The title of this post is a Spanish proverb I encountered in a really good book I just finished reading, a literary mystery/thriller by Irish writer Tana French called The Likeness. (LDS Reader alert: It’s an excellent novel—both suspenseful and gorgeously written—and there’s no sex and surprisingly little violence, considering it’s a thriller. But many of the main characters are Irish cops, so there’s swearing.)

But this post isn’t about the novel, or Irish cursing. It’s about the quote and how it got me pondering the principle of agency and the way it operates in my life. It’s about answering these two questions: What do I want? And am I willing to pay for it?

Mormons have strong feelings about agency. We believe we exercised it before we were born—that we fought a pre-mortal war in order to preserve it—and that agency is essential to the plan of salvation. I, for one, have understood from the time I was a little kid in Primary that I was “free to choose,” and my options seemed clear: liberty and eternal life on the one hand, captivity and death on the other. Reading my scriptures? Eternal life. Cheating on my math test? Death. As I got older the choices got trickier and were sometimes counterintuitive. Weeding the Stake Center flower beds? Liberty. Dragging State Street with the shaggy-haired skateboarder I met at the 49th Street Galleria? Captivity. Sigh. Yes, sometimes it was hard to “choose the right,” but I was pretty certain I had the system figured out. After all, I’d seen the “Free to Choose” filmstrips throughout four whole years of seminary. (How many of you 80s teens are singing the theme song right now: “I’m free to choose / to win or lose / no matter who / tries and comes to turn my head around”?).

Back in those days the term “free agency” was in vogue among Mormons, but lately it’s been replaced by either “moral agency” or just plain “agency,” mainly because the adjective “free” can be confusing. While we are free to choose whatever we want, the consequences of those choices aren’t free. But the black vs. white, good vs. evil approach to agency remains a popular way to frame our discussion of the principle: that throughout our lives, we’ll be confronted with good choices and evil choices, right choices and wrong choices, and our job is to discern the good from the evil and proceed accordingly.

While this approach was quite helpful during my teenage years, as an adult I rarely find myself confronted with such clearly delineated options. For the first twenty years or so of my life, the test questions were True or False, with the occasional multiple choice thrown in for good measure. But lately? Lately I feel the Testing Center of Existence has raised the stakes, and the rest of my (eternal) life will be lived in essay-question format.

Over and over again, I find myself confronted with essay-question-style problems: Should you pull your children out of piano lessons? Please examine both pro and con. Is it wrong to put your toddler in the child care center at the gym? Explain. Does taking a part-time job infringe unduly on your family time, or are the financial and personal benefits worth the cost? Give detailed examples. Questions like these are just skimming the surface of the types of choices that confront us every day, and each of us will be required to grapple with much bigger questions over the course of our mortal existence—questions with no easy answers.

And isn’t that the point?

I wonder, though, how willing we are to really exercise our agency. Give it a good work out. “Take what we want.” We’re bombarded with images, messages, opinions about what we should want, but how many of us are willing to get to know ourselves well enough, and to develop the ability to listen to the spirit closely enough, to truly discern the root of our desires and then act? Take, for example, one hot-button issue in Mormon life: family size. What of the Mormon family that is content with two children and feels that three might push them to the breaking point? Even if the spirit is whispering to the couple “it’s okay to be done,” is it too hard to make that choice in the face of cultural disapproval? Or what of the family with six children, the family that’s already dealt with the raised eyebrows when the sixth pregnancy was announced? What if they truly desire a seventh, but it’s too hard to make that choice in the face of cultural disapproval? In our culture, four is nice, round number. I have four kids. I know. I’m also under no illusions that my decision to have four kids was probably subtly influenced by forces outside myself.

The truth is, conscious, self-directed choosing is hard, and it can even be dangerous. That’s where the second part of the proverb comes into play: you’ve gotta pay for your choices, says God. We pay for all our choices, really, even the obviously “good” ones. Choose to get an education? Gotta work. Choose to get married? Gotta compromise. Choose to become a parent? Oh, gotta, gotta, gotta. But within the construct of my LDS American cultural milieu, in those choices I’m spared one particular type of payment—that of judgment, disapproval, ridicule, scorn. It’s the gray-area choices that can be the most paralyzing because, while it is “not meet” that we be commanded in all things, being commanded certainly makes things easier. When God says, “I don’t know, my dear, what do you think?”, acting on our inclinations means we risk making mistakes, or fools or ourselves, or enemies.

But we fought a war in heaven so we could make these hard choices and have cast our lot with those who’ll be eternally discerning and eternally deciding. God expects us to gird up our loins, fresh courage take, and ACT. As Lehi tells us in 2 Nephi 2:24, we’ve been redeemed from the fall so we can be free forever, to act for ourselves and not be acted upon. So now that the stark temptations of adolescence are behind me, how do I approach opportunities for choice in my life, and how do I react to the consequences of those choices?

I’ve come to the conclusion that one way I “pay for” my more difficult or controversial choices is enduring the judgment that comes hand-in-hand with making them. Instead of demanding that other people stop judging me, see it my way, come around to my side, well, you know what? I just need to realize this is part of the payment plan and suck it up. Know my mind and my heart, study things out, pray, then ACT . . . and be willing to take the consequences, even the consequence of scorn. Because consequences will come, no matter what I choose. Choosing not to choose, in fact, doesn’t spare me from payment either. It just keeps me from progressing.

So better to take what I want. And pay for it. And grow.

Have you been exercising your agency lately? How have you paid for your choices? How do cultural expectations or fear of judgment affect your ability to make decisions? Why is agency so central to our eternal progression?

September 18, 2009


  1. Jenny

    September 17, 2009

    Your quote:
    Instead of demanding that other people stop judging me, see it my way, come around to my side, well, you know what? I just need to realize this is part of the payment plan and suck it up.
    Wow. I never really thought of it like that. But you’re right. I can feel indignation when people ask me questions I think are NONE of their business, but are the questions really just part of the payment plan I signed up for by making choices? Interesting. I’ll be thinking about this one today.

  2. Sharlee

    September 17, 2009

    Wow, those are four great essay questions you gave us at the end, Angela! 🙂

    I want to respond at length to this great post, but I’m running out the door. For now, I’ll just say thank you for the fine writing and the provocative questions.

  3. Michelle L.

    September 17, 2009

    I really like this concept Angela. We pay for our choices– it’s universal. Right now I am turning down a lot of paid work because I can’t “afford” the cost to my family and church calling. It’s hard to do. I really want to be super woman; but I’m not.

  4. Sage

    September 17, 2009

    Oh, Angela! This was gold!!!! I think I’ll copy it and re-read it every day!

    My favorite part is your comparison of T-F test, multiple choice and then essay test as our school of life progresses. Can I use that next time I give a talk? (I’ll give you credit! :))

    Right now for me the use of my time is my essay test. Do I use nap time for personal time or for cleaning the house? Do I let the toddler watch tv (like right now) while I spend time on the computer? Do I try to do more than my mother of five duties so I can find more creative outlet? The list goes on.

    I will be thinking about this and trying to figure out what I want, and what I am willing to pay for. I know I want to be a celestial being–but I’m not sure I’ve figured out what that means for me yet. I remember thinking, while on my mission to Peru, that I would love to dedicate my life to helping the poor…but how to reconcile that with raising a family, I didn’t know. It is still something I’m trying to figure out. My little efforts at helping to alleviate poverty are so small, God might only give me a couple points for it.

    Thanks again for sharing your wisdom.

  5. Merry Michelle

    September 17, 2009

    It’s interesting to me that American culture does indeed frown on more than 2 children (because our world is so “over-populated” and you won’t be able to send them to Harvard, etc.). My Mother was raised in Communist Bulgaria and the pressure to only have 2 (or less) children was intense. You would be scorned by classmates and fellow workers who would ask tauntingly if you had enough to eat. Or you would be compared to gypsies who just can’t control themselves.

    Because of this pressure, my Grandmother had 6 abortions. And to be honest, I’m not sure which was worse walking around with her heart filled with guilt and sorrow for the abortions or walking around with the outward scarlet letter of more than two children.

    Some choices (a lot of them apparently) put us between a rock and a hard place, and some days I just want to flip a coin, to be honest. But the more I plow through these “unsolvable”s the more I realize that I’m not on this planet to please everyone else and do what is socially acceptable, but to please my Father in Heaven and be true to myself.

  6. Melissa M.

    September 17, 2009

    Fine writing, indeed. You are so right that the choices are much more complex the older we get. One of those choices for me was whether to stop having children after our fourth child was born. I never got a clear answer and felt like the Lord was leaving it completely up to me. It would have been much easier to have a dream or receive a direct prompting that there was one more child meant to come to our family. I’m finding that many of my decisions are like that. But I’m learning in leaps and bounds through exercising my agency.

  7. Angela

    September 17, 2009

    Michelle L., you make a really good point. One of the ways I exercise my agency is by choosing NOT to do something. Saying no can be just as difficult to do as choosing to act, especially when someone asks us, or the the choice seems fun or attractive.

    And Merry Michelle, thank you for sharing your grandmother’s story. The cultural (or even overt government) pressure to reduce family size is a very real and powerful thing.

    And Melissa M., how many times have I prayed for an obvious answer to my question! It’s pretty clear, though, that God rarely answers me with a definite yes or no. Guess he wants me to get a good agency workout.

  8. Annette

    September 17, 2009

    This was beautiful and thought-provoking on a lot of levels. I have a feeling it’ll be with me for the next few days as I process it.

  9. Kathryn P.

    September 17, 2009

    Adversity has been an abundant blessing in my life because desperation and despair have continually taken me to my knees for decades, so I’ve learned how to get very clear answers from the Spirit. The beautiful promises in this scripture are now a reality in my life:

    D&C 84:88 – “And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”

    Being able to receive clear direction from the Spirit is essential in my family history work, so perhaps it is a spiritual gift that I require to complete my mission here on earth. However, when I got married six years ago, my husband didn’t believe he could get clear answers to prayer; however, he was in awe of my spiritual gift and gradually paid the price to obtain that gift for himself. It is wonderful to witness the new peace, power, and confidence he now has in his life.

    I wish I had learned sooner to allow God to help me with ALL my fears. Recently, being able to turn our problems over to God and receive clear answers for heart-breaking parental challenges has blessed our family with amazing miracles. People sometimes raise their eyebrows at our parental choices that don’t always follow “conventional LDS wisdom”, but we don’t care because we have the confidence that comes from following the direction of the Spirit. For example, we didn’t force my youngest child to complete his Eagle project. Shocking!

    Merry Michelle and I were just talking about this subject yesterday. I said,”If I really worried about what people in our ward thought, I’d have to give up going to Europe on family history adventures, because it really makes some people uncomfortable and envious that my husband lets me leave the country for two months during the summer (even though we are empty nesters).” We both agreed that I shouldn’t really care what people in the ward think about my unique mission. We also agreed that true freedom is not worrying about the opinion of anyone but God.

    For me, exercising my agency has become exercising the choice to follow the Spirit, whose promptings are usually incredibly subtle, but very cool things happen when I choose to listen…

  10. Carol

    September 17, 2009

    I received a lot of ridicule from my professional, accomplished half-sisters when I gave up a promising career and stayed home to raise my children. They told me I was “squandering and wasting” my advanced degree.

    I decided at that point in my life that I would follow my own spiritual and moral compass and make choices that I felt were best for me and my family regardless of what others thought. Although I’ve made many mistakes, I have not allowed the opinions of others to determine whether or not I feel peaceful about my life.

    When we stop comparing ourselves with others and live authentically, we can experience peace amid sorrow. Like Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

  11. Angela

    September 17, 2009

    Kathryn, what a beautiful comment. Thank you.

    Part of my impetus for writing this post had its roots in the discussion of judgment that’s been happening here at Segullah lately. When you say, “True freedom is not worrying about the opinion of anyone but God,” I think you’ve hit on a very important truth.

    However, getting to the point where we’re spiritually mature enough to 1. truly listen to the spirit and know what it’s telling us and 2. peacefully block out the voices that are keeping us from the direction we should take can be really hard and often takes a long time to master. I know I’m still figuring out how to live that way, and fail regularly.

    I think part of the reason we’re told not to judge is because the act of judging interferes so effectively with other people’s ability to exercise agency. Sure, judging people hurts their feelings—but even worse, it’s a passive-aggressive way to try and take away someone else’s God-given opportunity to choose. (And I’m talking about the non-righteous variety of judging here. Don’t want to get off on a righteous vs. non-righteous judgment tangent!)

  12. jenny

    September 17, 2009

    Nice job, Angela.
    For the last several years, I have often felt like living with my choices is indeed an extension of the trials or challenges that I am meant to experience and “figure out”. Your post was a much better articulation of what I have been feeling. When faced with heavy choices, I always tell myself (and my children for that matter) “choose, you are free to choose, but you better really mean it”–meaning that they (and I) will be living with whatever consequence comes from that decision. Good and bad. There are a million things I could list as an example, but here’s one I’m thinking about. Our youngest daughter is adopted. The rest (4) of my children are biological. When we came to our final decision to adopt, I thought about many, many things that would be affected by that decision. One of them was dealing with and explaining to people for the rest of my life, why we chose adoption. Sometimes it is a beautiful, spiritual experience–sharing our story and how we knew it was right for us. Other times, it becomes a little tedious explaining it to people who think four children were enough, etc., etc. But, I knew that by choosing to adopt, I was choosing to have both types of conversations in my future.
    This is true of SO MANY of our decisions in our lives, by choosing one thing, you are almost certainly making a future “choice” as well.
    And judgment from others IS part of the payment plan, I think. I want to be able to rise to THAT challenge, faithfully and gracefully without having a chip on my shoulder. Great post– thank you.

  13. Angela

    September 17, 2009

    And Carol, you are strong!

  14. Nan

    September 17, 2009

    What a beautiful post. A friend and I were just talking about this the other day–the need to teach our YW to listen to the spirit so that when confronted with the essay questions of life for which there are no clear answers, they will be able to make choices with confidence.

    Oh, and I think “free” agency was dropped, in part, because the phrase actually never appears in the scriptures.

  15. Marintha

    September 17, 2009

    Great post. I think about this all the time. I really believe our treasure is where our heart is, and I’m not sure God cares all the time and down to the nitty gritty what our treasure is. We just have to be ready to accept the consequences.
    I think God tells us not to judge because we are often so busy deciding what other people should and shouldn’t do that we can’t feel his judgment or his mercy towards us. We don’t have room to receive inspiration for ourselves–sometimes convincing ourselves that our judgment of others is because we are simply trying to help them out, which is usually isn’t true.

  16. corktree

    September 17, 2009

    I find that many of my decisions about how to live and teach and raise my family go against conventional wisdom and trends. But because I used to fear judgement and having my neighbors and congregation label me, I have, until recently kept much of it quiet. This seemed like the right thing to do. A way to have it all by owning my convictions in private. But then I realized that if I truly feel strongly about an issue, secular or not, I should be open about it or it doesn’t do me as much good. I don’t want to hide any light I have under a bushel, whether it’s Gospel related or not. And maybe facing the gauntlet of public disagreement IS a way for us to grow.

  17. Kathryn Soper

    September 17, 2009

    Fantastic, Ang. I will be chewing on this for a long while.

  18. jendoop

    September 17, 2009

    Such good stuff to sink my teeth into, solid thoughts thank you!

    I also love what Kathryn P said – “true freedom is not worrying about the opinion of anyone but God.”

    Another instance when making a choice difficult is when a choice is labeled by others as unChrist-like but from our perspective it is right. Then we get labeled as unChrist-like or unwilling to serve. When in fact we are making the best choice, it’s just that those judging us don’t have all of the information we do in making the choice.

    Am I being too bashful about this? Here’s the scenario- I’m driving one YW, whose parents are not members, and my daughter to early morning seminary. The YW’s house is directly between my home and the church, which is a 20 minute drive. Another mother, who is active, has a car and a driver’s license and lives an additional 20 minutes away, asked me to pick up her daughter too. I told her no. I hope to not loose the friendship of the mother but I have to think of my health and my family first and getting myself and my daughter up at 4:30 wouldn’t be doing that.

    I prayed about my decision, I feel confident before God. My offer to the mother was that I would help her by taking her daughter from seminary to school. She didn’t take me up on it.

  19. Annie

    September 17, 2009

    Oh, Angela. Your thoughts are answers to many of my own questions lately. I’m in a graduate program and, while when I made the decision it was through prayer and confirmation, I still struggle every single day about whether the costs of the decision are worth it. Part of my problem, as you wrote so well, is that I want my choice to be okay with everyone else and instead end up feeling very alone. But, really, either I choose to do it or I don’t and accept the trade-offs. It’s *my* agency, after all, and I should own it.

    I’m reminded again how little I know of others’ decisions and the factors that go into making them. And how easily we can topple someone else’s right-for-them decisions by premature judging. Thanks for the food for thought.

  20. Eve

    September 17, 2009


    Your thoughtful words were very enlighting and thought provoking. I do agree, when you make a wrong choice judgment will always be there staring you in the face (sometimes in the form of my mother ;))But if not for that feeling that you are being judged for your mistake, wouldn’t it be easier to move on and just keep MAKING the same mistakes over and over? I am sure many times it is our own guilt that makes us feel that others are judging our poor choices. All I can say is THANK you GUILT, for without it I may never have sought relief from the burdens of my troubled soul. I would like to think I am a much stronger person. I have more confidence in myself because even though I have made poor decisions in my life, I chose to admit my faults, and take the initiative to right them and do what it took to pay for them. I don’t think there is a more peacful,warm,over powering feeling of love then when a humble broken heart has been graced with the true blessing of forgivness. In my opinion no one should go through this life without experiencing that wonderful gift from the spirit. In no way am I saying that I agree with being judgemental of others. I appreciate people who are loving and kind and live their lives in lightness, but don’t try and make others feel that they are living in darkness just because of the different choices people make. Thank you, I think you made a good CHOICE when you wrote about this! You are an amazing writer! Thanks for sharing your talent with the world!:)

  21. wendy

    September 17, 2009

    I love this post. I want to re-and ponder it some more. My biggest agency questions right now are about how I use my time when my son is asleep and how I handle my frustrations. I don’t know if I’ll elaborate more later, but I am definitely going to think about this more.

  22. Annie

    September 17, 2009

    Back again.

    I think, for me, one of the interesting ideas brought up here is the thought of spiritual development and how our motivation might change over time.

    I’m pretty sure that as a primary age and YW age member of the church, a LOT of my reasons for making the choices I did were based on the opinions of others. Sometimes those led to making the right choice, gospel-wise, and others I think I made a choice that was just expected but not necessarily “the one true way”. I like your point, Angela, about developing into essay-type answers and starting to change the whys of what we do from fear or shame to the joy of embracing something because it’s what I know to be true and want to do.

    Okay, I’m done 🙂

  23. Jen

    September 17, 2009

    Lately I feel like I just come over here and say, “Ooooh, I love this post” about every third post or so. But really, Oooooh, I love this post.

    I think there is an entire counter-cultural revolution right now where people are trying to live more deliberately (greenly, whatever label you give it), and they don’t even realize that it fits in the gospel perspective of careful agency-exercise.

  24. Angela

    September 17, 2009

    Jen, I like the way you put it: living deliberately. I think that’s what I’m getting at here–the idea of conscious choosing, and that when we consciously make hard choices, we automatically assume a certain cost.

    And Eve, I totally get what you’re saying. Sometimes the “fear of judgment” can protect us. It’s part of the function of human society–we keep each other in line.And that feeling of having your heart broken, of having a contrite spirit? I agree that it IS an incredible experience, and one that you learn from. That’s another reason agency is such a gift: because we’re allowed to make choices, we’re able to make mistakes; because we’re allowed to make mistakes, we’re able to repent; because we’re able to repent, we’re allowed to grow closer to God and progress.

    I think another Eve had the exact same opinion you did and got us all mixed up in this agency business in the first place. Hooray for Eves!

  25. jendoop

    September 18, 2009

    Angela, The more I think about this… you really have something here. And the comments add to it. It makes me a little sad that this post it didn’t get half the comments the plastic surgery post did. Maybe you’ve left everyone speechless?

  26. Angela

    September 18, 2009

    Ah, Jendoop, I’m just too longwinded. (I’m a terrible blogger that way.) I’m sure some people just took one look at all eleven paragraphs and went, “Sheesh, woman! Can’t you boil this bad boy down?” and hopped over to a pithier spot out there in the bloggernacle. 🙂

    I loved the experience you shared in your previous response, though—because sometimes I think we women get ourselves in real trouble when we’re unwilling to say no. Even when we know we *should* say no, we want to be seen as being “willing to serve” no matter the cost. It took some guts for me to say no after being asked to do some big ol’ PTA thing last year, for example. I’d done it the year before–had said yes not because I wanted to, but because I felt like I “ought” to and wanted to appear to be one of those super-supportive PTA moms. (I also felt a little guilty about the time I spent writing and editing and teaching and wanted to “prove” to some nebulous somebody that I could do all those things and still be incredibly actively involved in the PTA.) But the truth was I *couldn’t* do all those things. I’d taken on too much. So when they asked me the next year I took a deep breath and chose to say no. Now I go to my third grader’s classroom once a month, don’t go to my 6th grader’s classroom at all, and try to attend both of their class parties whenever I can. And that’s it. I feel very good about that decision, too. I’ll never volunteer to be Room Mom or head up the Book Fair unless some other aspects of my life really change . . . and that’s okay.

  27. m&m

    September 18, 2009

    Angela, this reflects so much of what I have been feeling the past while in my life — realizing how much of life really is about learning, which sometimes means making mistakes. Or being judged.

    But there are other fruits and consequences that are sweet, including an increased confidence within myself and before God, an ability to discern the Spirit better (and a faith that I really CAN get guidance, even when things are confusing), and less desire to judge others because I know how hard it is to make choices that have no absolute right answer.

    And I’m less afraid than I used to be about ambiguity. And more able to trust and lean on the Atonement. It can be amazing when you realize you were never supposed to do it all, and it doesn’t matter what others think (easier said than done, but still).

    I actually will sometimes explain, too, some of my choices — not out of defensiveness (usually), but simply because I think we can sometimes *help* others not to judge by calmly and briefly explaining that, as weird or hard to understand as the decision may be, I felt good about it.

    Case in point: I, the usually-duty-bound Mormon woman, the woman who was sure in her 20s that there should never be any reason except dire acute illness or rare out-of-townness to miss your ward meetings, chose not to attend my ward meetings AT ALL this year, but attended another ward block for the whole 12 months. This because my health makes mornings very hard. I am sure there were people who thought I lacked in faith, but I just felt ok, even right, about it. I felt at peace.

    And I discovered that people really grew to be ok with it, too, because *I* was ok, and I didn’t assume that they were chittering behind my back. I just dealt with it up-front.

    Soooo….I am coming to think that the less defensive we are about our decisions, AND the more willing we are to sometimes even open up about our decisions, the more we can actually help people not be so judgmental. (Sometimes we blame the judgmentalness on the culture and each other, but sometimes I think how we handle our choices can add to the problem.) I think in being honest w/ each other, we can help each other see and learn through others’ experiences that things are not always as they appear, and that they are not always the same for each person.

  28. Brooke

    September 19, 2009

    i love how you point out the term “exercise” in regards to our agency.

    and i find for myself that i do tend to question everything on a moral level. it’s tiring! but it’s my right to consider all things when it comes to my children’s well-being or even my choices as to what i will do during the day. and i think about how i have to pay for it– and how that payment is still expected even when i’m choosing the “right” & spiritually expansive way. go to the temple instead of going to lunch with girlfriends? you’re gonna hear about it in my circle.

    i tend to not fret much about what others think because i don’t like who i am in that place. it’s not that i’m immune, but i’ve grown to be even moreso the person who likes to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. and that too comes with huge consequences, a big price.

    so much here… i’ll be thinking about this a lot. thanks, angela!

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