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Living A Life of Service

August 23, 2011, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by
A female doctor with the international medical corps examines a woman patient at a mobile health clinic in pakistan (image by uk department for international development via flickr)
A female doctor with the International Medical Corps examines a woman patient at a mobile health clinic in Pakistan (Image by UK Department for International Development via Flickr)

In his beautiful tribute to his father last week, Naysan reflected on his father’s legacy of love and compassion and the way in which his father’s life has shaped his own ideas about service and spirituality. We’ve heard back from many readers who were deeply moved and inspired by that post and it has sparked many conversations about the concept of service.

In line with the theme of service, this post aims to address a question that is commonly asked of Baha’is: what do the Writings say about service and the role it has in our lives?

In today’s fast-paced world, it is often a struggle to aspire to lofty ideals such as service to humanity. As a society, we routinely have a myriad of balls in the air at once – bills to pay, traffic jams to navigate, meetings and appointments to juggle, personal relationships to manage and professional opportunities to pursue. We are all so caught up in our own busy, hectic worlds – it truly is a huge effort to think beyond that!

Service to humanity is an act that springs from a love for all humanity and a recognition of its oneness. It stems directly from the one spiritual principle that is emphasised over all others in every religion: the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule is by no means an easy rule to follow! It takes huge investments of emotional, mental and physical energy. It demands that we show compassion and empathy and allow ourselves to remain sensitive to and aware of the suffering of others – in spite of the temptation to block out and ignore the unpleasant realities of the world we live in. It involves taking time out of our own lives as we consider how we might improve the lives of those around us. It involves us making sacrifices in our own lives as we act to alleviate the suffering of the disadvantaged and oppressed.

Service to humanity is the act of making sacrifices for people we don’t necessarily know or have any close connection with, simply by virtue of our spiritual connection to them as part of one universal spiritual family. It is an act that, when replicated by many, results in material progress and the advancement of human civilisation. Additionally, the act of service to humanity has the power to unite the hearts of all mankind, as individuals and societies develop their spiritual capacities.

Oh, friends of God! If ye will trust in the Word of God and be strong; if ye will follow the precepts of Bahá’u’lláh to tend the sick, raise the fallen, care for the poor and needy, give shelter to the destitute, protect the oppressed, comfort the sorrowful and love the world of humanity with all your hearts, then I say unto you that ere long this meeting-place will see a wonderful harvest. Day by day each member will advance and become more and more spiritual.

‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks

Service is a hugely important part of Baha’i spiritual life – so much so that it has been elevated to the rank of worship!

… all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. 

‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks

I often find that saying the Short Obligatory Prayer reminds me of the profound significance of service in our spiritual lives. This prayer – one of the three prayers that Baha’is can choose from to say every day – begins with a line that reminds us of the purpose of our existence.

I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee.

This line always reminds me that it is not enough to just “know God”. While it is obviously very important to focus on our own spiritual development through prayer, deepening our knowledge on spiritual matters and acquiring virtues, this is only just half of our spiritual journey in this world.We are also reminded of the importance of the active efforts involved with the worship of God – service being one type of worship.

I remember having been told since I was in primary school that we learn best by doing. It’s one thing to read volumes of writings about virtues such as humility and compassion, but I can’t imagine that there could be a better way of understanding these spiritual truths than having the opportunity to practice these virtues for yourself by partaking in an act of service. The sacrifies that typically characterise acts of service are, in themselves, opportunities for spiritual growth and bounties. ‘Abdu’l-Baha says:

Until a being setteth his foot in the place of sacrifice, he is bereft of every favor and grace; and this plane of sacrifice is the realm of dying to the self, that the radiance of the living God may then shine forth.

Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha

Baha’is often spend a Youth Year of Service and devote a particular time in their lives to service. Additionally, Baha’is often devote a certain amount of their time within their weeks to specific service projects – children’s classes, junior youth groups, study circles, devotionals, artistic projects are just a few examples!

However, while these activities are important, I think that it is important to not to draw rigid lines and create dichotomies between our “acts of service” and the rest of our lives. Rather than being seen merely as a specific number of hours we put toward a cause or goal, I think that service should be an attitude that permeates throughout our whole lives. Whether it is by showing friendliness to the person sitting next to us in that boring meeting that’s being held two cups of coffee too early in the morning, being generous drivers as we crawl through peak hour traffic or remembering to show our appreciation to a loved one, there are numerous ways we can strive to live coherent, holistic lives of service.

What ideas do you have for living a life of service? What challenges do you face and what tips do you have for others? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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In her professional life, Preethi has dabbled in various combinations of education, community development and law. At heart, though, she's an overgrown child who thinks the world is one giant playground. She's currently on a quest to make learning come alive for young people and to bring the world's stories and cultures to them, with educational resources from One Story Learning.

Discussion 2 Comments

Fantasticly composed post, if only all people created the same written content as you, websites will be a more effective destination.

Janay Settle

Janay Settle (December 12, 2011 at 1:06 AM)

Thank you for such a good presentation of what it means to be of service. You have helped me organize my thoughts for an inter-faith service project that I am working on.


Fiona (January 1, 2021 at 2:56 PM)

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