Question 517: The Difference between Trial and Punishment. As-Salamu `Alaykum. I have asked this question of many scholars but no one has been able to give me a satisfactory answer. I hope you can clarify it for me. I know that man has to go through a lot of problems and afflictions throughout his life. Now these sufferings could be a punishment from God or it could be that God wants to test his faith and raise his ranks in the Hereafter. But how can we tell the difference between punishment from God or tests and trials by God?
Brief answer 517: Imam Ali (a) says, “Calamities are designed to punish the unbeliever, to test the believer, and for prophets, it is to raise them up in rank and degree.
Detailed answer 517: To see whether unpleasant natural happenings are God’s punishment or not, we should consider the following points:
- Living in indulgence and laziness are not the end goals in the creation of human beings. The end goal of human beings is to achieve true happiness, which cannot be gained except through praying and gaining proximity to God.
- Natural disasters also have some intrinsic benefits in the sense that they help human beings reach their end goal. It can be said that the harm that these incidents deliver can be considered relative. This means that we consider these things as disasters only when we look through the eyes of those who have been affected. For example a snake’s poison is harmful for a person or an animal that is bitten, but in reality it is good for the snake itself as it protects it from danger and harm.
These catastrophic incidents which occur have invaluable effects when gauged in proportion to the whole universe and the life of the creatures therein.
Some of these effects are as follows:
1- Flourishing talents: Due to the nature of human beings and the general conditions of the world, whenever human beings are facing hardships and are struggling to overcome these hardships, their internal talents, whether material or mental, are forced to manifest themselves. For instance, many scientific discoveries and innovations have taken place due to the needs of human beings. The Holy Quran has underlined this fact that whenever there is difficulty and suffering it is followed soon after by comfort and ease.
From the Holy Quran’s point of view, one of God’s methods is to test human beings by putting them through difficulties at various stages in their lives in order to draw out and manifest their hidden talents. Imam Ali (a) describes the effects of difficulties on drawing out people’s intrinsic talents in the form of a very beautiful simile:
“Know that the desert trees have stronger branches, while trees planted near water have thinner (and weaker) barks.”
2- Enlightenment: One of the most important consequences of calamities is that they awaken human beings from the ignorance caused by the material blessings of this world. These calamities remind humans of their important responsibilities before God and replace arrogance with humbleness. Regarding this issue, the Holy Quran says that various Prophets have had their people tested with different types of hardships in order to dissolve any feeling of resistance in them and to help them to submit to the truth.
“And We sent no prophet to any town, unless We seized its people with suffering and harshness.”
3- Appreciation for God’s bounties: Another benefit that natural disasters bring is recognition of the importance of God’s bounties by human beings. “One who knows the value of being healthy is the one who has suffered formerly.”
In a Hadith, Imam Sadiq (a) says, “Calamities are for both good people and bad people; God uses them to improve both groups. When calamities occur for good people it reminds them of the bounties they used to have and teaches them how to be patient and grateful.”
c- The proportion of what human beings know to what they don’t is similar to the proportion of a drop of water to an ocean. There are many unknown secrets, not only in the outside world, but also contained inside of human beings. Since the knowledge of human beings is limited, we cannot claim to know every secret about the incident which we call ‘evil’. It is likely that there are many benefits in these incidents which we are unaware of and unable to fathom. It’s evident that we cannot say something does not exist simply because we cannot recognize it ourselves. Therefore, careful judgment is a key requirement of wisdom. It is very easy to think of something as evil while its reality may be the complete opposite. The Holy Quran beautifully uncovers this through the verse which says, “It may be that you dislike a thing while it is good for you…”
- Another important point is the effect of people’s acts on the occurrence of disasters. The human being is a creature with free will. However, based on the law of causation, the wrong decisions that people make might lead to calamites and sufferings.
The Holy Quran says, “And if people of the towns had believed and had had piety, then certainly, We should have opened for them the blessings of the heaven and the earth, but they disbelieved. So We took them (with punishment) for what they used to earn. “
Imam Ali (a) has said in this regard, “God punishes his servants for their evil behaviors by decreasing the fruits of trees, and bringing a lack of rain, etc …, until they repent and stop committing sins, and take heed. “
The way that people’s ethical behavior can create the causation of natural disasters and the kind of relationship that exists between them is a detailed issue itself, which will be discussed later.
With the help of science, some of the destructive effects of natural disasters are prevented in developed countries. With this in mind it should be realized that it’s not possible to completely evade the sufferings that are caused by people’s evil actions. This is an issue that cannot be decided easily; for instance, we can see that the same developed countries passed through a period of suffering and pain in the second World War that was much greater than any natural disasters that have occurred throughout history. The source of such wars and calamities is directly linked to evil actions and the misconducts of the authorities in those countries. In addition, they are now suffering from other calamities such as social corruption, various diseases and a lack of moral and mental security, and various other issues which will be discussed later.
The most important thing is that in these natural disasters, God has set different goals for different people. These happenings are a blessing for believers, because they are either expiations for sins, for which the individual concerned would have been punished in the next world., In some traditions they have even been considered as valuable as martyrdom in the way of God, This is because it is something which can awaken people from ignorance and remind them of God’s blessings, whereas the unbeliever is not welcomed by these blessings. He may spend his life in pleasure and welfare, but in the other world, he will be seized by painful sufferings much greater than the ones in this world.
Imam Ali (a) says, “Calamities are designed to punish the unbeliever, to test the believer, and for prophets, it is to raise them up in rank and degree.”
- It should be pointed out that calamities are blessings when a human being can benefit from them and makes his soul perfect through patience. However, if he chooses to evade and escape from difficulties, the difficulties he faces will become very harsh for him (Not that one shouldn’t try to avoid difficulty, but one shouldn’t think that they should never take place for him, and if they do, he can complain and question everything). The fact is that like calamities, blessings can also lead to either happiness or misery. Therefore, whether an occurance is a blessing or not depends on the reaction shown by human beings, i.e. whether they are grateful or ungrateful towards God. In addition, it depends on their level of patience.
- A calamity is something that is God’s punishment, which is a consequence of the evil behavior of human beings. These are the true calamities by definition because firstly, they are under the control of human beings and secondly, they don’t lead to goodness and perfection. For example, cruelty is a calamity for human beings as is narrated in traditions.
“Cruelty is God’s harshest punishment.” This is because the punishment of cruelty cannot be felt and it does not awaken the human being so as to bring God’s grace upon him.
- Finally, natural occurrences are the results of various causes. Some causes stand in one line and some side by side. This means that the causes themselves are consequences of other causes. Anyway, there are material and non-material causes (in some cases the acts of human beings) that form an adequate cause for natural disasters, which are all subject to the general order of the universe which is materialized by God’s will. Therefore, natural disasters happen by divine will, and are prevented by God as well. God can punish any group of people whenever He wishes. In most cases, He does this via natural causes. Natural occurrences and their prevention are both based on divine will, and are not necessarily in contradiction with the fact that they are used to punish.
For further information in this regards, please refer to the following answer:
Index: Reasons why Allah immerses us in the sea of hardships, answer 474.
 Shahid Mutahhari, Adle Elahi, pp. 130-134.
 “فان مع العسر یسراً ان مع العسر یسراً” Inshirah:5-6.
 Anbiya:25; Baqarah:155.
 Nahjul-Balaghah, Letter 45.
 Biharul-Anwar, vol. 3, pg. 139
 “و عسی ان تکرهوا شیئاً و هو خیر لکم” Baqarah:216.
 Ma’arefe Eslami, vol. 1, pp. 81-85.
 “وَ لَوْ أَنَّ أَهْلَ الْقُرَى ءَامَنُوا وَ اتَّقَوْا لَفَتَحْنَا عَلَيهِم بَرَكَتٍ مِّنَ السمَاءِ وَ الأَرْضِ وَ لَكِن كَذَّبُوا فَأَخَذْنَهُم بِمَا كانُوا يَكْسِبُونَ” A’raf:96. For further explanation see:Tafsir Nemouneh, vol. 6, pp. 265-274 and vol.1, pg.53, under verse 7 of surah Baqarah.
 Nahjul-Balaghah, Sermon 143.
 Kafi, vol. 1, pg. 353.
 Mustadrakul-Wasa’el, vol. 2, pg. 438.
 “ما ضرب الله عبراً بعقوبة اشد من قسوة القلب” Mustadrakul-Wasa’el, vol. 13, pg. 93.