There is a scene in the recent movie Lincoln in which the President is sitting in a telegraph office agonizing over issues related to the proposed 13th Amendment, struggling between following advice given to him by cabinet officers or doing what he feels to be right. He asks one of the telegraph clerks if he believes that men are “fitted to a time.” He appears to be wrestling with the question that many of us ask: “Why me, why now?”
Many religions, including some Christians, embrace the notion of predestination in one form or another. Predestination would mean that not only are we “fitted” for our circumstances, but there is nothing we can do to escape them. We are where God wills us to be, doing what He wills us to do, and good luck getting off of whatever hook it is that has skewered you. If you live well, it is because God has destined you for salvation. If you live poorly, it is because you have been pre-selected for damnation. Have a nice day.
The idea has its appeal, particularly because it absolves us of responsibility or guilt. If God already has written the script and our roles are set in stone, then we have little to do but sit back and enjoy the production. Things will turn out exactly as they should, regardless of how good I try to be or how bad I turn out to be.
Mormons reject predestination because it is inconsistent with out belief in free choice (or, as we term it, free agency). We do, however, believe in something that frequently is confused with it: Foreordination. Other Christians sometimes consider the terms “predestined” and “foreordained” as synonymous, but when Mormons speak of foreordination, we are talking about something quite different.
The LDS Church believes that all of us lived before this life as spirit-children of our Heavenly Father, and we believe that as spirits we were ordained to hold certain positions or perform specific tasks during mortality. Addressing primarily Church-related callings, Joseph Smith taught that no person receives a calling during their mortal life to which he or she was not ordained prior to coming to Earth. However, that does not mean that these ordinations are written in stone. Should we make choices in our lives that foreclose our ability to fulfill our ordinations, then those assignments (and the attendant blessings) would go to someone else.
Perhaps the best way to explain this is by analogy. In Old Testament times, and even in many current traditions, kings were anointed by a religious leader. In some cases, a person might be anointed to become a king, although that person would not yet get the big chair and shiny hat. One example of this is David, who as a young man was anointed by Samuel to become the king of Israel. At that time, however, Saul was the established king. David honored Saul’s title and authority, even though Saul was disobedient to God (and, increasingly, a certifiable nut case). David declined multiple opportunities to kill Saul, refusing to raise his hand against the “Lord’s anointed.”
In the meantime, any number of things could have happened that would have kept David from ever becoming king, despite his being anointed as such. For instance, had his first rock missed Goliath’s head, his kingly career path would have been in serious jeopardy. If that were to happen, then presumably Samuel would lace up his sandals and go find someone else to anoint as king. Notably, this is why David was anointed in the first place: Saul, the Lord’s anointed, had abdicated his ordination through disobedience. As a result, David would become king in his stead.
Foreordination operates in much the same way. The Lord may have fitted us to be born at a particular time with a specific purpose and have ordained us to fulfill that role. However, accomplishing that purpose is a matter of choice rather than of destiny. Several times the Lord warned Joseph Smith in revelations that if he was not obedient, the Lord would remove him from his position and replace him with someone else. On at least one occasion, a revelation was given to an early Church leader through Joseph Smith assigning him to a specific calling. When that person fell away from the Church almost immediately thereafter, Joseph Smith was directed to simply replace his name with that of his replacement.
Makes sense, if you think about it. Even Luke Skywalker had Princess Leia waiting in the wings just in case he messed things up.
To me, the doctrine of foreordination is important on an intimate and personal level. What it tells me is that while we are not locked into any specific destinies, the Lord has nonetheless sent each of us to Earth at a time and place where we can do the most good. He has set us up perfectly for success. While few of us can claim to be the “best” at anything, the unique combination of talents, inclinations and attributes that each of us possesses fits perfectly for where we are now.
The trick, obviously, is finding a way to live up to ordinations that we cannot recall receiving. That requires a high degree of faith and trust in God, and a willingness to follow the promptings of the Spirit regardless of where they lead. Following my auto accident a year or so ago, I spoke with a former bishop who had nearly been killed in Vietnam. He told me that upon his recovery, he wrote on a card: “The Lord kept me alive another day. Why?” He said that he has kept that card throughout the decades since the war and looks at it frequently as a reminder that his mortal mission isn’t complete.
The fact that each of us is still here today attests that there is something yet undone. Something that you are perfectly prepared to perform. Knowing that our Heavenly Father Himself has entrusted us with divinely appointed missions should give us hope that we are well-suited for what will be asked of us.