I believe that tests and hardships in this life refine our character, soften our hard edges and bring us closer to knowing God. Abdu’l-Baha tells us:
Tests are benefits from God, for which we should thank Him. Grief and sorrow do not come to us by chance, they are sent to us by the Divine Mercy for our own perfecting… Men who suffer not, attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardener is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and most abundant fruit.1
However, another purpose of tests is that they increase our empathy and in turn allow us to serve others. What if in fact the highest purpose of tests is that they help us understand and aid others through their hardships and be a cause of their happiness?
And the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good. Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight.2
In my 20s my sister endured two miscarriages. Although I was there with her and tried my best to support her I never really understood her suffering at the time nor when her trauma affected her well into the future. I could not wrap my head around why this test affected her so deeply and why it permeated her life even more than a decade after the events took place. However, last year, I suffered through two pregnancy losses myself, and through these experiences I finally understood my sister’s pain and suffering. It has allowed me to open up my mind and heart and see the world through her lens. Through my losses, my sister was the one I wanted to turn to, I knew she had the right words to say, how to comfort me and help me heal – her tests and suffering gave her the opportunity to serve me.
I was also given the opportunity to serve a stranger as a result of my test. Just two days before finding out about my second miscarriage I met a young woman who checked me in on a flight. I asked her if I could have a window seat because I had severe morning sickness and did not feel comfortable in a middle seat if I were to be sick. As the conversation evolved she told me that she had miscarried just three weeks earlier. My heart broke for her and I could see the grief in her eyes. She was stoic as we spoke, and I tried to offer some words to comfort her but felt hopeless in that moment. Once I checked in I walked away but did not feel I could just leave her like that. I just wanted to ease her pain, so I went and found her a small symbolic gift, a ‘dreams’ journal and went back to her. I told her that I felt her pain but that it was always important to keep hope in this life and that I would pray for her. As we embraced tears welled up in her eyes and she thanked me. As painful as my test was, without it I would not have been able to connect to this soul in the way that I did or bring her comfort in that moment.
I think that tests can draw us closer to God and give us clarity about our purpose. Shoghi Effendi makes the connection between tests and service by stating that:
Failure, tests and trials, if we use them correctly, can become the means of purifying our spirit, strengthening our characters, and enable us to rise to greater heights of service.3
Furthermore, Abdu’l-Baha says that “the master key to self-mastery is self-forgetting.”4 What better way to forget ourselves, and to humble ourselves than through divine tests? Although the hardship can feel and be all-consuming, if we understand their purpose, then it can be a pathway to serve others better.
Grieve thou not over the troubles and hardships of this nether world, nor be thou glad in times of ease and comfort, for both shall pass away. This present life is even as a swelling wave, or a mirage, or drifting shadows.5
Next time you are faced with hardship, perhaps you can turn your face to God and ask for strength and patience to endure. Then take a step back and think to yourself “what can I learn from this?” and “how can this hardship help me help others?”
Be thou strong and firm. Be thou resolute and steadfast. When a tree is firmly rooted it will bear fruit. The trials of God are many, but if man remains firm and steadfast, the test itself is a stepping stone for the progress of humanity.6
- Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 49-51. [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civillization. [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, From a Letter Written on Behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an Individual Believer, December 14, 1941, Living the Life, p. 7. [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, vol. 17, no.2, p.348. [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha. [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, vol.10, no.19, p.348. [↩]