Today is an anniversary of agency in my life and in the life of a good friend of mine. Of that day, my friend recalled, “That's the day I got my freedom back.” I am grateful to celebrate this day with you.
Yesterday, my family and I went to visit Joshua Tree for the first time. I learned that the distinctive trees there were given their name by early saints who thought the trees resembled the prophet Joshua as depicted in a painting from that era. Can you visualize Joshua with arms raised high above his head? He’s frail at 110 years old when delivering his final words to the Isrealites. But if you listen closely, perhaps you can hear him implore, “choose you this day whom ye will serve” (Joshua 24:15), a plea for active agency.
We understand heaven to consist of multiple kingdoms, or degrees of glory. And that they are even further subdivided, that “[with]in the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees” (D&C 131:2). These degrees of glory correlate with another concept: degrees of freedom.
In simple terms, the degree of freedom of a system is the number of independent ways that the system can vary. For example, you might determine that a plane enjoys more degrees of freedom than a car because a plane can move up and down through the air. A plane enjoys more choices to overcome an obstacle. Besides going around, it can go over.
Our Father intends for us to be free, to enjoy the highest degree of freedom, even the highest degree of glory, that we are willing and practiced to operate in. Before this life he presented a plan whereby we could advance by degrees. At that time, we had to decide between two extremes: a life without freedom or a life so rich in freedom that it would be unnavigable by the unaided mortal mind. We chose the latter, and we’re still trying to make sense of this world.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and struggle to understand the freedoms we’ve assumed. At times we are overwhelmed by what we perceive as an excess of freedom and don’t know which way to move. Other times, we balk at what we perceive as restrictions on our freedom.
For instance, consider gravity. We covet the bird’s soaring through the sky while we stand clamped to the ground. We perceive gravity’s law as limiting. We strive against it and scheme to escape it, building monstrous machines to rocket us beyond its reach, only then to regret the relief as even once trivial tasks become confoundingly complex. Consider the simple task of going to the bathroom. In zero gravity, there are a lot of ways for things to go sideways. Can you appreciate a little restriction?
A youth anticipates adulthood and its latent liberty, while the adult, having assumed the attending accountability, looks back longingly on the yesteryears of youth. Simple systems have fewer degrees of freedom. It’s a tradeoff. With increased freedom comes increased complexity. What degree of freedom do you desire? “[God] granteth unto [you] according to [your] desire” (Alma 29:4).
In complex systems, it becomes difficult to deduce what parts of the system depend on others: how one choice has a ripple effect throughout the system. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that two choices may independently vary, when all the while, unseen to us, one truly depends upon another. You don’t have to look very far to find an individual who is attempting to choose both addiction and family.
Some choices gate other choices. Generally, if you obtain a college degree, your range of available job choices increases. Our Father would like to lead us to the state he has arrived at, where we have the most choices available to us, where we are independent of anything but inescapable eternal law. However, there are some dependencies we need to understand, some gating choices along the way.
How can you know what choices matter? Back when you had to choose between the zero freedom and maximum freedom plans, what gave you the confidence to choose the latter? Maybe some of us just liked the idea of freedom and disregarded the attached responsibility. Have we not all been guilty of that at one time or another? When we refer to our agency, we often seem to stick the word “free” in front of it, because that’s the appealing adjective, but the modifier used in the scriptures is “moral”, emphasizing our accountability (D&C 101:78).
When we worried about our accountability, we needed faith in someone other than ourselves, and we knew who we could trust. We knew Jesus Christ. He had taught us in the past. We knew he’d teach us again. At the call for a Savior, when our Father asked, “whom shall I send?”, we knew who it had to be. We turned our heads. Our eyes and our hopes all rested upon him, and to our profound relief, he answered, “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27).
O, how I am grateful for patience, for mercy, for the opportunity to learn by instruction and by my own experience how to handle this incomparable gift of moral agency. We are allowed to progress from one degree to another and prepare for even greater freedoms to come.
When my daughter Cameron was almost three years old, I took her to the park to learn how to ride a tricycle. For those of you who are wondering, a tricycle has two degrees of freedom: the rate you pedal and the angle you turn.
At first, I just wanted her to learn how to pedal without any concern for steering. So, I set her down in the middle of a basketball court. She quickly got the hang of pedaling, but was retracing a tight circle as she had the handlebars pegged hard to the right.
With pedaling mastered, it was time to learn to steer. I set her down at one corner of the basketball court and instructed her to make it to the opposite corner. I told her not to worry about going in a straight line, but just to make it there, and that once she made it there, she will have mastered steering.
Off she went, concentrating on pedalling and immediately slipping into another infinite loop. After a number of cycles, she complained to me that she was only going in circles. I reminded her that she had the power to choose which way she was going, that she could turn. So she did.
Her newfound power was hard to handle at first as she careened across the court. She took some detours out of bounds before weaving back in, always keeping in mind where she was trying to go. She expressed her frustration when she’d notice that she was headed further away from the goal until her seemingly random maneuvers had her pointed the right way again.
As time went on, she overshot less and had fewer corrections to make. After about twenty minutes of struggling, she made her final approach to the destination corner. She had a smile on her face. She was on course, and was confident she’d arrive.
Brothers and sisters, just keep pedaling. You’re going to make it. Learn from the lord what choices matter and steer as best you can. So what if you went out of bounds? Just steer back in. You have the power to choose. Choose. “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14). Choose.
Elder Maxwell taught us, that regardless of the circumstances that surround us, “Yet there remains an inner zone in which we are sovereign, unless we abdicate” (Neal A. Maxwell - General Conference Oct. 1996).
Do not abdicate. If you wish to retain your sovereignty, then follow him who is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15). When once your heart fainted at the tremendous task before you, you chose him. Choose him again.
I pray that we, like Joshua, may choose and declare, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
I offer these things in his name, even Jesus Christ, Amen.