Tests and difficulties punctuate the narrative of our life-story—and while we’re going through them, it’s hard to see any purpose there.
But when we look at them in retrospect, often we can see that the challenges we face become the catalysts for our spiritual growth. Irrespective of their size, all difficulties test the limits of our spiritual abilities, and present us with the opportunity to progress from one level of development to the next.
Some problems seem simple and easily dealt with, while others linger unresolved and revisit us repeatedly throughout our lives. Some larger problems seem endemic, so great that they may span several generations and cannot be resolved within just one lifetime or by one person alone. Other difficulties feel custom designed especially for us, for the sole purpose of improving our character.
Regardless of the kinds of difficulties we experience, it will be helpful to realize that we learn some of life’s most valuable lessons primarily from the efforts we make—and not necessarily from the immediate outcome of the events around us. We are not alone in this world, and the outcome of things is often outside our power to control. However, our willingness to deal with challenges and learn what we can from them forms an essential factor in our spiritual growth. This theme comes up again and again in Baha’i scripture:
Men who suffer not, attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 51.
We often ask ourselves why we must suffer, wondering if there is any wisdom to it. It can be very hard to see suffering as anything more than a difficult ordeal, let alone as the best means by which we can grow and improve ourselves spiritually. Such an attitude initially may strike us as somewhat masochistic. Yet if we think about it, it’s easy to see that just as the tree pruned most by the gardener thrives best and yields the most fruit, so do tests and trials improve us spiritually. The Baha’i teachings say:
The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is ploughed the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be. Just as the plough furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment. His attitude in this world will be that of divine happiness. Man is, so to speak, unripe: the heat of the fire of suffering will mature him. Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest men have suffered most. – Ibid., p. 178.
Suffering has a spiritual purpose. By approaching it as a learning experience and growing from it, we become better human beings. It is comforting to know, however, that God will never burden a soul beyond its capacity to endure. We are assured in the Baha’i writings that God:
… will never deal unjustly with any one, neither will He task a soul beyond its power. He, verily, is the Compassionate, the All-Merciful. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 106.
Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not, for both shall pass away and be no more. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 16.
Sorrow not if, in these days and on this earthly plane, things contrary to your wishes have been ordained and manifested by God, for days of blissful joy, of heavenly delight, are assuredly in store for you. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 329.
We become stronger and wiser by two closely related means: personal trial and error and the observation of other people’s trials and errors. In both cases we learn not only from successes but also from mistakes.
Mistakes can be painful experiences, but they are also very effective teachers. This fact is often overlooked in a society that overemphasizes the value of material success. Our desire for this kind of success, like our belief in the pursuit of happiness, is not wrong in itself, but it can easily distract us from the primary purpose of life. Dealing with the difficulties that come our way is much more spiritually beneficial than striving for the type of success that is measured in prestige, power, or wealth. By their nature prestige, power, and wealth are relative measurements that require us to compare what we have with what others have. There is nothing inherently wrong with having these things unless they come between us and God. But having more fame, more clout, and more money than others can easily become the goal of life. When this happens we tend to deal with others competitively and see problem-solving as the means to personal and material gain:
Do not grieve at the afflictions and calamities that have befallen thee. All calamities and afflictions have been created for man so that he may spurn this mortal world—a world to which he is much attached. When he experienceth severe trials and hardships, then his nature will recoil and he will desire the eternal realm—a realm which is sanctified from all afflictions and calamities. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 239.