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There was a time in my life when I was guided by this Hidden Word:

Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me.  (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words 30)

Although it’s an important reminder, putting it into practice sometimes got me in trouble!

There was a person in my apartment building who often called on me to do things for her that she needed help with; and she didn’t always call at a time that was convenient for me.  Nevertheless, with this Hidden Word in mind, and trying to “sacrifice self” I would drop what I was doing, and immediately attend to her needs.

Obviously I must have gone with a bad attitude, which she could sense, so although she accepted my help in the moment, it bothered her that I never said “no” or “wait”.  When she asked for help, she didn’t always need it done “now”, even though that’s how I interpreted her request.

Years later she told me she wished I had set limits or even said no, because she always felt bad when she saw me serving when it was obvious I’d rather be doing something else.

When finding ways to be of service, we want to carefully examine our motives first.

It’s entirely probable that my motive was more about people pleasing.

It took a long time for me to realize that she had a right to ask; and I had a right to say no, and it didn’t make me a bad Baha’i.

In the following quote, we learn what we should do; as well as what we should not:

It is indeed strange that instead of offering thanks for this bounty, which truly derives from the grace of Almighty God, by arising as one in gratitude and enthusiasm and praying that these noble purposes will daily multiply, some, on the contrary, whose reason has been corrupted by personal motives and the clarity of whose perception has been clouded by self-interest and conceit; whose energies are devoted to the service of their passions, whose sense of pride is perverted to the love of leadership, have raised the standard of opposition and waxed loud in their complaints. Up to now, they blamed the Shah for not, on his own initiative, working for his people’s welfare and seeking to bring about their peace and well-being. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 11-12)

We should:

  • offer thanks for this bounty
  • arise to serve in gratitude and enthusiasm
  • pray that these noble purposes will daily multiply
  • work for people’s welfare
  • seek to bring about their peace and well-being

To contrast the example above, I now live in a different apartment building and am one of the few people who have a car.  If I see someone waiting for the bus, I often offer them a ride.  They’re happy, I’m happy, the service is effortless, and it’s easy to thank God for these opportunities to be in the flow with service.

We should not:

  • be corrupted by personal motives, self-interest and conceit
  • devote our energies to the service of our passions
  • allow our sense of pride to be perverted by the love of leadership
  • raise the standard of opposition
  • be loud in our complaints
  • blame those we serve

In the first example, I did blame and complain (in my mind); and I was coming from a sense of pride, wanting her to see what a good example of a selfless Baha’i servant I could be.  My “passion” was people-pleasing and approval seeking.  And intuitively she knew it!

At the time she shared this insight with me, I heard it, but I didn’t know what to do with it.  It took a long time for me to realize that yes, Baha’u’llah is the Divine Physician with the remedy for the ailing world, but like all good physicians he has a LOT of different remedies which can be applied in any given situation.  Perhaps I was applying penicillin when what was needed was insulin.

God does not want us to be people-pleasers.

To be approved of God alone should be one’s aim.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. 6, No. 6, p. 44)

In fact, when we do, we’re pretty much guaranteed to displease Him!

. . . at all times seeking the approval of men is many times the cause of imperiling the approval of God.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, June 24, 1915)

I had more than 50 years of people-pleasing behind me, and it wasn’t easy to turn it around!  So it was somewhat comforting to read:

Becoming detached from the things of this world is often a painful process and involves sacrifice. But when the believer gives up something dear to him for the sake of the Cause of God, mysterious forces will be released which will cause the Faith to grow.   (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Baha’u’llah, p. 22-23)

When I gave up people-pleasing (by saying “no” or “wait”), and started to consider pleasing God (by taking time for prayer and contemplation first), my relationships with others changed for the better, and lots of opportunities for simple but profound service started presenting themselves to me. It was easier to live in the flow, and life just got easier.

This quote took on a whole different meaning:

To offer up one’s time, to labour for the establishment of the Faith in a locality, to give up the comforts of home and to go as a pioneer to foreign lands, to offer up one’s substance for the promotion of the Cause, to be persecuted for one’s faith, and even to give one’s life at the end — all these sacrifices are meritorious in the sight of God and will undoubtedly bring victory to His Cause, provided one’s motives are pure and sincere. That is the essential condition of loyalty and steadfastness in the Covenant of God — purity of motive. Without it one’s deeds are not acceptable by God. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Baha’u’llah, p. 22-23)

Bahá’u’lláh testifies to this truth in these words:

Holy words and pure and goodly deeds ascend unto the heaven of celestial glory. Strive that your deeds may be cleansed from the dust of self and hypocrisy and find favor at the court of glory; for ere long the assayers of mankind shall, in the holy presence of the Adored One, accept naught but absolute virtue and deeds of stainless purity.  (Baha’u’llah, The Persian Hidden Words 69)

When once, this quote would have been a “should”, (after all, isn’t that what sacrificing means?), now all of these decisions are easy, and “in the flow”, so I can trust that they are coming from a purer place.

It’s so easy to perform an action which might look righteous, but still has the wrong motives, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha explains:

Now it may be that a man performs an action which in appearance is righteous, but which is dictated by covetousness. For example, a butcher rears a sheep and protects it; but this righteous action of the butcher is dictated by desire to derive profit, and the result of this care is the slaughter of the poor sheep. How many righteous actions are dictated by covetousness! But the goodwill is sanctified from such impurities.  (Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 302)

Another impure motive I had to struggle with, was my desire to earn “spiritual brownie points” to guarantee that the next world would be better than this one.  My experience here hasn’t been all that great, so when God says “do this and I’ll give you that”, I want to do it all, to get the “goodies”!  So imagine my dismay when I learned that this was a form of attachment and a barrier between me and God!

If a man’s actions are motivated by the thought that he may reap a reward for himself in the next world, then this is attachment, and a barrier between himself and God.   (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Baha’u’llah, p. 22)

As Baha’is, we’re called to a higher standard.

Our goal should always be to serve for the sake of God and nothing else:

Love and serve mankind just for the sake of God and not for anything else. The foundation of your love toward humanity must be spiritual faith and Divine assurance.  (‘Abdul-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 213)

From early childhood, human society trains us to exalt ourselves above others with the ultimate aim of achieving self-importance, success and power:

Human society at present exerts a pernicious influence upon the soul of man. Instead of allowing him to live a life of service and sacrifice, it is highly competitive and teaches him to pride himself on his accomplishments. From early childhood he is trained to develop his ego and to seek to exalt himself above others, in the ultimate aim of achieving self-importance, success and power. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 22)

If we’re not careful, this could carry over into our service as well as our professional lives.

Here are some signs that your service might be coming from a place of ego:

1.  If your service comes from a place of fear.  This is usually a sign that you’re seeking the approval of others.  God doesn’t want us to fear anything; and when we do, it’s often a sign of a lack of faith and trust in Him.

For more information, please see Fear into Faith – Overcoming Anxiety 

2.  If your service comes from a place of “should, must or ought to”.  God doesn’t “should” on His servants!  That’s our lower nature talking!  The voice of God is always a gentle breath inside our consciousness; or a tiny, quiet voice inside our hearts.  I was good at this one too!  If it was in the Writings anywhere, I HAD to do it, at all times and under all conditions.  This was the sin of perfectionism!  God doesn’t expect us to be perfect!  He wrote His Revelation for the entire human race, for the next 1000 year, not for Susan Gammage to implement today!  What a relief this discovery way!

For more information, please see Shoulds and Service

3.  Putting other people’s needs first, without taking care of your own needs – leading to burnout.  This was another area I excelled in (and still struggle with).  I will often get out of bed in the morning and immediately check my email and respond to requests that have come in overnight before showering, eating breakfast or tending to the needs of my pets.  This is putting others before me, and before God, and it will only lead to burnout and resentment.  Here are some helpful reminders:

You should not neglect your health, but consider it the means which enables you to serve. It—the body—is like a horse which carries the personality and spirit, and as such should be well cared for so it can do its work! You should certainly safeguard your nerves, and force yourself to take time, and not only for prayer meditation, but for real rest and relaxation.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 296)

I understand you have been ill and obliged to rest; never mind, from time to time rest is essential, otherwise, like unto ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from excessive toil you will become weak and powerless and unable to work. Therefore rest a few days, it does not matter. I hope that you will be under the care and protection of the Blessed Beauty.  (Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khanúm, The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, from a tablet to Shoghi Effendi written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

4.  If you need to manage outcomes.  I don’t know about you, but I often think I know what other people need, without even asking them, and provide service based on that.  For example, when I offer people rides to a particular location, I know they will need to wait for 2 hours before the bus comes by, so I often plan my errands and time them so that I can take people home again, not realizing that they may want to get some exercise; meet someone for coffee or browse the stores, instead of going straight home.

I also used to think I knew what was in the best interest of our cluster, and in my role as Assistant or LSA Member, I alienated people by continually drawing their attention to the current guidance.  Imagine my horror when I read:

The Universal House of Justice has emphasized the importance of our avoiding any tendency to take responsibility for the Cause into our own hands: ‘Service to the Cause of God requires absolute fidelity and integrity and unwavering faith in Him. No good but only evil can come from taking the responsibility for the future of God’s Cause into our own hands and trying to force it into ways that we wish it to go regardless of the clear texts and our own limitations. It is His Cause. He has promised that its light will not fail. Our part is to cling tenaciously to the revealed word and to the institutions that He has created to preserve His Covenant.’  (Universal House of Justice, Quickeners of Mankind, p. 119)

YIKES!  “only evil can come from taking the responsibility for the future of God’s Cause into our own hands and trying to force it into ways that we wish it to go regardless of our own limitations”!

But it was liberating too, as it meant I had to let go of both the Baha’i I wanted to be; and the Baha’i community I wanted to be part of, which freed me up to offer this service (my books and blog) which brings me such joy!

Ya Bahá’u’l-Abhá! God truly does know better than I do!

5.  If you need to maintain a certain identity.  This was a hard one for me to learn too!  At one point in my life I had a great career and was highly regarded in my field.  Then I was cleaning up the mess from my childhood which required all of my attention; and suddenly I was on the other side of the fence looking in.  Who was I without my career?

Who I was, was someone attached to the “Kingdom of Names”, which I really didn’t understand until I read these quotes:

In many of His Tablets Bahá’u’lláh exhorts His followers not to become the bond-slaves of the Kingdom of Names. The well-known Islamic saying, ‘The Names come down from heaven’, has many meanings. In this world every one of God’s attributes is clad with a name, and every such name reveals the characteristics of that attribute. For instance, generosity is an attribute of God, and it manifests itself in human beings. However, a person who has this attribute often becomes proud of it and loves to be referred to as generous. When his generosity is acknowledged by other people, he becomes happy, and when it is ignored, he is unhappy. This is one form of attachment to the Kingdom of Names. Although this example concerns the name ‘generosity‘, the same is true of all the names and attributes of God manifested within the individual. Usually man ascribes these attributes to his own person rather than to God and employs them to boost his own ego. For instance, a learned man uses the attribute of knowledge to become famous and feels gratified and uplifted when his name is publicized far and wide. Or there is the individual whose heart leaps with feelings of pride and satisfaction when he hears his name mentioned and finds himself admired. These are examples of attachment to the Kingdom of Names.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 25)

One of the distinguishing features of Bahá’u’lláh’s embryonic world order is that it does not harbor egotistical personalities. Bahá’u’lláh has conferred authority on its institutions, whether local, national or international, but the individuals who are privileged to serve on them are devoid of any authority. Unlike men who wield power in the world today and seek to acquire fame and popularity, members of Bahá’í institutions cannot but manifest humility and self-effacement if they are to remain faithful to Bahá’u’lláh. Those who do not succeed, through immaturity or lack of faith, in living up to these standards are indeed attached to the Kingdom of Names and become deprived of the bounties of God in this age.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 25-26)

To sever oneself from the Kingdom of Names may prove to be the most difficult task for a Bahá’í, and the struggle may indeed last a lifetime. If a man can only realize that his virtues are not intrinsically his own, but rather are manifestations of the attributes of God, then he is freed from the Kingdom of Names and becomes truly humble. Such a man will bestow divine perfections upon the world of humanity. This is the loftiest station that God has destined for man. To the extent that a believer succeeds in severing himself from these three forms of attachment, will he be fulfilling his part in the Covenant of God.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 28)

I still struggle with this test!  I DO want my life to have mattered, and for me to leave traces behind, in my books and articles.  I still have a long way to go before I reach this standard:

Would it profit you in the least if, as ye fondly imagine, your names were to endure? Nay, by the Lord of all worlds! … Should your names fade from every mortal mind, and yet God be well pleased with you, ye will indeed be numbered among the treasures of His name, the Most Hidden.  (Bahá’u’lláh, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 47)

So our motives do matter; and knowing them will help us answer the question – is it service or is it ego.

You may also be interested in:

Overcoming Your Ego

Learning How to Serve

Being of Service Even When People Drive you Crazy 

Is it Service or is it Enabling?  

How has this helped you understand this issue better?  What would you add to the discussion?  Post your thoughts below!