One more scriptural insight may help to place all of this in a spiritual context.
Lehi’s dream was experienced by both Lehi and Nephi, and described by both of them, albeit with different emphases. Lehi says he “beheld a river of water”7 but does not describe it, while Nephi is instructed by the angel, “Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof are the depths of hell.”8 Nephi disclosed that the water was “filthy” and represented the “depths of hell.”
Referring now back to Lehi’s account, he describes the relative position of the river with respect to other key features in the dream: “I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit.”9 The river of filthiness was near the tree, which represented the love of God. I often ask myself how it is that the Lord would allow something so filthy (the river) to be so close to something so pure (the tree). But Lehi’s next statement is almost more stunning, if that’s possible: “And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.”10
“The iron rod is the word of God; ‘Twill safely guide us through.”11 And what was the relative proximity of the rod of iron to the river of filthiness? It extended along the bank! If you’ve been near rivers with small children, the bank is not generally a safe place, particularly when a river is dangerous (or filthy). People walking along the banks of a river may get mud on their shoes. And yet, the people in Lehi’s dream were pressing forward, holding fast to the rod of iron, moving along the bank of this filthy river.
What to make of this apparent inconsistency? Aren’t we taught to stay as far away from evil as possible? Absolutely. But here we have a situation in which a person who follows the commandments of God and lays hold on the rod of iron finds himself near the river of filthiness while in the very act of obedience.
From my perspective, there are two important ways of understanding this apparent inconsistency. The first is spiritual. Which feature of the dream was there first? Put another way, would the Lord locate the iron rod in such a way as to draw His people toward a river of filthiness? Doubtful. It’s more likely that the iron rod was there first by decree from the Lord. Who is the master of the river of filthiness? The devil. If you were the adversary, where would put your river? As close to the people of God as you could possibly get it (or as close as you were permitted by God to put it). Hence, Lehi’s dream describes a situation in which an individual is moving along the strait and narrow path, holding fast to the iron rod, moving toward the tree of life, all the while running the risk that the river of filthiness may lap at his or her feet. Given Lehi’s teachings about opposition in all things and the parable of the wheat and the tares in which the Lord allows good and evil to grow up together, this juxtaposition of good and evil is not inconsistent with some of the apparent realities of the mortal probation.
The second observation to be gleaned from Lehi’s dream is technological (naturally). As we’ve discussed previously, technology is a powerful force for both good and evil. As a young man logs into the church’s website to fill out his mission papers, he could with just a few keystrokes access inappropriate and spiritually damaging material. The same fiber optic cables carry data packets containing evil filth and redeeming truth. I believe that the proximity of the rod of iron and the river of filthiness teaches us that in our generation, even if we are exactly where we need to be, doing precisely what the Lord wants us to do, we are not immune from Satan’s influence, and must tenaciously cling to the rod of iron as if our spiritual survival depended upon it—which indeed it does.