What Are Our Tests For, and How Shall We Face Them?

“Ecce Homo,” Antonio Ciseri, 1871.

When Swami Kriyananda appointed Jyotish his spiritual successor, he was understandably concerned to know if his life and Devi’s would be as challenging as Swami’s had been.

The challenges in Swamiji’s life began early in his life, at age nine, when he fell gravely ill and his parents sent him to a boarding school in Switzerland for the healthier climate.

Throughout his adolescent and college years he was continually misunderstood. And even after he found his Guru, his troubles culminated when his gurubhais turned against him and threw him out of SRF.

His life was marked until the very end by rejection, humiliation, lawsuits, financial struggles, and enormous health issues.

And so it’s easy to understand why, if you’d been appointed to walk in his shoes, you’d want to know, “If it’s my destiny to step into those shoes, will all of the troubles that have attended that life come with them?”

In responding Jyotish and Devi’s question, Swamiji said, “Oh, no, that was the tapasya that God asked of me.” I’m paraphrasing his reply, but he made it clear that their lives would be appropriate for them, and that the trials of his life had been appropriate for him.

Spiritually speaking, you could say that we come in many shapes and sizes. There are vast permutations of karmic possibilities, and no one ever gets exactly the same tests as another. You may have similar karma, but it will feel unique to you, because it’s helping you to unravel your own set of misunderstandings.

The life of Christ ended with a tremendous trial that was accompanied by humiliation, crucifixion, and death. And who would want to follow his teachings, if this was the end that they were destined to lead to?

As disciples in America, we haven’t had to walk in Jesus’ shoes, although countless disciples have faced great persecutions, even in modern times.

Rev. Richard Wurmbrand. Click to enlarge.

The story of Richard Wurmbrand and his wife Sabina is a particularly inspiring and frightening example. Rev. Wurmbrand was persecuted by the Nazis in his native Romania for having been born a Jew, and when the communists took over he was persecuted for being a converted Christian.

Wurmbrand told how, when the communist regime began systematically disbanding the churches, they summoned all of the pastors and preachers to a certain church. Among the assembled clergy, there were many who had been intimidated or bought off by the atheistic communist regime. And the authorities proceeded to subject them to a blasphemous presentation in which they declared that Christianity and religion and the churches were of absolutely no value, now that the communists were in charge.

They were terrified, in fear for their lives. And Sabina Wurmbrand turned to her husband and said, “Who will wipe from the face of Jesus the stain of blasphemy?”

Richard was very conscious of what would happen if he protested. He turned to his wife and said, “If I stand up and speak, you will no longer have a husband.” Meaning that he would surely be imprisoned, or worse. And she replied, “If you do not speak, I will no longer have a husband.”

So he stood up, and they were imprisoned and tortured for the next thirteen years.

Richard Wurmbrand, prison mug shot. Click to enlarge.

Now, this is the story of Jesus’ life. What Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand had to endure was in very large measure exactly what Jesus had had to face. And their reward was in proportion to what they gave. Speaking of Rev. Wurmbrand, Swamiji exclaimed, “My admiration for such a man is boundless!”

In the Festival of Light, we affirm every Sunday that in the past suffering and sorrow were the coin of man’s redemption, but that for us, now, the payment has been exchanged for calm acceptance and joy.

Most of us were born into a country where such things are not likely to happen. And while it’s true that we were severely persecuted in the law courts, nevertheless we enjoyed the fact that we could go home at night and sleep in our own beds, and that they might be able to wipe us out financially, but they couldn’t touch us physically. Believe me, we spent a lot of time pondering that. Because we’ve come into an age where the punishments are somewhat more subtle. But it doesn’t mean that the principles that Jesus’ life was intended to illustrate for us no longer apply. It would be extremely naive to imagine that they are no longer relevant, because as Sister Gyanamata, Yogananda’s most spiritually advanced woman disciple, said, “Everything has to be given to God.”

It’s not as if we can carve out a private space in our hearts for all of the little trinkets we want to continue to hold onto. Or, actually, we can, but then the reward is that we get to keep them.

If we set boundaries on our relationship with the Divine, the reward will be that our relationship with the Divine will be limited accordingly.

The full potential of our consciousness will wait for as long as we continue to play with the baubles of this world. And God doesn’t mind, because He knows that we need time to discover for ourselves that the promise of this world can never be enough.

When somebody asked Swami Kriyananda, “Do I need a guru?” he smiled congenially and said, “Not if you don’t think so.”

He wasn’t answering from scripture but from common sense. So long as we insist on clinging to our little bits and pieces, we’ll get to keep them, and we will be fulfilled in direct proportion to what we’re willing to give to God.

When a sincere desire for God awakens in our heart, even if the ego hasn’t caught up to that desire, the soul begins to take over, and God begins to respond to that desire, and to help us loosen our hold on this world.

This is when Jesus’ story comes into its own as a model for our lives.

Troubles came to Jesus in abundance, because his mission had great power, and it provoked a powerful resistance. A wonderful example is when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and an armed mob, guided by Judas, came to take him.

Jesus was completely unintimidated. He said to Judas, “Friend, wherefore art thou come?”

And while he [Jesus] yet spake, lo, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people.

Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast.

And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him.

And Jesus said unto him, Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus and took him.

And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear.

Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.

Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?

But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be? (Matthew 26: 47-54)

How many of us, when difficulties arise, are tempted to close our eyes and imagine that they aren’t coming for us. How often have we deliberately been blind to the inevitable because we simply didn’t want to know. When troubles come, it’s very tempting to turn away, hoping that they will pass us by.

But when troubles came to Jesus, he stood and met them squarely. He was exemplifying the courage with which we should face our tests, knowing that when we stand by our convictions, God’s power will come and help us.

God willing, we may not be required to risk our lives as Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand did. But in our souls God is always asking, “How much do you love Me?” And, “How much do you trust Me? How strong is your faith that all of the trials that comes to you are from My hand, and that I give them to you for your highest good?”

When someone came to Swamiji, wanting to know how she should respond to a difficult trial in her life, he saw that she was responding in the usual, human way, wishing that the test could be removed. And his response was simple, “Why are you taking this so hard?”

It’s a very interesting question. It’s asking us how deeply we have faith that God is truly in charge. It’s challenging us to summon the strength to stand up in the face of our tests, and demand, “Friend, wherefore art thou come?”

When they brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate, he found Jesus’ attitude completely incomprehensible. Pilate could not understand why Jesus wouldn’t say a word or lift a finger to save himself.

Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe, And said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands.

Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!

When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him. The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.

When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he was the more afraid; And went again into the judgment hall, and saith unto Jesus, Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer. Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

And from thenceforth Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.

When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha. And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King!

But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.

Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away. (John 19:1-15)

When we find ourselves facing fiery mobs, dishonest charges, and terrible losses, we may be sorely tempted to try in every possible way to save ourselves. “It’s somebody else’s fault. Let me explain. Listen to my reasons.”

When we’re tested, our first response is often to ask “Why is this happening to me?” We go over and over the test, trying to find a way to explain it that will make it easier to bear, or that won’t require us to stand and face it with a full commitment to learn the lesson.

How will we respond? Will we defend ourselves? Will we grovel to those who have power to free us or crucify us, and beg them for mercy? Will we grow angry and rattle the bars of our cage? Or will we say, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.”

This world with its heartaches and disappointments, and our own resistance and our escapist dreams – these are our Pontius Pilate. And will we bend to the authority of this world, or will we seek our freedom in the Christ Consciousness?

Jesus’ life is our life. Even as he lived, in this moment we are living for the glorification of God.

Jesus’ life changed the world. Our light may be only a spark of the divinity, shining in darkness to light our way. But at our level we can feel God’s power in our hearts, ever eager to encourage us, and saying, “Well done.”

Every so often, Swamiji would say to one of us, “Well done.” Or he would say, “Fine work.”

He wasn’t given to drama or flattery. He would say it very casually. He wouldn’t recite pages of praise. He would quietly say, “Good girl.” But that was everything, because it meant that I had stood up to the test.

I remember a difficult test that I was tempted to run away from, but – thank God – I was able to meet it. Afterwards, Swamiji said, “That was a critical juncture for you. If you had made the wrong choice, you would have left the path.”

I said, “Why didn’t you warn me?”

He said. “I didn’t think it would help.”

He didn’t think that it would have helped me to know how much was at stake. But isn’t our spiritual life on the line at every moment?

How much do we love? How much do we trust God and Jesus? The story of Jesus is meant to show us what the human spirit is capable of, and the greatness of the reward when we rise to the challenge.

It is our story. We have good days, good decades, and good incarnations. And despite the scary bits we know that the story will always end happily. I often remind myself that if it isn’t yet the happy ending, it isn’t the ending. It gives me great comfort to remember that it isn’t over until it ends happily.

If you’re frightened in the middle, you can know for certain that it isn’t the end. I like old movies, because they usually end happily. And in our tests we can always know that if it hasn’t yet worked out happily, it isn’t over.

“Why are we taking it so hard?” Swami’s words ring in my memory. He seemed so puzzled when he said them, because of the unspoken thought that God is with you, and why would you take it so hard?

This is what we must know. I’ve shared with you a time when friends of mine were in crisis and I was suffering greatly for their pain. I was so miserable, and then the thought suddenly came, “Do you think that this could be happening outside of the will of God?”

“Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.” “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?”

This sorrow, this disappointment, this loss, this failure – they have no power over me, because I am my Father’s child, and if it is His will, He will summon legions of angels to save me. And until then, why take it so hard? Is He is not our own?

Let us be like Christ. Let us respond as he responded when the mob came to take him away. Here I am, Lord. I am ready.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on April 14, 2017.)

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