Guilt is one of the most powerful of human emotions. It can motivate one to seek redemption or it can leave one feeling hopeless; it can set one on a path of true renewal and change or on a dangerous and dark path of depression and moral decline.
Feelings of guilt can surface for a number of different reasons. One may feel guilt after disappointing or hurting a loved one. A teenager who disobeys his/her parent or a spouse who betrays their partner may struggle with serious feelings of guilt both during and after their indiscretions. Guilt can also emerge from having negative feelings or thoughts about others, which are undeserved, such as being jealous of someone else’s success. Perhaps the most demoralizing form is extreme guilt that can afflict someone after committing a sin or a serious moral offense. The one suffering from this type of guilt is not just feeling deep regret for his/her wrongs but they are in fact overwhelmed with despair, hopelessness, and self-loathing.
There is a clear difference between guilt that leads to remorse which inspires one to sincerely seek God’s forgiveness and a much more destructive and sinister feeling that perpetuates guilt so strong that it distances one from God. Some people hold on to the hope that God will accept their despair as penance so they allow thoughts of extreme guilt to consume them. Others are perpetuated by the misguided belief that their actions are beyond redemption; easily becoming depressed and withdrawn, they drown in a sea of their own guilt. In both cases they are literally unable to disconnect or move beyond the past because they see every subsequent negative event in their life whether it is a loss, disappointment or tragic event as a direct consequence of their past deeds. They are unable to forgive themselves and so they convince themselves that God is punishing them.
Muslims believe that such grim and ominous thoughts are inspired by mankind’s greatest enemy, Satan. He will stop at nothing to demoralize, diminish, and spiritually destroy us. Through despair he pushes us to the brink emotionally and psychologically in order to lead us to moral and spiritual apathy or the sense that we’ve crossed the point of no return and have no way for redemption. Once we’re convinced of this then our actions will follow suit, our heedlessness will increase and we will ultimately perish.
So how can one distinguish healthy feelings of guilt & remorse from these destructive feelings of despair and hopelessness? You must first know the answer to the following questions:
1) Identify the cause of your guilt. What is the offense you think you’ve made?
2) Whom have you offended?
3) Is there a way to redress it?
The first point is very important because oftentimes we aren’t very clear on what God actually deems blameworthy. As Muslims, we are very fortunate in that we have a faith that covers in great detail both personal and social etiquette as well as legal rights and responsibilities. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is our role model and his standard of conduct in every area of life is how we should measure our own behavior. If our actions/deeds are offensive by his standard then they are certainly offensive to God.
In the second point you must determine the degree of the offense. In other words, is it something that you will actually be taken into account for or is that just what you’ve been led to believe? Is the action truly offensive to God? We have to keep in mind that many of our cultures impose certain things on us that have nothing to do with Islam. This can obviously cause serious confusion for the average Muslim, most of whom haven’t formally studied the religion. For example, there are some cultures who look down upon a woman who remarries after a divorce; they erroneously believe that she is somehow dishonoring herself and her family. This clearly has nothing to do with Islam but nevertheless some women who come out of divorce feel conflicted about remarrying and even believe that it’s shameful to talk about it. The fact that many of the female Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) were divorced and remarried during his lifetime is enough of a proof to contradict this ridiculous claim.
And finally, the third point focuses on the possibility of redemption by redressing the wrong itself. One of the many treasures of Islam is that it gives nearly everyone and anyone [who sincerely seeks it] hope for redemption. This point couldn’t be more perfectly articulated than in the following hadith:
Abu Sa`id Al-Khudri (May God be pleased with him) reported: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “There was a man from among a nation before you who killed ninety-nine people and then made an inquiry about the most learned person on the earth. He was directed to a monk. He came to him and told him that he had killed ninety-nine people and asked him if there was any chance for his repentance to be accepted. The monk replied in the negative and so the man killed him also completing one hundred. He then asked about the most learned man in the earth. He was directed to a scholar. He told him that he had killed one hundred people and asked him if there was any chance for his repentance to be accepted. The scholar replied in the affirmative and asked, `Who stands between you and repentance? Go to such and such land; there (you will find) people devoted to prayer and worship of God, join them in worship, and do not come back to your land because it is an evil place.’ So he went away and hardly had he covered half the distance when death overtook him; and there was a dispute between the angels of mercy and the angels of torment. The angels of mercy pleaded, ‘This man has come with a repenting heart to God,’ and the angels of punishment argued, ‘He never did a virtuous deed in his life.’ Then there appeared another angel in the form of a human being and the contending angels agreed to make him arbiter between them. He said, `Measure the distance between the two lands. He will be considered belonging to the land to which he is nearer.’ They measured and found him closer to the land from where he left. So God commanded (the land which he wanted to leave) to move away and commanded the other land (his destination) to draw nearer and then He said: ‘Now measure the distance between them.’ It was found that he was nearer to his goal by a hand’s span and was thus forgiven”. It is also narrated that he drew closer by a slight movement of his chest. (al-Bukhari & al-Muslim)
There are many lessons we can derive from this hadith but undeniably it teaches us that God’s mercy has no bounds and no one can limit Him in anything. His judgment is His alone so to assume that He will not forgive something is not only incorrect but it’s also blasphemous. Simply put, we do not have the right to make any assumptions about God or His judgment.
So no matter how guilty we may feel about something we should be certain that God’s forgiveness is available to us so long as we sincerely repent. And repentance is more than just wallowing in guilt or articulating sorrow and regret on your tongue; the process of sincere repentance necessitates action and includes:
1) Recognizing the offense itself and its admission before God
2) Promising to never return to it again
3) Repenting sincerely to God for your transgression
As long as one commits to all 3 points then their repentance is sincere and they should resist any negative thoughts that make them feel unworthy of God’s mercy and/or dissuade them from drawing nearer to Him. About this the Prophet (peace be upon him) related that God said:
“O son 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 son 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 son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as its.” (al-Bukhari)
There are many other similarly beautiful hadiths where God, the Exalted, illustrates His immeasurable mercy and compassion. The onus is ours to learn about His attributes and come to a better understanding of our own creation. We must remember that He created us with the ability to choose between right and wrong and, when we err, to experience guilt, so that we seek His forgiveness not so that we fall into despair, drowning in our misery. This is the abode of Satan, the one who is truly without hope.
For those who repent sincerely, guilt is a powerful means to direct our hearts back to God, to find the hope to persevere and to experience the ultimate gift of Divine grace.