Of Free Agency and the Game of Life

This past week my wife and I were drawn to an interesting and insightful headline from the Sports section of the newspaper: “Free agency can be useful tool if used correctly”. Very true. This may be true in the games of sports. It certainly is true in life.

In professional sports, free agency means having some choice as to which team a player may join and on what terms, depending on talent and performance, interest, and the advocacy skill of his representative, among other factors. Used well, the player may go on to a successful and happy career, profitable for him and for his team, opening up even greater opportunities, including perhaps championship achievements and continuing successes beyond. Used unwisely, free agency can lead to a career that is a frustrating struggle inhibiting growth, achievement, and limiting follow on opportunities.

In life, free agency means that you and I can choose our manner of living in mortality and, in the process, the terms of living and opportunities available in the immortal worlds, depending again on talent (as expressed in performance), interest (again demonstrated by performance), and the effectiveness of our representative. If you will agree to His terms, you can have the very best Advocate as your representative, who only emphasizes your triumphs and takes upon Himself the blame for all of your failures.

A popular board game I knew as a child was “The Game of LIFE.” In this game several players compete by moving along the board on a marked path, buffeted by the vicissitudes and aggrandized by the rewards of life as determined by the cast of the die. Its virtue is that it presents to children how life is a steadily moving journey filled with a variety of experiences building to some degree on the ones before. The game was not a favorite of mine, because it asks for little skill from the players, the events of the game subject almost entirely to chance. In that sense, it teaches the false lesson that how you fare in life has almost nothing to do with your skill and the exercise of your free agency and everything to do with fate, beyond your control. Success or failure happens. Perhaps the game does little harm as a diversion, but I have not played it in a long while.

Life is not a game of chance. Neither, is it a sport, least of all a spectator sport. Each of us is the key and central player involved in making and applying decisions. The period of life called mortality is a testing ground, where decisions are free only because results are meaningful. The results derive their meaning from their reach into the worlds of immortality, following our death and resurrection. Because life has meaning then, it has meaning now.

That meaning is a gift from Jesus Christ, purchased by His free gift of voluntarily suffering for our sins, including surrendering His life in an unjust execution, one that He could have prevented should He have exercised His free agency not to bear our burdens. Because of the injustice of that suffering, He came back from the dead and conquered death, to die no more. Death was thus converted into a temporary interlude for all of us, allowing the choices of this life to extend beyond the grave.

If, on the contrary, each one of us were to end in death, if our being were then to cease to exist, then nothing we did would really matter in that end. Whatever we did, whatever we achieved, whatever we learned, so what? It would all be gone, never to be reclaimed.

Nothing we do makes any difference in the end, if in the end we are nothing, literally nothing. As far as we are concerned, it all vanishes with us, and any memory of us ends with the end of any who remembered. With nothing now mattering later, then all loses any present meaning. Any meaning we attach to anything now is a mirage, or even a charade. Like a child’s game, things seem to matter until the game is over, when nothing matters.

If nothing that we do matters, then the choices and decisions that we make do not matter, they have no lasting result, they make no real difference in the end. Whether we put too much salt or pepper in the soup, it makes no difference if no one eats it. With death as the end of it all, of all existence of any kind for each of us, then we really have no freedom, because we cannot and do not change anything for ourselves or for others. In any and all cases, whatever choices we make, it all ends the same way, in complete nothingness, annihilation of being. Choice itself becomes meaningless, a mirage, a charade.

But it is not like that in reality. It does not feel like that, and very few of us, even the atheists among us, believe or act like nothingness is our destiny, as if what we do is lost in the void, as if our choices do not matter. Christ’s redemption of us and of the world has changed everything for everyone. It gives lasting value to our choices, our actions, our decisions, making them all very real, preserving their consequences, their reach into the continuing life beyond our very temporary death. Our decisions can and do affect ourselves and others, in lingering ways. Christ’s redemption from death makes our freedom possible, then and now, because what we do matters, and how it matters is preserved.

With that freedom, Christ has given us a tool, which certainly can be useful, if used correctly. Fortunately, He also has given us guidance and still gives us guidance so that we may get and save the best results from the use of our free agency. And that is a big part of why we celebrate Easter, why Christ’s atonement and resurrection are the central event in Earth’s history.

Of War and Virtue

One hundred fifty years ago the United States remained divided in a brutal war of rebellion. Rather than unusual, such convulsions are typical in the establishment of representative republics. It does not come easy for a population new to a republic to embrace in practice the idea that matters of life and wealth should be resolved by votes. It seems that the age old recourse to arms and blood has to be tried again a time or two before people, who have only experienced more abusive government, come to accept that ballots and representation, enshrined in the rule of law, are a better way of deciding a society’s important issues.

One hundred fifty years ago, in 1864, the people of the young United States were still learning that painful lesson. But the instruction was nearing its end. Back in July of 1863, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the outcome of the war became inevitable. The rebels of the southern states were going to lose, constitutional government of the United States was going to succeed. The only chance for the rebels would be if the loyal people of the nation lost their determination to persevere to reunite the nation and reaffirm the constitutional republic. Often that seemed in the press to be an iffy question, but in reality the republican will remained strong. The hundreds of thousands who sacrificed life and limb in the field of war, in an overwhelmingly volunteer army (the number of drafted soldiers remained relatively minor), testified to that determination.

In the winter of 1863-64 U.S. soldiers in the field reenlisted in large numbers. Throughout 1864, and into the Spring of 1865, many thousands more would die, but the battles were becoming increasingly futile for the rebel cause, little more than adding to the destruction and suffering that rebel commanders were pulling down upon themselves and their fellows and families in this national lesson in self-government.

For the rebel soldier, experiencing defeat after defeat to his regiment, his corps, or his tattered army—with only occasional respites and temporary successes—it all may have felt pointless. The high and growing rate of desertion from rebel armies in those days suggests so. The historian comes to this point in the conflict and is tempted to describe the remaining rebel heroics and gallant but failing defenses as futile, the casualty lists a bloody tally of worthless and wasted sacrifice—particularly for so ignoble a cause as breaking up the best form of government on the earth at the time.

From the perspective of the rebel “cause” it was pointless, the continued bloodshed and destruction a burden for which the rebel leaders—in the rebel government and at the head of the rebel armies—will surely have to give an accounting before the Judge who weighs the doings of nations and those who lead them. Does that mean, therefore, that the daily struggle of the individual rebel soldier was meaningless? His effort could not change the outcome, only affect in some small way its overall cost.

And yet, throughout 1864 and to the end of the war, there were meaningful and often pitched battles fought on every field of action. The battles to which I refer echo a passage from The Book of Mormon written almost two thousand years before, describing an ancient American people after a very long war:

But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility. (Alma 62:41)

War, on a very personal level, appears to accelerate moral development. Individuals become more virtuous or more evil more quickly than they might under more peaceful conditions.

I believe that for the individual rebel soldier, as for perhaps every soldier, the real battle was his own, and in the end it was the most important battle with the most long-lasting consequences. Abraham Lincoln understated that the world would “little note, nor long remember” his speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, though he perhaps correctly predicted that the world would never forget the great battle fought there.

In the full scheme of things, in terms of what really matters in the eternal worlds after this temporary one is rolled up and its purposes completed, the individual battles fought by each soldier on each side will be recognized as far more important than the whole Battle of Gettysburg. The battle of armies is a temporary one. The battle fought by each soldier, whether he exercises virtues or chooses vices, is the more permanent, the one that has never ending consequences. The battles of freedom were fought in recognition and preservation of these more important personal struggles we all have.

In the battles of 1864 and 1865 of the American War of the Rebellion the rebel soldier could not change the outcome of the war. But in each case his own personal triumph or defeat was there to be etched into his character more permanently than the scars of bullet and saber in his flesh.

As my son has often reminded me, everyone who fought in the Civil War died. And all of them lived. So must we all die, and yet we will all live again where there is no more death. By the time each of us leaves mortality, each must face and fight his battles, the ones that really matter far above those recorded in the history books of the world.

Of Man and God’s Work

On the sacred mountain, made sacred by the personal presence of the Divine, Moses spoke face to face with God, without whom “was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3) Moses beheld in vision the many creations of God and many worlds on which God had placed His children, much as with this creation. The Lord explained to Moses that, “as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.” (Moses 1:38)

That creative work is what God does and has been doing and will continue to do. Then God explained to Moses the “Why” behind it all:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

That is to say that what God does is entirely purposeful, the “what” of His work intrinsically tied to the “Why.” And why He does what He does, and what He does, is all related to man. We are His children, and the Father is literally our Father. On the morning of His resurrection, the Father’s firstborn son, Jesus Christ, declared to Mary Magdalene, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father” (John 20:17). The Son was speaking literally not figuratively.

Our Heavenly Father is more interested in our growth and progress than even the most loving earthly parents are in the growth and progress of their children. His happiness is connected with our happiness and progress, His “job satisfaction” derived from our moral improvement. That improvement, in turn, comes from the righteous exercise of our freedom to choose and do good.

The exercise of our choice is all that we can give to God that He does not have, and He will not deprive us of that power of choice. He will not take it, because by doing so our “choice” becomes worthless to Him. It is the fullest and therefore richest exercise of that freedom that He seeks and applies His own effort to empower and encourage and protect. To diminish our freedom is to diminish its worth to Him. Compelled virtue is no virtue at all and has no value to the Father or to His children. By choosing good in an environment where we may select evil we become good; by living virtuously among full opportunities to embrace vice we become virtuous. Through that process—with the free gift of the Savior to retrieve us, upon conditions of repentance, from evil choices—we expand our freedom, rejecting all that would enslave us. In so doing we qualify for God’s ultimate gift, eternal life.

That is the process and what life is all about. God devotes His attention to creating the necessary environment and conditions for our eternal progression. Then He stays involved to help each of us as much as we will allow. His love for us extended to the sacrificial offering of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, who used His own free will to rescue us out of the depths of evil if we would apply what choice we may have left to turn with all our hearts away from darkness toward light.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

This being God’s work and His glory, He cares very much about what we do that affects that work and glory. That is also to say that nothing else we do matters to Him. It is only in the context of His work for our immortality and eternal life that anything we do really matters. God is probably not very interested in whether we buy the blue car or the white car, per se, as it has little bearing on immortality and eternal life. God could be interested, however, if we choose to buy the blue car after agreeing beforehand with our spouse to buy the white one, as unity in marriage matters a great deal to our eternal progress, as does keeping promises.

All of this begs the question, if something does not matter to God, should it matter much to us? In fact, paying excessive attention to the minutiae and distractions of life can become a big deal, if doing so draws our time and effort away from what truly drives virtue.

Customs and traditions can do this very thing. Consider the recent Christmas season. Were there little things, maybe many little things, that competed for your focus on Christ and the commemoration of His mission, and the many good works that the Christmas season offered? Customs and traditions can do that if we are not careful.

The Savior, during his mortal ministry in Galilee and Judea, frequently pointed the people to their traditions that interfered with what He called the “weightier matters”, such as “judgment, mercy, and faith”. He called that straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:23, 24). Do we not see a similar error in the political correctness of today that raises an uproar over a stray word—no matter how ugly—while embracing all varieties of immorality and family destruction?

God’s work is all related to us, because we are related to Him. Knowing God’s work, and making it our work, may be as important and valuable for us today as it was for Moses in his time. I suspect so.