Growing through tests

In the post “Being There” from January 27th I quoted Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in saying that the most important aspect in our relationship to God is the element of choice. There always remains a doubt as to what God wants from us. I wrote that being in doubt is a good thing, because then we need to take full responsibility for our choices. We’re never sure we’ve made the best choice and therefore we have to own up to our choices because they were all ours.

Yesterday I discovered something from a book written by Rebbe Nachman’s most prominent student, Rabbi Natan of Nemirov (Likutei Halachot Nefilat Apayim 6 par 8) can be a companion piece to the aforementioned thought. Rabbi Natan says that when God told Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the land of Israel, God purposely did not tell Abraham where he was supposed to go. He was to go to the land “that I will show you.” God didn’t reveal the destination to him because only by not knowing could this serve as a test.

Similarly with the (almost) sacrifice of Isaac. God tells Abraham to offer his only son, Isaac, on the altar as a sacrifice yet Abraham also knows that God said through Isaac, Abraham will have a future. He’s not sure what God wants from him, because God has told him two contradictory things and he has to intuit what God really wants.

The most important element of a test is the fact of our not having certainty about what to do. As a result of his lack of certainty Abraham has confusions and doubts. He’s not totally at peace with what he’s doing. If he knew exactly what he had to do, it would not be a test. But God wants him to be unsure of himself because this lack of surety will force him to “search and seek out what is God’s will.” It’s only by the process of searching that God’s will was eventually revealed to him.

Rabbi Natan continues and says that every person has tests in life and God doesn’t tell you what to do, so that you’ll have doubts and won’t be totally at peace with yourself. As a result, you’ll keep on searching, and find your way. The word for test is nisayon from the word nes (banner) because a person is uplifted as a result of this process of searching.

Upon reflection, I thought about a very different kind of orientation vis-à-vis our relationship with God. The Talmudic statement “One who is given a command by God and then responds by fulfilling it is superior to one who is not given a command by God and does it voluntarily.” The explanation given for the superiority of the one who is commanded is that a person who receives explicit instruction from God has to overcome the knee-jerk resistance to doing what someone else is telling him to do, even if that “someone else” is God (or maybe particularly because it’s God).

What is the difference between the strength gained after having overcome the resistance to doing what you’ve been given explicit instructions about as opposed to the growth that takes place after having passed a test in which you weren’t certain about what was the right course of action to take?

Through the act of overcoming resistance the person puts God (or in logotherapeutic terms “meaning”) in the center rather than always putting himself in the center. What you wanted is not the most important thing. By doing what God asks you to do you transcend towards God. Similarly in love we transcend our self-centeredness to consider another person. Perhaps this is a case in which we can say, again in logotherapeutic terms, that we are capable of transcending towards ultimate meaning by fulfilling God’s will.

However, this is not the most important part of the work in our relationship with God. The most essential part is the work of standing up to life’s tests because for that we have to search and we have to summon the wise man or woman within us because we are not sure of what God wants from us. By accessing our conscience we get in touch with our human-ness in the deepest way and become transformed in the process to become that wise person in actuality, not just potential.

This is the point of meeting between Franklinian psychology and religion. Frankl draws a clear line of demarcation between psychology and religion. But since both psychology and religion are based on what makes us human, there is an important overlap in the act of accessing understanding of the meaning of the situation and being conscious of what we are called upon to do in that situation.

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