There's a cognitive phenomenon that is sometimes called goal-subgoal processing. It's called some other things in different disciplines, but it's pretty much the same thing. Most people don't know what it is by name, but are experts at it anyway. Here's an example I once heard that explains it very well; I went and bought a replacement ink cartridge yesterday because my printer had run out of ink. I needed ink to print off a paper I had written for a class. I needed to print off the paper to turn it in, because I wanted a good grade in the class. I wanted a good grade in the class so that I could graduate, and I wanted to graduate so that I could get a good job, to make good money, so that I could support a family. I want, above all, to raise a happy, healthy family.
Now, when I go to the store looking for the ink cartridge I don't even think about how that will help me raise a happy family. The farthest I think ahead is that I want to graduate. And yet, each of the higher goals comes down to those smaller, seemingly insignificant goals.
What is it each of us wants? Think of the largest, ultimate goal you have. The typical LDS answer is exaltation/salvation. My next question is, what are the subgoals to obtain that end goal? Invariably, the answers came back: (a) baptism, (b) the gift of the Holy Ghost, (c) receive the priesthood if male, (d) marry in the temple, and (e) endure to the end. Some others were thrown in a couple of times like going on a mission, etc.
That is when I would add in some of the other requirements as given in the New Testament, like (a) being humble, (b) loving your neighbor, (c) praying for your enemies, and so on. The difference between the two lists is that the first are essentially quantifiable: things you could check off a list. The second are things that are not quantifiable, but are character changes and, I would argue, much more difficult to achieve.
My next question usually raised some eyebrows. I asked which was more essential.
Who is more likely to obtain exaltation: one who gets 100% home teaching every month, or one who genuinely loves his enemies?
...One who reads his scriptures for half an hour every day, or one who serves his spouse selflessly?
...One who went on a mission, or one who is kind and polite to everyone he meets?
Of course, the answer usually came back that they are both equally important. So I would then ask the question in a different way; "Can one obtain salvation without 100% home teaching?" I sure hope so. "Can one obtain salvation without being humble?" Seems more difficult anyway.
I would end my lessons not undermining the importance of the checklist items, but stressing very much the importance of the character changes. I got mixed reactions to such suggestions.
Reflecting on this lesson after the recent changes in my life, it strikes me that for some people, it no longer matters what kind of person I am - it matters only whether or not I have a temple recommend in my wallet. It doesn't matter to some people what kind of husband or father I am, how I treat others, what other character traits I have. I am labeled forever now as a deserter. It matters only that I have unchecked boxes.
It seems as if some of these people still think I'm worse than an active member who lies to his customers, or an active member who is verbally abusive to his spouse and children. It doesn't matter how honest I have been about religion, it only matters that what I have found is different from what they want to believe. It doesn't matter who I am; it only matters what I am.
Is that how God sees me? Is that how He sees all of us?