A man complained about all the misfortunes he had in life, one after another, as if his existence was a succession of sorrows and tribulations. He rarely had a reason to smile.
That was not his only problem. He always thought that this was Allah punishing him for sins he committed during a period of indiscretion in his life. This compounded his feelings of guilt. His mind turned the material misfortunes he faced in the world into a psychological chastisement which was steadily overwhelming him.
It is good that he did not feel that his misfortunes absolved him of accountability for his sins. However, the idea that your misfortunes could be a result of past sins is a matter of the Unseen that is exclusively part of Allah’s knowledge, not ours.
The sacred texts make it clear that the people who are tested the most in their lives are the prophets and then the righteous according to their degrees of piety. When people’s faith gives them great fortitude, they are tested more. When that faith is weak, the tests are lessened.
Sa`d b. Abū Waqqās asked the Prophet: “Which people have the greatest trials?”
The Prophet replied: “The prophets, then the righteous, and then the people according to their degree of goodness. Each person is tested according to his religious commitment. If he has great religious fortitude, his trials are increased, and if his religion is weak, his trials are lightened. A servant continues to be tested until he walks upon the Earth without sin.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī]
Anas relates from the Prophet: “Great reward comes with great trials. When Allah loves a people, He tests them, and whoever accepts it attains His pleasure, whereas whoever shows discontent with it incurs His wrath.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī]
In this case, Allah’s wrath is connected to being impatient with one’s trials, not with the sickness or calamity that constitutes the trial itself. Even in cases where it might be suspected that the calamity is Allah’s punishment, it always comes as a consequence of the sinful deed, like a person contracting a venereal disease after having unlawful sexual relations. This makes it more likely that the misfortune comes as a punishment for the sin. This should reduce the sorrow the misfortune brings, since punishments meted out in this world for our sins are far lighter than those that will be imposed in the Hereafter. Worldly punishments purify our souls and are a mercy to us. After we repent, Allah can restore our circumstances to better than what they were before we sinned, while we will be closer to Allah, purer of heart, and more pious.
In the hadīth related by Anas, the Prophet also says: “If Allah wants good for His servant, he hastens the punishment in this world, and if he wishes ill for His servant, He holds back his punishment until the Day of Judgement.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhī]
This means that the punishment in this world is due to Allah willing good for His servant, and it is not a sign of His wrath or anger.
Illness and failure have their tangible worldly causes that are easy to discern. These normal happenings befall saints and sinners alike. All people, believers and unbelievers, are tried with sickness and misfortune, which increase or lessen with respect to people’s caution or recklessness, and the decisions they make to reach their goals. The difference is that when believers face misfortune, it either purifies their hearts and absolves their sins, or it raises their status in the Hereafter.
A believer’s is aware of this and lives between hope and fear. This applies even to the prophets.
Therefore, how can we differentiate between tribulations that come to us as tests of our faith and those that come as punishments for our sins?
The basis for doing so depends on what happens after the calamity befalls, not before. If those faced with a calamity are patient, accept Allah’s decree, and seek His forgiveness for their sins, then this is a sign that their trial was in order to raise their status with Allah and cleanse them of sin. If, on the other hand, they grow despondent, bitter, and succumb to evil deeds as a result, then this is a sign of being denied Allah’s grace.
Think about the future and how you can engage positively with your difficulties. Do not look only to the past. You cannot change the past. Do not speak with bitterness, since this merely distances your heart from Allah. Never say: “Even my lord hates me!” Quite the contrary, what has befallen you is good if you consider it to be good.
Be patient and seek Allah’s help. The Prophet said: “How wonderful is the believer’s circumstances. Everything that happens to him is good. This is only the case for the believer. If something good happens to him he is thankful so it is good for him, and something bad befalls him, he bears it patiently so it is good for him.” [Sahīh Muslim]
Trials and tribulations are challenges that we face. They force us to exercise our abilities and put our latent strengths to the test. This is only if we refuse to succumb to doubt and despair. Through the remembrance of Allah our hearts can find contentment.
No one has ever lived a problem-free life. Allah says: “And we will try you so that We know those among you who strive and are patient, and we test your circumstances” [Sūrah Muhammad: 31]
The believer’s spirit is connected with its Creator because it responds to whatever circumstances confront it, no matter how sudden and difficult they might be. Allah says:” And those who believe in Allah, their hearts are at ease.” [Sūrah al-Taghabun: 11]
This connection with Allah is a source of healing and wellbeing, and it is a cure for our material and psychological woes.