BYU–Hawaii President Kauwe explains what rivers and ocean waves have to do with peace and righteousness

What do powerful rivers and dangerous ocean waves have to do with peace and righteousness?

In the first campus devotional of the Fall 2021 semester at BYU–Hawaii — and the first devotional with an auditorium full of students since the COVID-19 pandemic began — President John S.K. Kauwe III shared what he has learned from water in the scriptures, on Tuesday, Sept. 7. President Kauwe spoke along with his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe.

“You’ve probably noticed that here at BYU–Hawaii, water is everywhere,” President Kauwe said. “From enjoying the ocean to battling floods, it brings us joy and trials.”

President Kauwe loves water, whether it’s in the form of rivers, lakes or oceans. The field work for his master’s degree involved collecting a certain type of small aquatic insect from every major river drainage in the Western United States, and he has continued to do research in the genomics of marine fish all over the world’s oceans. Most mornings, he makes time to be in the ocean. “It still doesn’t feel like enough for me,” he said.

So it makes sense that scriptural passages about water stand out to him. In his remarks, he focused on 1 Nephi 20:18, which is also found in Isaiah 48:18: “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments — then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.”

Peace as a river

“The power of a river can be shocking,” President Kauwe said. Many rivers he has encountered have been surprisingly strong, and their power can be seen through the paths they forge. “Through sand or stone, rivers have a steadiness, persistence and power that will carry them over, under, around or through any obstacle.”

When Isaiah teaches that obedience to God’s commandments will bring peace as a river, “I believe he is talking about a peace that steadily and inevitably continues through every challenge of our lives, allowing us to proceed over, under, around and through everything we face,” President Kauwe said.

The connection to obedience to commandments is also significant, he explained. Rivers begin at the high peaks of mountains where precipitation from the heavens gathers and flows, growing from trickles of streams to roaring rivers.

“So it is with peace,” President Kauwe said. Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace. The plan of salvation is made possible through His Atonement, which gives peace allowing one to overcome any obstacle. “His peace is there for us, all the time,” he said. “We can access it by learning of Him, loving Him and following His commandments.

“When we do that, our peace will be as a river.”

BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III and his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe, give the opening devotional for fall semester in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.
BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III and his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe, give the opening devotional for fall semester in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Mark Gatus, BYU–Hawaii

Righteousness as the waves of the sea

President Kauwe has spent many hours experiencing the waves of the sea, whether it’s fishing from shore or on boats, scuba diving or free diving, body surfing, boogie boarding or surfing. “I have experienced waves in the open ocean that were so large that I couldn’t even see over them,” he said. “As you experience the ocean and its waves, you will learn that within that beautiful form is great power.”

Here he paused to add some practical advice to the students of BYU–Hawaii. “Always be very careful around the ocean,” he said. While summer waves in the area are generally gentle, the winter waves are powerful and dangerous to those lacking experience. “Please be careful. We want you to stay safe and healthy.”

In a rough explanation, he taught that waves are the result of water transmitting energy from wind and the pull of the moon — both sources found in the heavens. The water reacts and the energy is transferred through the water until it forms a wave breaking upon the shoreline.

“Isaiah’s teaching of obtaining ‘righteousness like the waves of the sea’ through obedience to the commandments is describing a person whose actions are completely shaped by and in alignment with the energy of the heavens,” President Kauwe said. “Such a person would understand and translate the will of God into actions that are beautiful and powerful like the waves of the sea.”

Each person’s righteousness or actions should be completely dictated by the power of heaven. “This righteousness that we obtained through obedience will give us access to divine, wavelike power,” President Kauwe said. This power will transform each person’s life and the lives of those around them in eternally significant ways, can overcome any challenge or obstacle, and enable BYU–Hawaii students to change their communities and build peace internationally, he said.

In closing, President Kauwe said peace and righteousness “will prepare us to patiently and confidently trust our Savior, Jesus Christ, in every challenge.”

“As a river, our peace will sustain us around, over and through every obstacle we face. Like the waves of the sea, we will translate the powers of heaven into righteousness that is awe-inspiring in its beauty and power.”

Moral agency

Sister Kauwe recounted a question she’d heard in a discussion recently: “If we are supposed to conform to God’s will, what does that mean for our free agency? … We have agency, which means that we are free to do what we want. But if we have to do what God wants us to do, how is that really free agency?”

Agency, she explained, is the ability and privilege God gives to His children to choose and act for themselves. Additionally, the term “free agency” is not used in the scriptures. “Doctrine and Covenants 101:78 instead teaches ‘that every man may act in doctrine and principle … according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins.’

“So really what we are looking at is moral agency,” she said.

BYU–Hawaii's first lady, Sister Monica Kauwe, gives the opening devotional for fall semester in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.
BYU–Hawaii’s first lady, Sister Monica Kauwe, gives the opening devotional for fall semester in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Mark Gatus, BYU–Hawaii

Agency has been a central part of God’s plan since before anyone came to earth. Through Heavenly Father’s plan, each person is responsible for his or her own actions, desires and attitudes; through Christ’s example, each person learns how to submit his or her will to Heavenly Father’s will.

Sister Kauwe then read 2 Nephi 2:27-28: “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. And now my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit.”

“So in answer to that question I described earlier about what happens to our ‘free agency,’ when we do what God wants us to do, we are not giving up our agency; we are doing what will bring us liberty and eternal life, rather than captivity and death,” Sister Kauwe said.

She used the example of family members recently learning how to surf, to illustrate this principle. Surfing isn’t easy, especially with changing conditions from day to day. While it’s possible to learn how to surf on one’s own, “really the best way to enjoy the full experience and thrill of riding the waves is to choose to learn and practice the basic techniques of surfing.”

To enjoy surfing and have success, one must follow certain rules and practice basic skills, Sister Kauwe said. “Similarly, the choices we make every day to keep the commandments, follow the prophet, have daily prayer, read the scriptures and live our lives in such a way that keeps the Spirit with us are all part of our larger choice to exercise our agency and follow Christ and His plan for us.”

BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III and his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe, greet students prior to giving the opening campus devotional for fall semester in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.
BYU–Hawaii President John S.K. Kauwe III and his wife, Sister Monica Kauwe, greet students prior to giving the opening campus devotional for fall semester in Laie, Hawaii, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Mark Gatus, BYU–Hawaii