When my son was a teenager, I took him and his fellow scouts on a white-water kayaking trip on the middle fork of the salmon river. Tucked away in the sawtooth mountains of Idaho, the middle fork is the destination for serious rafters and kayakers from around the world. It has some amazing higher-class rapids, and some are for experts only.
To prepare for the trip we learned kayaking skills in the pool including learning how to turn your kayak right-side up after you tip over and how to exit your kayak if you turn upside down. Both are essential, because as a novice you will tip over dozens of times on the river. If you’ve ever been on a kayak, it is a topsy turvy experience at best. So, it pays to be prepared.
At one point on our trip, I was paddling last in line. As we approached a steep decline in the river, the guide stopped our group and explained that below the falls ahead was a whirlpool that worked like a washing machine. If you got stuck, it would keep bringing you back to the falls, push you under the water, and then churn you and your kayak around in circles.
So, he told us, “Don’t tip over” and if you do, don’t try to exit your kayak. He said, “It will be totally against your nature, but stay upside down, hold your breath, grab onto your oar by one end and hold the other end over your head as deep into the water as possible.”
Your oar will reach the deep current which will gradually pull you past the whirlpool and downstream. As I waited last in line, all the boys made it down the waterfall upright and safe. Then, my son left his position next to me to approach the waterfall. As he did, he bumped into my kayak. As a result, I lost my balance, tipped over and followed him into the waterfall, but I was upside down in the water.
I landed in the deep pool upside down. My first instinct was to slip out of the kayak and swim to the surface to catch my breath. But I remembered what the guide said, so I held my breath and stuck one end of my oar as deep into the water as possible holding on to the other end of the oar.
Nothing happened. I was running out of air. But after a few seconds, I could feel the oar pulling me down river. After about 30 seconds, I could feel water around me become calmer and I knew it was safe to exit the kayak and swim to the surface.
Imagine if I had disregarded the advice of our guide or failed to follow his simple instructions. What turned out to be a fun adventure could have been much different.
Likewise, there is great peace and safety in following the instructions of our guide in life. Jesus Christ, his words and example are a guide for us. The Book of Mormon is a guide and as Joseph Smith said, “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”
We, like the children of Israel, also have a living guide: our prophet. Ezra Taft Benson said, “The most important prophet, so far as we are concerned, is the one who is living in our day and age. This is the prophet who has today’s instructions from God to us.”
Like the guide helped me maneuver out of the whirlpool when I was upside down in the water, so can the prophet help us in the upside-down world of today. And we learn from the experiences of the children of Israel, that following the prophet is often put to the test.
Follow the Prophet, Always
It’s easy to follow the prophet until the prophet gives us guidance that disagrees with our opinion, is inconvenient, or may cause a bit of disruption in our lives. At these times, we may be tempted to murmur or even speak against the prophet. But I have learned that when you take the prophet to be your guide, it is not a menu from which you can select which guidance you will follow and which you will set aside.
The Israelites, after hearing the report from the men who searched Canaan and learning that men of great stature, that giants possessed the land, returned to their murmuring ways like they did at the waters of the Red Sea when the Egyptian Army was approaching.
In Numbers 14:2-3 we read, “…all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!And wherefore hath the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?”
The definition of murmur is “a low indistinct sound, a grumble or complaint.” Even if they are low in volume and indistinct in sound, murmurs have an effect on the murmurer. As we murmur, our faith in our guide slowly erodes, leaving us “unto ourselves” and without the protection our guide can provide. When we murmur, we place our opinions, feelings or mood above the direction of our guide. And often the result is that we must learn the hard way.
At least five times, the Israelites returned to their murmuring ways. When they were under threat of the Egyptian army, when they were lead into the desert, when they were famished, and when they had to eat the same bread day after day, they murmured. It’s no wonder that the Lord says to Moses, “How long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?”
At times, we are not much different than the children of Israel. We are incredibly blessed, we have the covenants of salvation, we live in a world of plenty, and we enjoy the proximity of prophets, temples, ordinances and miracles in our life. Yet, if the prophet suggests we do something small to protect our families or a member of the quorum of the twelve speaks words that are not popular to the world, we are apt to murmur.
Sister Carol McConkie taught of faithful saints when she said, “We heed prophetic word even when it may seem unreasonable, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. According to the world’s standards, following the prophet may be unpopular, politically incorrect, or socially unacceptable. But following the prophet is always right. The Lord honors and favors those who will heed prophetic direction.”[i]
How can a people so blessed and fortunate forget so easily? Perhaps this is why the Lord implores us to “remember, and perish not (Mosiah 4:30).”
President Eying said, “Every time in my life when I have chosen to delay following inspired counsel or decided that I was an exception, I came to know that I had put myself in harm’s way. Every time that I have listened to the counsel of prophets, felt it confirmed in prayer, and then followed it, I have found that I moved toward safety. Along the path, I have found that the way had been prepared for me and the rough places made smooth. God led me to safety along a path which was prepared with loving care, sometimes prepared long before.”[ii]
Look to Jesus and Live
In Numbers 21, the children of Israel, “Journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore, have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.”
Perhaps weary of the returning again to their complaining ways or needing to strengthen the camps of Israel by removing those with little or no faith left, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died (Numbers 21:6).”
Then, the children of Israel remembered and came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived (Numbers 21:7-9).”
What is most remarkable about this story is the meek response of Moses and the Lord. When the people asked, Moses prayed for the people. When Moses prayed, the Lord provided a way to save the people. Clearly, the Lord forgives and seeks to bring his people to himself.
During his earthly ministry, the Savior likened Himself to the serpent of brass: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 2:14-15). I am certain that the Lord extends his arm of mercy to us. Even if we have sinned or murmured or left him for a time, if we return to him and follow his prophet, he will bless us and provide a way for our salvation.
Daily Holy Habits
So, how do we remember the Lord and keep our eyes fixed on the savior? In an area conference a few years ago, Elder Ballard advised members to establish and keep “essential, daily habits that ‘keep us rooted, grounded, and connected to [Christ].’ These habits include daily prayer, fasting, studying the scriptures and the words of the living prophets, keeping the Sabbath day holy, partaking of the sacrament, worshipping in the temple often, and reaching out to the needy, poor, and lonely.
“When someone stops doing these simple but essential things,” Elder Ballard said, “they cut themselves from the ‘well of living water’ and allow Satan to muddle their thinking.” As our prophet said, “I plead with you to make time for the Lord! Make your own spiritual foundation firm and able to stand the test of time by doing those things that allow the Holy Ghost to be with you always.”[iii]
When I was a young man, I would often watch my father study the scriptures. I could tell by the way he studied that something more than reading was going on. It was almost as if a conversation was going on in his head while he pondered and made notes.
As he read, he had a dialog—he asked questions and offered potential answers, he listened as the Spirit spoke, he built his thoughts line upon line, and he used promptings from the Spirit to build the reasoning or patterns that he noted in his scriptures. He had a great habit of writing these conversations down as part of his scripture study.
Often, Dad’s knowledge of the scriptures, built through a lifetime of study, would help him make connections between what he read and something he learned months or even years before. This ordering of experience and knowledge based on years of study, was a vast source of truth stored in his mind from which he could recall and discern how to best live his life and teach the gospel to his children.
The most unique part of Dad’s study was that this: somehow the notes he wrote in his scriptures soon became part of his behavior and his character. Not only did he read and hear the message, but he also obeyed the message in the best way he knew how. He was apt to act and that sealed the scriptures to him and made them his own. His obedience also opened the door to ongoing personal revelation and allowed the Lord to speak to him more clearly.
The Honors of Men
In Numbers 22, we read the story of Balaam. Balaam was a prophet and the Moabite king hoped he could bribe or at least prevail upon Balaam to speak against Israel. Balak offered gifts and treasure to Balaam if he would do so. Balaam refused, after the Lord told him “Thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.”
Balak persisted. He asked Balaam again through his princes. This time the princes offered him honor and praise. Balaam again refused. But as Balak continued to entice Balaam, he decided to go with the princes of Moab. The Lord sent an angel with a sword drawn in his hand to “stand in the way.” Balaam didn’t see the angel, but Balaam’s donkey did and refused to go further. This begins a literal conversation between Balaam and the donkey as the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey so he could speak. Soon, Balaam’s eyes were opened and he too saw the angel, and Balaam finally understood his donkey’s behavior. Ashamed, he bowed his head and fell to the ground. He repented.
The angel told him: “Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee … thou shalt speak.” Balaam went on to Moab, where Balak continued to coax and promise him great wealth and power if he would curse Israel, but Balaam refused. In the end, Balaam struggled to set aside the things of the world and do the will of the Lord.
I think we are all a bit like Balaam from time to time. We seek the praise and honor of men. And even though the Lord puts roadblocks in our way to warn us and help us remember the right way, we sometimes forget.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the scripture says that some of the chief rulers believed on him. But because of the Pharisees they didn’t “confess him lest they should be put out of the synagogue. For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God (John 12:42–43).”
The Lord speaks clearly to this in D&C 121 when he says, “Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
“That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven.”
I wonder how many times an angel has stood in our path and like Balaam, we couldn’t see the Lord’s hand. And sometimes we change course and other times we let the cares of the world push us beyond the Lord’s angel standing in the way.
As the hymn says, “Know this, that every soul is free to choose his life and what he’ll be; for this eternal truth is given: God will force no man to heaven. He’ll call, persuade, direct aright, and bless with wisdom, love and light. In nameless ways be good and kind, but never force the human mind.”[iv]
So. remember, follow the prophet. He knows the way. Don’t murmur. Even in small ways, murmuring erodes our faith and our strength to stand. Look to the Lord Jesus Christ by doing the small daily habits that fix your focus on him. Don’t give way to the cares of the world and honor of men. And watch, your life, unlike the children of Israel who wandered, will take a straight course to the promised land.
[i] October 2014 General Conference.
[ii] Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, May 1997, 25
[iii] To The Saints in the Utah South Area, Elder M. Russell Ballard, September 13, 2015.
[iv] Know This That Every Soul is Free, Hymnbook 240.