Many of us want to change for the better, improve ourselves, let go of bad habits, and shed the layers that come between us and our Creator, but yet still find ourselves in the same unhealthy spiritual, mental, and emotional space for weeks, months, or even years. Maybe we find ourselves intending to change every Ramadan, at the beginning of a new year, or when God gives us signs that make it clear we need to make a change, but still find ourselves unable to truly make the changes that will bring us closer to Him, help us work towards jannah (heaven), detach us from this world, and liberate our hearts from what our nafs and ego calls us to.
I know many of us want to improve the quality of our lives. I know many of us want to feel the sweetness of iman (faith) in our hearts. I know many of us want to see the fruits of our acts of worship, in the way we go about our day, in the way we deal with ourselves and others, and in the way we maximize our potential, life, and everything God has given us. And I know that many of us are aware of certain changes we need to make in front of God, in order to improve our relationship with Him, to earn His pleasure, and to fully submit to Him, which in essence is what it literally means to be a Muslim (Islam means submission, and a Muslim is one who submits to God).
But yet despite us knowing how much we want all of these things, how much we are aware of the changes we need to make, we may find it difficult to truly take the leap and that next step towards God. We may find it hard to do the actions that will help us follow through on the intentions in our hearts. We may find it hard to surrender our hearts fully to its Creator and commit to walking towards Him and following what He has taught us. And it maybe that every time we finally decided to do so, we became filled with difficult emotions that held us back, that scared us from committing to our intention, and that kept us stuck right where we are.
This is a reality for many of us. This is why people find themselves stuck as years of their lives go by, not realizing the factors contributing to the cycle they are in. And I find that many of us are truly unaware of one of the most MAJOR factors that play a role in the difficult emotions that come up for people once they decide to change and actually take a step in that direction. And that factor is: Shaytan (Satan).
You see, deciding to make the change is the easy part, but dealing with the anxiety, fear, discomfort that follows is the ultimate challenge. And while our psychology and our mental and emotional health can most definitely play a role in this (and they do require our attention), Shaytan also plays a role in this while many of us are unaware. But this lack of awareness about the role Shaytan plays can not only worsen our mental and emotional struggles, but it can be what keeps us from actually achieving transformative and positive changes in our lives.
We need to understand all the factors that play a role in our spiritual, mental, and emotional health. And we cannot work on our mental, emotional, or even physical health, in isolation of our spiritual health. We need to take a holistic view of ourselves, our struggles, and our path towards God. And to do that, we cannot ignore what God has taught us in the Qur'an and through the teachings of His beloved messenger (pbuh). We cannot ignore what God has taught us about ourselves, our purpose, our destination, and the nature of this journey we are on, and then expect to have the awareness, knowledge, and tools we need to actually make impactful changes in our lives. And if we understand this core truth, we will understand why we cannot ignore what He has warned us against, what we need to protect ourselves from, and what or who He has told us can be an obstacle to Him and the positive changes we want to make in our lives.
God has made it clear in the Qur'an that Shaytan will stand in our way as we walk towards Him, as we try to hasten towards goodness, as we try to live in a way that is inline with His truths and what is pleasing to Him. But many of us forget what God has told us and as a result, we forget the role that Shaytan plays when we try to make a positive change in our lives.
We don't realize that every time we try to detach from negative habits, thoughts, or lifestyles, Shaytan (Satan) will give us a million reasons why we will lose if we do so. This in turn can leave us feeling scared and anxious every time our heart decides to walk towards God, to liberate itself from our nafs and ego, and to submit to its Creator. This fear and anxiety causes us to stay shackled to what we had just decided to free ourselves from. And this is the cycle and trap Shaytan tries to keep us in.
God warns us of his traps in the Qur’an:
“Ash-shaytan (The all-vicious, the Devil) promises you poverty and commands you to obscenity; and God promises you forgiveness from Him, and Grace; and God is Ever-Embracing Ever-Knowing.” (Qur’an 2:268)
In this verse, God reminds us that Shaytan promises us with poverty. But we must understand that poverty is not just confined to a loss of wealth. Poverty is a state of loss in all areas of our lives. It is an experience where we feel we are losing something. This can translate into us feeling any sense of loss that is not just materialistic. We can fear loss on a mental, emotional, and even physical level. We can fear losing our sense of safety, our emotional safety but also our physical safety. We can fear losing our sense of security, but there is emotional security as well as physical security. We can fear losing our sense of peace, worth, or even status in the world. There are so many things we can fear to lose as human beings, and those losses can be experienced on so many levels. These losses can be physical losses, but they can also translate to emotional losses that lead to feelings of inferiority, insufficiency, inadequacy, or insecurity.
And every time we try to make a change that will elevate our souls and help us walk towards God, Shaytan will promise you with these losses. He will promise you with poverty. And while God promises us of His mercy, help, and grace that fills our life with peace and hope, Shaytan knowing how powerful that is, will work hard to remind you of the illusion of poverty, time and time again. He will remind you of all the negative scenarios that reflect how much you can lose if you decide to let go of what does not serve your soul, change for the better, and turn to God.
You may want to reduce certain negative habits in your life, but then become fearful of the emptiness that those old, familiar, and comfortable habits used to fill. You might decide to give more charity, but then find yourself worrying about losing money you will need to go on your next vacation or buy that new car. You might decide to dress more modestly but then find yourself fearful of losing security, not fitting in, or not looking attractive enough. You might decide to stop certain actions that are displeasing to God, but then find yourself filled with worry and fear of all the things you will lose out on if you do so. Shaytan will constantly use fear of loss to keep you from doing what you intended.
But increasing our awareness about his tactics is what will help us to not feed into them. It will help us remember that what He promises is NOT real. And it is only through recognizing the difference between illusion and truth that our fears and anxieties can be reduced, for true change cannot happen in the absence of recognizing truth.
“He promises them and arouses vain covetings in them; and in no way does Ash-Shaytan (The all-vicious, i.e., the Devil) promise them (anything) except delusion.” (Qur’an 4:120)
Every time we feed into Shaytan's promises, we are giving power to something that is NOT real. We are allowing ourselves to live in illusion and not in truth. And it is in these moments when we decide to walk towards God, to make positive changes, that we must remind ourselves of what God promises if we are to overcome and free ourselves from Shaytan's promises and illusions. It is in these moments when Shaytan wants to fear what we will lose that we must remember that nothing is lost with God and we will always have much to gain by obeying Him, worshipping Him, and walking towards Him.
It is though remembering God's promises that we can have the courage, the strength, the energy, and the help we need to follow through on the changes we want to make. It is through remembering God's truths that we stop living in the future and begin directing our attention to the power of now and what our present holds.
The only reality is what God has promised, has given you, and what He allows to exist. The only reality is what God has put right in front of you, not what Shaytan tells you MIGHT happen, not what could be. What is a reality is your present moment, day, and present situation. And our ability to actually progress and grow requires that we build the muscle of being present, for Shaytan knows that your failure to succeed lies in taking your attention away from what is right in front of you. Shaytan knows that keeping your attention on the future will keep you from maximizing your present. He knows that keeping your mind on the future prevents your heart from being present with God and His truths. He knows the power of the present and that it is a sacred space.
The present is where hearts can speak to God, remember Him, and connect with Him. It is where hearts can feel gratitude. It is were hearts can feel hope. It is where hearts fuel the limbs to walk towards God. The present is where you can actually make a change, for the future and what it holds is not yet a reality, and Shaytan has no say in what kind of reality that will be.
So as you intend the changes you want to make, remember that Shaytan will be ready to promise you with losses, but also remember that what He promises holds no value. What he promises is not real. Noone has knowledge about the future except God, so do not let him take you to a time that He has no control over. Keep redirecting your heart to the One who has full control and the reality He has put right infront of you. Keep redirecting your heart to the present and to the power of now, and as much as you can (because this takes consistent work), try to stay there, because right now, that is what is true.
And remember that everything Shaytan wants you to imagine about your future is like a mirage in the desert. It is not real. And when you reach that destination, the image you thought was real will no longer be there, and you will realize that you spent the whole walk there consumed with this false image, with this illusion. And that is exactly what Shaytan wants to accomplish. He wants us consumed and distracted on our journey until we are hit with the reality of our destination.
But keeping the eye of our heart on God is what will protect us from chasing false destinations. It is through remembering God's truths that we will be able to recognize a mirage when we see one. It is what will help us not make the fear that Shaytan incites the end, but rather the means to us walking towards God. Every time we feel fear, we must remind ourselves of what is true. We must hold stronger to reality.
What is reality is what God promises us in the Quran and teaches us in our faith. His mercy, love, and care for us is a reality. Going back to Him is a reality. This life being temporary is a reality. The hereafter is a reality. His forgiveness is a reality. Him being the source of all the provisions we want, all the security we desire, and all the blessings we seek, IS A REALITY. Our present and everything that is already in front of us, provided to us, is a reality. It is what is true. Every time we feed into our fears that are associated with the future, we are holding on to illusion. But every time we hold on to God and what He promises us, we are holding on to what is real, what is true, and what will allow for us to actually achieve the change we desire.