Freedom to choose is not the same thing as unlimited power.
That seems pretty obvious, but in our pursuit of freedom, we sometimes fail to acknowledge our constraints. And when other people are misbehaving, we may forget that they, too, operate within constraints, seen or unseen.
Job pointed out that the ultimate constraint on every person’s freedom is their mortality:
Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass.Job 14:5
On one occasion when Nephi’s brothers were complaining about their circumstances in the wilderness, he responded with a challenge:
If ye have choice, go up to the land, and remember the words which I speak unto you, that if ye go ye will also perish.1 Nephi 7:15, italics added
Surely they could have gone back to Jerusalem at that point if they wanted to, but they didn’t. Something kept them with their family in the wilderness. However much they disliked the journey, they traveled all the way to the promised land.
When King Noah commanded his priests to execute the prophet Abinadi, he responded that it was not in their power to do so:
Touch me not, for God shall smite you if ye lay your hands upon me, for I have not delivered the message which the Lord sent me to deliver; neither have I told you that which ye requested that I should tell; therefore, God will not suffer that I shall be destroyed at this time….
But I finish my message; and then it matters not whither I go, if it so be that I am saved.Mosiah 13:3, 9
They did eventually execute him, but not until after he had delivered his message.
In one of the most horrific events in the Book of Mormon, Alma and Amulek were forced to watch women and children burned to death because of their beliefs. When Amulek asked Alma why they could not call down God’s power to save these innocent people, Alma explained that God would not allow it:
The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer…that the people may do this thing unto them.Alma 14:11
Amulek speculates that he and Alma might be burned to death as well. Alma responds, “Be it according to the will of the Lord. But, behold, our work is not finished; therefore they burn us not” (Alma 14:13).
As Joseph Smith and his fellow church leaders suffered in a cold prison cell for months during the winter of 1839, the Lord reminded them that the outcome was ultimately in His hands. Speaking of their captors (and paraphrasing Job), He said, “Their bounds are set, they cannot pass.” He went on to reassure Joseph, “Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:9).
Today, I will remember that in spite of the latitude we have been given to make our own decisions, God is really in charge. We all operate within boundaries which He controls, and He can curtail our freedom in order to accomplish His purposes.