Obedience and Desire

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 accordto 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.

23 thoughts on “Obedience and Desire

  1. This is amusing in light of the tale of the red ghost, a mysterious entity in the west that would mysteriously appear over the course of decades, leaving behind a red hair on occasion, trampling a young girl in another instance, and once, upon being shot at, leaving behind a mummified human head.

    Then the red ghost was finally downed. When those who had shot at the “ghost” approached the terror, it was a camel. Apparently the Union had used camels in the deserts. One soldier particularly disliked his mount. By way of punishment, the officers tied the soldier to the camel. Then the camel had bolted, and the officers were unable to locate the camel or the soldier tied to the camel’s back.

    Those who chafe at the counsel of the prophets are like the soldier, feeling they are tied to an untrustworthy animal. But perhaps they miss that they are like the camel, bolting from the line, taking with them helpless people who are unable to disengage from an errant and “disobedient” individual.

  2. A lot of things that are seen as cruel by short-sighted mortals will seem the opposite during the eternities. An all-seeing God knows what we need much more than we do. Thinking that physical desires are more important than Godly desires seems the greatest example of short-sightedness. Especially when physical desires can lead us to mirages.

  3. Once I attended a stake priesthood leadership meeting. Near the end of the meeting, the stake president asked us to commit to an action without knowing beforehand. We raised our hands to show our commitment. Then, we were asked to raise a hand if we turned down the commitment. No one did. At the time, I thought what the stake president was doing was manipulative and out of harmony with the commitment pattern I had used. The stake president then told us we had committed to finding someone for the missionaries to teach within some time period. I think it was six weeks, but I could be remembering wrong. Still, I thought the hard thing God was asking of me was to fulfill the commitment I had agreed to before knowing what it was.

    It was miserable. Despite my efforts, I failed to find someone. I cannot honestly say my “best efforts” because I don’t know that I can achieve “best” in a task like that. I did not invite every person I met, but I did try to find someone. I was utterly unsuccessful. I know that I was not alone.

    What if the hard thing God was asking of me was to turn down the commitment when I felt manipulated. That would have been scary in a room full of my peers and priesthood leaders. For me at the time, it was nearly unthinkable, but I have wondered all these years about my cowardice. Hopefully nobody else used this man’s methods, but what if my fear left others thinking that it was appropriate to do something like this? What if those actions damaged someone’s faith? Might my faith have been strengthened if I had shown some courage, albeit in a manner that would have raised some eyebrows at church?

    On the other hand, maybe I did exactly what God wanted. Maybe my efforts to find someone had effects that I do not know about. Maybe I did miss a prompting that would have made my effort successful. This is on my list of things to find out when I leave this life.

    It is good to be willing to do the hard things, but I am not sure that it is always clear what the correct hard thing to do is.

  4. DD, there’s a time and place in the temple which uses practically the same commitment pattern as that of your stake president.

  5. “DD, there’s a time and place in the temple which uses practically the same commitment pattern as that of your stake president.”

    Not if your temple prep class is any good.

    I once had a stake president ask us all to raise our hands and commit to putting 20 hours a week into our callings. I didn’t feel I could object, but I was also pretty sure I didn’t have 20 hours a week for my calling at that point in life. Not a happy experience.

  6. There are times when such challenges are inspired.

    There are times when such challenges are bone-headed stupidity.

    This is why it is important that we, as followers, have trained ourselves to heed the promptings of The Lord, who ultimately is the One we must follow.

    To mangle scriptures we know, I, a disciple of Christ, am bound when my leaders do what The Lord says, but when they do not what The Lord says, they have no promise (that I’ll blindly follow them into paths that The Lord tells me not to accept).

    As a woman, this is a covenant that I have explicitly made, the agreement to follow *contingent on the righteousness of the one leading*. Unrighteous dominion, therefore, frees me from the obligation to follow.

    If I were in a situation where I feel I am being asked to commit before I know whether my resources are adequate, I might reply that it is not meet that I run faster than I have strength (Mosiah 4:27). Therefore I request the right to know the challenge details before potentially committing to put something ahead of my more fundamental divine duties, that all may be done in order.

  7. Thanks Meg. One challenge of blogging these days is the tendency for people to find extreme exceptions to or misapplications of whatever principle one is trying to express, and presenting it as a rebuttal of sorts. One might write, “We should graciously forgive others,” and commenters will reply, “There was this one person who made themselves into a doormat for abuse because they followed that principle!” Well, no, nothing in the principle of forgiveness requires us to subject ourselves to abuse; just like nothing in the principle of strict obedience to God and His teachings requires us to subject ourselves to the unrighteous dominion of inexperienced local leadership. That there are counterfeits to divine principles (such as forgiveness vs. self-martyrdom; or obedience to God’s law vs. abdication of personal responsibility to mortal Church leaders) doesn’t make the divine principle less true.

  8. So this is the interesting thing. Usually the leaders are sufficiently inspired. “Good enough for government work” used to be the phrase. In a world where we acknowledge our brothers and sisters as exactly that, when we have faith that we once loved each other with all our hearts, when we have hope in a final judgement and restoration of those primeval memories that will restore that love to us once again, then we will lift up the tired arms and support each other, making strength of our mutual weakness.

    I referred to how, as a woman, I am empowered to decide whether to follow. But with this power comes great responsibility. If I incorrectly choose to not follow righteous direction, God’s judgement will take this very seriously. If I follow evil, God again will take this very seriously.

    As a use case, we can consider Nauvoo in the 1840s. Two leaders giving seemingly similar direction. Bennett said, sleep with me and keep quiet about it. It is your privilege to have all the sex you want, as long as no one is the wiser. Joseph said, covenant with me. It is your privilege to gain family connections that otherwise would be impossible. For now these things must be kept quiet, for my life is in your hands.

    Women had to choose which leader to follow. How incredibly terrible it was for those who realized too late that they had followed wrongly. Perhaps less heart-rending was those who only realized after Joseph’s death the privilege they had refused in avoiding Joseph’s invitation. Several of these had themselves sealed to him posthumously.

  9. Excellent post. Thanks Millennial Star for cutting through the noise of the bloggernacle and keeping it real.

  10. The following comes from Chad Orton, writing about Francis Webster of the Martin handcart company. A well known story that I think illustrates the point of the original post: God asks hard things of us.

    “One of the best-known and best-loved stories of the Mormon pioneers is the testimony of Francis Webster, a member of the Martin Hand- cart Company. Although his name has increasingly become associated with his statement, he is still better known as the unnamed old man in the corner of a Sunday School class who arose to silence criticism directed toward those who allowed that company to come west:

    “I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Hand Cart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that Company and my wife was in it. . . . I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there.
    Was I sorry that I chose to come by hand cart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Hand Cart Company.”

    I’ve never pushed a handcart or been through the Arabian desert, but I too have had to do hard things, things that have made me become acquainted with God. And I would not trade that relationship I now have with God for all the world!

  11. I expect the story about the Arabian horses is not true. Very thirsty horses can smell water. They do not have to see it. It calls them with the wind. That does not mean it is not a good story that can teach what the teacher wishes to teach. It just means water is very important in the life of a horse. They will die without it. I suppose that makes the story even better. I truly doubt a horse would be confused by a mirage.

  12. God set us at war with ourselves. He created our nature and then declared it His enemy. The natural man is an enemy to God.

  13. Nate,
    Have you considered that our natures are only at enmity with God when untamed? Perhaps we were sent here to tame our natures into the divine nature not by eradicating them but by learning to use them in Christ like ways. Or at least that is what the restored gospel teaches us.

  14. Jess W, yes, I think “tame” is a good way to think of it. It goes along with the analogy LDSP is using as well.

  15. Hi! First comment for me on this board (long time reader though – I love it here!)

    I wonder if its accurate to say that God created our nature. As intelligences aren’t we co-eternal with God. Rather than saying that He created our nature and then declared it His enemy it may be more appropriate to say that He identified our intelligences as having great potential. He clothed our intelligences with spirit bodies and thereby gave us our agency. He knew that no intelligence could progress to its full potential (or really to any potential) without following a strict exercise regimen which includes liberal opportunities to exercise agency.

  16. Welcome Lee!

    I completely agree with you. I remember the time as a youngling (to use my daughter’s term) when I recognized that I had once been helpless and mere “intelligence,” that God had brought me forth as spirit and given me a chance to become mortal, with all the promises of so much more. It was an amazing experience.

    I believe that is why He could absolutely not allow Lucifer to attempt to force all of us to return to heaven, because we must not be forced. We must become of our own free will, else we cannot become what He is.

  17. Maybe God didn’t create our spiritual nature, but he created our bodies, or allowed them to develop with certain instinctual desires and animalistic tendencies which are contrary to the commandments. But there must be opposition in all things. Like you say, there is no progress without struggle.

  18. ‘Don’t touch that!’, ‘Spit it out!’, ‘Don’t move!’ are a few phrases every parent wants their children to learn to obey as soon as possible. Trips to emergency rooms can be frequent where a child hesitates to obey such orders without arguing. I have found that ‘the Spirit’ has a fund of similar warnings that I ignore at my peril. It always thrills me when those in my stewardship begin to indicate that they have begun to heed such calls for obedience.

  19. Bodies with urges are like cars with engines. There is no inherent evil in the urges, just as their is no inherent evil in a car engine.

    The problem is not that we are by our natures evil, as so many Christians believe. It is that once we are born, we could not return to God without a Savior. Even a perfect and sinless baby who dies moments after birth would be unable to return. Thus we are innocents stranded.

    But God did this knowing that Christ would provide a way to return.

    In the meantime, we with our bodies act freely, without divine inhibition, learning what it means to deal with a full-function body without a divine parent hovering close by at all times. Some learn to drive, to handle their body with grace and ease. Others make copious mistakes. Still others are terribly mangled through no fault of their own.

    Christ takes away all the mistakes and mangling and fundamentally creates the bridge required to allow us to return, even for those of us who die so young that we can’t have committed any evil act (other than breaking the heart of our tender mother).

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