When I first saw this chapter listed in the book’s index, I wondered if it would be centered on the need for liberty in the sense of freedoms allowed by governments, especially the United States of America since that was an important theme to Ezra Taft Benson. As it turns out, this is a chapter aimed at humankind’s use of moral agency for good or for bad. The “from the life” section focuses on how working on a farm alongside his parents helped instill values of self-reliance and responsibility for actions into Ezra Taft Benson. Section one deals with the presentation of the Plan of Salvation at the Council in Heaven and the war over freedom of choice during this earth life. Section two deals with this mortal life by stating that it is a period of probation to see what we’ll choose. Attached to this is the corollary that while God could intervene to prevent wickedness, He does not do so in order to allow us the freedom of choice. Section three moves into the eternities after this life, essentially stating that our choices here determine our place there. In light of that idea, choices during this life are extremely important and both God and Satan are hard at work to get us to choose the things that they want for us. Section four states that prayer and personal revelation are essential to making wise decisions. Section five states that God’s design is the salvation and exaltation of His children and that He allows us to work some things out on our own, which “prepares men for godhood.”
“Know This, That Every Soul is Free”
“Choose the Right”
From The Ready Resource for Relief Society:
Set up a game of Jenga or Stak Attack or simply stack up wooden blocks in a weave pattern where you pull out the blocks and restack them on top until the tower tumbles. Invite class members to remove one of the blocks and mention a commandment we need to obey. When we obey a commandment, it strengthens our testimony of that principle. As you play the game, discuss the consequences of disobedience. Eventually, the tower will fall, and so will our spirituality when we continue to choose evil over good. We have the freedom to choose, but we can’t select the consequences.
Boyd K. Packer: The old saying “The Lord is voting for me, and Lucifer is voting against me, but it is my vote that counts” describes a doctrinal certainty that our agency is more powerful than the adversary’s will. Agency is precious. We can foolishly, blindly give it away, but it cannot be forcibly taken from us.
There is also an age-old excuse: “The devil made me do it.” Not so! He can deceive you and mislead you, but he does not have the power to force you or anyone else to transgress or to keep you in transgression.
David O. McKay: Free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress. It is the purpose of the Lord that man become like him. In order for man to achieve this it was necessary for the Creator first to make him free.
Freedom of the will and the responsibility associated with it are fundamental aspects of Jesus’ teachings. Throughout his ministry he emphasized the worth of the individual, and exemplified what is now expressed in modern revelation as the work and glory of God—“To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” [Moses 1:39.] Only through the divine gift of soul freedom is such progress possible.
Force, on the other hand, emanates from Lucifer himself. Even in man’s [premortal] state, Satan sought power to compel the human family to do his will by suggesting that the free agency of man be inoperative. If his plan had been accepted, human beings would have become mere puppets in the hands of a dictator, and the purpose of man’s coming to earth would have been frustrated. Satan’s proposed system of government, therefore, was rejected, and the principle of free agency established.
Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man. . . . Freedom of choice is more to be treasured than any possession earth can give. It is inherent in the spirit of man. It is a divine gift.
Joseph Smith: The contention in heaven was—Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he would save them all, and laid his plans before the grand council, who gave their vote in favor of Jesus Christ. So the devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down, with all who put up their heads for him.
Brigham Young: You cannot give any persons their exaltation unless they know what evil is, what sin, sorrow, and misery are, for no person could comprehend, appreciate and enjoy an exaltation upon any other principle.
George Albert Smith: We choose where we will be. God has given us our agency. He will not take it from us, and if I do that which is wrong and get into the devil’s territory, I do it because I have the will and power to do it. I cannot blame anybody else, and if I determine to keep the commandments of God and live as I ought to live and stay on the Lord’s side of the line I do it because I ought to do it, and I will receive my blessing for it. It will not be the result of what somebody else may do.
A Deeper Look
During the mid-1800s, President Brigham Young made the following, very interesting statement:
It is a mistaken idea that God has decreed all things whatsoever that come to pass, for the volition of the creature is as free as air. You may inquire whether we believe in foreordination; we do, as strongly as any people in the world. We believe that Jesus was foreordained before the foundations of the world were built, and his mission was appointed him in eternity to be the Savior of the world, yet when he came in the flesh he was left free to choose or refuse to obey his Father. Had he refused to obey his Father, he would have become a son of perdition. We also are free to choose or refuse the principles of eternal life. God has decreed and foreordained many things that have come to pass, and he will continue to do so; but when he decrees great blessings upon a nation or upon an individual they are decreed upon certain conditions. . . . God rules and reigns, and has made all his children as free as himself, to choose the right or the wrong, and we shall then be judged according to our works.
The basic problem being addressed in this statement is the question of whether or not we are truly free. A connected question concerns the difference between foreordination (as spoken of by Brigham Young) and predestination. My hope is to explain and address both of these questions within the Mormon viewpoint. What follows will be a relatively brief crack at explaining things as I understand them and will involve some simplification of deep ideas on all sides of the question. I will not be able to really do justice to any of the issues involved, but can at least introduce the subject. That being said, let us proceed.
The first question—are we truly free—is largely dependent upon our natures in relation to God both in how He created us and His foreknowledge. According to classical Christian theology, God is a being of unlimited power who created all things out of nothing (ex nihilo is the technical term for this type of creation). Since He is the absolute creator of all things, God is the only being who could not exist and all other things are entirely dependent on Him for their existence and for their natures. The logical conclusion for our relationship to God from this belief is that if God created our natures and entire beings, our faults and weaknesses, our tendency to do evil or to do good, were all created according to His will. If God created human beings with complete control over what they are, then of course they will carry out everything according to His will. If He created me with the inclination to salvation, I will take the path to salvation and be saved. If He created me with a nature that leads me to damnation, I will take the path to damnation and be damned and it is according to God’s will. Ultimately, if my nature is dependent on God, so are my choices, and my freedom to choose is curtailed.
Mormon theology, as outlined by Joseph Smith, takes a radical departure from this approach, denying the ex nihilo creation. Concerning the creation of the world, the Prophet taught that:
God did not make the earth out of Nothing; for it is contrary to a Rashanall [rational] mind & Reason. that a something could be Brought from a Nothing; also it is contry to the principle & Means by witch God does work; for instance; when God formed man, he made him of something; the Dust of the Earth, & and he allways took a somthing to afect a something Else.
Later, in the King Follett discourse, he continued this thought and taught that the God’s approach was an organization of previously existing things, “the same as a man would organize and use things to build a ship. Hence, we infer that God Himself had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter—which is element and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had.” In that same discourse, Joseph Smith applied the same idea of creation to the souls of humankind:
The soul—the immortal spirit—the mind of man. Where did it come from? All doctors of divinity say that God created it in the beginning, but it is not so. The very idea lessens the character of man, in my estimation. I don’t believe the doctrine. . . . The mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as, and is coequal with, God Himself. . . .
Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. The first principles of man are self-existent with God.
The creation of human beings, then, was not an act of God making everything according to His will out of nothing, but one of inviting already-existing spirits (intelligences) to come under His tutelage in order to learn to become like Himself:
All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement and improvement. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. God Himself found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest, who were less in intelligence, could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him, so that they might have one glory upon another in all that knowledge, power, and glory. So He took in hand to save the world of spirits.
In relation to our free will, then, our natures are not created by God. We already existed with an independent will and were given a choice to follow His tutelage or not. This ability to choose whether to follow God carries on through each stage of the Plan of Salvation. As Elder B. H. Roberts later wrote:
This conception of things relieves God of the responsibility for the nature and status of intelligences in all stages of their development; their inherent nature and their volition makes them primarily what they are, and this nature they may change, slowly, perhaps, yet change it they may. God has put them in the way of changing it, by enlarging their intelligence through change of environment, through experiences; the only way God effects these self-existent beings is favorably; He creates not their inherent nature; He is not responsible for the use they make of their freedom; nor is He the author of their sufferings when they fall into sin: that arises out of the violations of law, to which the “Intelligence” subscribed, and must be endured until the lessons of obedience to law are learned.
The idea of a premortal existence also provides at least one potential explanation for another aspect of our relationship with God that affects our freedom—the paradox of God’s foreknowledge. The problem, in essence, is if God knows the future and understands what is going to happen, wouldn’t that be because He has willed everything to take place in a certain manner? If He has willed everything to take place and knows what will take place, then did we really choose anything on our own? The answer that premortality furnishes to this paradox was beautifully outlined by Elder James E. Talmage:
Our Heavenly Father has a full knowledge of the nature and disposition of each of His children, a knowledge gained by long observation and experience in the past eternity of our primeval childhood; a knowledge compared with what that gained by earthly parents through mortal experience with their children is infinitesimally small. By reason of that surpassing knowledge, God reads the future of child and children, of men individually and of men collectively as communities and nations; He knows what each will do under given conditions, and sees the end from the beginning. His foreknowledge is based on intelligence and reason. He foresees the future as a state which naturally and surely will be; not as one which must be because He has arbitrarily willed that it shall be.
With the understanding that comes from these ideas—the uncreated nature of the human spirit and God’s foreknowledge stemming from an understanding of people—we can differentiate between foreordination and predestination. Predestination is a concept held by many Christians that—as defined in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary—is “the belief that everything that will happen has already been decided by God or fate and cannot be changed.” The Google definition search states that it is, “the divine foreordaining of all that will happen, especially with regard to the salvation of some and not others. It has been particularly associated with the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo and of Calvin.” As discussed above, if God has complete control over my nature in the creation, my will is subject to Him and I will carry out a predestined path in my choices in mortality. Thus, in this view, my salvation would depend on God’s will and not my own.
Foreordination, as defined by LDS.org, is the idea that “in the premortal spirit world, God appointed certain spirits to fulfill specific missions during their mortal lives. This is called foreordination. Foreordination does not guarantee that individuals will receive certain callings or responsibilities. Such opportunities come in this life as a result of the righteous exercise of agency, just as foreordination came as a result of righteousness in the premortal existence.” From these definitions, a distinction may be seen between foreordination and predestination. Foreordination is the premortal appointment of human beings to certain missions to be fulfilled in mortality. Individual choice allows for the opportunity to reject these responsibilities during the course of their lives. Predestination is the absolute determination of things that will be by God, including salvation of certain individuals, without regard to human agency.
Come Unto Christ
All this has a bearing on another important question—the problem of evil. In the Ezra Taft Benson manual, President Benson is quoted as stating that: “There is no evil that [Jesus Christ] cannot arrest. All things are in His hands. This earth is His rightful dominion. Yet He permits evil so that we can make choices between good and evil.” The editors of the manual emphasize this statement by inserting this question at the end of the chapter: “People often wonder why God allows evil to exist in the world. How do President Benson’s teachings in section 2 help to answer that question?” This problematic question of why God allows evil was succinctly summarized by Mormon intellectual Sterling M. McMurrin when he wrote: “The problem of theodicy [the problem of evil’s existence] in theism is how to reconcile the absolute power and absolute goodness of God with the facts of moral evil and the suffering caused by such natural events as floods, earthquakes, and disease. One of the angles of this triangle has to go.” In other words, if God is able to do all things and loves us, why does He allow evils that cause human suffering to occur? McMurrin went on to write elsewhere that:
It is in the explanation of moral and natural evil, the most persistent problem with which theistic philosophy must contend, that Mormon theology exhibits its chief theoretic strength. It is a strength that has never been fully exploited, however, for here again the Mormon theologians generally seem to be unaware of this advantage that accrues from the radically unorthodox character of their primary philosophical commitments. Here the concept of the free will of the uncreated self joins the non-absolutistic conception of the divine power to absolve God of any complicity in the world’s moral evil, the evil that is done by men. And the uncreated impersonal environment of God provides the explanation of natural evil, the evils of the world that are not the product of an evil personal will.
We’ve already discussed the “free will of the uncreated self” in the previous section, but not the “non-absolutistic conception of the divine power.” What the scholar is proposing with this latter idea is that God is not limitless in his power and control in the universe. Hence, he is stating that out of the three angles of the theodicy triangle—God’s absolute power, absolute goodness, and the existence of evil—God’s absolute power is the corner of the theodicy triangle that falls in Mormonism. Though we should be hesitant to accept McMurrin as an interpreter of doctrine, I do believe he has a point here. In one of Joseph Smith’s revelations it is stated that “all kingdoms have a law given” and those who would be perfected and sanctified in the highest kingdom of God must abide by the laws of that kingdom (see D&C 88:34-39). President Brigham Young made it clear that there are laws that apply to God Himself when he taught that, “Are they [gods and the angels] governed by law? Certainly. There is no being in all the eternities but what is governed by law.” Elder John A Widtsoe restated this concept when he wrote that: “God is part of nature, and superior to it only in the sense that the electrician is superior to the current that is transmitted along the wire. The great laws of nature are immutable, and even God can not transcend them.” In the Book of Mormon, Alma even goes as far as to suggest that if certain principles were not followed, “God would cease to be God.” (Alma 42:13, 22, 25.)
What this idea of God having laws that He is governed by would suggest is that He is limited and not limitless in His powers. He may be omnipotent within the parameters He is working within, but the fact that he has parameters implies limitations. Applying this to the idea of the existence of natural evil, McMurrin stated that “the uncreated impersonal environment of God provides the explanation of natural evil, the evils of the world that are not the product of an evil personal will.” In other words, God does not necessarily enjoy or desire inflicting destruction on His children in the world through earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and other natural disasters that cause suffering on earth. In some cases, He may have hand in causing such things to be as part of a greater plan, but it is also possible that in other cases such things are part of a natural order in the universe that cannot be overcome. That is just a suggestion and not an established doctrine in the Church; however, it does have some merit in explaining the existence of natural evils.
When it comes to moral evil—evils caused by the decisions of human beings—we have already seen that the freedom inherit in being uncreated spirits limits how much control God exerts upon us. Building upon B. H. Robert’s idea that “Salvation is a matter of character-building under the Gospel laws and ordinances, and more especially with the direct aid of the Holy Spirit,” and Brigham Young’s statement that God intends us to learn to “act . . . as independently in your spheres as I [God] do in the government of heaven,” we may gain a clearer understanding of David O. McKay’s belief that, “Free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress. It is the purpose of the Lord that man become like him. In order for man to achieve this it was necessary for the Creator first to make him free.” We must be free to make decisions in order to learn to act independently in our spheres and to grow in our character. To truly know good from evil, we must experience both and learn that we want to choose the good and make that choice a part of our character. Hence, Brigham Young’s teaching that “you cannot give any persons their exaltation unless they know what evil is, what sin, sorrow, and misery are, for no person could comprehend, appreciate and enjoy an exaltation upon any other principle.” God binds Himself by the rules of allowing freedom of choice and the creation of evil through bad choices to achieve his greater goal of our exaltation in the end.
That being said, it must also be stated that the existence of moral evil is not a pleasant thing, even for God. While we describe His state of being as a “fulness of joy,” it must be similar to the state of the three Nephites who were translated to a condition where “they might not suffer pain nor sorrow save it were for the sins of the world.” (3 Nephi 28:10, 38.) That sorrow for the sins of the world, though, is immense. Enoch saw God look “upon the residue of the people, and he wept.” When pressed for a reason, God explained that Enoch’s brethren were “without affection, and they hate their own blood” rather than obeying the commandment “that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father.” God further explained that, “Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of my hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (Moses 7:28-33, 37.) This dilemma of evil caused by the free agency of man as set up in God’s methods and purposes in our creation has been referred to by Terryl Givens as a “tragic creation”:
In loving man enough to give him his agency, God set up the conditions for a tragic universe. Here is how the dilemma unfolds. Man, in his freedom, chooses sin. The freedom to sin collides with God’s desire to save. . . . The tragic cost of this agency is comprehended in all the misery that sin and alienation entail.
While God does have some limitations, He is also “mighty to save” through “the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world.” (Alma 7:14.) In the words of Joseph Smith: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” (Articles of Faith, 1:3.) “What hath Jesus said?—[for] all sins & all blasphemies every transgression except one there is a provision either in this world or in the world of spirit. Hence God hath made a provision that every spirit can be ferreted out in that world that has not sinned the unpardonable sin neither in this world or in the world of spirits.” All wrongs may be righted, all wounds may be healed, and there will come a day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.” (Revelation 21:4.) The tragic creation will eventually work out as a triumph for God.
It can be understood from all of this that evil isn’t something that stems directly from God but is an inherent part of the entropy-driven universe. He works through mastery of natural and spiritual laws to bring things to order and to work towards eliminating evil while bringing self-existing spirits into a state similar to His own through tutoring them in His ways. This puts us in a position that we may work with God to overcome evil and alleviate suffering in our lives and the lives of others by learning to be subject to the same laws He subjects himself to. This is accomplished through obedience to the Gospel as revealed to us through prophets and the Holy Spirit and by reaching out and building positive relationships with our fellow travelers in mortality. By so doing, we may increase the sum total of this world’s happiness, for, in the words of Joseph Smith, “happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof if we pursue the path that leads to it.”
 Boice, Trina (2014-11-09). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Kindle Locations 420-424). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition
 Boyd K. Packer, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel,” CR, October 2010, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/cleansing-the-inner-vessel?lang=eng.
 David O. McKay, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 206.
 McKay, Teachings, 207.
 McKay, Teachings, 208.
 Joseph Smith, Jr. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 209.
 Brigham Young, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 51.
 George Albert Smith, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011), 198.
 Young, Teachings, 51-52.
 Ehat and Cook, Words, Kindle Locations 1356-1359.
 Stan Lason, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no. 2 (1978): 10-11.
 Larson, “Newly Amalgamated,” 11-12.
 Larson, “Newly Amalgamated,” 12.
 B. H. Roberts, Joseph Smith the Prophet Teacher: A Discourse by Elder B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1908), 59-60.
 James E. Talmage, Calvin R. Stephens (ed) A Beginner’s Guide to Talmage: Excerpts from the Writings of James E. Talmage (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 48-49.
 Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2014), 62.
 Benson, Teachings, 66.
 Sterling M. McMurrin, “Introduction: The Mormon Theology of B. H. Roberts,” in B. H. Roberts and Stan Larson (ed), The Truth, the Way, the Life, An Elementary Treatise on Theology (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994), xix.
 Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), 91.
 Young, Teachings, 15.
 John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith as Scientists: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964), 137, 138.
 B. H. Roberts, The Gospel: An Exposition of its first principles; and Man’s Relationship to Deity, 3rd ed (Salt Lake City: Desert News, 1901), 208.
 Brigham Young, Discourse, 3 December 1854, JD 2:139.
 David O. McKay, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 206.
 Young, Teachings, 51.
 Terryl Givens, “Joseph Smith, Romanticism, and Tragic Creation,” Richard Bushman Mormon Studies Symposium 2011, http://terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Bushman_Talk_2011.pdf.
 Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 6395-6397). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.
 Joseph Smith, Jr. and Marvin S. Hill (ed.), The Essential Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 159.