Latter-day Saint Life

Wait, trials are the norm? Why realistic expectations are essential to happiness—and testimony

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Setting accurate expectations can be a boost to our testimonies and help us feel more joy.
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A woman who grew up in the church recently said, “I kinda feel a bit swindled. Because when I was young and went to church, I thought that joy was the baseline and trials were just something that would happen occasionally in life. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that trials and hard times are actually the norm, the constant, and joy is way more infrequent. Not that my life is miserable, and there are micro-joy moments each day, but truly feeling joy isn’t so common. I mean if I think about moments in my life when I felt so joyous, there are just a few instances. But daily I’m worried about things going on with my family, in my life, my friends, my work, etc., etc.”

When I heard that, I was reminded of an important truth: expectations really matter.

So I wasn’t too surprised when this same woman then said she found great comfort in this quote by
Jenkins Lloyd Jones once shared by President Gordon B. Hinckley, words she called “amazing”:

“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he’s been robbed.

“Most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. ...

“Life is like an old-time rail journey–delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.

“The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”

President Hinckley’s words helped adjust her expectations for life, which then actually helped her feel more joy, even though her circumstances didn’t change. And that is why expectations matter.

In fact, as the authors of a study involving more than 18,000 participants wrote, “Momentary happiness is a state that reflects not how well things are going but instead whether things are going better than expected” (emphasis added).

This is an important principle because some of us develop inappropriate expectations about what God will do for us. And perhaps one of the most common, and dangerous, expectations is this: “If I keep the commandments, things will always work out in the short term the way I want them to work out.”

A Dangerous Expectation

Assuming that because we keep the commandments, everything will always work out how we want it to, when we want it to, is unrealistic and can destroy our peace.

But I’ve found that many of us (including myself) subconsciously have this expectation. After all, in 2 Nephi 1, there’s a principle that Lehi repeatedly teaches. He says,

“If…they shall keep [God’s] commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land” (2 Nephi 1:9)

The Lord has said “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” (2 Nephi 1:20). A form of this statement appears some twenty times in the Book of Mormon!

Based on this verse, we might come to believe that if you keep the commandments, your life is perfect. But that was definitely not the case for Lehi. He listened to a call from the Lord and acted with great faith, but he still struggled.

In the same chapter Lehi talks about prospering in the land, he speaks of “the anxiety” of his soul (1:16). He says, “My heart hath been weighed down with sorrow” (2 Nephi 1:17) and “I exceedingly fear” (2 Nephi 1:25). He also speaks of being “brought down with grief…to the grave” (2 Nephi 1:21).

So on the one hand, Lehi says “If you keep God’s commandments you prosper.” But Lehi has kept God’s commandments, and we find him with fear, anxiety, grief, and sorrow. How can that be?

Lehi’s life teaches us that prospering in the land doesn’t mean that everything will work out for you exactly how you want, exactly when you want. Lehi is working hard to follow God and he experiences grief, fear, and anxiety, so I shouldn’t be surprised when some of that comes my way. Clearly, Lehi doesn’t believe that keeping the commandments means you’re going to have an easy life.

As Sheri Dew taught, “It’s not living the gospel that’s hard. It’s life that’s hard” (No Doubt About It, 106). When we expect that, “regardless of how righteous I am, I will still face trials,” we are better equipped to handle the difficulties that will come.

It’s clear that Lehi didn’t expect everything to turn out perfectly for him. But he kept going despite difficulties. What is Lehi’s secret for handling hardships?

Encircled in the Savior’s Love

At the same time, Lehi spoke of his worries and troubles, he also said, “The Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15).

Lehi also taught, “Redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth…The Holy Messiah…layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead” (2 Nephi 2:6, 8)

Because Lehi was centered in Christ, he was able to move forward with joy, even amid troubling circumstances. How can we follow his example?

Rehearsing the Great Things

One way we can feel Christ’s arms around us is by following Lehi’s example in “rehears[ing] how great things the Lord had done for them” (2 Nephi 1:1).

It can be easy to forget the blessings we have, maybe because some of these blessings become invisible to us. As a young missionary, my companion and I were teaching someone how to pray. Our friend sincerely prayed, “Our Father in Heaven, we are grateful. We are grateful that right now we are not being chased by lions.”

At first, I was quite surprised by that prayer; I had never heard anybody pray about that before and we weren’t in an area where lions were an issue! But then I started to think, “You know, somebody somewhere in the world right now is probably being chased by a lion. I’m glad it’s not me.” This person saw a blessing I had missed.

How many other blessings do we miss on a regular basis? Blessings like running water, indoor plumbing, supermarkets, and the Internet. Focusing on our blessings reminds us to be grateful when we get a hot shower (most people in Earth’s history haven’t been so lucky) and grateful when the milk doesn’t spill (and even when it does—at least we had milk).

Another approach could be looking for a blessing within what we see as a problem. For example, when I have too much to do, I can be grateful that people need me.

When doing routine tasks, like helping children with homework, we can think about the future day when they are grown up and how grateful we’d be then if we could help them with homework one more time. But today, we are doing it one more time—so we can be grateful now.

No matter what our current situation is, even if we, like Lehi, feel grief, anxiety, and sorrow, we can find ways to rehearse the great things that God has done for us. We can “thank the Lord for letting [us] have the ride,” as President Hinckley taught.

As we do so, we can find ourselves encircled about in the arms of the Savior’s love and find peace even in difficult times.

▶ You may also like: What true followers of Jesus do: The sacred moment in Lehi’s dream found all over scripture

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