From the beginning of time, this and similar excuses from personal accountability have slipped from the lips of God’s children. And from the beginning of time, the truth regarding the agency and accountability of mankind has been taught to God’s children by the Lord, angels, and God’s servants on earth.
We as members of the Church of Jesus Christ believe that “man[kind] will be punished [or rewarded] for [its] own sins [or works], and not for Adam’s transgression.” We believe that we have the agency to choose good or evil, and the accountability to answer for our own choices. This agency and accountability are precious blessings indeed, having cost the best blood to have ever flowed in the veins of a mortal body- that of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
These twin principles of agency and accountability are powerful enablers which, when properly understood and acted upon, can help us rise above whatever fallen, mortal circumstances we might have inherited because of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. These doctrines have been taught together since the very day of the creation of man, when the Lord God planted the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. On that day, the Lord commanded Adam not to eat the fruit of that tree, but then gave him choice and accountability for keeping that first law:
“Nevertheless,” said the Lord, “thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Moses 3:17).
Adam made his choice, and as a result was cast out of the Garden of Eden and cut off from the presence of the Lord. His body was changed so that he would die pursuant to the Lord’s promise. After expulsion from the Lord’s presence in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve learned the price of their agency and of their accountability and the accountability of their offspring for their own sins, and not for their transgression in the garden which had brought about their expulsion. Through the Holy Ghost, they learned that as they had fallen, they would be redeemed through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, even Jesus Christ, and not only them but all mankind, even as many as will. (See Moses 5:7-9). Thus, in the promised, voluntary sacrifice of our Redeemer, Adam and Eve, and all mankind to follow, obtained freedom to choose and accountability for their own actions.
Adam and Eve, under the influence of that comforter the Holy Ghost, immediately recognized the implications of this sacrifice, and its enabling effect on agency and accountability. Indeed, on that day:
Adam blessed God, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God. And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient. And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters.
(Moses 5:10-12). Adam and Eve were taught the cost of their agency, they were taught their accountability, and they taught this message to their children.
One of the first real examples of accountability that we read about in the scriptures after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden is the story of Cain. Cain willingly conspired with Satan to murder his brother Abel one day in the fields, so that he could “get gain.” After killing Abel, Cain “gloried” in the deed, saying “I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.” (Moses 5:31-34).
When confronted by the Lord for his actions, Cain tried to shirk accountability, first using that age-old excuse “The Devil made me do it:” “Satan tempted me because of my brother’s flocks,” he said. Then he tried to blame God for his actions: “And I was wroth also; for [Abel’s] offering thou didst accept and not mine.” Cain’s attempts to excuse away his accountability for his own actions were dismissed, and he was cut off from the presence of the Lord forever.
While our sins may not be as grievous as Cain’s or our punishments as severe, the Lord will hold each of us accountable for how we exercise the agency we inherit as sons and daughters of God. Samuel the Lamanite preached this truth to the wicked Nephites in the Book of Mormon as he prophesied of the coming of the Messiah:
And now remember, remember, . . . 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. He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you.
Properly understanding the principles of choice and accountability, and the Savior’s role in procuring them, can enable us to change our lives and exercise our agency and accountability to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of our own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” in society and in our own families. This is expected of us regardless of the circumstances in which we are born or the addictions with which we are faced. Properly understood, the principle of accountability is not one that should induce guilt or despair, but one which provides hope and enablement to choose wisely. It can help us to discard excuses such as “The Devil made me do it” or “I just could not help myself.”
The effects of the Fall of Adam can be felt in many ways. Our bodies are subject, and even predisposed in many instances, to sundry physical addictions and temptations. Our family situations may be less than ideal with cultures of abuse of one kind or another. Perhaps we live in a neighborhood or even a ward with people who are less than kind and thoughtful. It is certainly natural to react to these circumstances or carry them through yet another generation. However, through the atonement, the Lord has equipped us with the ability to transcend such circumstances rather than react to them, to righteously exercise our agency and accountability to the full extent of our potential.
Indeed, we learn by studying the scriptures that God will not allow us to be tempted more than we are able to bear, if we will turn to him in such times (and always!) (See, e.g., 1 Cor. 10:13). Further, the Book of Mormon (as ever a second witness of Jesus Christ) teaches that while performing the atonement, the Savior “suffer[ed] pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; . . . tak[ing] upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.” Further, the Savior took “upon him [our] infirmities, that his bowels [would] be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he [would] know according to the flesh how to [comfort and assist us] according to [our own] infirmities.” (Alma 7:11-12).
Think about it! The Son of God voluntarily suffered through all of the effects of the Fall so that he would understand us and be able to help us overcome them! He, more than anyone, understands the urgency of addiction, the mire of bad family culture, and the trappings of neighborhood gossip. He understands the tendencies of the natural man, and He has overcome them. What he went through during his atonement has enabled him to comprehend every affliction with which we are faced, and he can help us use our agency to overcome such effects of the Fall in our own lives, if we will turn to him.
All of this doctrine about choice and accountability comes to bear practically in very sweet and saving ways. I remember a brother I had the privilege of teaching in the mission field. He had been taught by missionaries before I first met him, but had been unable to get baptized because of a real physical addiction to cigarettes. I discovered him for the first time when he walked into church one Sunday and asked us to come to his home and teach him the Gospel.
Later that day, he told us that after an especially hard week, he had found the Book of Mormon left at his home by the Elders who had previously taught him. Finding it, he had opened it to the powerful scripture in Alma (which I just quoted) about the Lord taking on him the infirmities of man so that he could understand them and know how to assist them to overcome such infirmities. This scripture had a profound effect on him, and with his eyes open to the sweet doctrine of the atonement as it relates to the physical effects of the Fall, such as his tobacco addiction, he got down on his knees and pleaded with the Lord to help him overcome his addiction. This time, with a proper understanding of agency and accountability, and the price paid for them, he was able to use his agency to overcome many of the physical circumstances surrounding him and be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ. Because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, we can also work hard to overcome our physical addictions, and we will be accountable for our efforts to do so.
In addition to the various physical addictions with which we are faced, there are also family situations into which we may be born and have no control over, originally- abuse cycles, cultures of anger, etc. We have been empowered as sons and daughters of God whose agency and accountability has been purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ to rise above these “fallen” circumstances in our own families.
Recently, our Stake President urged us to overcome just such a cycle in our homes here in the Plano Texas Stake. Indeed, his inspired counsel during the most recent Stake Priesthood Meeting was to overcome the debilitating emotions of anger and rage, especially in our homes. Basically, he urged us to take accountability for our own actions rather than blaming the circumstance. We can choose how we react, how we handle certain things.
His advice reminded me of similar counsel during a recent General Conference:
The family is [one of] Satan’s primary target[s]. He is waging war on the family. One of his schemes is the subtle and cunning way he has of sneaking behind enemy lines and entering our very homes and lives.
He damages and often destroys families within the walls of their own homes. His strategy is to stir up anger between family members. Satan is the “father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Ne. 11:29; emphasis added). The verb stir sounds like a recipe for disaster: Put tempers on medium heat, stir in a few choice words, and bring to a boil; continue stirring until thick; cool off; let feelings chill for several days; serve cold; lots of leftovers.
A cunning part of his strategy is to dissociate anger from agency, making us believe that we are victims of an emotion that we cannot control. We hear, “I lost my temper.” Losing one’s temper is an interesting choice of words that has become a widely used idiom. To “lose something” implies “not meaning to,” “accidental,” “involuntary,” “not responsible”—careless perhaps but “not responsible.”
“He made me mad.” This is another phrase we hear, also implying lack of control or agency. This is a myth that must be debunked. No one makes us mad. Others don’t make us angry. There is no force involved. Becoming angry is a conscious choice, a decision; therefore, we can make the choice not to become angry. We choose!
To those who say, “But I can’t help myself,” one author responds: “Nonsense.”
“Aggression, … suppressing the anger, talking about it, screaming and yelling,” are all learned strategies in dealing with anger. “We choose the one that has proved effective for us in the past. Ever notice how seldom we lose control when frustrated by our boss, but how often we do when annoyed by friends or family?” (“The New Obscenity,” Reader’s Digest, Dec. 1988, 24.)
Who can calculate the wounds inflicted, their depth and pain, by harsh and mean words spoken in anger? How pitiful a sight is a man who is strong in many ways but who loses all control of himself when some little thing, usually of no significant consequence, disturbs his equanimity.
[. . .]
A violent temper is such a terrible, corrosive thing. And the tragedy is that it accomplishes no good; it only feeds evil with resentment and rebellion and pain. To any [person] within the sound of my voice who has trouble controlling the tongue, may I suggest that you plead with the Lord for the strength to overcome your weakness, that you apologize to those you have offended, and that you marshal within yourselves the power to discipline your tongue.
To the [youth] who are here, may I suggest that you watch your temper, now, in these formative years of your life. You may think it is the macho thing to flare up in anger and swear and profane the name of the Lord. It is not the macho thing. It is an indication of weakness. Anger is not an expression of strength. It is an indication of one’s inability to control his thoughts, words, his emotions. Of course it is easy to get angry. When the weakness of anger takes over, the strength of reason leaves. Cultivate within yourselves the mighty power of self-discipline.
Let us heed the words of the Prophet as we embark in this New Year. Excuses such as “the devil made me do it,” “the kids just made me angry” or “I just couldn’t help it” will ring as hollow to the Lord one day as did Cain’s.
The wonderful news as we go into this New Year is that we have been empowered by the atonement to overcome the effects of the Fall, including anger and toxic family cycles. We are not expected to be perfect, but most of us can try much harder to exercise our agency to overcome such things.
In the pleading words of Jacob: “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.”
(Note: This essay is part of an effort to do more to share my personal thoughts about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it can help us in practical ways. It is not meant to be an academic treatise on “Mormon Doctrine” or otherwise reflective of official LDS Church practices or policies. Just musings of how the Gospel has affected my life and can help all of us to be better. Watch for more in the future.)