Trials and Tribulations : Exercise for our Souls

A cocoon stirs with signs of life. An opening appears, and you watch as the winged creature inside struggles to emerge from a small tear in the sack of life. Striving to free itself, the butterfly labors for what seems an eternity. You reflect on how easy it would be to simply break off the rest of the cocoon, thus aiding the butterfly with an easy passage to a new world. Gently tearing the rest of the cocoon, you stare in wonder as the creature crawls out with little effort. You wait patiently for it to spread its wings and take flight, but the butterfly only drags its swollen body and shriveled wings around in the dirt. It never does take flight and spends the rest of its life crawling around, weak and crippled. When you thought you were helping the butterfly, you were actually preventing it from a necessary struggle, a struggle that would force fluid from its body into its wings so that it could be ready to fly, once out of the cocoon. The hardship it would go through would, in turn, make it stronger in life.
The parable I just related to you is a fairly popular metaphor, often used as a tool in inspirational talks about overcoming obstacles. But what does it mean to the Muslim? It means that if Allah (SWT) allowed us to sail through life without hardship, it would weaken us. Every trial we go through – every family problem, financial problem, every bout of illness – has the potential to make us stronger in the end.
As difficult as it may be to understand, there is goodness in all our trials. Suhaib reported that Allah’s Messenger (SAW) said: “Strange are the ways of a believer for there is good in every affair of his and this is not the case with anyone else except in the case of a believer for if he has an occasion to feel delight, he thanks (God), thus there is a good for him in it, and if he gets into trouble and shows resignation (and endures it patiently), there is a good for him in it.” What we learn from this hadith is that there really is a silver lining to every cloud. That is, in His infinite mercy, Allah (SWT) has made it possible for something positive to come out of a seemingly negative situation. If we turn to Allah (SWT) and approach our hardships with patience and restraint, then certainly something good will come out of them, whether it is in this life, the Hereafter, or both.
So, how does pain amount to pleasure? Think back to the first time you went to the gym. You lifted weights, jogged on the treadmill, and came home exhausted and sore and wondering what lapse of sanity caused you to go to the gym in the first place. But you always return because obviously all those chiseled biceps and impeccable pecs you were surrounded by were not a result of lying on the sofa. As time goes on, the pain is always there – the burning muscles, the aching limbs – but it becomes easier and easier to endure and harder and harder to reach your threshold, to break a sweat. And, you finally start to notice the muscle mass you’ve gained, not to mention the extra strength and energy you always have. What you once considered painful is now simply a means to a desired goal, something painful you must endure to attain physical strength. Similarly our souls are, in a sense, in need of struggle. Trials and tribulations are a form of exercise for our soul. We must go through the pain and endure it patiently to attain our ultimate goal, Jannah. And, if trials and tribulations are exercise for our soul, then the more we go through them, all the while exercising patience and trusting in Allah’s decree, the stronger our souls become. Suddenly the small worries and problems that pop up in life seem like no big deal. Why? Because we have increased our soul’s threshold to bear afflictions. It will now take bigger problems for us to really break a sweat.
We must notice that the key element here is to bear hardship with patience. And to do that, we should recognize that the hardship or affliction is by the decree of Allah. We must restrain ourselves from complaining and lamenting and remember that our final return is to Him. Allah says: “Give glad-tidings to those who have sabr. Those who – when afflicted with an affliction – say: Indeed, we belong to Allah and to Him shall we return. They are those on whom are the blessings from their Lord and His mercy. They are the ones who are guided”(2:155-157). In this ayah, Allah (SWT) makes clear what kind of people are rewarded with glad-tidings and are under His guidance. It is none other than those who accept their affliction with patience, as a test from Allah (SWT), and recognize that we indeed belong to Him and shall consequently return to Him. Try and remember this ayah the next time you are faced with an unexpected trial in life. Instead of unleashing a vicious string of profanities and cursing everything under the sun, simply say Innalilahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (Indeed, we belong to Allah and to Him shall we return). This phrase will serve as a beautiful reminder, a reminder of where you come from and where you will ultimately end up, thus making your problem seem a little less dire in the larger scope of things.

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