Unstable as water or steadfast and immovable? What kind of person do you choose to be?

An old Chinese fable demonstrates the meaning of being unstable and being steadfast.

A man travelling through the country came to a large city, very rich and splendid; he looked at it and said to his guide, “This must be a very righteous people, for I can only see but one little devil in this great city.”

The guide replied, “You do not understand, sir. This city is so perfectly given up to wickedness, corruption, degradation, and abomination of every kind, that it requires but one devil to keep them all in subjection.”

Traveling on a little further, he came to a rugged path and saw an old man trying to get up the hill side, surrounded by seven great, big, coarse-looking devils.

“Why,” says the traveler, “This must be a tremendously wicked old man! Only see how many devils there are around him!”

“This,” replied the guide, “is the only righteous man in the country; and there are seven of the biggest devils trying to turn him out of his path, and they all cannot do it” (George Albert Smith: JD, vol. 5, 364).

The Lord Wants Us To Be Steadfast Rather Than Unstable

The expectations of the Lord are that we will be steadfast; that we will keep our covenants, that we will stay on the path, and that we will live lives that reflect the reality of our conversion.  But we live in a world of significant spiritual difficulty, a world where circumstances combine to urge us-even to reward us-for taking sabbaticals from the lifestyles defined by our discipleship.

Being steadfast is simple on calm spring days with light breezes and warm sunshine. But when the winter winds blow, when the heavens gather blackness, and when life opens her suitcase of sorrows and starts handing us super-sized portions, all of us may feel an inclination to depart from the directions defined by our covenants and explore less challenging pathways. It often seems as though there are huge numbers of “great, big, coarse-looking devils” around us, trying to turn us from our course.

The scriptures tell us of people who turned away from their devotion, not just when conditions were stormy, but for the tiniest of provocations. These are the kinds of people who allow themselves to be subjected by “one little devil.”


Jacob had two wives and two concubines.  The first son of the first wife was Reuben.  The first son of the second wife was Joseph.  The cultural precedent was for the birthright to go to the first son, if he was worthy. That birthright generally included a double portion of the father’s goods and the responsibility to care for the family when the father was gone.

Reuben was not worthy.  “And it came to pass . . . that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine” (Genesis 35:22).

As Jacob (or Israel, as he came to be called) approached the end of his life, he gave blessings to all of his sons.  In Reuben’s blessing, he said, “Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power” (Genesis 49:3).

Reuben must have been delighted with these first words of blessing: might, strength, excellency, powerThe words might have encouraged him to anticipate a wonderful blessing and perhaps the bestowal of the birthright. But there was more to come:

“Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it” (Genesis 49:4).

Unstable As Water

The problem with Reuben was not only that in a moment of passion he surrendered to an immoral inclination.  The problem was that he was not steadfast.  He could not be trusted to be where and what he was supposed to be. He was unstable as water.

Many years ago, in an effort to teach young students in a religion class about Reuben, and about the dangers of instability, I brought a pitcher of water to my classroom, along with several glass containers of various shapes.  As I poured the water from container to container, I invited the students to comment on the properties of water.

Someone observed that the most obvious quality of water is that it takes the shape of its environment.  Other students suggested words like “unsound,” “unsteady,” “unpredictable,” even “erratic” and “changeable.”

Such words describe Reuben and others like him.  They are similar to water in that they follow the path of least resistance and they always go downhill.

What did it cost Reuben to be unstable and immoral?  Remember that Reuben was the birthright son; “but, forasmuch as he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel” (1 Chronicles 5:1).


Joseph was a wonderful contrast to Reuben.  While Reuben was submitting to temptation and sneaking into his father’s bed, Joseph was running from Potiphar’s wife and being delivered into prison. While Reuben was unstable, Joseph was steadfast.

Joseph had some difficult years in Egypt, but in the end what was the result of his being steadfast?  Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Thou shalt be over my house, and according to thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne shall I be greater than thou.” (Genesis 41:40).  Jacob said to Joseph, “And now thy two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh . . . are mine; as Reuben and Simeon [Jacob’s first two sons], they shall be mine” (Genesis 48:5).

Joseph got a birthright and a throne and the acknowledgement that he was steadfast.  Reuben got an hour of passion with his father’s concubine, the loss of the birthright, and the reputation of being unstable.

Burning Cathedrals

Dr. Henry A. Bowman said:

When all is said and done, there is nothing gained from premarital adventure except immediate pleasure and that at tremendous risk and exorbitant cost. No really intelligent person will burn a cathedral to fry an egg, even to satisfy a ravenous appetite. (Hugh B. Brown, The Abundant Life, p.67)

Burning a cathedral to cook breakfast is the action of one who is unstable, and Reuben – unstable, watery Reuben-turned his cathedral into kindling while Joseph-firm, steadfast, immovable Joseph-was building his.

It is possible to evaluate ourselves to determine if we are more like Joseph or more like Reuben.

  We can do so with a couple of simple questions: “Am I where I am supposed to be?”  “Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing?”  If the answer to either of these questions is no, then someone or something has turned us out the path and exposed our instability.

Unstable as Water or Firm, Steadfast and Immovable?

Ted L. Gibbons (Posted by Gospel Ideals on 2 October 2013)

Lehi longed for a son like Joseph.  He said to his rebellious, inconsistent son, Lemuel, “O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!” (1 Nephi 2:10).

I have a son who is like Joseph.  When he was a teen-ager, we did not always know where he was or what he was doing, but we never worried.  We knew that wherever he was, and whatever he was doing, it was all right.

But there are men and women like Reuben, also; wandering disciples whose commitment to their covenants is erratic; distracted disciples who can resist anything but temptation.  They remind me of Paul’s appeal to the Ephesians whom he implored to be steadfast, and to “be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14).