There is a common folk myth — and I use the term “myth” not because it isn’t true, but only because I’ve been unable to independently verify it — about the training that Arabian horses undergo before riders will trust them to carry them through the harsh deserts of the Middle East. The trainers will train the horse to come to the owner at the sound of a bell. But casual obedience is not enough — the trainers want the horse to be able and willing to override their strongest urges and desires to comply with the rider’s commands.
To put this to the test, the trainer will tie the horse within sight of water for several hot days, without feeding the horse or giving it water to drink. Then, as the horse is severely parched and dehydrated, the trainer will release the horse, and the horse will immediately dash to the water, expecting a long, thirst-quenching drink. Just as the horse is about to drink, the trainer will ring the bell. Those that respond to the bell even in that moment have passed the test and are ready to be trusted — those that don’t must continue with their training. (There’s an old seminary video that depicts this, which can be found here.)
I’ve been thinking about this — why would such a harsh test be necessary? Because (1) it’s possible that horses might have to go for days without water while crossing the desert, and (2) the desert is full of mirages, where it appears that there is water in the distance, when there is really not. A horse that is untrained in the manner might, after a couple days of water, begin to ignore the rider’s instructions and dash for water that isn’t really there. In doing so, the horse will only doom itself and its rider to perish in the desert, completely unaware that, through strict obedience, the rider would have lead it to real water and safety.
I find this to have fascinating parallels to our mortal experience. We have desires — desires for companionship, desires for validation, desires for love, desires for success, desires for safety, etc. — and this world is often a dry and barren place that seems unwilling to satisfy our desires (much like a desert). But, also like a desert, the world is filled with mirages: things that promise to fulfill our desires, but will leave us feeling as empty as before. And chasing after mirages will distract and deter us on our journey to the oases where we can drink from the living waters (the companionship of the Holy Spirit, the safety of the temple, the words of Christ, etc.).
God needs us to be strictly obedient to His commandments, even when everything inside of us — every ounce of the “natural man” (Mosiah 3:19) — is screaming for us to dash off after a mirage. He needs us to forego our desires and return to Him, even when it appears to us as if satisfaction is right in front of our nose. He needs us to learn discipline, to master every mortal impulse, craving, and desire we have.
And note that these desires aren’t always sinful in and of themselves — a desire for companionship is not only normal, but is a righteous desire. A desire for validation is not an unrighteous desire. Etc. A horse’s desire for water is a natural desire that leads the horse to nourishment. It’s not the desire itself that is necessarily sinful — it is simply that the mirages we chase will not ultimately satisfy them, and will lead us away from the living waters, the Divine companionship, the approval of God, etc.
Some have argued that such forms of horse training are tantamount to animal abuse — the trainers are subjecting the horses to extreme physical discomfort during the course of training. No one who truly loves animals would subject such majestic beings to such torment — leaving them tied near water for days in the hot sun, refusing them drink, only to ask them to choose, of their own accord, to forgo drink once offered. How cruel is that? Not only is demanding such obedience wrongheaded, it is argued, it is damaging to the animal itself.
Some have applied the same analysis to God, arguing that God would not ask His children to forgo such deeply seated (and ostensibly righteous) desires, and certainly not willingly. For example, some have told me that those who cannot marry because of physical defects face the unfortunate vicissitudes of life; but those who are told not to marry members of the same sex must willingly choose to do so, and that is just plain cruel and unkind. To be asked to willingly forgo our desires in the name of obedience is a whole step further into cruelty than merely being kept from our desires due to factors outside of our control. The latter, they accept; the former, they treat as something that no good God would ask of us. This is just one example of others I have come across — the theme is the same, which is that a good God would not ask of us that which God asks of us.
And yet, God asks hard things of His children all the time. He asks us all, at times, to forgo desires — deep-seated desires that, in and of themselves, may be perfectly righteous desires — in the name of obedience to Divine law. He might ask those with same sex attraction to forgo marital companionship in mortality, even when it is available to them (and encouraged by the world); He might ask those who desperately seek friendship to risk it for His cause (by standing for truth even when it is unpopular); He might require those who desperately want children to suffer the drought of infertility; etc. God is, at times, a harsh trainer, and I think that every one of us, at some point in our lives, will have opportunities to exercise discipline that challenges us to the very core.
The God I worship asks hard things of His children, but not because He is cruel, but because He is kind, and concerned for our eternal welfare. He knows where the mirages are, and where the oases are; and He needs us to be able to follow His commands so that He can lead us through the dry places to true, lasting nourishment, even when everything inside of us cries out for the water that appears — to us — to be in the other direction. I believe that, true or not, the parable of the Arabian stallion is a powerful likeness of our relationship with God. God can be good, and yet still ask us to give up things that we hold dear.