The individual stands between the world and God, surrounded by other fellow beings in the same scenario. So should our attention be put on God, ourselves or other people? A Sufi quote says something interesting on the matter:
Act as if there were no one on earth but you and no one in Heaven but God. – al-Antaki
This sounds a bit selfish and even solipsistic but there seems to be some sense in it. It takes us back to the mystery that we all inhabit our own private universes. We can only think, feel, and understand from within our own view-point and can only infer what is happening in other people’s private worlds. The most fundamental relationship is between the individual and God. He is our creator, sustainer and salvation, so naturally our attention should be focused on Him.
This does not mean that other individuals are not important but that they are no substitute for God and should not stand between us and Him. For this reason, in the end, the only relationship that we can fully depend on is our own personal relationship with God. All other relationships stem from this one. And if we lose our connection with our Creator, our relationship with others also suffers – for we do not have the spiritual insight and strength to gain the qualities of love, forgiveness, or generosity on our own.
Baha’u’llah says something similar to al-Ankari:
O SON OF LIGHT! Forget all save Me and commune with My spirit. This is of the essence of My command, therefore turn unto it.1
This may sound a bit extreme, for to forget everything but God would surely lead to either asceticism or fundamentalism! Except it doesn’t. Forgetting the world doesn’t mean leaving the world or shunning the things of the world or blowing them up. As Bahai’s we are to live in the world and engage in the affairs of the world, in an effort to improve them. But in doing this we must be detached from these affairs. How do we detach from the world spiritually but not physically? We place our attention on God: we utilise every task, every place, every person, every ordeal, every pleasure, as a pathway to Him. As Baha’u’llah says of the spiritual seeker:
In every face, he seeketh the beauty of the Friend; in every country he looketh for the Beloved.2
Our devotion is to God. When we love someone it is because they are a child of God. When we look into their eyes, we are looking into the eyes of God. Not His Essence but his Manifestation in the world. So other people are a passage for us to God. And on one level we transcend our human connection to them and achieve a spiritual connection through them.
When we devote ourselves to serving others, we do so for the sake of God. In the words of Abdu’l-Baha:
Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves.3
This connection with people and transcendence above people allows us to overlook the faults of others and forgive our enemies, for while we engage with others on the social plain, we simultaneously gain a deeper engagement with God, their/our Creator. While we are engaged in serving others we are also (paradoxically it seems) forgetful of them – forgetful of their animal nature, but conscious of their spiritual nature and the divinity that shines in them.
This means that we do not allow ourselves to be disappointed by people. People will inevitably let us down – and not just because of their own weaknesses but also due to our own misguided expectations that cause us to imagine that we have been let down, when in fact we let ourselves down by believing that a person was supposed to do something in a specific way for us. We are all imperfect. God is the only perfect being; therefore, our relationship with Him is the only fully secure one. We cannot expect people to be perfect or to live up to our expectations of them. Abdu’l-Baha said that if a person has 10 bad qualities and 1 good one, we should focus on the positive one. This allows us to connect with everyone on a deeper level.
As we can see, if we focus on the human nature of people, instead of their spiritual nature, we can fear other people’s judgement or expect their praise. I love putting the Baha’i Writings to music. I love the ecstatic moments of communion with God. But when I play music at a meeting or gathering, I can get really nervous. A couple of times this nervousness has caused me even to forget all the words and just suddenly stop playing. I have reflected a lot about this and come to the conclusion that if I were truly praying to God, I would not get nervous because I would not care what others thought – I would not even think about them.
The same is true of service. Service should be done without any expectations of praise from the community. This is obvious. But the same is also true about criticism. If I receive a negative response or no response at all to a service I have done, I should have no reaction. If I do react to other people’s reactions (or lack thereof), then maybe it wasn’t a service in the first place. If something was truly done for the sake of God or the good of another, this is sufficient in itself. Of course this is easier said than done – we are just people after all who naturally crave reassurance and reciprocity.
So what this all means is that in living a spiritual life, we should live and act only for God. This entails living in service to others “as if there were no one on earth but you”. We do things to help people for the love of God, with no thought of ourselves. We never forget the most important thing: we are here to love and worship God. Nothing else matters! Everything is a vehicle for that!