On a recent trip to Hermanus, South Africa, I learned the importance of agency. This small coastal town is about a 90-minute drive from Cape Town and is one of the many beautiful beach towns along the coast. The waves were rolling in as I headed down to the beach to surf with a friend.
Once we had off-loaded the surfboards, I stood in the warm white sand and stared at the beach, squinting at the sun in disbelief. The lifeguard had already put up the swimming zone flags, but they were less than 50 meters (165 feet) apart! The beach was several hundred meters long, and all the good waves were outside the swimming zone. How was anybody supposed to swim between those two red- and yellow-striped flags? Was he just being lazy because he didn’t want to watch all the way down the beach?
My friend and I are pretty good swimmers, so we decided to head out to the right of the flagged area. As I walked out through the white water, I could feel the strong pull of the water washing past my legs, but I could still stand against the current, so I kept going. When I was in deep enough, I got on my board and paddled out to the unbroken swells. The waves kept coming, and we surfed for a while, enjoying catching the waves and watching each other catch the waves.
I turned around to look at the beach and suddenly noticed that I was rapidly drifting away from where I had started—the flags were far away! What I didn’t know about and couldn’t see was a large sandbar on the ocean floor, and as the tide was coming in, the water was washing over the sides of the sandbar, creating a powerful wash on both sides of the flagged area. The lifeguard knew that; he had been sitting there the whole day watching the water, so he knew where it was safe to swim.
I turned my board around and began paddling back towards the swimming zone. I paddled my hardest, but there was no way I could swim against the strong current. I was drifting farther out to sea! Panicking, I got off my board and tried to walk. My feet just touched the ocean floor, and I felt my toes dragging in the sand beneath. I could not hold myself against the thousands of tons of water moving past me, so I had to get back on my board. I lay there, powerless and drifting. I waved to my friend to help, but he was caught by the same current.
“Would the lifeguard still rescue me, even though I had ignored his warning?” I wondered. I had made the decision to swim in the no-swim zone and now had to accept the consequence—loss of control. I was being pulled by forces much stronger than I was. My only hope was to catch a wave back to the beach before I was pulled into the sharp rocks at the end of the beach. Eventually, a wave came, and I managed to ride it back to shore as did my friend.
We sheepishly walked back to the swimming zone and enjoyed the rest of the day surfing between the flags. Each time one of us began drifting too close to the edge of the swimming zone, we would warn each other to come back.
Our Heavenly Father has given us prophets, other Church leaders, and parents to plant flags on the beach so we can see the safe places to swim, because He knows where the dangerous areas are and what can happen to us if we go to those places. He then commands us to stay between the flags, yet He gives us the ability to choose where we want to swim. We might feel that the designated area is too narrow or too boring, but those flags are there for a reason.
Sometimes we decide to wade into the no-swim zone because we think we can handle the strong pull of temptation. Other times we end up drifting into dangerous areas because we don’t watch ourselves carefully enough. Either way, we end up being pulled by a force greater than ourselves, and our agency is limited—we become trapped, we can no longer choose what to do, and our spiritual lives are at risk.
Our parents and Church leaders will do everything in their power to rescue us if we are caught in the powerful tide of sin, but sometimes there isn’t anything they can do. Those who swim in the safe zone can enjoy swimming the whole day without ever feeling loss of control or fear of their lives being swept away.
King Benjamin warned his people: “If ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith, … even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not” (Mosiah 4:30).