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Many of us are familiar with those medieval pictures of anguished penitents on their knees in earnest prayer, or media footage of fanatical Muslims flagellating themselves until blood flows.
We’ve all seen depictions of lowly monks undertaking long journeys on bare feet to reach a distant holy site, or yogis frozen in extreme positions for long periods, in silent contemplation. So-called “pious kneeling,” the wearing of sackcloth and ashes or a “hair shirt,” and many other forms of self-denial were all meant to atone for original sin. All of these acts of extreme physical self-punishment—what the ancients called “mortification of the flesh”—were supposed to cleanse the sinner of sin, to put our supposedly sinful natures to death.
But how do Baha’is feel or act when they ask for forgiveness? The Baha’i writings explain:
When the sinner findeth himself wholly detached and freed from all save God, he should beg forgiveness and pardon from Him. Confession of sins and transgressions before human beings is not permissible, as it hath never been nor will ever be conducive to divine forgiveness. Moreover such confession before people results in one’s humiliation and abasement, and God—exalted be His glory—wisheth not the humiliation of His servants. Verily He is the Compassionate, the Merciful. The sinner should, between himself and God, implore mercy from the Ocean of mercy, beg forgiveness from the Heaven of generosity … – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 24.
So, from a Baha’i perspective, we have no need to seek pardon from any other soul; neither a priest, nor a preacher or a parent. In fact, confession and self-mortification has never been required by God, despite what various religions may have added. To be required to do so is both abasing and humiliating, neither of which represents God’s wish for us:
For me, though, I had a hard time begging God for forgiveness. At first I tried to feel what the process of begging must involve but no matter how I tried to resolve that injunction to “beg forgiveness,” I just couldn’t find a way of doing it that came naturally to me.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think I’m perfect; far from it. But a long time ago I just found that feeling bad—even really, really bad—about my actions simply doesn’t help. However, when I freely and of my own volition recognise some undesirable aspect of my personal behavior, it becomes very important to me to correct it. My motivations: a desire to conform my actions more fully with spiritual principle, to please God, to more fully embody the divine virtues. I am trying to become my true self by conforming ever more fully to the image of my Divine Creator.
So that’s when the aspect of requiring forgiveness really does come to my attention. When I truly recognize my own limitations and develop an inner desire to transform myself in a certain respect, at that point I am completely open to requiring forgiveness for past actions, and especially to imploring mercy from the Creator. I reject the limitations of my past and desire to ascend higher to the heaven of divine perfections.
But what about “begging?” I think I may have been reacting to the negative connotations of the word itself. When I consider other meanings of the word begging, they include “to ask earnestly,” “to implore” and “to quest.”
By the time I have developed a recognition of one of my shortcomings, that recognition acts like an internal irritant. Every time I catch myself thinking and acting in that way I cringe internally, becoming ever more impatient to overcome it. At that point my desire for change becomes urgent. I cannot live with my former self, and I’m ready to plead for release from my immature state. Now I am questing to acquire a higher state of being—asking earnestly to become a different person.
Usually I become aware of a problem because some event in my life makes it apparent. This may occur as an apparently random event in my life, but when that does happen, I am increasingly able to perceive it as a teachable moment, a God-given window to the recognition of a need for more; for more wisdom, for more knowledge, more patience, more love—and so the list of spiritual virtues goes on.
But it also often arises as a consequence of my daily devotional period; a special time of my day that I set aside to pray, read and reflect upon the sacred. In that process I put questions to myself in prayerful consideration. Seeking the answer then becomes a quest for greater self-knowledge and awareness. If the answer is not immediately apparent, then in my heart I will implore God for greater guidance and inspiration. Eventually the light breaks through and I perceive the answer to my request.
Sometimes I become aware of a problem because someone points it out to me. If this is done in a warm, sincere and loving manner, I feel a connection with their opinion, and a desire to reflect upon it. But generally speaking, it takes a real diplomat to do such a thing without giving offense, no matter how sincere it may be. In fact, we have long been discouraged from criticizing others.
The Gospel of St. Matthew 7:3-5 warns us about this, in language appropriate to the carpenter Christ was trained to be:
And why beholdest thou the mote (atom or speck) that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam (plank) that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
I can well imagine how having a whole plank across my vision would obscure almost everything. On the same theme, in John 8, Christ speaks of the ancient punishment of stoning, advising “… let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” In the same way, Baha’u’llah encouraged us to:
… magnify not the faults of others that thine own faults may not appear great; and wish not the abasement of anyone, that thine own abasement be not exposed. – The Hidden Words, p. 37.
That sounds like a good agreement to me; I certainly don’t want my own faults exposed. But reaction to perceived or even imagined shortcomings is all too often reinforced in social media today. The recent #MeToo campaign, whilst having positive intentions, sought to achieve them by naming and shaming others. Popular talk shows and reality TV often employ similar tactics, where the audience can enjoy watching others squirm whilst their own shortcomings remain safely hidden from view.
Instead, we must try to encourage others. The Baha’i teachings are replete with references for the need to praise and commend others, which is clearly much more effective:
Never speak disparagingly of others, but praise without distinction. Pollute not your tongues by speaking evil of another. Recognize your enemies as friends, and consider those who wish you evil as the wishers of good. You must not see evil as evil and then compromise with your opinion, for to treat in a smooth, kindly way one whom you consider evil or an enemy is hypocrisy, and this is not worthy or allowable. You must consider your enemies as your friends, look upon your evil-wishers as your well-wishers and treat them accordingly. Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 453.