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Do We Transform Through Effort or Grace?

May 25, 2024, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

As humans we appear to be unique. As far as we know, we are the only creatures on this earth with rationality and the ability to consciously direct our lives. In other words, we have free-will.

But of course, despite our ability to make conscious decisions, in another real sense, we are at the mercy of the world. Even when it comes to our own beings, we are constrained by our physical and psychological makeup.

This makes me wonder, to what extent is our spiritual transformation in our “own hands”?

This is a longstanding question, perhaps since the time of the ancient yogis of India who developed techniques aimed at achieving enlightenment while others practiced more ceremonial activities aimed at receiving divine blessings. These two dimensions can also be seen in the various sects of Christianity, with some emphasizing the grace of God while others placing more importance on good deeds.

As a Baha’i, this question is very important to me. Especially since I have two close friends from other religions whose views have influenced me. One friend is an avid meditator in the Vipassana tradition, which follows the Theravadan Buddhist view that enlightenment is largely the result of the efforts each person puts into their own purification. The other friend is Christian who has emphasized to me that nothing we as individuals do can transform us. It is only through the grace of God that we can attain a higher state of being.

Both perspectives make sense to me. But which of my friends is right?

I can see both sides. On the one hand, it seems clear that our spiritual development is in our own hands as there are things we can choose to do or not do that impact our growth. We can tell the truth, be kind or we can cheat and lie. But on the other hand, our spiritual development is linked to our souls, and our souls are connected to God and largely beyond our grasp, which makes the development of the soul seem so dependent on God’s grace.

So, what do the Baha’i Writings say about this question?

Throughout the Baha’i sacred texts, there are numerous examples of the need to exert effort in order to spiritually transform. Likewise, there are just as many examples of the power of divine assistance. So, let’s look at how these two dimensions intersect.

To do this, it’s worth looking at an Abdu’l-Baha’s explanation of “free-will and its limits”:

“This condition can be likened to that of a ship that moves by the power of wind or steam. Should this power be cut off, the ship would become entirely unable to move. Nevertheless, in whatever direction the rudder is turned, the power of the steam propels the ship in that direction.”1

“… the choice of good and evil belongs to man, but that under all circumstances he is dependent upon the life-sustaining assistance of Divine Providence.”2

This seems to suggest that in general our spiritual progress is dependent on the Power of God. However, we need to exert our own powers in order to tap into that higher power. This can also be seen in the stages of spiritual development that Baha’u’llah outlines in His work, The Seven Valleys, which is written according to a Sufi tradition of conceptualizing the process of mystical transformation.

The first stage is the Valley of Search, and in this valley, the determination and effort of the seeker are of utmost importance: “The true seeker hunteth naught but the object of his quest… Labour is needed, if we are to seek Him.”3

This suggests that we need to rely on our own efforts in trying to find God. Baha’u’llah counsels the seeker in this valley to: “cleanse the heart, which is the wellspring of divine treasures, of every marking.”3 And also to “turn away from imitation, which is following the traces of their forefathers.”3 This seems to imply that we need to exert our own will to purify our hearts and intentions, that no one else can do it for us, that we need to do it ourselves.

From this angle, it’s very much about individual effort. But in the very same valley, Baha’u’llah also says: “At every step, aid from the invisible Realm will attend him and the fervour of his search will grow.”3 This shows the place of the grace of God. It suggests that we are not alone on the spiritual path, that it is not just through our own efforts alone that we grow. God is always showering us with divine assistance and inspiration.

In fact, according to Baha’u’llah, it is only through the grace of God that the seeker reaches the next valley:

“…if, by the help of the Creator, he findeth on this journey a trace of the traceless Friend, and inhaleth the fragrance of the long-lost Joseph from the heavenly herald, he shall straightway step into the Valley of Love.”3

So, we see that from the very beginnings of the spiritual path, it is important for the seeker to put in efforts to purify their heart and search for God, but in the end, our transformation is in God’s hands. This is a generalization of how transformation happens for most people. However, there may also be differences between individuals in how and when they transform. Baha’u’llah has said:

“Some, after spiritual struggle and physical toil … abide in the limitless realm of affirmation, and abandon the privation of a transient existence for the bountiful assemblage of reunion.”4

On the other hand,

“Others … without even tasting a dewdrop of the degrees of self-surrender ascend unto the kingdom of life everlasting.”4

This seems to suggest that spiritual transformation may not happen in the same way or for the same reasons for everyone. For some, a lot of effort is required; for others, God may transform their hearts. Is this because some people’s hearts are more open and susceptible to God’s grace? I’m not sure. Does the path of effort correspond to those with a more determined mindset while the path of effortless transformation relates more to those people who are more centered in their hearts and perhaps less intellectual?

It’s hard to answer these questions, but it seems to me that the safest way is to put in an effort to purify ourselves while at the same time always supplicating God to assist us and putting our trust in Him. If we just focus on our individual efforts, we might come to believe that we have total control of our lives or even the world around us, which is obviously erroneous. On the other hand, if we just sit around waiting for God to transform us then we are not utilizing His gift of free-will and our idleness may actually cut us off from His ever-flowing grace.

In the end, it seems that it is ultimately God who enables a person to pass from one stage of spiritual growth to the next. However, as individuals we need to use our free-will in the right way. We need to exert effort in working on ourselves and doing good in the world. This will enable us to receive God’s grace This grace is freely flowing, but through making efforts, we open ourselves up to it.

  1. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, Chapter 70, para 6 []
  2. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, Chapter 70, para 7-8 []
  3. Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys [] [] [] [] []
  4. Baha’u’llah, The Call of the Divine Beloved [] []
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Peter Gyulay

Peter Gyulay is passionate about sustainable living and the deeper aspects of life. He has a BA (Hons) in philosophy along with an M.Ed. and works in the fields of education and philosophical consultancy/counseling. For more information visit Peter is the author of Walking the Mystical Path with Practical Feet: The Bahai Approach to Spiritual Transformation and other books and articles. For more about his written work visit
Peter Gyulay

Discussion 1 Comment


Stephen Morris Craft

Stephen Morris Craft (May 5, 2024 at 3:59 PM)

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