You’ve heard the saying: we are not material beings having a spiritual experience–rather, we are spiritual beings having a material experience. If that’s true, how should we think about the material world? Do we have to renounce the material things of the world to lead a spiritual life?

In many spiritual traditions, if a person decides to dedicate him or herself to living a spiritual life, it can often mean renouncing the things of the world: from money to marriage. The Baha’i teachings have a unique and fascinating perspective on this important question. Baha’u’llah says:

Know ye that by “the world” is meant your unawareness of Him Who is your Maker, and your absorption in aught else but Him… Flee it, that ye may be numbered with the blest. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 276.

And in another instance Baha’u’llah says:

Say: By the world is meant that which turneth you aside from Him Who is the Dawning-Place of Revelation, and inclineth you unto that which is unprofitable unto you. Verily, the thing that deterreth you, in this day, from God is worldliness in its essence. Eschew it, and approach the Most Sublime Vision, this shining and resplendent Seat. Blessed is he who alloweth nothing whatsoever to intervene between him and his Lord. – The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 77.

These words do not refer to any particular types of material objects, social relationships or ways of living that need to be renounced in order to live a spiritual life.

In a broader way, Baha’u’llah tells us that we need to renounce anything that stands between us and God. This could mean that some things we usually considered worldly, are in fact acceptable. About this Baha’u’llah says:

Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him, if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God, for God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth, for such of His servants as truly believe in Him. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 276.

The Baha’i teachings ask us to enjoy the riches the world offers, as long as they do not come between us and God. But how do we make sure that they do not block us from God? Baha’u’llah explains:

No harm, assuredly, can befall him if he partaketh with justice of the benefits of this world, inasmuch as We have created all things for such of Our servants as truly believe in God. – The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 77.

The Baha’i teachings also counsel moderation. If we use the things of this world with moderation, they are less likely to become barriers between us and God. That being said, while material wealth does not necessarily need to be renounced, it can often be a spiritual road block. On this subject Baha’u’llah wrote:

O ye that pride yourselves on mortal riches! Know ye in truth that wealth is a mighty barrier between the seeker and his desire, the lover and his beloved. The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation. Well is it then with him, who, being rich, is not hindered by his riches from the eternal kingdom, nor deprived by them of imperishable dominion. By the Most Great Name! The splendor of such a wealthy man shall illuminate the dwellers of heaven even as the sun enlightens the people of the earth! – The Hidden Words, p. 41.

material-wealthHere Baha’u’llah makes it clear that it is easier to live a spiritual life without too much wealth, because wealth can so easily tie us to the world. However, Baha’u’llah also says that if a wealthy person can manage to stay connected to God, he can benefit the world through this wealth. Such a person would be able to use his wealth for the betterment of mankind, and in consecration to God, because he is not attached to it.

In the end “the world” does not mean everything in this physical world. It refers only to the things in this world that stand between us and God. Our material attachments in this world block us from God. An interest, passion, hobby, career, souvenir, relationship or any other noun that we have in our life can function as a potential barrier between us and God. We are the only judges of these barriers; therefore, we must stay vigilant in weeding them out.

Two approaches seem possible here. One approach: to simply rid ourselves of the attachments in our life. The other: to keep those things in our life, but change our relationship to them. Prayer and reflection will help us find the best approach.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

6 Comments

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  • Robert Lopez-Lengowski
    Apr 02, 2017
    Thank you for that insightful and thought provoking analysis. I would like to throw one element into the mix. Yes partaking with Justice the things of the world is a security to breaking with moderation. However what is justice? Baha'u'llah says preferring for our brother what we prefer for ourselves. The fact is, at this moment in history, average people in developed countries live like we have 3 or 4 planets worth of resources and we don't. So when you do the math, we really do need to give some things up, but not everything. Obviously some of it is ...not our fault but governments and corporations failing to think sustainably. But the doesn't excuse us either. The world can't all live like a developed country...yet...but that matters.
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  • May 11, 2015
    Ironically, poverty and/or financial struggle can make people materialistic, just as surely as wealth can. Few things can make you obsess over money as not having enough of it to cover your basic bills. And, if you're always worried where your next meal might be coming from -- that, too, will keep you focused constantly on material needs -- and make it that much more difficult to transcend. Many people in the U.S. are now in the unenviable position of the "working poor." That is, they're working very hard, but simply can't keep up with the cost of living. Again, ...that's can lead to a state of constant worry and obsession over material things.
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    • Peter Gyulay
      Aug 11, 2016
      Sorry for the late reply Mark. I guess financial struggle can make people focus solely on money too. I wonder if taken as a spiritual test, they can work hard to make money but with their thoughts focused on God. God doesn't want people to be poor. He just doesn't want money to be their God.
  • May 10, 2015
    Given in Shoghi Effendi’s estimation that “cancerous materialism” is “the chief factor in precipitating the dire ordeals” re “the burning of cities and the spread of terror” that’s comparable to a mere foretaste of the devastation “afforded by the last World War” your post is of utmost import and bound to be disliked if not ignored in a society based on a market economy extremely materialistic. Closing your article with a call to prayer is perfect. As a former company director of a business turning over $8,000,000 p.a. with a gross margin of 40% in less than 2 years of ...start up with operating capital of a mere $50,000 and now as a ‘loser’ for years on Social Security due to the cupidity and perfidy of a declared Baha’i business partner, who I’ll not name here, I know well two sides of your fine article. As you wisely point out, detachment is the key. Several times in the Texts cited, the proviso ‘if’ appears. Somewhere in the Writings I think Baha’u’llah suggests that we may even wear silk galore and own much gold till the cows come home PROVIDED we remain detached. As with Kipling’s “IF” we know to be very wary when the Lord applies provisos and ifs. Didn’t He with wisdom in the Aqdas allow men to take 4 wives provided a man can treat those 4 women equally? And, then, didn’t He deploy even more wisdom and leave it to His beloved Abdu’l-Baha to rule out three of those marriages as far as any Baha’i is concerned? “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Matthew 6:24
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    • Peter Gyulay
      Aug 11, 2016
      Indeed that is right - "no man can serve two masters" - "Cast out then the stranger, that the Friend may enter His home."