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Why are we here? What’s our purpose? What is it that we’re supposed to do in this life? Have you ever asked yourself these perplexing questions? You’re not alone – almost everyone does.
Those primary questions can gnaw at our very beings while we go about our daily affairs, wondering if anything we do really makes sense. Well, the Baha’i teachings have good news: life does have a purpose. In fact, it has two intimately connected ones.
On the one hand, Baha’is believe, we are here to prepare ourselves for the next stage of our existence. Regarding each individual’s purpose in this life, the Baha’i teachings compare this material world to the womb, our human matrix:
… in this world he must prepare himself for the life beyond. That which he needs in the world of the Kingdom must be obtained here. Just as he prepared himself in the world of the matrix by acquiring forces necessary in this sphere of existence, so likewise the indispensable forces of the divine existence must be potentially attained in this world. – Abdul-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 226.
In this world we utilize our intellect, our five senses, our bodies and our limbs as tools that allow us to interact with our environment. But in the spiritual world – the next world that awaits us all after this physical existence ends – we will need spiritual tools.
Those tools, the Baha’i teachings say, are human virtues – all of the beautiful attributes of God latent in all of us, in need of development and actualization. Those inner attributes – love, kindness, patience, fortitude, moral character, compassion, etc. – will serve as our primary tools in the next world, just as our bodies and minds do here. Hence, our task in life involves developing our everlasting spiritual qualities, what Baha’u’llah termed “gems of inestimable value.”
The Baha’i writings tell us that these gems have much more value than all the money and possessions we could ever hope to accumulate in this life. Those physical possessions, Baha’u’llah wrote, only belong to you temporarily, while your spiritual attributes, all acquired for the love of the Creator, belong to you permanently:
Others ere long will lay hands on what ye possess, and enter into your habitations. Incline your ears to My words, and be not numbered among the foolish.
For every one of you his paramount duty is to choose for himself that on which no other may infringe and none usurp from him. Such a thing – and to this the Almighty is My witness – is the love of God, could ye but perceive it.
Build ye for yourselves such houses as the rain and floods can never destroy, which shall protect you from the changes and chances of this life. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 261.
The world is an amazing place. As God’s creation, how could it be anything less than amazing? But in comparison to God’s signs and His light which resides within us all, the world is like a shadow. That just shows how truly majestic the world of the spirit really is. Knowing this can inspire us to devote ourselves to polishing these inner gems our future life depends on.
On the other hand, though, we are also here for another important purpose: to improve this world. Baha’u’llah wrote:
All men have been called into being for the betterment of the world. It behoveth every soul to arise and serve his brethren for the sake of God. – The Tabernacle of Unity, p. 43.
How can both of these things represent our basic human purpose, when they seem almost opposite, one focusing on this world, the other on the next?
Although these seem like two different aims, from a Baha’i perspective they essentially merge into one. From the perspective of purpose, both aims make perfect sense – because they portray my ultimate destiny in life as drawing closer and closer to God by mirroring forth all the godly attributes that potentially exist within me. That’s why I need to detach from the things of this world: I can’t take them with me when I leave. My heart and soul need a lasting love, not a fleeting one.
At the same time, however, God created the world, and everything that exists has the mark of God’s divinity imprinted on it. This means that the world is not something to be denied or rejected. Since God created humanity and all of existence, we should respect our physical bodies and the environment in which we live. But more than that, we should devote ourselves to the betterment of the world because God wants us to help bring about a divine civilization here in the physical world – to build the kingdom of God on Earth.
The world functions as a training ground for the soul in another way, too. While I need to develop my soul in preparation for life in the next world, the best way of doing this is by participating in the affairs of the world, with a spiritual mindset, of course! I can’t fully develop my soul in isolation from others. I might go live on a mountain top, devoting myself to meditation all day and every day, only to discover that when a passerby accidently drops their drink bottle on my foot, I get angry.
In another sense, the world and its improvement both function as a training ground for the soul. By focusing on the betterment of the world, we focus on others, not ourselves. Herein lies the essential paradox. Although our aim in life is to approach God by developing ourselves, this can’t be realized in a vacuum, by focusing on ourselves to the exclusion of others. We find ourselves through serving others; we serve God through serving others; we draw closer to God by devoting our time and energy to the betterment of God’s creation, the world.
So day to day, I try to maintain the focus on serving others for their benefit, not mine.
We can only truly serve others by improving ourselves. To be an effective servant of the world, we have to try to be our best selves and constantly improve. But we don’t do this just to improve our own spiritual station; we genuinely do it for others. The way God has set up creation serves as the perfect machinery for allowing beings with free will to build their lives in the spiritual world by interacting with each other. This interaction with the “other” ensures that our efforts are full of humility and devotion and not driven by self-interest.
By knowing that our ultimate destiny is life in the spiritual world, we can wholeheartedly engage in this world, and at the very same time, remain detached from it. If this all seems too complex, with too many dimensions to contort our minds into, then rest assured, Baha’u’llah has given us the essence of our purpose in life in one of his most potent prayers:
I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth.
There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting. – Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, p. 314.