In a study known as the “Milgram Experiment” conducted at Yale University, individuals’ willingness to obey instructions conflicting with their personal beliefs was measured. This experiment was inspired by the actions of the Nazis towards the Jews in World War II.
Basically, the person being studied would give a quiz to someone in the next room. If the person in the other room gave an incorrect answer, the person giving the test was ordered to flip a switch which would administer an electric shock to the person in the next room. With each successive incorrect answer, the voltage was increased. The yelps, screams, and pleading of the “student” could be heard through the wall, until finally, the noises stopped due to the deadly voltage (in case you were wondering, the individual in the next room was an actor and received no actual shocks whatsoever).
So what is the point of me sharing this study? As a psychology student, I have been studying why people behave the way that they do. There can be a parallel drawn between this experience and obedience to the Gospel. I’m not trying to compare our leaders with Nazis, btw. My point is that blind obedience to anyone or anything will still be on our record at the Day of Judgment.
Drawing from last general conference, Elder D. Todd Christofferson quoted Shakespeare’s “The Life of King Henry V” in his talk “Free Forever, to Act for Themselves” (October 2014). In this play, the king discovers that his troops feel no responsibility for their actions in battle; they believe that the blood is on their leader’s (Henry V) hands. The King argues that every man is responsible for his own soul.
We are responsible for our own actions. We are expected to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause” (D&C 58:27).
Elder Christofferson continues: “When things turn bad, there is a tendency to blame others or even God. Sometimes a sense of entitlement arises, and individuals or groups try to shift responsibility for their welfare to other people or to governments. In spiritual matters some suppose that men and women need not strive for personal righteousness—because God loves and saves us ‘just as we are.’
But God intends that His children should act according to the moral agency He has given them, 'that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.’ It is His plan and His will that we have the principal decision-making role in our own life’s drama. God will not live our lives for us nor control us as if we were His puppets, as Lucifer once proposed to do. Nor will His prophets accept the role of ‘puppet master’ in God’s place. Brigham Young stated: ‘I do not wish any Latter Day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ,—the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied. I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves.’”
We are born innocent, free from the guilt of the sins of our first parents. We are therefore responsible for our own actions.
Christofferson teaches that “The gospel of Jesus Christ opens the path to what we may become. Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and His grace, our failures to live the celestial law perfectly and consistently in mortality can be erased and we are enabled to develop a Christlike character. Justice demands, however, that none of this happen without our willing agreement and participation. It has ever been so. Our very presence on earth as physical beings is the consequence of a choice each of us made to participate in our Father’s plan. Thus, salvation is certainly not the result of divine whim, but neither does it happen by divine will alone.”
Without Christ’s grace, justice would prevent us from returning to our Heavenly Father. Because of the Plan of Salvation, the atonement enables us to learn and grown from our mistakes.
Christ died not to save indiscriminately but to offer repentance. We rely “wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” in the process of repentance, but acting to repent is a self-willed change. So by making repentance a condition for receiving the gift of grace, God enables us to retain responsibility for ourselves. Repentance respects and sustains our moral agency: “And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.”
We cannot choose elements of the gospel which we will believe and follow like a smorgasbord. Christofferson elaborates on the idea that we live in an age of moral relativity: “A God who makes no demands is the functional equivalent of a God who does not exist. A world without God, the living God who establishes moral laws to govern and perfect His children, is also a world without ultimate truth or justice. It is a world where moral relativism reigns supreme… To those who believe anything or everything could be true, the declaration of objective, fixed, and universal truth feels like coercion—“I shouldn’t be forced to believe something is true that I don’t like.” But that does not change reality. Resenting the law of gravity won’t keep a person from falling if he steps off a cliff. The same is true for eternal law and justice. Freedom comes not from resisting it but from applying it. That is fundamental to God’s own power. If it were not for the reality of fixed and immutable truths, the gift of agency would be meaningless since we would never be able to foresee and intend the consequences of our actions. As Lehi expressed it: “If ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.'
In matters both temporal and spiritual, the opportunity to assume personal responsibility is a God-given gift without which we cannot realize our full potential as daughters and sons of God. Personal accountability becomes both a right and a duty that we must constantly defend; it has been under assault since before the Creation. We must defend accountability against persons and programs that would (sometimes with the best of intentions) make us dependent. And we must defend it against our own inclinations to avoid the work that is required to cultivate talents, abilities, and Christlike character.”
Agency is not the easy path. I am one of the most indecisive people I know (but I’m not sure about that). Right now I’m trying to decide between two universities that I’ve been accepted to, and it’s driving me crazy. It seems that sometimes choosing between two good things is harder than choosing between a right and a wrong option.
Something that I have learned is that God needs something to work with when helping us make decisions, and, sometimes, we have to take a leap into the darkness and hope for the best when His Spirit doesn’t prompt us in one way or the other. I hope that you take responsibility for your spiritual well-being and choose to listen to conference this year. I know that the Prophet and Apostles are inspired of God and that they cannot lead us astray.