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The Baha’i teachings say the purpose of life is two-fold: to prepare for our life in the next world, and to improve this world.
But how—and why–can we try to work towards our life in the next world and try to improve this one at the same time?
Abdul-Baha explains that just as a baby prepares for life in this world while it is in the mother’s womb, we prepare for our life in the next world while we live here on earth:
In the beginning of his human life man was embryonic in the world of the matrix. There he received capacity and endowment for the reality of human existence. The forces and powers necessary for this world were bestowed upon him in that limited condition. In this world he needed eyes; he received them potentially in the other. He needed ears; he obtained them there in readiness and preparation for his new existence. The powers requisite in this world were conferred upon him in the world of the matrix, so that when he entered this realm of real existence he not only possessed all necessary functions and powers but found provision for his material sustenance awaiting him.
Therefore 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, Foundations of World Unity p. 63.
This means we can see the world as our spiritual training ground.
The Baha’i writings also say that we should regard the world as almost nothing:
However, at the same time, the Baha’i writings also urge us to be concerned with the world:
So should we devote ourselves to others’ well-being in this world; or our own spiritual progress in the next world?
The two, Baha’is believe, have an intimate connection. Through engaging in improving this world, we purify and prepare ourselves for our life in the next world. In fact, no one can fully prepare ourselves for the next world in isolation. A life lived on a mountain top, though tranquil and serene, will not exercise enough of our spiritual muscles, which we will depend upon in the next world. Though meditation and contemplation, and time alone are essential parts of a spiritual life, the evolving, growing soul also needs direct engagement with other people.
But where should our intention be in this? Should we devote ourselves to the betterment of the world in order to purify ourselves? Or should service be an end in itself?
In regards to worshiping God, the Bab wrote:
That which is worthy of His Essence is to worship Him for His sake, without fear of fire, or hope of paradise. Although when true worship is offered, the worshiper is delivered from the fire, and entereth the paradise of God’s good-pleasure, yet such should not be the motive of his act. – The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 78.
I think we can apply this approach to worship to our service for others, as well. Our efforts to better the world work best when they emerge as a completely selfless act devoted to others, not to ourselves.
At the back of our minds, we already know that helping others also assists us in our individual progress–but when we act, consciously focused on serving others, that can gradually recede in importance, until we can act with complete selflessness and detachment from our own concerns.
There is definitely a mysterious connection between this physical world in which we live, and the spiritual world which we will enter. If we consciously work towards making progress in both of these worlds, we can realize that in essence it is one spiritual journey, from here to the beyond:
O son of my handmaid! Didst thou behold immortal sovereignty, thou wouldst strive to pass from this fleeting world. But to conceal the one from thee and to reveal the other is a mystery which none but the pure in heart can comprehend. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 36.