Sunday Sermon: The War in Heaven and Human Agency

My wife, Kristine K. (disambiguation: not the same as Kristine), and I both delivered  sermons today in the Slate Canyon 13th Ward in Provo. I spoke first, on the War in Heaven, and then she spoke on the Creation. I’m posting my sermon now, with Kristine’s to follow shortly, as I believe that it will also resonate with readers of BCC.

For the vital part that the war in heaven plays in LDS theology, much about it remains unclear. The phrase itself derives from Revelation chapter 12, which depicts “a great red dragon” whose “tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth” (vv. 3-4, NRSV). Then, we read, “war broke out in heaven.” This seems to have been instigated by Michael and his angels, as the text mentions their aggression first, going on to say that “the dragon and his angels fought back, but were defeated” (vv. 7-8, NRSV). The effect of this defeat is that Satan “was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (v. 9, NRSV).

The destination of the devil and his angels—the earth—suggests that T. S. Eliot may have been right to “question whether any serious civil war ever does end.” [1] In light of this perpetual conflict, and given that we can hardly help but be involved, we might benefit from working out its precise terms and rules of engagement. As modern warfare has taught us, battles fought in defense of a principle can be carried out in ways that rob the principle of all meaning, so it behooves us to learn how to act in this conflict without compromising our integrity.

To understand the terms of the conflict, let’s turn to a key LDS text about the war in heaven, Moses 4:1-4. It begins by relating how Satan became Satan:

And I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all [hu]mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.

Satan’s proposition has two parts: the promise that he will effect universal human redemption, and the demand that he be given God’s honor in exchange for performing this task. The text proceeds by contrasting this proposition with that of the Beloved Son: “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” The Son’s proposition, like Satan’s, has two parts: giving preference to the Father’s will, and referral of the glory back to him.

The contrast between Satan’s desire for glory and Jesus’ refusal of it is clear enough, but it is not nearly so clear why giving preference to the Father’s will should be the opposite of Satan’s promised universal redemption. We gain a further clue in the next verses, but even this, I suggest, does not fully resolve the question. They read:

Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of [hu]man[s], which I, the Lord God, had given [them], and also, that I should give unto [them] mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that [they] should be cast down; And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind [humans], and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.

From this passage we gather that giving preference to the Father’s will means preserving human agency—which might seem like something of a theological paradox, given the terms in which debates about divine will and human agency are usually carried out—but we also learn that, as an outcome of Satan’s defeat, he has the capacity to “lead [humans] captive at his will.” These verses thus raise more questions than they answer: what is the relationship between the Father’s will and human agency? What does it mean that Satan sought to destroy human agency? If those questions don’t seem difficult enough: how does “thy will be done” cohere with Satan’s running around and leading people captive? Does this captivity have anything to do with the destruction of human agency?

To the first question, about the relationship between the Father’s will and human agency, the place to begin is by trying to work out precise definitions of the terms. The text uses different words—“will” and “agency”—and we should be wary of conflating the two. To understand “will,” let’s consider Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane—an appropriate text, considering that today is Palm Sunday, and that we’re about to begin Holy Week: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39, KJV). Here, Jesus articulates a desire—that the cup pass from him—which he understands to be at odds with what the Father desires: that he drink it. “Will” thus refers to the desire that a particular outcome will come to pass—an investment, as this use of “will” as a verb indicates, in a particular configuration of the future.

An agent, on the other hand, is a person who acts on behalf of another. The word “agent” is frequently used this way in the Doctrine and Covenants, which speaks of an agent to handle moneys for the saints arriving in Kirtland (D&C 51:8), a bishop’s agent (D&C 53:4), and some eight further instances. Especially telling is D&C 64:29: “Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord’s errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord’s business.” In these examples, an agent represents another person’s interests and is accountable for how they are managed. These interests coincide with the concept of will. Returning to the example of Gethsemane, Jesus is accountable as an agent for bringing the Father’s will to fruition. To choose his own will, by shrinking from the bitter cup, would thus amount to an abdication of his agency.

The question of on whose behalf humans ought to be agents is not so straightforward as might first appear. Joseph Smith’s King Follett sermon, given 170 years ago last Monday, sheds light on this important issue. Railing against the doctors of divinity, Joseph asserts the coeternality of the human spirit with God: “God never had power to create the spir[i]t of man at all.” [2] In a cosmology premised on God’s infinite superiority to human beings, the notion that we should act as his agents is ludicrous, for how should we have the capacity to carry out so great a work? If we, along with the doctors of divinity, accept the premise of divine superiority, it is more reasonable to believe in the Calvinist God, who through his omnipotence controls every aspect of the cosmos, including the matter of human salvation. [3] But by insisting that our spirits always existed alongside God—a God who could not create our spirits if he wanted to—Joseph Smith entirely overthrows the Calvinist God. Instead he gives us a God who, because he is not our creator in the spiritual sense, does not have the power to control our destiny, but who nevertheless desires a certain configuration of our futures. Our coeternality, moreover, makes it possible for us to be agents in bringing this configuration to pass. In becoming God’s agents, we also become our own.

In the King Follett sermon, Joseph presents a beautiful vision of God’s will for us: “God himself—find[ing] himself in the midst of spirit and glory—because he was greater saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.” [4] God’s will, in short, is for us to become as he is—whence Joseph’s statement, which I quote as reported by Willard Richards: “you have got to learn how to make you[r]selves Gods Kings. Prie[s]ts.— &— by going from a small to g[r]eat capacity. . . Till they are able to dwell in evelastig [everlasting] burni[n]g & everlasti[n]g power.” [5] Other reports, by Thomas Bullock and William Clayton, note that this process of going from a small to a great capacity is the same, as Clayton gives it, “as all Gods has done.” [6] Thus, to our terminology so far of “will” and “agency” must be added a third term, “capacity.” If God’s will is for us to increase in capacity, then our agency consists in working to develop that capacity. To choose something else, even if it’s what we want, is to compromise our agency.

This complex concept of agency, in which we work on the Lord’s errand by developing our own capacities, helps to make sense of the statement in D&C 29:35: “I gave unto him that he should be an agent unto himself.” Women, of course, are similarly agents unto themselves. This verse connects us into another LDS account of the war in heaven. After explaining that all commandments are spiritual, the Lord relates again that the devil, demanding God’s honor, rebelled against him, “and also a third part of the hosts of heaven turned he away from me because of their agency; and they were thrust down, and thus came the devil and his angels” (D&C 29:36-37). This turning away because of their agency suggests that these hosts of heaven had not so much abdicated their agency as transferred it, becoming agents in opposition to God. In a seeming paradox, the oppositional agency of the devils serves God’s will: “And it must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves” (D&C 29:39). This last verse begins to get at the full complexity of agency, for we must be agents to God, by choosing sides in the great cosmic conflict, but that is not enough, for we must also be agents unto ourselves, stewards over our own capacities, and that is only possible in an environment of opposition.

Now we are in a position to begin grappling with a key, but difficult phrase that lies at the heart of LDS theology concerning the war in heaven. I have already quoted it, from Moses 4:3, which says that Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man.” The current—though not traditional—reading of this phrase takes it to mean that Satan’s plan was to compel us all to heaven. The concept of agency developed in the Doctrine and Covenants, with its ten references to agents acting on behalf of someone else, does not, however, support the simple conflation of agency with choice upon which this reading depends. Rather, Satan’s desired destruction of human agency depends upon something much more paradoxical. Consider that God’s will is for us to grow in capacity, from a smaller to a larger. In this project, he enlists us as agents. In choosing to become his agents, we consent to his plan. If we are coeternal with God, as Joseph Smith taught, then we have in some sense always been agents unto ourselves. What God did by enlisting us as his agents was to increase our awareness of this fact. In aiming to destroy our agency, then, Satan meant for us to remain unaware of this stewardship over our own capacities. Ironically, his ongoing attempts to entice us serve to stoke our awareness. Thus, Satan is the greatest frustrator of his own plan! Robbing us of our agency doesn’t mean coercing us into heaven as much as it means coddling us into hell by keeping us comfortable and ignorant of our own potential.

How, then, are we to exercise agency in a way that will carry out God’s will by actualizing our own divine potential? The first step is to recognize that the world in which we live is a divine gift, just as it is. This means abandoning our tendency to use “the world” as a euphemism for everything that is terrible and contrary to God. Even though this usage is scriptural, the Restoration has given us greater light: recall that Satan’s opposition is necessary for us to be agents unto ourselves, and that it serves God’s purposes in the end. The appeal of Satan’s plan is precisely that it would have spared us the unpleasantness and pain of life. God’s plan, then, requires that we learn to love life, all of it. The vector of our expanding capacities should be toward the God of Moses 7. This account profoundly highlights the stakes in the cosmic conflict:

And [Enoch] beheld Satan; and he had a great chain in his hand, and it veiled the whole face of the earth with darkness; and he looked up and laughed, and his angels rejoiced. … And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people [i.e., those not caught up into Zion], and he wept. (Moses 7:26, 28)

When Enoch asks, “How is it that the heavens weep,” God replies,

Behold these thy brethren [and sisters]; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto [them their] agency; And unto thy brethren [and sisters] have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood[.] (Moses 7:32-33)

When God gave us our agency in the Garden of Eden, he placed us, as Joseph Smith said, in a situation to advance in knowledge like unto himself. This we were to do by choosing him as our Father—that is, retaining our agency by remaining true to the plan whereby we might become gods—and by loving others. God’s displeasure at those who “hate their own blood” suggests that our approach to the war in heaven needs, if we hope for victory, to be anything but warlike.

What makes God God in the Moses 7 account is not so much that he weeps, but that he does not turn away from that which makes him weep. His love will not permit it, and neither will his agency. We, he says, are the works of his hands. To avert his gaze would be to compromise his agency. Turning away, recall, is what Satan led a third of the hosts of heaven to do. The Godlike capacity that we must develop is the capacity to attend, and with that attention, to love. Satan’s temptations involve distraction, much of it seemingly harmless. If life is hard, and it is, then we must learn to attend to it, to resist our urges to look or run away, and then to love it, in all its complication, messiness, sorrow, joy, and pleasure. We must find, as the poet George Herbert put it, “heaven in ordinary.” [7] Satan’s plan is the one that would have us spend the eternities sipping piña coladas on the beach, in blissful ignorance, not only of the world around us, but of our own potential. How easy it would be to slip out of Satan’s heaven, by noticing the gentle warmth of the sand or the cool blend of pineapple and coconut in the drink. And here the realization dawns: Satan’s plan would rob us of everything that might make an eternity on the beach sipping piña coladas seem like a good idea. Let us, then, instead follow the example of Jesus in Gethsemane, who, in the direst of moments, wished to look away, but decided to attend.


[1] “Milton II,” in On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 148.

[2] Richards report, 69; cf. Woodruff report, 137; Bullock report, 18; Clayton report, 16. It’s remarkable that all four reports of this phrase are identical (except that Woodruff omits “at all”), strongly corroborating its historicity.

[3] Calvin develops this argument at length in Book I of the Institutes.

[4] Clayton report, 1617.

[5] Richards report, 67.

[6] Clayton report, 14; for “same” see Bullock report, 16.

[7] “Prayer [I],” in The Temple (London, 1633), 43. (Full text of poem here.)


  1. Leonard R says:

    This is profound. Truly.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    …it will also resonate with readers of BCC…


    Thanks, Jason; I look forward to Kristine’s.

  3. Good fun, Jason.

  4. Nice.

  5. Really solid discussion of agency. Much appreciated and I think you should continue to plumb those depths.

  6. Toby Triptow says:

    This is unbelievable stuff! I really must say the best talk I heard/read in the past weeks and that includes GC. Thank you, Toby

  7. Thank you, Jason, for this wonderful talk. There are several things you said which do indeed resonate with my own thoughts and beliefs concerning the deep, profound, and eternal, interlocking connections between the principles of truth, intelligence, agency, faith, energy, unconditional love, creation, accountability, stewardship, justice & mercy, honor and quality.

    I believe these foundational principles form a framework underlying both everything which has or will ever exist, and, everything which we have or will ever experience. I believe they can act as a guide and a road map in our own individual quest for quality, as I call it. These principles form a recipe for creation, if you will, which allows us to develop a greater capacity to create greater quality in our lives–resulting in greater peace, abundance, fulfillment, joy and happiness. I believe this quest for quality framework is a mental, physical, and spiritual approach to reality, and ultimately, to the Divine.

  8. Another related aspect of the choice between Satan and Christ seems to me to be the phrase, “and surely I will do it…”

    Satan is attacking not just our doubts about our own abilities to do what is needed in mortal life, but Christ’s ability to pull off the atonement. He’s implying that even if you come to mortality and do your part, Christ’s task is so monumental that it might simply be too difficult. Thus rather than hoping that we do our part and Christ does His we should follow Satan.

    Following Christ required faith even at that juncture, with him right there in front of us.

  9. Very nice stuff, Jason. The discussion of ‘will’ and ‘agency’ is very fruitful and something I will return to again.

  10. Very good talk.
    The king Follett’s discourse always makes me wonder about multiple mortal probations. To my opinion, it would explain a lot about the pre mortal “battle”.

  11. it's a series of tubes says:

    Robbing us of our agency doesn’t mean coercing us into heaven as much as it means coddling us into hell by keeping us comfortable and ignorant of our own potential.


  12. Great sermon, Jason. Between this and Kristine’s, I will have made up for missing all of sacrament meeting yesterday. Maybe even for missing the sacrament meeting before that, too.

  13. Loved what you said, but I particularly loved this:

    “What makes God God in the Moses 7 account is not so much that he weeps, but that he does not turn away from that which makes him weep. His love will not permit it . . . ”

    Having stuff I wish to turn away from right now, this both makes me cry, and keeps me from turning away. Thanks.

  14. Dug: carry on, with courage!

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