Overstating Agency

The importance of human agency and personal responsibility within Latter-day Saint discourse is not something anyone can miss.  From missionary discussions, to Sunday School classes, to Sacrament meeting talks, to General Conference, the emphasis on personal choice and freedom as central to God’s plan is clear and unmistakable.

And rightly so!  Humankind’s ability and privilege to choose and to act for themselves is a central and beautiful feature of our mortal lives.  It’s something to celebrate!

This agency is mentioned in scripture as bestowed as part of mortality – even a gift from God (Moses 7:32D&C 101:78). This most often seems interpreted to mean that freedom of choice is an innate and stable life feature that can and should continue with us at a constant level throughout our lives – no matter what happens, and with no interruptions.

Even in painful situations involving trauma, physical/mental illness or addiction, we still typically uphold freedom of choice as front and center.  Against a backdrop of this doctrine of agency, our first impulse in these exceptional situations is to underscore the power of choice that people ‘still have to make the right choice, take responsibility,’ etc.

And in a world that where increasingly large swaths of human experience are narrated as figments of social structures and power dynamics (on the outside) or brain chemicals and genetics (on the inside), this Mormon impulse to push back and remind Victimized America of the centrality of human freedom is understandable and probably necessary.

Can it be overdone, however – this emphasis on agency?

The Willpower Manifesto. By the time our first born son William turned 2, he began to randomly say this ‘cute phrase’ all the time:  “I not need help.  I not need help.  I not need help.” Soon, this turned into:  “I can do this all by myself!” 

Even when faced with clearly impossible tasks like climbing a steep ladder at the playground, this became something of a mantra:  “No, Daddy – I can do it .. all by myself!

Isn’t that sometimes how we adults sound as well?…casting our own personal power as almost preeminent in its influence: “Anything you set your mind to can happen”…”Willpower is the key to success” (Dan Millman)…”People can do all things if they will” (Leon Batista Alberti)

It seems to me that we absolutely love to hear people tell us that we can DO IT – or as Obama would say, “yes, we can!” 

So zealously does this testimony ring in the American mind, that it’s taken for granted by many that with enough hard work, grit and willpower, indeed – anything is possible.

Embedded as many of us are within Western society, that’s kind of how we sometimes talk as Mormons too.  On a fairly regular basis, I’ve heard members of the Church teach and testify of agency with such forcefulness that you couldn’t blame anyone walking away from thinking, ‘as long as I try hard enough…and keep working hard – anything is possible!’ (translation:  I can do this all by myself!)

But is that true?

Super-sizing the Gospel. It’s true that Jesus did teach “all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 9:23).

That’s a little different than saying, ‘all things are possible to those who exert themselves,’ right?

In the era of The Secret, however, these two message have blended together in some kind of super-sized gospel message:  “You can do it…whatever you dream…whatever you want…a good God would want nothing less!”

Powerless: ‘No I can’t!’  I used to believe this too – more or less.  Then something else came into my life:  bondage.  A legitimate slavery – where I a degree of my agency felt unquestionably lost….to feelings, thoughts, actions that I didn’t want.

Initially, however, I was sure that if I just worked hard enough, I would eventually beat what I faced…until I didn’t.

Years of trying hard(er) and working hard(er) convinced me of something that felt profoundly un-American:  No, I can’t!  

Something in me fought against that – and didn’t want to believe it…holding out hope that with a little more effort, I would push through this. During this period, I came across a t-shirt with a picture of a jeep dangling over a ravine, with the caption: “Self-Confidence is what you feel before you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

Following the tradition of Bill, Bob and millions of others in the 12-step tradition, a clear turning-point for me came in realizing that my life had truly become “unmanageable” and that I was literally, practically “powerless” of myself – to free myself.

On first glance, this can feel like a resignation.  ‘Hold on, now’ – we want to ask:  ‘You’re an agent to yourself!  Don’t make yourself out to be a victim!’  Might this be a dangerous ‘giving up’ – a kind of contradiction to the gospel itself?  One woman told me she could never take that step because it would take away her motivation to act at all. A bishop told me that the 12-steps were harmful because it “taught people they didn’t have freedom.”

Within the contemplative community, the same fascinating debate is happening, by the way.  On one hand, some insist that talk of powerlessness is antithetical to mindfulness; on the other, are those who highlight strong common ground between the 12-step and mindfulness traditions (see here and here).

In both Mormon and mindfulness communities, those holding these concerns about the 12-steps seem to see freedom as a simple dichotomy – ‘we have freedom’ or ‘we don’t.’

What if, however, freedom and agency turns out to be more of a continuum on which I could grow or ebb, depending on my moment by moment choices?

Freedom as Spectrum. That, at least, has been my own experience.  If I chose some quiet time to feast on His words first thing in the morning, for instance, that seemed to consistently open up greater freedom that day.  To the degree I yielded to immediate gratification during the day as the source of my well-being – whether from food, media or sleep – that seemed to always move me in the reverse direction.

While I can’t seem to choose not to feel something or even to not struggle with certain things, I can choose to do other things that would move me in another direction.

Rather than teaching me ‘I don’t have freedom,’ the 12-steps insight is that I don’t have total freedom.  What I found in my own situation is that by acknowledging that (and only after acknowledging that), was I able to pivot towards the Savior in a way that introduced me to real redemption.

Jesus as Superhero.  Instead of seeing him only as a side-line coach, a cheerleader or a role model, you see, this compelled me to see Christ in ‘whole new’ light…which turns out to be not-all-that new in the scriptures:

  • Abinidi:   “Thus all mankind were lost; and behold, they would have been endlessly lost were it not that God redeemed his people from their lost and fallen state” (Mosiah 16:14)
  • Amulek:”According to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made” (Alma 34:9)
  • Jacob: “O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster” (2 Nephi 9:10)

Maybe all that talk of Deliverer and Redeemer was not hyperbole after all?

This is precisely the ‘other doctrine’ that we seem to miss or overshadow when agency is over-stated. The connection between these two concepts is taught most beautifully by Lehi:  “The Messiah cometh in the fullness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall.  And because that they are redeemed from the fall, they have become free…” (2 Nephi 2:26)

In other words, our freedom comes not just ‘because’ (because we exist, because we are born, because we are mortal).  It comes from Jesus.

That freedom we do exercise, Lehi continues to clarify, comes as a mediated gift:  “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” (2 Ne. 2:27)

Rather than freedom existing simply due to Christ’s coming into the world generally, I now understand that freedom exists because of Christ came into my world (and life), specifically.  All power and freedom is mediated through Him.

My life has slowly been teaching me this…When a friend was depressed (in part due to some life decisions), I wrote a letter pleading with him to “turn to God!”

After reading my note, another friend cautioned me:  “He can’t just do this right now, Jacob!”

I wrestled against her comment – thinking of verses like this:  “And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free” (Helaman 14:30)

Doesn’t that mean my friend (and all of us) are 100% responsible for our situations?

As I wrestled with these competing ideas, these words of the Lord came to mind: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44)

Could it be that if we’re in a dark enough place, even the choice to come to Jesus is something that needs to be prompted, supported and mediated?

[Another LDS author recently documented the historical shift away from the use of “free agency” as a term in LDS discourse – citing Elder Packer’s explanation: “Agency has its price. You have to pay the consequences of your choices.”  While that is obviously true, I would also add that HE pays the consequences of our choices if we accept Him – thus introducing a freedom which is ‘purchased by his blood’ – and thus, clearly not ‘free’].

This realization and insight has made all the difference in the world for me.  What happens, however, when we insist and teach and emphasize as first priority that ‘we always have a choice’ and ‘there is always something you can do’?  How does that make someone facing depression or severe anxiety or an eating disorder feel?  How about a couple facing crippling marriage problems?

Pushing Away the Stuck. I’ll tell you how it makes them feel:  uninspired, at best – and unattached and distant, at worst.  After all, ‘how does this message even apply to me – seeing that I’m stuck…maybe the gospel doesn’t work for me’?

Take those same people, however, facing the same stuckness – and share with them a message that acknowledges the stuckness – and invites them to move from that starting place towards Christ in a new way…and guess what happens?

People light up!

The 12-steps, you see, don’t end with a personal declaration of powerlessness.  They only begin there. After acknowledging I CANNOT… in almost the same breath (the next breathe, more precisely), comes the second step:  Someone else CAN help us…and we CAN do this with Him!

That level of confidence and power was something I never found on my own (no matter how many self-affirmations or motivational videos I watched!)  The freedom began flowing and multiplying in my life only, ironically, after acknowledging that I wasn’t free in some significant ways.

This stands in sharp contrast to all the years of emphasizing harder work and greater effort  – which often led to frustration (and ongoing stuckness).

Are there consequences to over-stating agency and over-emphasizing the power of personal freedom?

I say YES!  I think we’re losing people when we talk this way…especially those who feel the most hopeless.

The tragedy, of course, is that the gospel message is precisely for that person the most – something totally missed when the Good News is reduced to the Willpower Manifesto.

Resisting this Conclusion.  For those who have lived some kind of mental, emotional or physical bondage in their own life, this realization can feel liberating.  For those who have yet to recognize anything like this, it still feels a bit unsettling.

If you haven’t discovered this in your own life, keep watching. If you want a short-cut to this realization, find something in your life that you really want to change – even something simple.

My wife and I recently sensed that getting up earlier would make a difference for our emotional and spiritual well-being.

“Okay, let’s do this!” we initially thought.  After having worked at it for a month, and still finding ourselves groggy in the morning and unable to get up – we realized the changing Circadian Rhythms (especially with 3 little boys in the mix) is no simple ‘choice.’

Like other things, we came to realize how much we need His deliverance – even when it came to sleep cycles.

Unfortunately, the 12-Steps continue to be seen by many as a program for ‘those drunks’ or ‘those druggies’ or ‘those into porn.’  Consistently, however, those ‘normal’ people who venture into the 12-steps discover a profound influence and power to find changes they had never imagined possible.

After seeing it’s power in my own life, my wife began to apply the 12-steps to some emotional difficulties she had never been able to overcome (See EA).

There were also some dynamics and tensions between us as a couple that we had never found a way to overcome.  After a boatload of other failed efforts, we discovered a 12-step program for couples that became a remarkable turning point for us (see RCA).

Bottom line:  Maybe it’s time for all of us to let go of the 2 year old mantra – “I can do all things by myself” – and relish far more the rock-bottom core of the gospel message: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” (Phillipians 4:13).

Moving beyond “You have a Choice” as somehow representing the hope of the gospel, how about simply declaring to the world, “You have a Redeemer!” (and yes, he will give you all the choice, power and freedom you need and dream of!!!)

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