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Although we all depend on external influences for our education and progress, the Baha’i writings make it clear that we are each largely responsible for our own spiritual advancement.
This condition of freely chosen spiritual ascent is virtually a definition of human justice, an essential ingredient in the Baha’i paradigm, but it also may be the most difficult concept to grasp.
How can we ever know precisely where external guidance leaves off and our own free choice begins? We do know that without our active participation in the process, human education is impossible. We can allow ourselves to become programmed or coerced or brainwashed, but that is not true advancement or valid learning, especially if we are memorizing what some else has learned, or think they have learned.
To understand the theory underlying this distinction between the need for external assistance and the simultaneous autonomy of our own free will, Abdu’l-Baha employs an effective analogy that compares human progress to a boat moving in water. The power of wind or steam represents those external forces that impel the boat into motion, and the boat’s rudder represents our individual free will:
… man’s stillness or motion itself is conditioned upon the aid of God. Should this assistance fail to reach him, he can do neither good nor evil. But when the assistance of the all-bounteous Lord confers existence upon man, he is capable of both good and evil. … This condition can be likened to that of a ship that moves by the power of wind or steam. Should this power be cut off, the ship would ben entirely unable to move. Nevertheless, in whatever direction the rudder is turned, the power of the steam propels the ship in that direction. If the rudder is turned to the east, the ship moves eastward, and if it is directed to the west, the ship moves west. …
In like manner, all the doings of man are sustained by the power of divine assistance, but the choice of good or evil belongs to him alone. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 288-289.
The significance of our volition is implied by Abdu’l-Baha’s allusion to this power as “a mighty will.” He states that in spite of the things beyond our control, the most significant events (our moral choices), are:
Certain matters are subject to the free will of man, such as acting with justice and fairness, or injustice and iniquity—in other words, the choice of good or evil actions. It is clear and evident that the will of man figures greatly in these actions. – Ibid., p. 287.
We may not always understand exactly when our will is operating or to what degree our decisions are truly independent, but we do know that as a faculty of the human soul, the will is independent of our capacity to feel or to know.
For example, we may choose to do that which is contrary to our desires because we realize that some long-term benefit will derive from a short-term discomfort. Likewise, we may understand that our desires or emotions are often unreliable guides to proper action. Thus we may be emotionally attracted to something, to someone, or to some course of action, and yet we may choose to ignore such feelings in order to comply with what we know in our rational mind to be a higher concern, such as compliance with a moral law or the long range sense of health and well-being we attain by following a path that may be difficult in the short term.
Our will is also clearly a faculty distinct from our ability to know. For example, we may know very well what is best for us, and yet we may fail to decide on a proper course of action. Or we may observe intellectually that we should follow a certain course of action, but ultimately fail to transform that perception into deeds.
There is, in other words, a necessary alliance between free will and action. To exercise our will signifies more than intent—it implies the implementation of intention into a course of action.
When we try to determine what is appropriate for our fulfillment—what is just and fitting behavior—we come to see that it is the exercise of an entire process: to know and understand, then to determine to implement that understanding in an appropriate expression, and finally to carry out that intent in actual deeds. Ultimately, we need to act on this sequence repeatedly until our response becomes habitual and reflexive, an essential aspect of our character. In short, we can respond willfully until this effort or exercise of will ultimately transforms the essential nature of our character.
Abdu’l-Baha referred to this very process when he stated that any accomplishment is achieved through “knowledge, volition and action.” Similar to the content of the Short Obligatory Prayer revealed by Baha’u’llah, which ascribes to humankind the purpose of coming “to know Thee and to Worship Thee,” Abdu’l-Baha’s prescription for human transformation can be found throughout his writings and talks. It is at the heart of his definition of “faith” when he observes, “by faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.” – Baha’i World Faith, p. 383.
We need conscious choice to perform any important deed, just as worship requires a decision or choice followed by action. It is not sufficient that we understand the guidance which the physical sources of education reveal to us. In the Kingdom of Names—physical reality—it is further necessary that we exercise our willpower with enough persistence to manifest our inner transformation in noble deeds.
No doubt the Apostle James had such willpower in mind when he stated that faith or belief does not exist until it is expressed in action:
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. – James 2:17.