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Thank God for Pain: Ten Things Suffering Taught Me

Shukr.

Looking within.

Trusting the pain and loss.

As I step into a new year and we approach the blessed month of Ramadan, bi’idhnillah, these are the things that I’m striving to focus on and implement in my heart and life. In these past few years, I’ve worked through so much emotional wounding and spiritual turmoil that it’s difficult to even recall at times, the memories are so painful. But Allah brought me through so much, and I learned so much, alhamdulillaah.

Here are Ten (10) Lessons that stay with me from my healing journey:

(1) Growth hurts, a lot. So there’s nothing to do but embrace the process, instead of anxiously awaiting the pleasure or relief. If you anxiously await anything without embracing the natural (and necessary) process, even when the pleasure and relief come, they won’t feel like pleasure or relief. Instead, they will feel like fear and anxiety, as you are so fixated on escaping pain that you spend times of pleasure and relief frantically fearing that the pain will come back. Thus, you can never genuinely enjoy either the pleasure or relief in your life.

(2) Pain and pleasure are two parts of a whole. You cannot fully experience the latter until you patiently allow the former, without anxious resistance. Allah created things in pairs. Thus, there are things that you cannot have unless you have the other. The pleasure-pain experience is one of those things. We learn this in the sixth pillar of emaan (true faith), as famously narrated in the Hadeeth of Jibreel (Gabriel), when the Angel Jibreel came in the form of a man to the Prophet (sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam) and asked him about Islam, emaan, and ihsaan (worshipping Allah as if you see Him).

When the Prophet mentioned the last pillar of emaan, belief in qadr (Allah’s decree), he went on to specify what this belief entails: accepting the reality of both the khayr (good) and the sharr (evil) that is destined in our lives (Muslim).

Thus, when we eagerly embrace the pleasure and happiness in life while becoming confused, frustrated, and angry about the pain, then we have a deficiency in our emaan that needs to be addressed.

During my own healing journey, this deficiency became painfully apparent to me. Consequently, I realized that I needed to do a lot of soul-work to address this spiritual ailment. And the struggle continues.

(3) Internal battles never cease. They merely change form and intensity, that is all. But they can get easier and more peaceful, bi’idhnillaah. So long as you have sincere shukr (gratefulness) and beautiful sabr (patience).

And this in itself is a daily battle and process. So finding peace as you work through the inevitable internal chaos is the goal.

(4) As you let go of toxic relationships and embrace healthier ones in your life, understand that there will be those who, due to their own growth, need to let go of you, too.

So often we think of toxicity as moving in one direction, or rooted in someone being a corrupt or bad person. However, many times a toxic relationship simply means that our flaws are not compatible with theirs.

Or, it just means that our own unhealed emotional and spiritual wounds make the company of some (though not all) genuinely good people unhealthy for us—even as they are (perhaps) better than we are, in the sight of Allah. In fact, it could be that they incite pain in us for the very reason that they are more emotionally and spiritually healthy than we are.

Nevertheless, even if this is the case, their honorable spiritual status in front of the Creator doesn’t necessarily mean that they are good companions for us in this world. Who someone is to Allah, and who they are to us, are two completely different things. In fact, the former should rarely be our concern when determining the latter.

Yes, we should love all believers for the sake of Allah. However, loving someone for the sake of Allah doesn’t necessarily require making them our closest friend, trusting them in a business relationship, or even marrying them (or staying married to them). You can love people from afar. Thus, it is completely possible that a believer could be sincere and good, but still be “bad for us” as a close, intimate companion or life partner.

A part of emotional and spiritual maturity is realizing—and fully embracing—that just because we deem a person as “bad for us” doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a bad person. And we shouldn’t seek to make them out to be. Except in cases of clear evil, oppression, and abuse, there really is no need to come to any conclusion about someone (good or bad) when a relationship ends—except to conclude that they fulfilled the purpose that God decreed for them in our lives. And now it’s time to move on.

In other words, our exes (whether friends, business partners, or spouses) are just people—flawed human beings just like we are—whom God simply did not write will be with us on the next part of our journey.

(5) The need to label former friends, companions, and romantic partners (or even estranged family members) as bad people simply because they chose to walk away from us—or because we chose to walk away from them—is often a sign of a serious problem within us.

In the secular world, this self-centered labeling of others (based solely on their current relationship with us) would be called narcissism. In the spiritual world, it would be called a disease of the heart.

This is because there is only One from whom a broken relationship automatically points to a problem in the person who is no longer connected to them: God Himself.

And we are not God.

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(6) It is not true that anyone who is no longer your friend was never a true friend to begin with. This thinking is rooted in the same narcissism and spiritual ailment that I discussed above.

When I discovered the harmful results of this culturally-indoctrinated message in my own heart, I asked Allah to remove it from me. And truthfully, I still strive to have its remnants removed from my heart today.

During my healing journey, I discovered that my need to label as “true friends” only those who are dedicated to me—and stand by me no matter what—meant that I was (even though unintentionally) assigning subtle divine attributes to myself. May Allah forgive me. As I discussed above, only God has this high status in every person’s life. Thus, it is only He who deserves “unconditional” love and dedication, no matter what.

In other words: Someone’s unconditional dedication to us is not the measure of true friendship. It is only their Creator that they owe such allegiance.

In fact, when there is a break in a friendship bond, it is often the case (in fact, I would venture to say, it is most often the case) that you two are just moving in significantly different directions in life. And these diverging directions do not always mean that their path is bad and yours is good (or vice versa).  Sometimes the diverging of life paths just means you are no longer compatible as friends.

Believers meet for the sake of Allah, and they part for the sake of Allah. Thus, whether we are meeting someone or parting from someone, particularly a fellow believer, neither circumstance (of building a friendship or dissolving one) has to point to anything inherently bad (or good) in either of us.

(7) It is also not true that if someone truly loves us, they’ll stick by us no matter what, even in our darkest days.  Yes, if you’ve been gifted with someone like this, it is indeed a tremendous blessing, and you should thank God for them and strive daily to be grateful for this loving soul companion, as this is indeed true love.

But here’s the reality of other types of “true love” (and yes, there are different types):Sometimes people walk away from us because they love us. In this case, it was just that their tremendous love for us caused them to constantly put our emotional or spiritual needs before their own—until they were mentally, emotionally, and spiritually depleted themselves.

Thus, the truth regarding “true love” is actually the opposite of what we imagine—and is rooted in our own heart and actions more than someone else’s: If we truly love someone, then we will support them when they do what is best for them, even if that means them choosing their own emotional and spiritual health over a relationship with us. 

(8) Pain and loss are supposed to happen in life. Just like our Lord promises us Paradise in the Hereafter if we believe in Him in this world, He also promises us pain, loss, and severe trials while we live in this world.

In the Qur’an, Allah says what has been translated to mean,

“Do people think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe’ and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly make known those who are true from those who are liars” (Al-‘Ankaboot, 29:2-3).

He also says,

“You shall certainly be tried and tested in your wealth and properties and within your personal selves…” (Ali ‘Imraan, 3:186).

Yes, our Lord also promises us that He will respond to our supplications and grant us blessings from His bounty. However, it makes no sense to focus on only the promise of abundance, blessings, and Paradise while becoming frustrated, angry, and confused when He fulfills the other part of this same promise.

While I was struggling emotionally and spiritually, this was a difficult lesson for my heart and soul to embrace, even after my mind had fully accepted that suffering pain and loss is just a natural part of life, and a fulfillment of my Lord’s divine promise.

(9) Worldly success does not equal spiritual success. This lesson might seem obvious because we all “know” it. But what makes this lesson resonate with me so much is that during my healing journey, I realized that some of my emotional pain and spiritual turmoil was the result of my heart not understanding why I wasn’t achieving certain tangible worldly results, despite what I felt were my best efforts in constant worship, du’aa (prayerful supplication) and obedience to Allah.

Whether it was in my personal relationships or business ventures, or in some of my disappointing experiences with the wider Muslim community, I began to realize that I was expecting my (inshaaAllah) sincere spirituality to give me enjoyable, tangible worldly results. Thus, my emotional and spiritual pain were only exacerbated.

Uncovering the truth beneath this pain taught me that there is a huge difference between knowledge and acceptance in the mind, and knowledge and acceptance in the heart. Yes, mentally, I knew that worldly success and spiritual success don’t necessarily go hand in hand (and in fact often don’t for true believers). Yet still, my heart was aching in trying to understand why I wasn’t getting the worldly results I so badly wanted and was praying for. When I realized the disconnect, I realized that I had some serious spiritual diseases of the heart to work on, and that was a heavy, difficult realization for me.

As I applied this weighty realization to understanding my unhealed wounds, this honest self-reflection inspired this entry in my personal journal: What the head knows and what the heart experiences are two different things: Correct knowledge is not difficult to attain, but a spiritually healthy heart? That’s a lifelong process.

(10) Last, and certainly not least: If you genuinely want to be spiritually healthy, then you need to nourish your heart and soul with at least the minimum amount of attention that you care for your physical body and environment.

Thus, praying the five obligatory prayers on time every day, and reading and reflecting on Qur’an every day are just as essential to your spiritual health as having water and food, as well as a clean body and home environment, are to your physical health. Moreover, just as is the case in our physical world, it doesn’t matter how you feel about having to, each day, eat food, drink water, and clean yourself and your environment; if you want to be alive and at least minimally well, then it must be done.

Similarly, if you want your spiritual heart to be alive and at least minimally well, then the necessary daily spiritual work must be done, irrespective of how you feel about doing it.

In other words, you do what needs to be done because it needs to be done, not because you’re always motivated (or happy) to do it. The reality is that you need to be physically clean and nourished, and you need to be spiritually clean and nourished. So there’s nothing to do, except the work this cleanliness and nourishment requires.

Nevertheless, there will inevitably be times that you have trouble keeping up with this daily cleanliness and nourishment. Thus, when (not if) this happens, we should ask for help. Yes, there are people who can help us through spiritual difficulties—sometimes. But it is only Allah who will (and can) always there.

So as we strive to keep up with our daily spiritual purification and nourishment, let us remember that we don’t have to do it alone. This is what I reminded myself during my lowest points.

Yes, the reality is, we will feel empty and distant from Allah at times. But that doesn’t mean we should just give up and assume we are bad people. It only means that Allah, in His infinite mercy and wisdom, wants us to enter His Paradise, bi’idhnillaah, so He is showing us the signs that we need to get there. And those signs are that it is time to move closer to Him and beg His help.

As the saying goes, “If you feel distant from Allah, it is only you who moved.” Thus, it is you who needs to return to Him; and He will then shower you with His Mercy and Blessings for even the slightest movement in His direction.

So let’s get moving, I told myself during those days when I felt like giving up. Allah is always ready to accept you, no matter how difficult it is to accept yourself.

And I still tell myself this today.

These are just ten of many lessons that working through my emotional and spiritual suffering taught me. And truthfully, I don’t think I would have learned these essential life lessons without the pain.

That is why I, till today, I strive to thank Allah for the pain.

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers shirts, apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered life.

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