Verily God hath made adversity a morning dew upon His green pasture.
Now, there’s a revolutionary idea. That the human spirit is a pasture. A pasture of our Maker none other. And that suffering is the dew that keeps it green, alive and growing. This is not the only verse where Bahá’u'lláh conjures up tantalizingly tender imagery as an allegory for what is outwardly a hard and harrowing reality. Suffering. These gentle metaphors, paradoxically, stemmed from a life of unrelenting torment.
My conscience cautions me not to talk about suffering too glibly. I’ve never suffered nearly enough to speak of suffering with real clout. What follows is merely my humble attempt at echoing the insights of a far greater Sufferer in words that are less noble, less tested and more shallow. The fact remains, some forms of suffering are so severe, and the crimes that caused them so heinous, as to lead any normal person to wonder, at least momentarily, why God in His goodness allows such horrors to transpire in the world. This is the classic philosophical dilemma of theodicy. Certain amount of confusion usually arises from our very human failure to differentiate between God’s foreknowledge and God’s will. That God knows every evil act of every man and woman even before creation hardly implies Him willing them (responsibility), owing to His ingenius creation of a genuinely free will. God appears to have contrived the creation in such a sublimely brilliant manner that almost everything other than evil and ignorant acts themselves are, indeed, His will for us. And His will is always good. Even the inconvenience of getting a parking ticket. Even the tragedy of falling victim to a violent crime. The painful consequences of wrong-doing on the victim represent, in some profound way, God’s good-will whilst the perpetrator’s motive and decision to wrong does not.
“Give to the executioner thy head, but not thy heart.”
Our spirit is unharmed even under harsh oppression, debilitating disease and wanton violence. Only the perpetrator, in the cosmic sense, harms himself. He retards the growth of his own spirit. As was discussed in Part I, it has often been the greatest of men and women that have attended the most agonizing schools of hard knocks.
Most monotheistic faith traditions affirm that there’s really two kinds of suffering. The first kind is self-inflicted by neglect of principles and commandments that are for our own good. If you do drugs, you will destroy your body and mind. If you’re habitually unkind, people tend to avoid your company. This kind of suffering represents justice. It gives us a reminder to do better next time. The other kind represents grace. The kind that bites the body but blesses the spirit. The latter kind of suffering is an unmerited gift, as insane as thankfulness would seem right in the midst of the hard blows that life rudely deals. The grace suffering can be seen as an affectionate blessing in at least five different ways, some of which are familiar from several time-honoured religious traditions, including non-Abrahamic traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism:
All suffering that is not a direct natural consequence of our own wrongful actions; in other words all suffering external to our choice…
(1) Strengthens the spirit like heat tempers steel. Each blow to our body and each affront to our external attachments reveals a curious truth to the one viewing with a keener vision. That a deeper aspect of ourselves could actually handle the pain. Namely our soul. Our soul could even observe our own agony as a spectator. It gets ever wiser and bolder after it, time and again, emerges unscathed from bodily harm.
(2) Reminds man of his dependency and smallness. Such a reminder is spiritually liberating, and in monotheistic traditions this is understood as a function of turning to God for guidance and assistance, and seeing how He is the only thing truly Great.
(3) Reminds man of the fleeting nature of worldly things, particularly worldly delights and pleasures.
(4) Reminds us of the much greater suffering and, correspondingly, much greater courage and endurance of the great saints, prophets and enlightened ones (from each of our own traditions), who were brutally persecuted for their righteousness. This reminder puts our own, far more modest, suffering into perspective and gives us strength to overcome them.
(5) Tests the sincerity of our faith in God. It is all too easy to love God when we’re healthy, prosperous and beloved by all. But to keep having faith and believing in goodness even under torture, disease and oppression is a proof of nobility, and the sincerity of our faith. It demonstrates a faith that seeks no rewards.
On one hand, the Bahá’í Writings seem indubitably clear that suffering is a very special form of God’s love. It is a catalyst for our spiritual growth and a medium for demonstrating the sincerity and unconditionality of our love for God.
But for the tribulations sustained in Thy path, how could Thy true lovers be recognized? (Bahá’u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations, XCII, p. 155)
On the other hand, suffering resulting from oppression, wrong-doing and natural causes, should be prevented and alleviated.
Be . . . a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression…. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. (Bahá’u'lláh, Gleanings, p. 285)
Where Western brands of religiosity often go wrong is in assigning evil to pain and goodness to pleasure, when both, according to Bahá’u'lláh, are blessings but of only different sorts. Likewise, some Eastern mystical traditions go too far in assuming a passive stance towards all suffering since suffering is anyhow inevitable and cosmically beneficial for the victim. Indeed, the Bahá’í Writings affirm that in all cases of suffering, even self-inflicted suffering, the sufferer in the cosmic sense profits spiritually. Even if the cause of the suffering was an evil act by another person or group. Yet suffering and destruction do momentarily frustrate — even nullify — our efforts at expressing our spiritual talents and our attempts at civilization-building which are clearly the main tasks in the life of a Bahá’í. Self-inflicted suffering more so than others. And yet there is also suffering we should never even try to prevent or alleviate. Namely suffering caused by justice – such as a just punishment. Such suffering is, obviously, just. It prevents the wrong-doer from doing any more wrong.
Perhaps it is safe to say that our sacred duty as Bahá’ís is to prevent and reduce all suffering caused by injustice, oppression, deceit, abuse, infidelity, and every other kind of wrong-doing. But suffering caused by justice (eg. punishments), honesty (eg. the truth may sometimes hurt) and self-discipline (eg. uncomfortable struggle with one’s desires to avert immoral acts), and every other good purpose, are absolutely necessary and morally well-founded. Then there’s also suffering caused by natural disasters and illness that we ought to avoid and to alleviate. Our resolute mission to alleviate such suffering does not contradict our simultaneous perspective of their occurrence as loving lessons on worldly transience (eg. illness) or awesome signs of Divine majesty (eg. natural disasters) which ultimately spiritually benefit the sufferer far more than their complete absence from the human condition.
Cowgirls in Badakhshan, Afghanistan