Gratitude or Guilt?

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[Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend, Krista, on the subject of how we deal with guilt over all we have that others don’t.]

Krista: “I don’t know how to handle this. My family is fine (although ask me about all the weird medical drama we’ve had this month) and I just don’t know how to think when I know so many people are going through SO much worse. It almost feels wrong to be grateful in that situation. A little like the rich man with the poor man at his gate.” Luke 16:19-31

Mike “You know, Krista, I had to think carefully about which things to name that I’m grateful for, because some things sound really bad to give thanks for when I know other people don’t have them. It’s akin to naming ‘blessings’ that God has given us that other people don’t have, because it starts to sound like we believe God loves us by giving us material things and therefore doesn’t love other people as much. Very dangerous theological rabbit trail.  
But not being grateful for things means either feeling guilty for what we have–destructive, unless we’re acting on that by giving it away (when possible)–or taking what we have for granted. Also very bad for our souls.  
I’ve learned there’s a serious level of humility involved in being grateful, when we recognize that other people don’t have the things on our list. If we don’t have humility, then it’s not really gratitude; it’s a belief that we deserve what we have (and others deserve to not have what they don’t have). That’s what I was addressing in the last post, ‘Accustomed.'”

Krista: “I think I know ‘enough’ about how little others have (if we ever do). And I guess that’s the word I was missing. ‘Guilty.’ I feel guilty that we have so much even if we’re almost poor by American standards. We have zero of the struggles that your friends in Nicaragua have.”

Mike “I had the same struggle writing it. Hard to face how much others are suffering. Denial is easy. I suspect that’s why some people don’t always care for my writing. (There are probably other issues, as well.) It’s not like I enjoy those feelings, either, but I think facing them and responding is part of seeking to follow Jesus faithfully. 
Here’s my take on guilt: God has provided what we have. That both makes me responsible to share and eases the anguish that I shouldn’t have any of this when others don’t. I think everyone has to work out how to reconcile those things.  
Conviction ALWAYS means God has some way for me to respond. Guilt with NO way to respond is not from God. If I’m wallowing in my guilt, that makes me less able to walk with Jesus, not more. Facing guilt means asking ‘How do I repent?’ There may not be a direct action to take this instant, but I can pray and God will lead me how to respond. 2 Corinthians 7:8-10

I think the poles are both dangerous:

Either 1)God gave me this, so I’m content even though others are suffering and miserable, and it was God’s decision so I don’t have to do anything about it. Why should I feel bad when God did it?
Or 2)I can’t receive what I have with gratitude and feel peace because I know others are going without, but I’m not acting on that, either, just tormenting myself over my abundance.
Since we’re REALLY wading into this–this whole thing should be a blog post–I also suspect that some people pay their guilt as penance, i.e. reconcile that they have so much by perpetually feeling bad for it. I really want to challenge that position, because to me it misses both points–praising God for our daily bread AND acting on my conviction to share from my abundance.

I think I’m just going to go ahead and collect this into a post now, since it’s already written and all. Thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts, Friend!”

Krista: “Thanks for helping me put words to what I’m feeling. That’s not easy for me.”

Sometimes–maybe a little more often than that–time on social media can feel like a meaningless diversion or even a waste. But there are exceptions. This convo was one.

Paul, addressing the church in Corinth, writes:

For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly). Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. 2 Corinthians 7:8-10

For me, this passage provides the measuring stick for my guilt. If we feel “godly grief,” meaning grief or guilt or conviction that God’s spirit evokes in us (your conscience, the angel on one shoulder arguing with the devil on the other, however you envision this), it produces repentance. That means: 1. I can see clearly that I’m doing something wrong,

2. I can act in some way to stop doing that wrong, turn around, and start in the other direction (the literal meaning of “repent” is “a change in direction”).

If we think of sin as acting against our design and thus doing something that damages us, and if we understand that God loves us and does not want us to damage ourselves, then we see godly grief as necessary to prevent much more severe self-destruction. This is why the movement to throw away all guilt, as if any guilty feelings themselves were the real problem, is a doomed experiment.

The rich man stepping over Lazarus at the gate should have felt horrible. That horrible feeling is the alarm bell that I’m doing wrong and hurting myself. Yes, I really think that in this picture, the rich man keeping all his wealth to himself, leaving Lazarus to starve and have the dogs lick his sores, that man is hurting himself in the present, not only because he will face judgment later. I just don’t believe in the “If only we could get away with it, sin would be more fun” view of the world. That rich man had to deaden the compassion within himself to ignore Lazarus, which in turn deadened a portion of his heart. When we see people capable of doing and saying heartless, evil things without remorse, with neither hesitation nor a second thought, we’re seeing the fruit of refusing to act on godly grief, refusing to repent, and paying the consequences. That person has damaged himself by warping the image of God in himself. We know it when we see it.

Coming full circle, guilt and gratitude will not be in conflict within us when we give thanks for everything we have as a gift–humility in gratitude, not pride–and see these gifts as opportunities to share. Of course, that’s the ideal and we all struggle within the everyday mess and struggle. Sometimes we feel guilty because we were taught to feel guilt and shame over things that really are fine (Quick! Name three for yourself!) and not just fine, but life-giving. Sometimes we know we are being selfish and greedy but don’t want to hear that voice telling us, so we cover that voice with anger or fear or justification (or another drink). We’re messy people and none of this is perfect.

But just because we mess up a lot does not change that God loves us and likes us and patiently leads us toward life instead of death, toward joy and compassion and sharing instead of bitterness and self-centeredness and greed. We’re in this crazy crisis right now and it’s hard to see how to give and share, even in our “normal” ways. But I’m convinced we can still become bigger, more compassionate, more loving-godly people in the midst of this. Most of us do have more time to pray. We can look around and ask God for guidance in how to love right now. We need to remember what we have to be grateful for right so that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. When we remember what we have, we also remember what others do not have. That’s not an opportunity to get out the self-flaggelation whip. It is a moment both to give thanks and to offer, “How can I help?”

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