1 Nephi 3:9-15
9 And I, Nephi, and my brethren took our journey in the wilderness, with our tents, to go up to the land of Jerusalem.
10 And it came to pass that when we had gone up to the land of Jerusalem, I and my brethren did consult one with another.
11 And we cast lots—who of us should go in unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that the lot fell upon Laman; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house.
12 And he desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father.
13 And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee.
14 But Laman fled out of his presence, and told the things which Laban had done, unto us. And we began to be exceedingly sorrowful, and my brethren were about to return unto my father in the wilderness.
15 But behold I said unto them that: As the Lord liveth, and as we live, we will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us.
The boys “cast lots—who of us should go in unto the house of Laban…. the lot fell upon Laman; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house (v. 11). Laban’s response was to disregard Lehi’s claim and to accuse the boy, “Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee.”
There is a fundamental principle illustrated here. Laman and Nephi each acted according to their father’s instructions, but each understood the importance of their mission differently. Laman thought he had fulfilled his responsibilities by only an attempt to succeed. Nephi thought their responsibilities included successfully completing the task they were assigned.
The questions whose answers illustrate the principle are these: Why did the brothers respond so differently? and Why did Nephi have such confidence in the outcome of his mission? The answer has to do with the nature of free agency.
Free agency is a product of knowing truth. “Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (D&C 93:24) That is, truth is a knowledge of reality in sacred time. Sacred time is time as God experiences it, as opposed to linear time that we experience in this world. A primary function of the Holy Ghost is to teach us to understand our own reality in sacred time. To do that, the Spirit must also teach us how to define ourselves in terms of God’s love for us, and in terms of our love for other people. To the degree that we understand our own reality as love in sacred time, to that degree we are free to act independently within the sphere of that knowledge. Consequently, even though Laman and Nephi each acted according to their own will, Nephi experienced a freedom to choose that was far beyond anything Laman could have understood. We will see that as their story unfolds. Nephi was not always sure what he should do, but he knew he could trust God, and therefore was never unsure about the final results. Laman, on the other hand, was unsure about how to proceed because he did not trust God and therefore was not sure about the results.
Both were reasonably free to act, but to be completely free to act is not possible while we are in this mortal world. Such freedom would require that we not be constrained by any physical restrictions, cultural taboos, and social definitions of moral propriety. That kind of freedom does not exist here. No matter who or where we are, there are always limits on where and how fast we can move, and what society will permit us to do .But within those limits, both young men were free to act according to their own wills.
In this world, each of us is free to act according to our own volition—but only within the limits circumscribed by our physical ability and cultural taboos. However, there are also other restraints that limit our freedoms here. The most important is our sense of Self and the meanings we give to the rectitude of our intentions. It is that sense of right and wrong that informs and empowers our freedom to choose.
Freedom to choose can be a reality only when we can distinguish between our choices. If we do not know the consequences of our choices, then we cannot know which choice is best. If we do not know the consequences, then we can exercise no more real freedom of choice than someone who is blindfolded and is expected to choose by guessing. Freedom to guess and freedom to choose are not the same thing. Freedom to guess is being given the right to choose while being denied the correct criteria upon which to judge. That is only a pretended freedom. It may look like freedom—we may even accept it as freedom—but in reality it is a kind of slavery instead. When we know and trust God, the Holy Ghost gives us an assurance of the consequences, and therefore actually gives us the freedom to choose.
We are never subservient when we are obedient to the instructions of the Spirit, because the Spirit does not impose choices upon us. The Spirit magnifies our agency by giving us the freedom to be our Selves. Freedom to act and freedom to be one’s Self are quite different things.
Freedom to be one’s Self may be limited by severe external restraints. Most of them are cultural, social, or academic. To most of the people who now live or who ever have lived in this world, those limitations have been enormous, but to Latter-day Saints who have the scriptures and the gift of the Holy Ghost, they need not be. For us, the overriding limitation is probably our own lack of interest or else a desire that is not sustained by personal focus and dedication. The beginnings of freedom to be one’s Self are built upon personal integrity:
A) To be free one must have sufficient integrity to not be bribable. That is, to not be for sale for such prices as money, fame, power, popularity, or whatever else the world may use to bribe.
B) To be free one must have sufficient security to not be afraid. In the environment of this world, that could mean anything from a nation with a powerful defensive army, to a city with an efficient police force, to an individual secure in an honest neighborhood. On a personal level, it would mean one’s being so secure in his own sense of reality, that nothing could intimidate or threaten him into being or doing anything that is contrary to the law of his own being.
C) To be free one must have sufficient information to choose, rather than just to guess, then to act correctly. One is expected to study carefully, think rationally, and make intelligent choices about the things of this world. Then one can depend on the Holy Ghost to give additional insights.
The freedom to be one’s Self gives us enormous personal power—not the power to impose our will on anyone else but the power to choose according to our own desires. The root of this power is what the Savior described when he said,
27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:27).
In the Beatitudes Jesus identified such people as “peacemakers.” Later, Mormon described them as “the peaceable followers of Christ. …because of your peaceable walk with the children of men” (Moroni 7:2-4).
For one to be at peace, one must have the power and freedom to act rather than to be acted upon. On this level, peace equates with freedom. Freedom with the power to be one’s Self. Both map to priesthood and sacral kingship. This equivalency works because peace, priesthood and sacral kingship can only be the fruition and fulfillment of the freedom to be one’s Self. Those same three principles that give one freedom in this world (when put into gospel language) are faith, hope, and charity.
A) Faith (pistis) in the Savior is evoking all the promises of the Father’s covenant. Faith must be preceded by our knowledge that the covenant is binding on both ourselves and God. So ultimately, for us, faith is an exercise in our own integrity—the valid evidence that we will be faithful to our covenants—that there is no gap between what we say and what we do, with nothing in this world so attractive or desirable that it can be used as a bribe to derail our sense of Self.
B) Hope is living in the security that God will fulfil his covenants—that is, hope is living as though the covenants were already fulfilled—“having a hope that ye shall receive eternal life” (Alma 13:29). With such a hope, there is nothing in this world that can intimidate us to not fulfil our part of the covenants. Hope makes one meek before the Lord and invulnerable to intimidation by anyone or anything else. For example, one of the most exquisite expression of hope found anywhere in the scriptures is this from Moroni:
34 And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead. Amen (Moroni 10:34).
C) Charity is the pure love of Christ. It is the love one feels for another when one understands another as God understands them. Charity, light, and truth (knowledge in sacred time) are equivalents, and charity (the way one feels and acts when one has light and truth) is the greatest expression of the three. Charity makes one meek before the Lord and invulnerable to intimidation by anyone or anything else. By definition, people who have charity have access to all the correct information they need to make choices about their relationships with other people. They are also expected to study carefully, think rationally, and make intelligent choices about the things of this world, and can depend on the Holy Ghost is to give additional insights.
Given the experiences Nephi had already had, Nephi’s freedom was expanded by his understanding that God would enable him to fulfill his part of the covenants. Because of the covenants, Nephi understood that his mission was necessary in the eyes of God, and therefore he understood himself to be invulnerable. This power to understand changed the nature of his agency. The agency Nephi exercised was founded on his understanding of eternal truths and was expressed in his determination to obey because he chose to. For Laman, the agency he exercised was founded on his not choosing to know, and expressed in his reluctance to try again.