Updated: Jan 17, 2022
In repenting for your faults, it is very important to be sincere. Some people are like a pendulum: they do something bad and then they realize it. “I was terrible; I’m so sorry, let me bring you flowers and chocolates.” And then they make the same mistakes again. It is as if bringing presents or apologizing profusely somehow pays for the hurtful thing they have done.
Your ego will tell you: “I apologized. I paid for my mistake, so I can do it again.” That’s a very common attitude, but it’s not sincere. It is not real repentance.
What is repentance? Repentance means to turn away from wrongdoing, to turn away from sin. Or, repentance is to turn toward God and to turn away from those things God doesn’t like.
I am reminded of a story in the Torah in Exodus. Moses tells the Children of Israel, “Be ready to leave immediately. The Pharaoh has said he would free you. However, he agreed nine times before changed his mind each time. Be ready to leave the moment I get his approval. Prepare to leave everything and turn your back on this place where you have been a slave.”
That is the origin of the Jewish tradition of eating matzah during Passover. Matzah is unleavened bread. That was all the cooks could take with them. They grabbed whatever was in the oven; they couldn’t give it time to rise. You don’t wait; you leave immediately
It is a very important lesson. When you repent you immediately turn away from sin, or from your old bad habits. For example, we’re told during Ramadan not to get in arguments, and that we’re told if someone tries to argue, don’t stay there and argue with them; instead say “Excuse me, but I’m fasting,” then you turn away. If you argue try to prove you’re right, you become entangled with your ego again. Don’t question or debate. Immediately act to change your old habits.
And there’s an old story of a sheikh who had a poor dervish. The sheikh said, “Pray to Allah and then turn away from your struggles with money. Don’t worry about it; let God take responsibility for your sustenance.”
The dervish returned the next week, “I did what you told me: I prayed to God and I turned my back, but no money came to me.” The sheikh replied, “You may have turned your back on money, but you didn’t turn your head. You kept looking over your shoulder for more money all week, so it didn’t work.”
There is a wonderful verb in Japanese, kaeru [帰る] which means “to return home.” There’s no word exactly like it in English. But this verb means to return to your roots. One meaning of the pilgrimage to Makka is to return to your spiritual home, along with millions of other Muslims from all over the world.
My sheikh Muzaffer Effendi used to tell this story. A bandit began to repent his life of violence. He went to a nearby city and told the local imam, “I’ve killed ninety-nine people in the course of my career. I really want to change. Will God forgive me?”
And the imam said, “You killed ninety-nine people? Including men, women and children?”
The bandit replied, “Oh yes!”
The imam declared, “God could never forgive you for killing innocents. No, you will never be forgiven.”
The bandit said, “Well, then I’ll just add one more.” And he cut off the head of the imam.
Someone told the bandit there was a local Sufi sheikh who might help him. The bandit went to the sheikh and asked, “I’m a bandit, and I’ve killed ninety-nine people—men, women and children—and also one imam! Will God forgive me for all that?”
The sheikh said, “Well of course. God can forgive almost anything. God is the One Who Forgives, God is the Compassionate, the Source of all Blessings. You’ve begun to repent, but you now have to act on it.” The sheikh asked the bandit, “Where are you living?” The bandit answered, I live in a village of other bandits.
“You have to leave that village. Go to town of good, honest people. Live with others who are trying to live honest lives; it will be a great help. It would be almost impossible to maintain your repentance while you’re living among other bandits.”
The bandit went home and packed up all his possessions. He walked out of town and began walking toward the nearest town of law-abiding people. After just a few steps he fell down and died of a heart attack.
The angels who administer hell appeared and surrounded the bandit’s body. They claimed, “This is certainly a soul for us! He killed ninety-nine men, women and children—and one imam. He is certainly going to hell.”
The angels from heaven also gathered around the bandit’s body. They argued with the angels from hell, “He repented, and he acted on his repentance by moving toward the town of good people. He will go to heaven.”
The angels couldn’t resolve this dispute, and they asked the angel Gabriel to decide. Gabriel said, “This is really a difficult puzzle. He did so many horrible things, and he only took a few steps toward righteousness; is that enough? I need to consult with God.”
Gabriel returned to God, who handed him a golden ruler. “This is my divine measure. Place one end of the ruler next to his body, pointing toward the gate of the city he left. It will determine how far he is from that city. Then put the ruler on the other side of his body pointing toward his destination. The town he is closest to will decide his fate.”
Gabriel returned to earth and told the angels what God had said. The angels from hell rejoiced, “We can’t even see that city that he was going to, and he is only a few steps from the town of the bandits and thieves. Surely he is going to hell.”
Gabriel placed the ruler on the ground. God’s ruler instantly lengthened four feet to the gates of the town of bandits. The angels from hell began to celebrate. Then Gabriel placed God’s ruler on the other side of the man’s body facing toward the city of the righteous. When the ruler began to lengthen the gates of the town of the righteous suddenly appeared next to the man’s body.
Tears come to my eyes whenever I retell this story, and I have been telling it for forty years. For me this is one of the best illustrations of God’s forgiveness and mercy. You think God’s mercy is like yours. You unconsciously believe divine mercy is limited by time and space—but it isn’t. It isn’t. God’s mercy is always present.
The bandit did what God required. He sincerely repented, and he acted. He did what he was told to do. It is truly important to reflect deeply on this story, which is a hadith, by the way.
There are three parts to repentance. There is repentance of the past, which is honestly saying “I was wrong, please forgive me.” You so often rationalize. “You made me do it. You made me lose my temper.”
No! You lost your temper. There is no “you made me.” You have to take responsibility for your own reactions to the world. No one else made you do anything, unless they held a gun to your head. And even then you have a choice.
There is an old saying in English, “The devil made me do it!” which is just a crazier version of this same absurd justification. But perhaps it is more correct, if you think of your ego as an agent of the devil.
Take responsibility for the ways you respond to the world. Stop saying, “You made me do it.” For example, there is no stress “out there” in the world. The stress comes from how you respond to the world. Some people respond with terror or rage to the same situation that barely affects others.
Fred Kofman wrote a book entitled Conscious Business. In it he discusses the importance of responsibility, and the ways people fail to take responsibility.
He writes, “When my children were younger they would say things like ‘My toy broke.’” As if their toys just broke all by themselves. They would never say, “I broke the toy.” Children learn to avoid responsibility from their parents. “The toy broke” becomes, “I’m sorry I was late. It was because of traffic.” No, you were late because you weren’t responsible enough to find out how bad the traffic was and to leave early enough to arrive in time for your meeting.
We often give away responsibility. Learn to say, “Whatever happens, my response is my responsibility.” It’s how I respond to the world.
Repentance includes responsibility. Don’t say, “You made me angry.” Whether you are angry or calm is your choice.
If you blame the world for your responses you become a puppet of the world, “The world made me do it implies the world controls your hands, your mouth, and your head.
Sincerely apologizing is repentance of the past. It comes from examining your past actions without justifying yourself. That is often very difficult. Whenever you say “But . . .” the words that follow are justifications for your mistakes.
Express your regret for what you have done. Apologize to those you’ve hurt. I learned a wonderful apology from an old friend. “I was wrong, I’m very sorry. I will do my best to ensure it will never happen again.” This is repentance of the present. It is hard to admit. “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
Many people can’t do this. Their egos won’t let them say “I was wrong, and I’m sorry, and I will do my best to see it will never happen again.” In this crazy world nobody seems to notice that we’re all human and we make mistakes. You grow from recognizing your mistakes.
If you hurt someone emotionally, make a sincere apology; if you hurt them financially, make restitution. Do whatever you can in the present to make up for your past mistakes.
Third is repentance of the future. That means to do everything you can to support your intention to change. For example, you remove the temptation from your environment and your life. If you are dieting, don’t walk past your favorite bakery—especially the bakeries that have fans that blow all the wonderful smells out into the street. If you have to walk down that street at least go to the other side.
If you want to stop drinking remove all the alcohol from your home. Don’t keep a bottle of whiskey under the sink. It is self-sabotage to say to yourself. “I’ll never drink again, but I keep a few bottles around, just in case.” That will never work. You have to get rid of all the alcohol in your house. Most alcoholics will not do this. They will argue to themselves, “Just in case I need it, let me put one bottle under the sink.” They haven’t turned their back on drinking. Then their repentance is not sincere; it is only an outer show.
The sign that your repentance is accepted by God is you are no longer tempted. Whatever you struggled with no longer appeals to you. You say, “Thank God, it left me.” God took it away, because you did your part, as small as it may have been.
You have to keep working on repentance, because your job is to keep growing and maturing, to become a real human being. When you apologize you can say, “I’m a work in progress. I made a mistake, I’m really sorry, and please God I will never make that mistake again. Please have patience with me because I’m not perfect. But I am working to improve.”
My old sheikh used to say to his dervishes, “I started with even more faults than the rest of you. The difference between me and you is I’m working really hard on my faults.” It’s a gradual process, working toward what you want, becoming who you want to be.
It is not real repentance when you change your behavior while inside you are still longing for your old habits. You have to keep trying and keep asking God to help you let go of your old habits and desires.
There is an old Sufi story about two friends. One of them said, “Tomorrow is a holiday. I’m going to go to the mosque to listen to a Qur’an recitation.” The other man said, “That’s really boring. I’m going to go to a party where there are drinks and pretty women.” The next day the first man went to the mosque, and during the Qur’an recitation he said to himself, “My friend is have a great time drinking and flirting with beautiful women. I really wish I was at a party.”
The other man was thinking about listening to the Qur’an. He was saying, “My friend was right. What am I doing here with these loud, foolish people? I wish I was at the mosque.”
Both men died that night and their souls went to heaven for judgment. The man who was listening to the Qur’an was sent to hell, and the man at the party was admitted to heaven. Both were shocked. The angels explained, “It wasn’t where you were physically; it was where you your heart was.”
This story is a powerful reminder that you have to work sincerely to transform yourself. The business of “faking it until you make it” is all too often like the fake enthusiasm of a dishonest salesperson. It is like the facile notion of the “one-minute manager”. It takes more than a minute to manage properly. Clever, quick techniques never work well in the long run. Good managers are patient and pay attention to detail.
You will change through sincere effort, patience, and praying to God for help. No shortcuts.
You can consciously work to develop new habits. Say to yourself, “I’m stingy and I have to go downtown which is filled with homeless people asking for money. As much as it hurts I know it is right to help some of these poor people. I’m going to try and develop a new habit of generosity.”
One of my sheikh’s senior dervishes was very stingy. One day we were going to downtown Manhattan where there are always many poor and homeless. When we stopped at a red light a man ran up and said, “I’ll clean your window.” He started smearing our window with a dirty rag. Tosun Efendi pointed to the dervish, “Give him five dollars.”
“But my sheikh—“
“Give him five dollars!”
The dervish reached into his wallet and very reluctantly gave the man five dollars. Then the sheikh reminded the dervish this is one of the ways you change, by changing behavior and trying to develop new habits. But it was a very difficult test for the dervish.
My sheikh used to comment when some people reach for their wallets to give charity they act as if their pickets are filled with nettles.
Easy, no, but it’s our work. When you read some of the Sufi literature you may think Sufism is all about visions, miracles, and amazing events. They believe Sufism is spiritual fireworks of one kind or another. Don’t even think about it. Those would only inflate your ego even more.