Embracing Tribulations

My family and I have lived through a lot of misfortune in the past few years. Among other things, my wife was hospitalized with a very serious condition, my son suffered a severe infection in one of his feet, one of my daughters is dealing with an as-yet undiagnosed medical issue, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I lost my job due to funding issues and went through a period of unemployment. Sometimes it seems we go from one disaster to the next with very little time to draw a breath.

All Baha’is are familiar with passages in their Holy Writings that speak about how tests and difficulties are blessings in disguise. They can help us to develop our spiritual nature and refine our character. Even if only grudgingly, I think most of us can see the point.

But in numerous passages, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha speak of the trials they faced as causes of exaltation and joy. That point is harder to grasp for most of us. At least it generally has been for me. I can see how, for example, financial hardship can lead one to greater detachment from the material and increased reliance upon God, but I can also grumble about how I just don’t know where the money will come from for some necessary expenditure.

Recently, though, something I read–I think it was in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, but I can’t find the exact passage now–led to one of those “aha!” moments we sometimes have. Whatever the passage said, it caused me to realize that the hardships in our lives are not merely chances to develop spiritual qualities but chances to demonstrate our love for and faith in God.

Think of it this way.  It’s easy to be thankful when things are going well. It’s easy to speak of love and faith when nothing puts us to the test. But how true are those qualities? When things get rough, they may prove a mirage. Then there is no doubt: we either show true thankfulness, true love, true faith, or we don’t. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, speaking of a time when His trials abated, wrote this:

And yet, from one point of view, this wanderer was saddened and despondent. For what pain, in the time to come, could I seek comfort? At the news of what granted wish could I rejoice? There was no more tyranny, no more affliction, no tragical events, no tribulations. My only joy in this swiftly-passing world was to tread the stony path of God and to endure hard tests and all material griefs. For otherwise, this earthly life would prove barren and vain, and better would be death. The tree of being would produce no fruit; the sown field of this existence would yield no harvest. Thus it is my hope that once again some circumstance will make my cup of anguish to brim over, and that beauteous Love, that Slayer of souls, will dazzle the beholders again. Then will this heart be blissful, this soul be blessed.
— ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, #190, p. 278)

Although I’m certainly no master at it, I think that peace, contentment, and even happiness during times of trial springs from love of God, faithfulness to God, being open to His will regardless of how hard it may be. The joy of which ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke is the joy of demonstrating to our Creator that we don’t merely pay lip service to Him, that we truly love Him, hold faith with Him, and rely upon Him.

Dying Vitality

The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land; nothing short of His wholesome medicine can ever restore it. The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society; what else but the Elixir of His potent Revelation can cleanse and revive it?
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, XCIX, p. 199)

Sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century, Baha’u’llah penned these words. On the surface, they seem to speak of a growing disaffection with religion and a rise in atheism. Lately, however, I’ve been pondering a subtlety in the phrasing: it is not belief that Baha’u’llah says is dying out, but rather the vitality of belief.

Vitality is the energy, the vigor, the life of something. To be sure, a lack of vitality in belief can equate to the death of belief and thus the growth of irreligion. But it may also signify belief reduced to a shell, the outward appearance of belief with nothing living at the core. What would that be like? It’s actually an old question, answered this way in the Epistle of James:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
(James 2:14 -17, KJV)

The terms “faith” and “belief” are not the same. Faith is trust, loyalty, and fidelity. Religious faith involves both knowing and doing, for religion calls us to action. Thus, faith without works is indeed dead, being without any result. Belief, although today often regarded as a conviction that something is true, has an older, deeper meaning that is particularly applicable to religion: to hold dear. The word is identical in form to the archaic “belove,” which today is only used in the form “beloved”.

When Baha’u’llah writes, “The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land,” in one sense it can be seen as saying that we are increasingly distanced from God, that we no longer hold God dear whether we say we “believe in God” or not, that even if we say we “believe in God” we do not act as though we do. In other words, He may be saying that increasingly whatever faith and belief people profess is “dead.”

I think we can see this in the world around us. Irreligion is indeed on the rise in some countries, with some embracing a “spirituality” devoid of religion and others professing atheism or agnosticism. Even where this is not happening, materialism engulfs all societies, resulting in a hollow faith which reduces religion to a weakened shell of its former self, having at best marginal connection to real life.

People who care about religion and understand that something is going horribly wrong fight this trend, but it seems a losing battle. The forces of materialism and irreligion overwhelm their efforts, and they find themselves despised and marginalized. Interestingly, Baha’u’llah foresaw this development, too, when He proclaimed that human effort was insufficient revitalize religion. Only God’s “wholesome medicine,” He states, “can ever restore it.”

It might be worth taking a swig of it.