MANY PEOPLE TALK to me about their struggles; about mistakes they’ve made, sins they’ve committed, addictions they yearn to overcome, relationships they regret. But regardless of the issue, there is one emotion that I’ve noticed threads through almost every struggle with the other: Incessant GUILT.
The guilt of these individuals is rooted in another belief: their inability to forgive themselves for what they did or are still struggling with doing. This is heightened by the fact that many of their families have conditioned them to feel guilty for possibly bringing shame and dishonor to themselves and their families, and by some Muslim communities that do not provide support for the development of individuals—and instead cast shame, judgment and isolation onto those who’ve made mistakes.
Thus, even when they’ve committed a sin years and years ago, they cannot forgive themselves and they do not feel they can find that forgiveness sometimes even from those they love, they feel that God, too, has not or will not forgive them.
But the way that we see ourselves is not necessarily the way that Allah sees us. Our inability to forgive ourselves does not mean that God has not forgiven us!
Accessing Divine Forgiveness
Do you know how easy the terms are for us to get God’s forgiveness? It’s this easy: Realizing what we’ve done is wrong. Sincerely saying sorry. In Arabic, that’s called tawba (“repentance”). It can look like this:
Oh Allah, I’ve really messed up. I am so sorry for doing X and I need Your help never to do it again. My Lord, You forgive all mistakes and sins. Forgive me!!
Let us look at some examples of from Quran and Ḥadîth:
A man once walked into the masjid of the Prophet œ in extreme distress. He shouted, coming to the Prophet œ, saying: “I have sinned, woe to me, I have sinned!” The Prophet œ had the man sit down and taught him to say: “Dear God, Your forgiveness is greater than my sins, and I have more hope in Your mercy than in my own actions, so please forgive me!” The Prophet œ told him to repeat this again and then once again, and then told him: “Stand up: Allah has forgiven your sins.” (Al-Ḥâkim)
The Prophet œ didn’t tell him: Feel guilty for the next 5 years over what you’ve done, then Allah will forgive you. He œ didn’t tell the man to mentally and emotionally beat himself up every day until the man felt he had adequately punished himself, and then Allah would forgive him.
The Prophet œ saw a man, coming with sincerity, with remorse, seeking to fix his relationship with Allah. He œ showed him not only how easy it was to ask for forgiveness, but also how easy it to be forgiven.
How do you know Allah has forgiven you if you have sincerely asked for forgiveness? He has promised you forgiveness. He says:
O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of God: for God forgives all sins, for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. [Sûrat Al-Zumar, 39:53]
“Bending Over Backwards”
To further impress upon us the point, Allah tells us in a ḥadîth related by the Prophet œ:
O child of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O child of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you.
O child of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins as great as the earth, and were you then to face Me ascribing no partners to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.
Doesn’t it seem obvious? Allah WANTS to forgive us! He WANTS a relationship with us! And not only to forgive us….but to turn the wrong we have done into something good. Allah tells us:
Except for those who repent, believe and do righteous work. For them Allah will replace their evil deeds with good. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful. (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:27].
In other words, this is what that looks like:
The Prophet œ told us of a man who will come on the Day of Judgment and will be shown his minor sins, his major ones being hidden from him. He cannot deny all the messed up things he had done and he’s worried about seeing even bigger sins he had committed than those he’s being shown. Then it is said: Replace every bad deed with a good one! And the man says, “My Lord! I did other messed up stuff that isn’t written in here!” And the Prophet œ laughed when he relayed this man’s reaction. (Bukhâri)
This man’s tawbah, his repentance, was so sincere and so complete that Allah replaced his bad deeds with good ones.
Additionally, Allah is so merciful in the way He keeps us accountable.
When God commanded the two angels on our right and left shoulders to write our actions, God Himself ordered the angel on the left to wait for a period of time to write down what we did wrong just in case we turn back to Him soon after we made that mistake. If we make a mistake and then repent within that time, the angel does not even write down the fact that we sinned. (Al-Ṭabarâni)
God is just waiting for us to come back to Him, even after we mess up.
But what if you actually did do something messed up? Or thought about it but didn’t do it because you realized you didn’t want to displease Him? The Prophet œ taught us that Allah
has ordered that the good and the bad deeds be written down. Then He explained it clearly how (they are to be written): He who intends to do a good deed but he does not do it, then Allah records it for him as a full good deed, but if he carries out his intention, then Allah the Exalted, writes it down for him as from ten [units] to seven hundred fold, and even more. But if he intends to do an evil act and has not done it, then Allah writes it down with Him as a full good deed, but if he intends it and has done it, Allah writes it down as one bad deed. (Bukhâri and Muslim)
There is seriously no way you can lose when you try to connect with God.
Miss No Opportunity
And then finally, do good deeds to wipe out the bad. This does not need to be some super Muslim attempt to pray all night and fast all day, every day. It is something as simple as asking forgiveness for every believing male and female. The Prophet œ taught us that if we do so, God will give us a reward for every single believer we just prayed for (Al-Ṭabarâni). Do you know how many of them there are?! You have just raked in over a billion good deeds that will wipe out those bad ones, God willing.
So when we mess up, here’s a formula:
- Realize we made a mistake that we need to stop making.
- Sincerely ask God to forgive us. If we did something to hurt someone else, we need to figure that out and ask for their forgiveness as well in a strategic way.
- Do something good to make up for it.
- If we go back to that sin, start the process over. If applicable, seek professional help.
Do not underestimate the importance of support and therapy. Depending on what a person is struggling with, it can be critical to seek professional support.
You’re Worthy of Allah’s Love
Now obviously, this doesn’t mean we go out and seek doing bad things since we know God is forgiving and we can just make it up with good ones. The point is that when we make a mistake, never despair in Allah’s desire or ability to forgive us. Realize that
His mercy overcomes His wrath. (Bukhâri)
A young woman once came to me after a lecture I gave and, crying, she said, “My family always made me feel like I’m a screw-up. They even told me that my prayers wouldn’t count since I did so many messed up things anyway. I thought Allah hated me. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized that maybe Allah does love me. Maybe He actually loves me.”
Allah doesn’t expect perfection from you. He knows you are a struggling, frustrated believer who is trying despite the falls. He knows you better than you know yourself. But that doesn’t diminish His love for you or His ability to forgive you. Don’t let anyone come between your relationship with your Creator and His forgiveness of you.
Don’t let your guilt, your inability to forgive yourself–or the way other people treat you–be what makes you think God doesn’t love you or want to forgive you. Turn to Him. He wants to accept you. Allow His love to enter your life.
God wants that He turns to you in forgiveness. [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:27]