Recently, I was visiting Zion National Park with my parents. We were hoping to hike the Narrows, which is a hike almost entirely through the Virgin River, but while we were planning our trip, we found on the National Park Services website that toxic cyanobacteria had been found in the river and that the river needed to be avoided. We were disappointed, but knew of other trails we could enjoy instead while we were in the park.
We did decide that, even though the river itself needed to be avoided, we could still do the Riverside Walk (a trail that leads directly to the trailhead of the Narrows) safely. As we walked the trail, we noticed that the water was a different blue than usual, which we attributed to the cyanobacteria. We also saw several signs reminding all visitors that the bacteria in the river was dangerous and needed to be avoided.
However, as we got further down the Riverside Walk, we began to see wet footprints scattered across the trail. Eventually, we also saw people with wet legs and clothing walking back down the trail. And when we came to the Narrows, we saw people swimming and hiking up the river.
In fact, so many people were swimming and hiking that, by choosing to obey the signs directing us to avoid touching the river, my parents and I were actually in the minority.
Watching all those people, I wondered if they knew something we didn’t about the bacteria that made them feel sure that they were safe in the water. But the signs all along the trail said otherwise.
Walking back along the trail, I overheard a couple of people who had walked in the river talking to each other. One had an open blister on her foot, and one of her companions said, “Well, I hope that bacteria stuff didn’t get in it.” It was clear that they hadn’t missed the signs (which would have been difficult to do), but they had chosen to risk exposure to it anyway.
After leaving the park that day, I kept thinking about all the people who had ignored the signs about the toxic bacteria. Wondering how dangerous toxic cyanobacteria actually is, I looked it up and found that cyanobacteria exposure can cause a variety of symptoms ranging from skin irritation and headaches to mouth blisters and liver damage.
It’s possible that some of the people who were in the river that day didn’t have any severe symptoms from the bacteria. However, it’s also likely that most would have experienced at least mild symptoms and some would have more severe symptoms, especially if the bacteria made contact with their mouth.
But anyone who paid attention to the signs and chose to obey them did not have to face potential harm from the cyanobacteria.
Why Do Rules and Warnings Exist?
Since this experience, I keep thinking about the warning signs and rules we see throughout our lives. Some, like the signs about the bacteria, will protect us from physical harm. And there are also warning signs and rules that protect us spiritually.
These warnings and rules are typically simple and even easy to follow – “just do this” or “don’t do that.” And yet, they are ignored all the time.
For example, let’s look at the habit of regular prayer and scripture study. It’s a simple commandment, but it’s also really easy to slip up on. But we’re promised that if we do these things, we’ll have a better relationship with God, it will be easier to receive revelation, and we’ll be protected spiritually.
So why not do it?
Because, as simple as it is to do these things, it’s easier not to. But when we don’t do these things, we forfeit the blessings and protections that come from reading and praying.
This holds true in every commandment we are given. When we obey the commandments, we are given strength and protection.
Which Warnings and Commandments Should We Follow?
I think it’s worth mentioning that the source of a rule is important to know. If the signs about the toxic bacteria had been written in crayon and posted by a preschool teacher, I probably wouldn’t have taken the signs as seriously. But because the signs were posted professionally on the trail and on the website by the people who care for the park, I knew I could trust the warnings to be correct.
The same holds true with spiritual warnings. Honestly, I don’t expect anyone to take me too seriously simply because I’ve made it clear on this blog that I do not represent the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m simply writing my own faith, opinions, and experiences – though I do try to keep the things I write as close as possible to what the Church teaches.
But why should anyone listen to me? I seriously appreciate those of you who do think this blog is worth reading, but I’m just a writer. So my writing can’t be taken as law.
And that same thing is true of every writer out there. I’m sure that most writers who write publicly about their faith do their best to share their faith accurately, but none of us can be the ones who determine what the rules are and what they aren’t. We can repeat the rules, we can discuss doctrine, and so on, but the rules and warnings we all need to pay attention to are the ones that come directly from God.
The prophets speak the words of God. They are the ones we can trust. Prophets, both living and dead, teach us what God’s commandments are. They give us the warnings we need to be safe in our lives.
In about a month from the time I’m writing this, we’ll have General Conference – the opportunity to hear firsthand from the living prophet of the Lord. And he will give us direction and warnings directly from God. If we listen to him, we will be able to see where danger might be and what we might need to change.
Of course, we can breeze past the warnings like the people in the river did. But the consequences will follow. And who wants the spiritual equivalent of skin irritation or liver damage?
We and our families are safer when we rely on our prophets and our God to guide us. We are safer when we hear God and listen to Him.
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Keep an eye out for the updated version of the General Conference Study Book coming in a few days!
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