Nay! When the earth is pounded to powder, And thy Lord cometh, and His angels, rank upon rank, And Hell, that Day, is brought face to face -- on that Day, man will remember, but how will that remembrance profit him? He will say: "Ah! Would that I had sent forth good deeds for this, my Future Life!" For, that Day, His Chastisement will be such as none else can inflict, And His bonds will be such as none other can bind. Yet to the righteous soul will be said: O thou soul who art well assured, Return to thy Lord, well-pleased, and pleasing unto Him. Enter thou among My servants, And enter thou My paradise.[^1]
Many people that I know would shy away from ever attributing the end of this quotation to themselves. And this brings up a certain point, which I am not sure stems from scripture: that to a certain extent we believe we are abhorrent to God, and worthy of destruction.
In the sense of pure justice, we know that the Qu’rán says, “Should God punish men for their perverse doings, He would not leave on earth a moving thing! But to an appointed term doth He respite them…”1
Yet we are not held accountable to pure justice. This is evidenced by the following:
Do Thou graciously forgive me for the things that I have wrought in Thy holy presence, and look not upon me with the glance of justice, but rather deliver me through Thy grace, treat me with Thy mercy and deal with me according to Thy bountiful favours, as is worthy of Thy glory.2
If we were doomed to a full culpability for our actions, we could never hope for grace, such as the Báb implores in the above prayer. Therefore, since “He is in truth the Omnipotent, the All-Powerful, He Who is wont to answer the call of men;”3 I imagine our focus should not be to dwell on the precepts of justice, but to ask for mercy.
Consider a parent: how willing they are to overlook every fault in a child, and to focus on and develop whatever good qualities may begin to appear. They found all their expectations in the hope that this good quality will develop, rather than deploring the fact of the bad. In fact, the bad may be completely forgiving, and even written off as childish ignorance, if only the good will prevail in adulthood.
Why is it that we cannot say to ourselves that we are “well-pleased, and pleasing unto Him”? Perhaps we cannot know this. But doesn’t this also mean that we cannot honestly know whether or not we are displeasing? God has not sent destruction upon us, and the events of our lives are constantly seen as improving us and helping us to become better. Yet, if we look down upon ourselves, or castigate our past actions, then aren’t we presuming to know the feelings of God? We have no knowledge of His mind; at best, we should leave that subject alone.
So this underlying feeling many of us have imbibed during our upbringing – that we are constantly displeasing to our Creator – seems now ludicrous. There are several factors that I believe relate to this:
None of us acts from malice, except for an extreme few. Malice means to commit evil, in the full knowledge of, and desire to, act against the good. How often have we ever been cruel or hurtful, and then exulted in the cruelty itself? When we are angry, usually this stems from a feeling of justification, not from a lust for hatred.
We judge ourselves too harshly if we think that we are evil to that degree. Malice is a soul-destroying thing4, and I’m not sure many people could even tolerate it without some sort of breakdown.
So, considering that we are rarely so evil as this, it must mean that we are to some extent ignorant when we act wrongly: we are unaware of the significance of our actions, or what they imply. This is evidenced by the fact that as we grow older, we often look back at our lives and realize how foolish we had been a different points in time. The discrepancy here is not one of goodness, but of maturity.
There is no reason to believe that we are not pleasing to our Creator; merely the fact that we are alive, and appreciative of His gifts, must account for something. If we go back to the analogy of the parent, just think how pleased a parent would be if his or her child expressed their joy at being alive. In that moment, it would not matter what they had done, or who they had become; the mere fact of their gratitude could inspire forgetfulness in even some of the most difficult cases. True, the past must be reckoned with, but in the sense of that parent’s relationship to the child’s being, rather than their behavior, we might say that a parent’s love is a hard thing to destroy – sometimes even in the face of malice.
Why, then, would we ever imagine that God is waiting, ready to condemn us? All of us here on earth are like children. Whenever I read the following biblical quotation, it makes me think that our task here on earth is more to realize who we truly are (both individually, and as a species), rather than to achieve some particular feat of glory:
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, “Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”5
Our striving is what is productive of our advancement, so that the fruit of our labors is not solely outward conquest. Similarly, if we strive, but do not completely fulfill the picture of a glorious result, yet it cannot be called worthless.
Is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? For if the character of mankind be not changed, the futility of God’s universal Manifestations would be apparent.6
Further, it often happens that a more subtle thing, even though it may not produce an immediate result, will effect a change in our soul which might ultimately yield very great results. Plato writes:
I am amused, I said, at your fear of the world, which makes you guard against the appearance of insisting upon useless studies; and I quite admit the difficulty of believing that in every man there is an eye of the soul which, when by other pursuits lost and dimmed, is by these purified and re-illumined; and is more precious far than ten thousand bodily eyes, for by it alone is truth seen…7
The reason I bring this up is to attack the idea that we should constantly berate ourselves for not playing an active part in the world in the way that others imagine the word “activity” to imply. No one can judge the effects of our actions, unless he possess a truly timeless vision8. What appears to have an effect today may dry up and whither away, while another thing, far more subtle and quiet, may actually achieve the real result.
Only simple and quiet words will ripen of themselves. For a whirlwind does not last a whole morning, nor does a sudden shower last a whole day.
Who is their author? Heaven-and-Earth! Even Heaven-and-Earth cannot make such violent things last long; How much truer is it of the rash endeavors of men?9
Society holds up to us a certain ideal of “success” and achievement. And we measure ourselves by this ideal, accepting blindly what they in turn accepted blindly, from parents who may have never questioned the meaning of this success.
At the present day, we evaluate our activities according to the plans and purposes of the Cause of God. Somehow, duty has lost the sense of glory that usually accompanies it when speaking of a great cause; and instead, it has become a burdensome thing to fill us with grief at our own lack of accomplishment.
Though, I am not writing this to dissuade people from action. But we must come to terms with what we feel success to be: with the fact that we cannot rely on our own sense of God’s evaluation of our success, and that sometimes, the result of an action may be far-distanced from its beginning. If we can escape from this destructive notion of being hurried continually toward some external goal, perhaps we might rediscover that part of ourselves which God loved at the time of our creation10, and which I believe He will always love. And then, warmed by the sunlight embrace of that realization, relaxed such that we become as deep pools of water, which our friends must wade through to reach us, other people – the non-Bahá’í’s – will notice our peaceful happiness, and will want to become a part of that life.
But if they look at us and see only a guilt-ridden community, beleaguered at all times by our own sense of failure, and never really reaching that station of being “well-pleased, and pleasing unto Him,” then why in the world would they want to become part of that? To an atheist, although that life may be unsatisifying if they focus on it with due introspection, yet it still offers a certain freedom and lightness of soul that would be hard to give up for a typically “religious” life.
I think the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh, instead, presents this idea:
In this world we are influenced by two sentiments, Joy and Pain.
Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness. But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings.
There is no human being untouched by these two influences; but all the sorrow and the grief that exist come from the world of matter – the spiritual world bestows only the joy!11
We only water the earth overmuch by our tears of self-grief, and make the ground muddy and hard to navigate. Pulling up our feet wearily from the mire, we are aware only of how tired and difficult life has become. But if we dry these tears, and invite the sun to shine upon everything in our lives, the terrain will once again become firm and easily navigable. This, I believe, is the key to fulfilling our duties: not to continue adding on to our sense of responsibility until our backs creak, but to realize through our joy and sense of glory that the load is not at all difficult to bear. So many things become easy through love, that seem almost unaccomplishable without it.
The idea that we are abhorrent to God should be erased from our minds. It makes no sense in the world of nature; I can find no correlate in this plane of existence, nor in the language of Revelation. Instead, I find words like these:
O Son of Spirit! With the joyful tidings of light I hail thee: rejoice! To the court of holiness I summon thee; abide therein that thou mayest live in peace for evermore.
O Son of Spirit! The spirit of holiness beareth unto thee the joyful tidings of reunion; wherefore dost thou grieve? The spirit of power confirmeth thee in His cause; why dost thou veil thyself? The light of His countenance doth lead thee; how canst thou go astray?12
Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form When within thee the universe is folded?
Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light.13
If any man were to meditate on that which the Scriptures, sent down from the heaven of God’s holy Will, have revealed, he would readily recognize that their purpose is that all men shall be regarded as one soul, so that the seal bearing the words “The Kingdom shall be God’s” may be stamped on every heart, and the light of Divine bounty, of grace, and mercy may envelop all mankind. The one true God, exalted be His glory, hath wished nothing for Himself.14
If the intent of this essay is unclear, allow me to restate it: at some point along the way we seem to have developed a degrading, self-defeating idea that we are forever unacceptable, and perhaps even abhorrent, to God; and we wear away our lives striving for this acceptance, but never quite feel that we reach it. But this model offers little joy, and much anxiety; rather, we should permit our soul’s exuberance at the thought of rejoining our Creator to propel us forward. Then, we would find the ordinary life jejune beyond degree, and would discover ourselves naturally racing toward that far-off goal…
O Son of Justice! Whither can a lover go but to the land of his beloved? and what seeker findeth rest away from his heart’s desire? To the true lover reunion is life, and separation is death. His breast is void of patience and his heart hath no peace. A myriad lives he would forsake to hasten to the abode of his beloved.15
Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb, p.208↩
Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 29↩
cf. `Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 127-128↩
Bible, Matthew, 18:1-4↩
The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 25↩
Plato, The Republic, Book VII↩
cf. Bahá’u’lláh, The Seven Valleys, p. 16↩
Lao-Tse, Tao The Ching↩
cf. The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 4↩
`Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, pp. 109-110↩
The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, pp. 11-12↩
Bahá’u’lláh, The Seven Valleys, p. 34↩
Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 260↩
The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 23↩