In both American and Latter-day Saint cultures (and especially in the confluence of both), we envision things that we hope will become reality and set goals. These goals are intended to lift our vision and we believe that without these goals, we will fall short of our potential. In fact, President Ballard said as much:
I am so thoroughly convinced that if we don’t set goals in our life and learn how to master the techniques of living to reach our goals, we can reach a ripe old age and look back on our life only to see that we reached but a small part of our full potential. When one learns to master the principles of setting a goal, he will then be able to make a great difference in the results he attains in this life (quoted in Preach My Gospel).
However, it is possible to take goals too far. Many of us seem to have the impression that as long as our goals are righteous (not a terribly well-defined term; we'll get to this in a moment) and if we work diligently towards them, God is bound to deliver the things that we want. The obvious corollary is that if we have a righteous goal and don't achieve it, it's because we didn't work diligently at it. This misconception seems to come out of misinterpretations of scriptures like D&C 82:10:
I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.
Yes, this is a powerful scripture with a truly remarkable statement: God allows Himself to be bound if we will obey Him. However, we seem to misunderstand what God is bound to do.
God has never once promised that He would work against His own purposes, which include our happiness. This means that He frequently chooses not to grant us things that we want because He knows that those things will interfere with our progression and eventual happiness. He is the ultimate strategist and is completely immune to shortsighted thinking.
To give a personal example, I had a plan to marry some time ago. I looked at cultural norms and expectations and imagined that I would marry before I completed my bachelor's degree. I kept that goal firmly fixed in my mind and worked mind, body, and soul to achieve it. And yet, I am unmarried. By any Latter-day Saint definition, a healthy marriage is a righteous goal; in fact, we believe that marriage is a commandment. And yet my best efforts have failed to deliver marriage within a decade of the time frame I envisioned.
Naturally, some people assume that it was a lack of diligence on my part (it was not) or that there's something wrong with me (this one is up for debate). I look at my life over the past ten years and see that the Good Lord has been teaching me lessons I would have missed had I been married and content. I have been forced to learn interpersonal skills that I might have missed. I have had leadership experiences completely distinct from those I would have had as a married man. My career may well be following a different path than it would have. In short, I believe that in not granting me my desire of marriage on my time frame, God is helping me become who He wants me to become. And I believe that a happy marriage is in my future; I simply don't know when it will come.
Clearly, diligent effort towards a righteous goal provides no guarantee of success when success is defined on our terms. While feeling certain about the things we hope for is comfortable, this understanding of goals is at odds with our doctrine about mortality. Goals are useful when they help us define our aspirations or when they inspire us to greater effort towards righteous ends. However, the expectation that we can achieve our goals, regardless of how righteous and reasonable they seem, will inevitably steer us wrong.
This is not a trivial matter, nor esoteric philosophy. Misconceptions about what we can have in life and about what we should have in life can destroy people and relationships. Consider a father who loves his daughter and wants her to be happy. He has learned by experience that she will ultimately be happy to the extent that she lives by true principles. Any variance he observes in her behaviors leads him to fear, anxiety, desperation, and eventually to coercion (see also this post). His daughter learns to toe the line and conform outwardly to his expectations, all the while failing to learn the principles he is attempting to teach because she is not making her own choices. Ultimately, she chooses another path and becomes estranged from her father. Similar patterns could explain cases of eating disorders, addictive behaviors, overemphasis on careers, perfectionism, and a host of other problems. The only way to avoid this pitfall is to abandon the illusion of control.
Ultimately, our happiness and the achievement of our desires is up to God. Happily, He is wise and loving and has created us and this world so that we could be happy. We can choose the happiness that He offers us, but only if we choose to trust in Him. This means that we can set goals and work for them (and, indeed, we should!) but that we must do so with the confidence that if we do not get what we wanted, God will take care of things and we will be happy.
How can we choose to be happy in the face of these denials? How can we find peace when all we want is health? Family? Stable employment? Friends? We want so many reasonable things that God sometimes chooses not to give us. How can this work for our happiness?
The short version is that we don't know all of the answers. In fact, we can't. If we did, this would not be walking "by sight," instead of "by faith" (2 Cor. 5:7). Our task in mortality is to own the fact that we want things and that God, in His wisdom, may or may not want us to have them – and to choose to live according to His principles, regardless. It really is as simple as the Lord phrased it when speaking to Nicodemus:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16-17).
Ultimately, every temptation takes the form of choosing between a course of action that we believe will lead us to what we want and a course of action that is compatible with God's will. If our beliefs about outcomes dictate our decisions, we will inevitably fall short.
Over the years, as I have slowly wandered down this line of thought, it has struck me that I don't know how to motivate myself without expectations about my goals. In fact, expecting results from work towards goals seems compatible with Joseph Smith's first lecture on faith:
Would you exert yourselves to obtain wisdom and intelligence, unless you did believe that you could obtain them? Would you have ever sown if you had not believed that you would reap? Would you have ever planted if you had not believed that you would gather?
When faced with the fact that we may not get the things we want, we are immediately tempted to give up. Why bother, if I can't have what I want?
The answer is simple: we can choose to act according to true principles not because we believe that our desires will be realized but because we believe that they will help to accomplish God's will. We can choose to do what is right without undue concern for outcomes because we trust that God can accomplish His work. Consider the example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who were forced to choose between obedience to true principles and their lives:
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up (Daniel 3:16-18).
Daniel, their contemporary, made an almost identical choice:
Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house; and his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime (Daniel 6:10).
In these cases, they chose to obey regardless of the outcome and eventually got the outcome they wanted (their lives). Consider, however, the people of Nephi as recorded by Omni:
Mosiah ..., he being warned of the Lord that he should flee out of the land of Nephi, and as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord should also depart out of the land with him, into the wilderness—And it came to pass that he did according as the Lord had commanded him. And they departed out of the land into the wilderness, as many as would hearken unto the voice of the Lord; and they were led by many preachings and prophesyings. And they were admonished continually by the word of God; and they were led by the power of his arm, through the wilderness until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla (Omni 1:12-13).
If we truly want to seek after righteousness, we must choose to live according to true principles. The choice is ours.
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous (1 John 5:3).
I have learned by experience that God is mindful of us and that He does love us. He yearns to bless us and is not hampered by our lack of vision. To the extent that we learn to see with eyes of faith, His commandments truly are not grievous; they are a delight. I am determined to seek after understanding and applying true principles and invite you to join me.