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A few years ago, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi caused outrage when he claimed that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for the many sins of the Jewish people.
According to this rabbi, the Holocaust was a divine intervention that punished six million Jews, including 1.5 million children. From this perspective, Hitler would have been an “angel of death,” a puppet in the hands of God, certainly not responsible for his acts.
Personally, I don’t believe in a vengeful, angry God who acts as kind of a great blackmailer in the sky, who threatens us constantly: “If you misbehave, I will punish you!”
Similarly, I find it hard to understand people who see all their problems, difficulties and pains as divine tests: My car broke… It’s a test. I have flu… It’s a test! I am jobless… It’s a test. God is testing me constantly…
When you’re tested, you face an evaluation of your qualities. A test presumes the existence of a tester. I find it very hard to believe in a God that would constantly intervene in each individual life in creation, creating sometimes insurmountable obstacles to His creatures, and then evaluating them on the outcome. To me, a much bigger separation exists between the creation and the Creator. And isn’t randomness a function of creation? Aren’t difficulties a normal part of life?
But do we each face situations where suffering and pain can be described as a “test”? Yes—in fact, many places in the Baha’i scriptures describe suffering as a “test” or a “trial”:
But for the tribulations which are sustained in Thy path, how could Thy true lovers be recognized; and were it not for the trials which are borne for love of Thee, how could the station of such as yearn for Thee be revealed? – Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations, p. 95.
The winds of tests are powerless to hold back them that enjoy near access to Thee from setting their faces towards the horizon of Thy glory, and the tempests of trials must fail to draw away and hinder such as are wholly devoted to Thy will from approaching Thy court. – ibid, p. 3.
O Thou Whose tests are a healing medicine to such as are nigh unto Thee, Whose sword is the ardent desire of all them that love Thee, Whose dart is the dearest wish of those hearts that yearn after Thee, Whose decree is the sole hope of them that have recognized Thy truth! – ibid, p. 220.
Baha’u’llah addresses each of these phrases specifically to the Baha’is, referred to as “Thy true lovers”, “such as yearn for Thee”, “all them who are devoted to Thy will”, “them that enjoy near access to Thee” and “all them that love Thee.” Not addressed to humanity as a whole, they speak to only those who believe in Baha’u’llah’s revelation.
In these prayers and meditations from Baha’u’llah, suffering is presented as a natural consequence of an act of faith: the acceptance of Baha’u’llah as a prophet, messenger and manifestation of God. Accepting a new Faith can create difficult situations for believers. Such occurrences go from being the target of jokes or pressures, to being discriminated against, openly harassed, or in some places, actively persecuted. These situations don’t necessarily represent a direct interference of God in the world of creation, but instead come directly as the consequence of an expression of faith. These real “tests” and “trials” challenge the faith of the believers.
So not all suffering can be understood as a test for the one who suffers. Abdu’l-Baha never used words like “trial” or “test” when he wrote to the mother who lost a son, or when he referred to the earthquake in San Francisco. To do so would have meant minimizing their suffering, or even implying that they needed to just overcome their difficulties—which the Baha’i teachings never do.
But could we consider all the suffering that occurs outside the scope of faith a test? Could someone’s else’s problems or even a natural calamity be considered a test? Yes, it could—and not just for the victims. In the global village we live in today, any news of tragedy or disaster, whether natural or manmade, typically spreads rapidly and raises sympathy and support. In practice, such suffering ceases to be unknown to us, and it becomes a test of our own individual kindness, solidarity and compassion.
It seems obvious that we can make constructive use of tragedies if we consider the suffering of others as our own spiritual test. It can help us find ways to spread the “spirit of world solidarity” to all continents, and actively contribute to a more united world.
In response to the pain and suffering that befalls others, Baha’u’llah encourages us to:
Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. …an answerer of the cry of the needy, …a joy to the sorrowful, … a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive…” – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 284.