Life is difficult – have you noticed? Maybe less so if we see the glass as half full, but still, for most of the people we meet and know in real life, most of the time, life is difficult. Why does it have to be that way?
Religion proposes the existence of an all-good and all-powerful Creator, who created this earthly world and all of us in it. That Creator, in each of the world’s major Faiths, tells us that we have eternal souls which, after death here, will live forever in a deathless and happy realm.
Let’s explore that dual reality for a minute. We each live, you could say, in two worlds. The spiritual one bestows happiness, while the other, this material and physical world, is defined by limitations – and sometimes, by pain. In a speech he gave in Paris, Abdu’l-Baha put it this way:
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!
If we suffer it is the outcome of material things, and all the trials and troubles come from this world of illusion.
In the material world, we only know things by contrast. Our vision sees objects by contrasting one color and shade to the next. We know a table is there because, past the edge of it, there is no table. We know light because when it’s absent we call it darkness. We could say that things are defined by their characteristics and more importantly, by what they are not.
In this way, we humans are purpose-seeking beings. We don’t just exist to merely exist – we want to want something. This is most obvious if we lose something – we want it back. But it’s also true when our world and our possessions are stable, in which case we want what is more and better. Thus, the farmer works to grow or gather food, the engineer wants to construct a building, the teacher wants to educate the child, the physician tries to heal the patient. All of these purposes depend on understanding what differences make a difference – which characteristics and limitations of things, interacting in what ways, can change an outcome.
The main characteristic of limitation, for a purpose-seeking human, is frustration. You can’t get there from here! Or can you, if you know a little more, or experiment, or follow your intuition? It all starts with frustration – and, in case you haven’t noticed, frustration can create pain.
So we, who are created for happiness and adventures and plenty, find ourselves in a world where much of the time, we don’t get what we want. Many things we encounter frustrate us and cause us pain, as our health, strength, and beauty all sled (then toboggan) downhill at faster and faster rates starting at age 18. Face it, in this physical world, happiness is more a function of being content with our lot than it is changing that lot.
Okay, so we’re made for a life of adventure and sufficiency – but instead find ourselves in a life of limitation, frustration, and pain, and all this from a supposedly good and powerful God? How does that work?
In essence, we can’t have purposeful decisions without the incentives of limits.
Imagine a state of such intense love that all you want is for others to share in that love. Such was God’s state in creating us. We each come from God, and will return to Him. This brief stopover in a material world is not because God can’t help it, but because limitations are necessary in order for us to have or exercise a dynamic response to God’s love for us. We cannot give something back to God, or anyone else, without a state of limitation. The fact of scarcity, that giving more time to one thing means less time for another thing, gives meaning to the things we pursue.
Without scarcity of money, generosity would have no meaning. Without scarcity of earthly resources, the oneness of humanity would have no meaning. Without scarcity of time, could there even be gratitude, if gratitude is spending time appreciating the things given to us beyond our merit? Certainly without a limitation of time, there could be no prioritizing, and earthly life would have no meaning.
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So, in His generosity, God created a world in which we are enabled to meaningfully respond to love with love, to otherness with kindness, to beauty with appreciation, to desire in others with generosity, by prioritizing our use of those limited resources and turning them to the most spiritual uses.
God created the material world with all its limitations, gave human beings free will, a purpose-seeking instinct, and the intellectual tools needed in order to learn, all for the sake of those moments when one or another of us chooses, despite our limitations and frailties, to passionately love something or someone good, to respond meaningfully and full-throatedly to love with love, to lose ourselves in the ecstasy of life.
Maybe what we call pain, God calls an invitation to the best of life, as in this profound passage from Baha’u’llah’s writings:
O my friends! Sorrow not if in these days and on this earthly plain, things contrary to your wishes have been manifested and ordained by God, for days of blissful joy, of heavenly delight, are assuredly in store for you. Worlds, wholly and spiritually glorious, will be unveiled to your eyes. You are destined by him, in this world and hereafter, to partake of their benefits, to share in their joys, and to obtain a portion of their sustaining grace. To each and every one of them you will, no doubt, attain.