The Marvelous Gift of Choice

By Elder Harold C. Brown

Area Authority Seventy

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From a devotional address given at Ricks College on 30 January 2001.We have the power to choose our course in life—to choose good or evil.

Many years ago, two of my teenage friends and I decided to take a drive into the mountains to a place where several small lakes collected melted snow in the spring to water thirsty summer crops in the valley below. We decided to drive in an old car that had been parked for some time and had long ago exhausted its usefulness. We put gasoline in it, checked the radiator and oil, and, by pulling it with a tractor, finally got it started and were on our way.

We soon realized why the car had been abandoned. The steep hills were more than it could easily negotiate, and frequently it stalled before reaching the top. When this occurred, we backed down the hill and up the one behind us. Then, with a roar of the engine and all the encouragement three teenagers could muster, the old car pushed up the hill, over the top, and down the other side.

We soon reached the crest of a tall hill—the last obstacle that stood between us and our destination. We opened the gate and looked down—way down. The road was steep, much steeper than we had anticipated. Still, we felt invincible, and although we were miles from home, no one wanted to think about whether or not the car had the power to return up the hill.

We had set our minds upon enjoying ourselves at the lakes. The possibility of not being able to get back was far from our minds, so we drove through the gate and down the steep hill. The car engine revved up as it held back the car’s descent, and we felt the quick drop in the pit of our stomachs.

We enjoyed the beautiful place, the scenery, skipping rocks on the lake, and the simple joy of life and living. As the sun began to lower in the sky, we knew it was time to go home. We looked up the hill, which seemed even steeper now. There was only a short distance from the edge of the lake to the point where the road began a steep angle upward.

We piled in the car and started up the hill. We made it only partway—not nearly far enough. We tried again and again. It was only then that the consequence of our earlier decision began to rest squarely on us. Yet we were not really concerned about our safety. We could sleep in the car that evening, and even if our T-shirts didn’t keep us very warm, we would survive and walk out the next day.

We tried practically everything. Each new effort seemed to propel us a little farther up the hill. Perhaps, we thought, if we could muster one more major effort and have everything work right for us, we could make it out.

We cleared away brush near the lake to provide more distance to make our run. We removed rocks and debris from the road, and two of us stationed ourselves partway up the hill to push when the car reached its limits. One last chance! With the gas pedal to the floor, the old car fishtailed up the road, and as it slowed down, two teenage boys with arms under the rear bumper and faces squashed against the trunk pushed with all their might as rocks spun from the wheels and stung their hands, arms, and legs.

Finally we reached the top and were on our way home, a little wiser and armed with a lifelong reminder that while we are free at any given time to make choices, we do not choose the consequences of the decisions we make.

We Choose Our Course

Choices we make now will affect who and what we are in the future. Agency is as basic as life itself and cannot be taken from us. Even in the most difficult circumstances, we may still choose our course. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, was a prisoner during World War II. He suffered greatly and experienced the loss of most of his freedoms. However, he came to believe that even though freedom may be greatly restricted, agency—or the power to choose at any moment in time—remains with us (see Man’s Search for Meaning [1959]).

Sometimes there are restrictions on the choices we can make. For example, an individual who is short, not very coordinated, and slow has the agency to try out for a basketball team. However, his particular physical characteristics may restrict his opportunity to make the team. Agency, or the power to choose, is a constant, while the range of choices or opportunity to make choices may vary.

Sometimes we take the gift of agency for granted because making choices is so much a part of all we do. However, we should never forget the heartrending and terrible price paid in our premortal existence to preserve our agency. In the scriptures we read:

“Because … Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down” (Moses 4:3).

“A third part of the hosts of heaven turned he away from me because of their agency;

“And they were thrust down, and thus came the devil and his angels” (D&C 29:36–37).

We can better understand the importance Heavenly Father placed on agency if we consider how we would feel if one-third of our family members rejected our beliefs and were lost to us forever.

Agency is an essential element of our eternal existence. The Lord said of us, “All [intelligence] is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself … ; otherwise there is no existence” (D&C 93:30).

It wasn’t just that Satan’s twisted version of our Heavenly Father’s plan was second best; more important, it simply could never work. There is no existence without agency.

Nephi clearly teaches that men are “free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon” (2 Ne. 2:26). The Lord states that “the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves” (D&C 58:28).

The power to choose is within each of us, and nothing can take it from us. We have the power to choose our course in life—to choose good or evil when the choice is placed before us.

Do Not Be Deceived

Satan will do everything he possibly can to deceive you. He wants you to make choices that diminish your desire to choose righteousness, in hopes that you will eventually become his servant.

Several years ago I visited with a man whose story was tragic. When he was a young boy, he was sexually abused by someone he trusted. This experience spawned in him a desire for additional experiences. He had followed the temptation of an escalating desire for sexual sin. Now more than 30 years later, he described himself as being in the “bonds of iniquity” (Mosiah 27:29) and “bound down by the chains of hell” (Alma 13:30), as stated by Alma.

In total self-disgust, he declared that he must either stop his sinful behavior or end his life. I knew he meant what he said; I could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.

His days were consumed with bad thoughts and immoral experiences. He claimed he had lost his willpower and he was addicted to sin and could not change. He had tried many times but felt powerless against the forces he had chosen earlier in his life.

I sensed that along with the professional advice I might offer him as a counselor, more than anything else he needed the knowledge and hope that comes from understanding the Savior and His power to help even the most discouraged person.

We talked of the power of the Atonement. From the Book of Mormon we read that “the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance” and “that he has all power to save every man that believeth on his name and bringeth forth fruit meet for repentance” (Alma 7:13; Alma 12:15).

We reviewed the experience of Alma and his followers, who were taken into bondage by the Lamanites and were delivered miraculously from their power (see Mosiah 23). We discussed how others can be delivered from their bondage, including spiritual bondage—the bondage of sin, if you will.

We read the words of Mosiah: “But behold, [the Lord] did deliver them because they did humble themselves before him; and because they cried mightily unto him he did deliver them out of bondage; and thus doth the Lord work with his power in all cases among the children of men, extending the arm of mercy towards them that put their trust in him” (Mosiah 29:20).

I challenged his beliefs that he no longer had the willpower to choose the right and that he must now succumb to temptation. To illustrate, I asked him what he would do if someone he respected entered the room during one of his immoral episodes. After only a brief moment as he thought about my question, he indicated that he indeed would stop immediately if this were to occur.

As we talked about this, he realized that he did have the agency to make the right choices, but his desire to do so was diminished because of his continual sin.

Every act of disobedience takes away light and truth and gives Satan more power over us. “And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience” (D&C 93:39).

In a vision of the world and its future inhabitants, Enoch saw “generation upon generation; and Enoch was high and lifted up, even in the bosom of the Father, and of the Son of Man; and behold, the power of Satan was upon all the face of the earth. …

“And he beheld Satan; and he had a great chain in his hand, and it veiled the whole face of the earth with darkness; and he looked up and laughed, and his angels rejoiced” (Moses 7:24, 26).

This great chain was what Alma describes as “the chains of hell” that bind those who choose evil rather than good. As they make wrong choices, their power and desire to choose righteousness are diminished, and the time may come when “they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell” (Alma 12:11).

One way men and women gain more desire and power to make correct choices is through obedience to God’s commandments. “He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light. … Light and truth forsake that evil one” (D&C 93:28, 37).

While this man had much more to do to repent and straighten out his life, he at least gained a better understanding of God’s power to help him and his own ability to begin to make the right choices. Understanding this truth empowered him with the hope of change, even though the road ahead was still very difficult.

Learn to trust your feelings and to choose accordingly. If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, it is probably the Holy Ghost prompting you to remedy the situation or choose to leave. Do not let your fear of what others think overcome your faith in the promptings of the Spirit. The Lord will warn His children about danger as they are willing to listen and act. Practice by turning off the television or responding appropriately when you feel that what you are doing or viewing is not right.

Each time you exercise your agency to make correct choices, even in small things, you gain more light and truth and are better able to make the right choice when faced with even greater temptations and challenges.

While each problem must receive careful attention, we should remember that every time we pray, study the word of God, fast, contribute tithing and fast offerings, or perform any act of service, our power to make other more difficult choices increases.

Exercising Self-Control

Those who learn to exercise self-control learn to make choices that keep them as far away from the temptation as possible. It is easier to choose not to enter a bar or pub than it is to avoid drinking a bottle of alcohol already held to our lips. It is easier to avoid pornography if we never knowingly enter a Web site that might display questionable material.

Some feel they don’t have the power to choose—that their particular temptation is beyond their ability to resist. The Prophet Joseph Smith “observed that Satan was generally blamed for the evils which we did, but if he was the cause of all our wickedness, men could not be condemned. The devil could not compel mankind to do evil; all was voluntary. … God would not exert any compulsory means, and the devil could not” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 187).

To underscore that committing sin is an active process, he said that “those who resisted the Spirit of God, would be liable to be led into temptation, and then the association of heaven would be withdrawn from those who refused to be made partakers of such great glory” (Teachings, 187).

It is helpful to remember that when we are faced with a wrong choice, the Holy Ghost will prompt us to do right. To partake of sin, we must first resist the Spirit.

Sometimes individuals are unwilling to use their agency and power to make decisions for themselves. They want someone else to choose for them. Some seek answers from the Lord, hoping He will tell them every small thing they should do. They are unwilling to think and act for themselves. While every person should seek guidance from the Holy Ghost, the Lord also expects us to use our minds and to think for ourselves.

Your mind is a gift from God and a source of revelation. The Lord gives you power to reason. Have you wondered how Moses knew what to do to help the Israelites escape from the Egyptians who were coming to destroy them? The scriptures say, “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost. … This is the spirit of revelation; behold this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground” (D&C 8:2–3).

The process of thinking, reasoning, using our minds, and communicating is a significant source of revelation. The Holy Ghost often provides a second witness, or burning within, to confirm our initial thinking and reasoning.

In 1856 President Brigham Young told Church members: “If I ask [God] to give me wisdom concerning any requirement in life, or in regard to my own course, or that of my friends, my family, my children, or those that I preside over, and get no answer from him, and then do the very best that my judgment will teach me, he is bound to own and honor that transaction and he will do so to all intents and purposes” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [1941], 43).

Seeking Counsel from Others

We should also seek counsel and advice from those whom we trust, love, and respect. Listening to those who are in a position of authority or who have had experience beyond ours or who know the dangers we may face will help us choose wisely.

Two young married couples discovered this important principle as they traveled to Mexico on a vacation. Searching for a beach which was not too crowded, they stopped at one resort but could hardly find even a place to sit on the teeming beach. They decided to drive farther south to look for a better place. As they drove into a small village, they were delighted to see the warm Pacific waters in a beautiful, quiet bay near the edge of the town. Only a few local residents were near the water’s edge. These young couples would have this serene vacation spot mostly to themselves.

As they dressed in their swimming suits and approached the water, several citizens tried to caution them, but these young people were thinking of the beautiful Pacific waters. These were not disobedient young people; they simply did not listen carefully to those who knew more about the location they chose for swimming.

They waded into the bay. The water was warm, gentle, and quiet. They felt fortunate that for some strange reason, no one else in the world seemed to have discovered this paradise.

After a short time in the water, one of the young women took a step out into the bay. As she placed her foot forward into the sand, she felt a distinct movement. Frightened, she tried to jump back, but before she could, she felt the painful penetration of the tail of a stingray deep into her foot.

Several of the natives came over to see if they could help. They explained what they well knew and what these young people could have learned from them, had they taken the time to listen.

This particular bay was free from ocean waves. The stingrays would come into this calm water, settle on the sandy bottom, wiggle until a light layer of sand settled over them, and stay there to sun themselves.

Had these young couples listened to the warnings the local, more experienced people tried to provide, they would have prevented a painful injury that took some time to heal.

Avoiding Blame

We live in a litigious society. Often we hear of lawsuits against organizations and institutions because of the misdeeds of people affiliated with them. Such activity suggests that groups somehow govern the decisions of these individuals, and they are not free to make choices for themselves.

Many individuals blame their problems on others. Terms such as “road rage” suggest that those who manifest it have contracted some illness over which they have no control. Whatever happened to old-fashioned self-discipline?

Moroni offered these soul-searching, sobering words: “Deny yourselves of all ungodliness; … then is his grace sufficient for you” (Moro. 10:32). These words suggest no shift of responsibility to someone else, no excuses, no magical way out, no blaming some biological, genetic, or addictive reason for wrong behavior. There is only the straightforward admonition to “deny [ourselves] of all ungodliness.”

We should also be careful about labeling people as homosexuals, abusers, alcoholics, or other such labels, because labels often subtly imply an identity or condition over which there is no longer personal control or responsibility and which may cause someone to lose hope that they can make choices to stop inappropriate behavior and change their lives.

Recently progress has been made to better understand some of the emotional problems with which individuals struggle. Continued research will undoubtedly help us better understand the relationship between biology and genetics and our mental and behavioral well-being. However, as we learn more about these important matters, we should be careful to assume responsibility for the decisions we make and their consequences. We should make certain that we do not attempt to transfer the responsibility for decisions we make to a biological cause when doing so is not justified and tends to erode our power to be in control of our lives.

I bear witness that people can change their sinful behavior—even those who may believe they are helpless to stop. I have seen the faithful and prayerful break the bonds of passion, habit, and addiction. I have witnessed chains of sin, dependency, and vice shattered by humble souls who open their hearts and minds to the healing influence of the Savior. Even the most sinful person can cease wrong behavior and choose the right course.

Long will I remember that warm, sunny afternoon driving into the mountains with my friends. The lesson we learned was important to remember. Yes, we have the power to choose our course in life. We must accept the consequences of what we choose. When your challenges are difficult and your burdens hard to bear, remember this: God will never forsake you nor forget you.

Alma the Younger, who knew something about overcoming serious challenges, including sin, taught us something about God’s desire and willingness to help. After describing the pains he felt for his sins, he said, “Never, until I did cry out … for mercy, … [did I] find peace to my soul” (Alma 38:8).

He also taught, “I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day” (Alma 36:3), and, “As much as ye shall put your trust in God even so much ye shall be delivered out of your trials, and your troubles, and your afflictions” (Alma 38:5).

I bear witness that these promises are sure and that the Savior has power to deliver us if we will trust in Him.

Illustrated by Amy Davis