromise it are addictions and/or defects in the brain. Saints of some political stripes treat "agency" as synonymous and interchangeable with "liberty", and insist that what they perceive (sometimes with reason, sometimes not) as excessive or unjust laws are a violation of this sacred principle. Liberty is also important, but it's not the same thing, and no secular law can take away agency any more than God's commandments do. The choice of whether to follow the law or face the consequences of not following the law still remains. If agency and liberty are the same thing then anarchy is the only way to go.
Non-human animals don't have agency as I understand it. They can't make choices of moral significance because they don't comprehend good and evil. They also just like to make us look bad by doing everything God tells them to do. Recently, for the first time, I asked God to tell some animals to do something. A magpie couple moved into the neighbors' backyard right next to my windows and started making the same obnoxious noise over and over and over and over and over and over from sunrise to sundown. I think they were saying, "No, I love you more! No, I love you more! No, I love you more! No, I love you more! No, I love you more! No, I love you more!" After more than a week of trying and failing everything I could think of to get them to shut up for more than five minutes, I prayed and asked God to make them shut up for more than five minutes so I wouldn't have to kill them. They haven't bothered me since and I'm not even sure if they still live here. But that could be a fortuitious coincidence.
Anyway, it would seem perfectly obvious that God can't control people and he can't promise anything or make anything happen that's contingent on someone choosing to use their agency in a certain way, and I've heard friends and local church leaders say things to that effect. But after giving this premise some thought I've decided that it just isn't true.
Instances of God or one of His servants declaring the future (if you believe in that sort of thing, which of course you do because if you don't you've already closed this tab and browsed over to reddit) seem easy enough to explain by saying, okay, He's not making these future events happen, He's just observing and reporting them because He exists outside of time and sees everything at once. But this oversimplification fails to explain what most Latter-day Saints actually believe. Most believe that God is actively involved in directing the course of human history and individual lives, often to the point of responding to tragedy with the bogus cliche "Everything happens for a reason" as if God foreordains people to be drunk drivers. Many events in the scriptures, especially in the Old Testament, are understood as "types and shadows" of Christ's first and/or second comings, aka basically symbols and allegories of future events except that also actual events in their own right. Did God take away people's agency to make sure these events happened the right way, and if not, is each of these types and shadows nothing more than a fortuitious coincidence?
I was struck while reading this in the Book of Mormon recently as the prophet Abinadi warned King Noah, who wanted to kill him, that "what you do with me, after this, shall be as a type and a shadow of things which are to come." (Mosiah 13:10) Later, when King Noah had Abinadi burned to death, this prophecy became more specific: "Behold, even as ye have done unto me, so shall it come to pass that thy seed shall cause that many shall suffer the pains that I do suffer, even the pains of death by fire; and this because they believe in the salvation of the Lord their God.... Then ye shall suffer, as I suffer, the pains of death by fire. Thus God executeth vengeance upon those that destroy his people." (Mosiah 17:15, 18-19) And then a while later King Noah's people "were angry with the king, and caused that he should suffer, even unto death by fire." (Mosiah 19:20) Another fortuitious coincidence? Did God take away the people's agency to make sure they delivered poetic justice instead of just, say, beating him to death? The story would have been a lot less impactful if they just tied him up and left him for the jaguars.
Some prophecies are even more obviously conditional. Joseph Smith once told Illinois Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Douglas, "Judge, you will aspire to the presidency of the United States; and if ever you turn your hand against me or the Latter-day Saints, you will feel the weight of the hand of Almighty upon you; and you will live to see and know that I have testified the truth to you; for the conversation of this day will stick to you through life.” In other words, the prophesied outcome was conditional on Douglas' choices and entirely avoidable. But of course he did turn against the Latter-day Saints and lost the presidency to some nobody named Abraham Lincoln. Did God take away the agency of literally millions of white males who were allowed to vote? Maybe He just changed their ballots when nobody was looking. In either case, it's a shame poor Mr. Lincoln got dragged in as unwitting collateral damage in this divine prank. If he hadn't become the president, he would still be alive today.
Now I would like to discuss a huge example that may not occur to most people: temples. I love looking at the little dots on the map of where temples are or will be, and I even love going inside one sometimes and had planned to do so every week this year before the bleeping you-know-what happened. Temple locations are sometimes decided by a combination of logistics and revelation, and sometimes just by revelation. In all cases the announcement of a location is basically an assertion that God wants this thing built and it's going to be built. And then it is. The temples in Far West and Independence, Missouri are the only special cases that remain as yet unbuilt nearly two centuries after their respective announcements and there's no real reason why they couldn't be built at any time. In the rare event of announced temples being canceled, they were either just relocated a bit (Harrison, New York to Manhattan, New York) or replaced with multiple temples in other locations and then re-announced years later anyway (Hartford, Connecticut to Boston, Massachusetts and Harrison, I mean Manhattan, New York; Pago Pago, American Samoa to Apia, Samoa, Nuku'alofa, Tonga, and Papeete, Tahiti).
The planning stage a temple is in at the time of announcement varies, but typically it's before any necessary city, state, or national approvals have been secured. Sometimes, maybe most times, it's before local government leaders have even been notified that the Church would like to build a temple in that spot. And in countries with a decent respect for religious freedom that rarely poses much of a problem. Temples in Utah get approved virtually overnight and temples in the other states take just a bit longer. Temples in some parts of the world take quite a bit longer and sometimes face a few more obstacles - obstacles created, of course, by people exercising their agency that God can't take away. An illustrative example is the Accra Ghana Temple, the first in West Africa, which for some time was stuck in gridlock at every level of government due to a combination of apathy, bureaucratic incompetence, and prejudice from other Christian groups.
Over two years after its announcement, with virtually no progress in the interim, Elder Glenn L. Pace of the Africa West Area Presidency testified in General Conference that Satan "has been very active, trying to prevent the building of a temple in that part of the world.... It has been inspiring to see the Lord’s hand in bringing the forces together which will lead to an inevitable victory. There will be a temple in West Africa." Even with this confidence, he believed that the timing, at least, was conditional on human action or inaction. The previous year he had written in his journal, "I feel like we have done everything we can do temporally. I'm not absolutely sure the members have done everything they can do spiritually to prepare. If they had, I think we would have approval." A few months later he wrote, "I feel we got over the hump on the temple issue with the November 7 fast. We had a beautiful reaction to the request for fasting and prayer from our members.... I believe we will soon have enough of a critical mass of worthy members for the Lord to intervene."
Of the eventual approval, he later wrote, "I have reflected on this point in history many times. For thirty months I had felt like I was running into a brick wall. I would get up, clean up my wounds, and run again. I would run at the wall faster, slower, and from further back. I tried jumping over it and digging and crawling under it. The wall didn't fall. It didn't even budge. I just kept getting more bruised and bloodied. Then, when it was time, the Lord just gently blew it over. In hindsight, I believe the wall came down because so many African members got serious about living the gospel. If I had any impact on increasing the righteousness of the Saints, I would be elated." The biggest factor leading almost immediately to this change of fortune was the replacement of Jerry Rawlings with John Agyekum Kufuor as president of Ghana. So because God couldn't take away Jerry Rawlings' agency to bring about this conditional predetermined event, did He once again take away the agency of millions of voters to make sure a more amenable successor took over? And we blame Russia for meddling in elections.
But Russia, on that note, is another noteworthy example still in the process of unfolding. In 2018, during an era of intense government discrimination against every religion that isn't the Russian Orthodox Church and most especially against the small American ones, President Russell M. Nelson announced a temple for "a major city, yet to be determined, in Russia." While visiting the country over a year later, Elder Ronald A. Rasband "told the Russian members not to get discouraged that they don’t have a temple in Russia right now. The prophet has announced a future temple. Be assured, we are going to have a temple in Russia." Okay, we get it. So is God going to take away Putin's agency? And if He is, can He please have some fun with it before He gives it back? The world needs a morale boost right about now.
Even more recently, days after President Nelson announced an even less likely location, the Shanghai Municipal Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau said "the news that the American Mormon Church announced that it is building a temple came only from the American side" and called it "wishful thinking, not based in reality". Great stuff. I think God should annihilate the Chinese government and replace it with one that cares about basic human rights, but nobody asked me. So insert rhetorical question about Him taking away agency here.
If you pray to reach a destination in safety, are you asking God to take away the agency of other drivers (and maybe even yourself)? If you pray to get a job or get into college, are you asking God to take away the agency of the hiring or admissions people? If you pray for food to nourish and strengthen your body, are you asking God to take away the agency of anyone who might have let it be contaminated with E. coli? Okay, maybe these are silly examples but I'm just pointing out that none of our wants and needs exist in a vacuum. I do agree with the wisdom of focusing on yourself and asking for the divine aid to do what you can to shape events on your own, as opposed to asking God to do it for you. This life is about personal development, after all. I'm certainly not in the habit of asking God to make anyone else do something, although one time a few years ago I forgot my place and prayed that a certain coworker would give me a ride home, and then she did, and that was when I found out she had a boyfriend on a mission but we're still very good friends and I'm grateful for her impact on my life. But that could be a fortuitious coincidence.
I think God influences the world and everyone in it in ways far more varied and subtle than we give Him credit for or indeed can even imagine. I think, frankly, that He's kind of underhanded about it sometimes. I think sometimes He's like "Well, I didn't actually take away that person's agency, I just placed thoughts in their head that they couldn't tell apart from their own thoughts, which caused them to do what I wanted them to do while thinking it was their own idea, which is completely different." Who am I to argue with results? I'm assured periodically that God has a plan for my life and that I'm on the path He wants me to be on even though I never actually bothered asking for His input on decisions like where to go to school, what to study, where to live, or what brand of toothpaste to use. I certainly can't begin to explain how that happened, which is why I restrict myself to rhetorical questions, but I think it's pretty analogous to the lack of contradiction between "created in the image of God" and "evolved via random mutations and natural selection". Which is a copout since I don't understand how that works either, but anybody who accepts one paradigm should be able to accept the other.
And that's why I think saying "God can't do that because agency" is inaccurate. Tune in next week for "God vs. The Butterfly Effect". (Just kidding. I'm not that smart.)
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.