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We Shall Test You with the Good

Years ago I was involved in teaching a “Great Books” course at a liberal arts college. It brought me together with teachers of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, Greek philosophy, Roman civilization, the Renaissance, and more. It was a chance to look at great wisdom teachings in their historical contexts and dare to ask what relevance they have for us today. One of my responsibilities was to help introduce the staff and students to the Qur’an.

One day my colleague Jim, who is a great scholar of medieval Christianity, stopped me in the hallway. Jim has a knack for sharing the wisdom of Plato and St. Augustine to 18 year olds. In his hand was a copy of the Qur’an. In an excited, reverential tone, he said, “You have got to see this line.” A good Catholic, Jim opened the Qur’an to this line from Surat Al-‘Anbyā’ (The Prophets):

We test you all through the bad and the good as a trial.
Unto Us you all shall return

The part that got to my friend, and gets to me still, is this: We shall test you all through the good.

The being tested by “evil” is familiar enough — we are all tested at some point with sickness, poverty, and death. The book of Job, and all that. In the words of The Princess Bride, the greatest movie ever: “Life is pain your highness, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.”

But then there is this: We shall test you all through the good.

Image by Several Seconds/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)..

Every channel through which we receive joy is also the channel through which we are tested.

Parents. Good. Our first teachers of love and sacrifice.Without parents, our life has little meaning. And yet, we shall surely be tested through our relationship with our parents.

Children. Good. Very good. They are our very heart, leaping out of our chest and walking around. And yet we are rarely tested as we are with the “good” that is our children — when a child is sick; that entire miserable teenage moping period; if a child dies, God forbid. Children don’t just push our buttons, they take a hammer to our buttons. We are tested through the good that is our children.

Image by Several Seconds/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)..

Partners. Husbands. Wives. Romantic partners. Good. Most good. When good, for so many of us a real taste of heaven. And yet there may not be a corner of hell to torment one the way that a partner can. A wise soul once said: “A partner will either make you happy, or make you a philosopher.” We are tested through our partners.

Jobs. Very good. The six percent of Americans who are unemployed are struggling to find a meaningful one somewhere, anywhere. And yet, how often a colleague, a supervisor, a co-worker, a project causes us so much suffering. We are tested through the good that is our jobs.

Homes. We spend our lives trying to take buildings and houses, and turn them into homes. And then when we have them, things break in them. A roof here, a toilet there, a floor here, electricity there. And some get stuck in a house they can’t get out of. We are tested through the good that is our homes.

Bodies. Without these bodies, our souls have no place to call home (at least in this realm of existence). So many great pleasures we experience in this life are through our bodies. And yet the very good that is our bodies also experience suffering. A hip here, a knee there, a back here, a should there. A headache here, a cancer there, a diabetes here, a heart disease there. We are tested through our bodies.

Image by Several Seconds/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)..

And so it goes in this life:

We test you all through the bad and the good as a trial.
Unto Us you all shall return.

It is part of an insight that, in life, we are never promised ease. It’s the reason to be suspicious of the snake oil salesmen — that by believing in this and that, following this and that, coming to this and that workshop, we are promised ease.

No, ease is not a given. There is hardship, real hardship, in the life of this world. Everything that brings us joy can also cause an attachment that causes pain. Our Buddhist friends are right, in agreement with the insights of the Qur’an: attachment causes suffering.

What a joy it would be to live in the present moment, welcoming the good and the bad, the health and the sickness, into our lives with equal magnanimity.

Let us hold hands with one another, friends, and be prepared for the good and the bad, expecting not ease but the fullness of life. Let us remember that there is a test in life, through the good and the bad. Let us live in the awareness that in every breath, including this one, we are perpetually in the process of returning to God.

Image by Several Seconds/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)..

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