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Nature as a Spiritual Metaphor: Wind and the Will of God

February 26, 2013, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

If God is All-Loving and All-Merciful, why would He allow so much pain and suffering in the world and cause such severe difficulties to befall us?

I am unspeakably fortunate to have never endured extreme poverty, been diagnosed with a debilitating or life-threatening illness, suffered the sudden loss of a family member, or experienced any other type of severe calamity that so many unfortunately have. But tragedy in some shape or form appears to afflict all of us at some point in our lives: it was Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith and the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh, who described this life as the “home of suffering we call our earth” (Lights of Guidance, p. 207). When such suffering occurs, many of us will inevitably wonder the age-old question of why a beneficent God would ordain for our lives to be afflicted with such difficulties.

As a preliminary disclaimer: I have no idea. And I doubt that anyone else can say with complete assurance why a specific test or tribulation afflicted a particular person. If we believe that God is indeed an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent being, it seems that we must also accept the fact that, as creatures on a fundamentally lower station, we will never fully understand God’s will. As Bahá’u’lláh says:

Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, this sign of the revelation of the All-Abiding, All-Glorious God, thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue.

Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 164

But while we can never fully comprehend God’s will, we are also told by Bahá’u’lláh that one of the fundamental purposes of our life on this planet is to increase our understanding of God’s will. The first line of the short obligatory prayer from Bahá’u’lláh makes this point quite clear:

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

So how can we fulfill our purpose and strive to better understand God’s will when He is essentially unknowable? Although this seems paradoxical, in other passages Bahá’u’lláh clarifies that while God in His essence is fundamentally unknowable we are still able to come to understand aspects of God’s will in a variety of ways. One of which, and the most important from the Bahá’í perspective, is to recognize the latest Messenger of God and familiarize ourselves with His teachings. It is the Messenger of God whose purpose is to make the will of God known to humanity and help bring us closer to the divine. Another is through prayer and meditation, a practice that has a central place in all religious traditions. But perhaps a less obvious way is to study something that is not “religious” at all in the traditional sense: nature.

Bahá’u’lláh tells us in a number of passages that familiarizing ourselves with the characteristics and features of nature is a way to also become more cognizant of aspects of God’s will. The following selection is an example of this teaching:

Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion.

(Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 141)

As nature is the manifestation of the divine in the contingent world, the spiritual mysteries that can be revealed by deeply and purposefully contemplating nature are surely limitless. It is for this reason that Bahá’u’lláh, and many previous Messengers of God for that matter, frequently use natural symbols in order to help humanity grasp certain spiritual concepts. For example, God is often likened to the sun, the rise and fall of religions is compared to the cycle of seasons, Bahá’u’lláh tells us that His revelation is like a limitless ocean, the diversity of humanity is compared to a beautiful and variegated garden; this is just a small sample of the natural metaphors used in the Bahá’í Faith to illuminate spiritual truths. By studying the features and characteristics of these aspects of the material world, we can come to better understand spiritual phenomena.

And while the passage above states that all of nature is a manifestation of God’s will, Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly uses the specific metaphor of wind to characterize the will of God. A telling example comes from His description of how He first came to realize that He was indeed a Manifestation of God. As He says:

O King! I was but a man like others, asleep upon My couch, when lo, the breezes of the All-Glorious were wafted over Me, and taught Me the knowledge of all that hath been. This thing is not from Me, but from One Who is Almighty and All-Knowing.

(Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 11)

‘Abdu’l-Baha’ similarly uses the language of wind to describe God’s influence on humanity:

May the breezes of the Holy Spirit waft upon you, that your intelligence may progress and your souls rejoice in your lord. Thus will you become eternal beings shining in the divine kingdom.

Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 76

So why do Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ use wind as an analogy of God’s will? What do these two phenomena have in common?

In my opinion, I believe that wind is a poignant metaphor of God’s will for a variety of reasons. First, wind is invisible, but the effects of wind on other aspects of this world are clear and evident. I think that God’s will operates the same way; we may not have the spiritual faculties to directly observe God’s will, but if we open our eyes to the ways in which God’s will flows through our lives we are able to see the effects of His will operating in various ways.

Second, wind is omnipresent, but it is more or less evident at different times. Once again, I believe that God’s will operates similarly. At times we may feel His will completely enveloping us, at other times His will may be barely perceptible in our lives. But either way, God’s will is always influencing us and our environments, whether directly or indirectly, and we must always remain confident of this truth.

Finally, and most directly related to the introduction of this post, wind is an apt metaphor for the will of God because its effects in this world can be both beneficial or ostensibly destructive. Wind is truly an amazing phenomenon; if channeled properly it can be a source of plentiful and sustainable energy, but extreme winds can leave a wake of destruction and devastation in their path. God’s will is strikingly similar. If we effectively channel and utilize the will of God we can unleash amazing spiritual energies in our lives, but at times the will of God can also bring us tribulations that are quite devastating.

These tribulations are often what cause people to question God’s will or doubt that He even exists. But the Faith is clear that God’s will is still perceptible in such difficulties. In Bahá’í parlance, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ frequently speak of the “winds of tests” to describe these difficulties. While there are countless examples of this language in their Writings, the passages below are some of my favorite:

Glorified art Thou, O Lord my God! Every man of insight confesseth Thy sovereignty and Thy dominion, and every discerning eye perceiveth the greatness of Thy majesty and the compelling power of Thy might. The winds of tests are powerless to hold back them that enjoy near access to Thee from setting their faces towards the horizon of Thy glory, and the tempests of trials must fail to draw away and hinder such as are wholly devoted to Thy will from approaching Thy court.

Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, #1

O friend! I implore to God to make thee a banner of the banners of the Kingdom, firm and steadfast, unshaken by the most severe winds of tests and trials in this terrestrial world; to confirm thee in the servitude of the Sublime Threshold; to guide through thee many souls and to make thee a sign of meekness and humbleness before the beloved of God, the Mighty, the Protecting!

Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 334

Thy letter was received; its contents were of the utmost sweetness. No sooner had I heard it, than I supplicated to God in thy behalf that thou mayest become a strong growing tree, protected and guarded from the winds of tests and attain to heavenly guidance.

Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 556

O thou maid-servant of God! Become thou not extinguished by the winds of tests, but rather become ignited and be more happy, for then thou wilt become a tried believer.

Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 591

It is important to note that these “winds” are not described as manifestations of God’s vengeance, malice, or even justice. Rather, they are “tests” that allow us to determine how strong we truly are, identify weaknesses in our character, and focus on areas of our life in which we need to grow spiritually. It is for this reason that many of the above passages exhort us to be strong and confident in the face of tests.

Islam’s teachings are quite similar. The following is a passage from the Qurán that Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Baha frequently quote:

Do men imagine that they will be left (at ease) because they say, We believe, and will not be tested with affliction? Lo! We tested those who were before you. Thus Allah knoweth those who are sincere, and knoweth those who feign. (The Qur’an (Pickthall tr), Sura  29 – The Spider)

Just as the strength of buildings is discovered when they are assailed by strong winds, so does our nobility become revealed in how we respond to the winds of tests. I will end with the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ on this concept:

Anybody can be happy in the state of comfort, ease, health, success, pleasure and joy; but if one will be happy and contented in the time of trouble, hardship and prevailing disease, it is the proof of nobility. Thanks be to God that that dear servant of God is extremely patient under the disastrous circumstances, and in the place of complaining gives thanks.      

Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 363
Posted by

Matt Giani

Matt Giani is a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on stratification and social mobility in education, with an emphasis on helping underprivileged students make successful transitions to college after high school. Matt draws his inspiration from his exuberant daughter Clara, his incredible wife Shadi, and the Baha'i teachings.
Matt Giani

Discussion 8 Comments

What a balanced and grounded articulation of the non-evil (even necessity) of suffering as part of God’s will in this earthly life. And humble too. Thank you Matt! I think you captured the gist of the Baha’i understanding very intelligibly. Turns out I just wrote about the same topic on my recent blog post (http://blog.beliefnet.com/songofnightingale).

Whilst it is true that we will never understand the specific wisdom of all the specific forms of suffering in this life, I think it is safe to say, as a Baha’i, that theodicy (i.e. the problem of evil / why does God allow so much evil and pain to happen) is not an insurmountable philosophical dilemma. But it is insurmountable for a pampered and “modern” generation for whom suffering and inconvenience are an evil. As Baha’is we of course know that there’s nothing inherently evil about natural disasters or diseases, mosquitos or supernovas. It is only a rather recent human premise, characteristic of an instant-TV-dinner-generation, to think that if life doesn’t pan out like a superhappy Disney flick, something evil must be at large! And then there’s the following unwitting arrogance of the modern mind: “If the world is full of inexplicable and random-seeming events, they must have no good reason! I, the great human intelligence that I think I am, fail to see any good reason in it.”

Seemingly random and undeserved suffering is a case in point. If God’s will is good, how can he cause “evil”? The classical philosophical problem of theodicy rests, however, on a faulty premise. Most deeper religious traditions within all major religions would respond that suffering does not equate evil or a curse, much less divine sadism. Some level of suffering is always good for man, young or old, toddler or granny. It always strengthens the soul, teaches humility or reminds of the divinely intended unpredictability of this earthly life. What harms man is his own voluntary acts against human decency and dignity — against God’s will.

It could be argued that the great wisdom of God in creating earthly life and earthly death as utterly unpredictable phenomena lies in this: We should live every day like we are dying. We might indeed die tomorrow. Every day, right now, we should try to be the best that we can be as human beings. We should not wait until tomorrow, when we think we’re more equal to the task. It might be too late. Natural disasters and sudden illnesses only reinforce this intended unpredictability of the physical world. And the intention was very wise indeed.

Young infants losing their lives is perhaps the most powerful reminder (in all its excrutiating painfulness) of the fact that death will often visit us absolutely “unheralded” — i.e. without prior announcement. It can visit anyone, anywhere, at any age and at any moment, irrespective of our innocence or evil. There seems to lie the deeper spiritual wisdom of infant deaths that outwardly feel like a great evil visiting upon us by the permission of God. Those infants are safe with God, but we the parents are reminded to persevere and to make every remaining day count. Is God more gracious to those infants than He is to us who have to struggle for a full lifetime? I personally don’t think so, but neither is He less gracious. In a very deep sense, both can be claimed to be great acts of grace by God. They are only different kinds of grace. Only on a somewhat superficial level they can be taken as expressions of God’s cruelty — as indications of God having no plans for us, or at least not a good one.

Again, thanks for your important post on the good-will inherent in suffering.

Sam Karvonen

Sam Karvonen (February 2, 2013 at 9:44 AM)

Thanks for your comment Sam, and thanks also for pointing us to your recent post about suffering. I really enjoyed your ideas about different kinds of suffering, i.e. self-inflicted suffering representing “justice” (being mean to others results in others avoiding you) and the suffering related to tests and tribulations representing “grace” (God providing us with opportunities to demonstrate our faith, conviction, and resolve through our response to difficulties). Really great points!

Matt Giani

Matt Giani (March 3, 2013 at 3:07 PM)

There are several books on the above theme for readers who would like to extend their thinking beyond Matt’s fine essay above. Dr John Hatcher has written extensively on the metaphorical nature of physical reality in books and essays, articles and many online posts. John S. Hatcher holds a BA and MA in English Literature from Vanderbilt University and a PhD in English literature from the University of Georgia. He is the director of graduate studies in English literature at the University of South Florida, Tampa. Hatcher is a widely published poet and distinguished lecturer; he has written numerous books on literature and philosophy, as well as Baha’i theology and scripture. He and his family live on a farm near Plant City, Florida.

I encourage readers here to google Hatcher and his several books on this and related themes. One such article is found at this link: http://bahai-library.com/hatcher_bw18_life_metaphor “Why does physical reality exist at all,” asks Hatcher, “and how does it function in relation to spiritual goals.” Since God has fashioned the physical world, and since He has intended that we should evolve spiritually, then phenomenal reality must be a benevolent creation. It facilitates our development and such an idea, such a response, is an initially comforting one. But it does not penetrate to the heart of the matter where the question is conceived in the first place: it hardly resolves the myriad philosophical and pragmatic dilemmas which confront us daily in our desire to cope intelligently with a world that often seems to make little sense. There are many links, in addition to the above; if you google words like: metaphor, John Hatcher, symbols in literature, motifs, inter alia, you will find a world of reading, FYI.

RonPrice

RonPrice (February 2, 2013 at 12:10 AM)

Thanks Ron, and I definitely would second your recommendation of John Hatcher’s work for those interested in strong and compelling analyses of many of the philosophical underpinnings of the Faith.

Matt Giani

Matt Giani (March 3, 2013 at 3:09 PM)

Even though I have no idea if it is true or not, I see the necessity of suffering and hardships as training for better and greater things to come, pretty much in the same as an athlete trains (suffers) harder than in the actual race. Like with the athlete, somehow I think it will make our existence easier later on . But then again, I don’t really know.

Rudy

Rudy (February 2, 2013 at 4:15 PM)

I love your highighting the wind as metaphor related to God. It’s a captivating image to meditate on. One thing that comes to mind about our suffering in this world is our own attitude – how we tend to lash out, in the pain of suffering, with blame against others, against a God to whom we picture in ways we have learned from the past.

We do truly suffer, but what I learn – and continue to learn as things come up in my own life – is what a very different perspective Baha’i Writings bring to it. God is not out to get us. (Seriously, an underlying emotion or reaction for many of us.) In fact, a great many kinds of suffering are the results of our own – and by “our” I mean not only individuals, but humankind – ignorance or less stellar qualities of greed, etc. Or our response to the natural occurances of life, such as the passing of a loved one.

Even so, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha gently show us that these difficulties bring opportunities for deep learning – not the least of which is learning empathy and compassion for others in similar circumstances.

Not only acquiring the feeling of compassion, but translating that into action to assist others – or perhaps to simply be a good companion, one who can listen and understand another soul’s patch of tribulation.

At the very least, our own experience with the tribulations of life offers us countless opportunities to learn to let go of our judgement of others. We so rarely know the whole story of another soul, the tribulations of another person’s life in this world.

From “Hidden Grace: benefitting from lIfe’s tests” – a website of Baha’i Writings which explore this topc – is this: “The troubles of this world pass, and what we have left is what we have made of our souls, so it is to this we must look — to becoming more spiritual, drawing nearer to God, no matter what our human minds and bodies go through.”

(Link is also on my website on page “What do Baha’is believe?” http://bit.ly/VMQFfX )

Druzelle Cederquist

Druzelle Cederquist (February 2, 2013 at 5:27 PM)

I went on pilgrimage for the first time last June and on the very first day before our very first visit to the Shrine of the Báb there was a very moving event concerning wind that I’ll never forget. In this instance, I feel it was more around the idea of God as wind being Omnipresent than a symbol of trials and sufferings (to me, anyway), but it could be taken as either. Basically, our entire pilgrim group was outside the Haifa Pilgrim House, facing the Shrine of the Báb and waiting to head over and circumambulate the shrine for the first time. A member of the Continental Board of Counselors chanted the Tablet of Visitation, and as soon as he was finished, I mean right after the final word, a HUGE gust of wind blew right our entire party of pilgrims. It wasn’t even that windy that day and it certainly hadn’t been blowing that hard previously or even after. It felt special. I’ll never forget it. I actually paid attention to the breezes during the rest of my pilgrimage and felt them in many places at special moments, probably due to the fact that my awareness had been heightened. Thank you for the great post!

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson (March 3, 2013 at 5:44 PM)

Justin, this metaphor actually came to me when I was circumambulating the shrine of Baha’u’llah in Bahji! I definitely felt the same divine omnipresence when I was there, and I thought that wind was a fitting metaphor for the omnipresence of God. Thanks for highlighting that point.

One of the other reasons I thought wind was a compelling metaphor for God’s will is because of the stories of why Shoghi Effendi chose certain trees (I believe cypress?) to surround the shrines in the Holy Land. My understanding is that he chose those trees because it can get very windy in Haifa/Akka and he wanted to have trees that would bend, but not break, when the wind was strong. I believe there is a passage somewhere in which he discusses how this is symbolic of the attitude Baha’is should strive for in relation to the will of God. We should allow the will of God to blow/bend us in specific directions, but we should not “break” from the tests and tribulations of God’s will. I believe that our pilgrim guide mentioned that story to us during our pilgrimage which led me to this idea about wind and the will of God.

Matt Giani

Matt Giani (March 3, 2013 at 3:03 PM)

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