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The purpose of free agency
By Orson Scott Card August 26, 2010

Since freedom depends, in part, on knowledge of the consequences of our choices, isn't it a restriction on our free agency that God sends us into this world without our memory of all that came before?

What we have to keep in mind here is one of the purposes of our mortal life: to test us.

And what is the nature of the test? To see if we will choose good or evil, when we believe ourselves to have the power to do whatever we want.

Compare our mortal lives to a "virtual machine" on a computer. In order to prevent an outsider from taking over a computer, some users only download software into a "virtual machine."

The "virtual machine" is an area of memory that contains a complete sub-operating system -- but has no access to the real operating system or hardware of the computer.

So when the downloaded software is opened and run inside the virtual machine, the user can see what the software actually does.

The software "thinks" it is in control of a computer, so it will show its true nature. If it contains viruses or other malware, that will be revealed -- but the malware will be incapable of doing any real damage.

Because we are born into this life without direct personal knowledge of the surrounding moral universe -- our premortal actions, our relationship with God, the eternal consequences of our choices -- we are like downloaded software in a virtual machine. We will reveal our true nature -- but under circumstances where our evil choices will not have eternal consequences on anyone but ourselves.

Take, for instance, some of the most monstrous people who ever lived. Do you think Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin would have behaved as they did if they had keen memories of what God expected of them? Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think that both of them were self-disciplined enough to conceal their true nature in order to achieve their objectives.

But in the ignorance that comes with mortality, they revealed their true nature for all to see -- God, themselves, and all the rest of us -- because they did not know about or believe in the idea that they would yet be judged and held accountable.

Yet such was God's mercy that neither of these monsters had the slightest power to hurt any other person in a lasting way. Yes, they could make people unhappy, inflict pain and suffering, take away a portion of other people's freedom, and finally kill whomever they wished -- but they could not do a single thing that affected anybody's placement in the eternal scheme of thing except their own.

Each of their victims will still be judged, not on what Hitler or Stalin did to them, but on what they did in response. In the midst of the Holocaust or the Gulag, each victim still had moral choices that revealed their own character: brave or cowardly, kind or heartless, strong or weak, good or evil. And when they are judged, it will be for their own actions in this great test of mortal life.

I think of my own son, Charlie Ben, who was born into this world with severe physical limitations. His cerebral palsy made it so he could only rarely speak a word; he could never walk, sit up unaided, grasp a spoon to feed himself, or write.

But he was mentally alert, and had many opportunities -- at home, at church, and at the special school he attended -- to show his moral character.

We had a waterbed installed for him at the school he attended, so he would not get bedsores. He loved to kick his legs to make the waterbed bounce him up and down.

But when a little girl with even more severe limitations than Charlie's was placed on the waterbed with him, he understood that he needed to keep her safe. He kicked only gently -- rocking her safely with never a risk of bouncing her onto the floor (something that his kicking could easily do to objects about her size and weight). The two of them laughed together on the Charlie-powered trampoline.

He watched over his baby sister and gave warning when he saw her in danger. He tolerated her piling her stuffed animals all over him as he lay there laughing within the heap.

And it's not because he lacked the ability to be anything other than nice. For instance, on a trip to the beach, my wife was bringing him down separately from the rest of the family. She was trying to listen to an audiobook, but he had no patience with that. He was going through his country music phase, and he kept kicking the cd player until she switched from the audiobook to a country station.

She couldn't move him to where he couldn't kick the dashboard -- his wheelchair's tiedowns couldn't be changed. When he fell asleep, she would change back to the book so it could help her stay awake (and she's not that much of a country music fan); but within a few minutes he'd wake up and insist on getting his way. He could be a brat when he wanted to. But he rarely wanted to.

When someone else's comfort or safety depended on his actions, he always chose to be kind and watchful. His mortal life was as fair a test of his moral nature as anyone else's.

Only those who do not reach the mental ability to understand the consequences of their actions are immune to moral judgment. All the rest of us are perfectly free within the limitations of our circumstances, and we reveal who we truly are.

Fortunately, the Judge who will determine our eternal placement has a perfect knowledge of what our understanding was at the time of our choices. He knows which consequences we could not anticipate and which ones we should have known. He knows the intentions of our hearts.

In this life we do not have the power to destroy the souls of other people, even if we can harm their bodies.

We do not have the knowledge that would encourage evil people to conceal their true nature in order to gain eternal power that they would later abuse.

Within these bounds, however, we have complete freedom to reveal who we are by the choices that we make. No action of our own or of any other person can place any limitation on the effectiveness of the moral test.

When we come to the judgment bar of God, we will be unable to deny the fairness of the test. We are what our choices have revealed us to be; that is the purpose of our free agency, and it achieves that purpose perfectly.

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

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