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Trouble Comes in Threes: Turning Tests into Spiritual Progress

Makeena Rivers | Sep 26, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Makeena Rivers | Sep 26, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Do you know the saying “trouble comes in threes”? Does it bring up the memory of a time in your life when everything seemed to go wrong at once?

The past few weeks have felt like one of those times for me. If tests and challenges are the rain, the storm just let loose a downpour in my life. 

While I am acutely aware that things could be much worse (in fact, they have definitely been much worse before), I feel like life has recently hit me with struggle after struggle. 

Small challenges have somehow consistently found their way to me. Right now I sit in an airport where I boarded my flight, and was then told we have to de-board because we were delayed two hours. After the wait, I showed up for my flight and was informed that they closed the door and that I would have to take the next flight. This is just an example of how, in the past couple of weeks, numerous small inconveniences accompanied by much larger interpersonal and work issues have surfaced simultaneously. Struggling to build up my career, rejection in my journey to find love, and challenges to old unhealthy habits have all emerged at once.

Through the tumult, I’ve been thinking about how I can make the most of the hardship that comes my way. I have wondered about the significance of this time in my life. Does all this hardship mean that many blessings will eventually come? Am I supposed to learn something from the chaos? How can I not only cope with challenges, but actually grow through the stress?

The Baha’i writings suggest what might seem to some like a counter-intuitive response to difficulties:

When the winds blow severely, rains fall fiercely, the lightning flashes, the thunder roars, the bolt descends and storms of trial become severe, grieve not; for after this storm, verily, the divine spring will arrive, the hills and fields will become verdant, the expanses of grain will joyfully wave, the earth will become covered with blossoms, the trees will be clothed with green garments and adorned with blossoms and fruits. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, Volume 1, p. 12.

Grieve not at the divine trials. Be not troubled because of hardships and ordeals; turn unto God, bowing in humbleness and praying to Him, while bearing every ordeal, contented under all conditions and thankful in every difficulty. Verily thy Lord loveth His maidservants who are patient, believing and firm. He draws them nigh unto Him through these ordeals and trials. – Ibid., p. 51.

Today, when I missed my flight, I had the opportunity to decide how I wanted to interact with the folks working at the airline kiosk – I could either be angry or tactful and clear. Which reminded me: I do my best when I view each problem as an opportunity to develop a spiritual quality. 

In the difficult conversations I have with loved ones, I practice how to be both empathic and assertive. At work, I strive to be patient in matters that feel urgent. I have had the chance to hone the skill of letting go and being grateful despite the unfavorable things that happen. 

Learning how to be thankful despite challenges makes problems cause less pain. If I re-conceptualize hardships as opportunities to detach from my personal desires, then maybe I will alleviate anxious or depressed feelings. 

Relinquishing control to God does not mean that I just sit by idly waiting for my problems to miraculously disappear. Knowing myself, waiting for the world to deliver perfect solutions without any effort on my part will probably just increase my despair. Another passage of the Baha’i writings encourages me to face my problems with confidence and faith:

However afflictive your sufferings may be, stay ye undisturbed, and with perfect confidence in the abounding grace of God, brave ye the tempest of tribulations and fiery ordeals. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 74.

I am an emotional person, so remaining undisturbed requires that I release my initial, instinctive reactions to hardship. Being undisturbed does not mean that I should ignore my feelings or pretend they don’t exist, but rather that I should express them while holding the deeply rooted belief that God will provide me with some form of growth and blessings. I can both carry this underlying belief and honestly acknowledge how I feel, and the belief itself provides confidence to help me keep addressing my hardships. 

But growth does not inevitably come from hardship. I always say “what doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you better—sometimes it makes you bitter.” If I want to avoid that bitterness, it is up to me to actually take the challenges that come my way and make the most of them. I have to actively choose to be grateful despite pain and frustration, or I might just become angry with God or the world. 

One last quote from the Baha’i teachings comes to mind that expounds upon this idea:

The souls who bear the tests of God become the manifestations of great bounties; for the divine trials cause some souls to become entirely lifeless, while they cause the holy souls to ascend to the highest degree of love and solidity. They cause progress and they also cause retrogression. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, Volume 2, p. 324.

While the harshness of this world can definitely bring people down, without challenges we would have very little opportunity to develop spiritual skills. I wouldn’t really learn to be patient without something to wait for. I wouldn’t know how to truly be forgiving if I were never betrayed. To circle back to the analogy of rain pouring: without the downpour, the beautiful rainforest could not flourish. Growth and internal beauty ultimately depend on challenges.

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  • P.A. Rohlman
    Feb 29, 2020
    Well said, thoughtful, clear, provocative in a good way. The transformation of our souls is stirred by many experiences. Learning from those experiences is what causes the growth and transformation. We must stay open to life. Thank you for these observations.
  • Marie R. Barth
    Oct 2, 2019
    Thank you Makeena. I'm grateful you provided the quotation that confirms what I've long suspected - that tests and difficulties didn't automatically result in a more enlightened perspective. It's a choice to find the light in all that darkness, and it can take years sometimes for the fruition of understanding to mature. Some of us are slow learners!
  • Chris Badostain
    Sep 28, 2019
    Love this article, Makeena---God is Most Glorious!
  • Camilla Chance
    Sep 27, 2019
    I love you, Makeena!
  • Andrew Scott
    Sep 26, 2019
    Now if the lover could have looked ahead, he would have blessed the watchman at the start, and prayed on his behalf, and he would have seen that tyranny as justice; but since the end was veiled to him, he moaned and made his plaint in the beginning. Yet those who journey in the garden land of knowledge, because they see the end in the beginning, see peace in war and friendliness in anger.
    Bahá’u’lláh, The Valley of Knowledge, from The Seven Valleys
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