For the past five years or so, I’ve struggled with a pretty intense case of survivor’s guilt.
It may sound silly, but I feel guilty because I was born in the United States of America to white, middle-class Christian parents, a fact that—through no merit of my own—has provided me with a more comfortable and privileged existence than most people in this world.
While I count calories in order to trim my waistline, hundreds of thousands of little children go to bed without enough food to eat. While I complain about too much clutter in my home, entire families are left homeless. While I worry about deadlines to meet and friends to see, many of my neighbors are sick, lonely, and forgotten. While I take things like plumbing and fresh water for granted, people around the world are barely surviving.
I spent a few years being mad at God about the situation.
Then I spent a few years being mad at The Church.
Now I’m just mad at myself, for not committing more time and resources to those in need.
I was talking with my parents about this the other day at the Chinese restaurant (yes, I see the irony!) and my dad gently asked me how much I would have to give away before I felt better, before my conscience was eased. If all I had left was a single crust of bread, would I feel guilty for not giving it away?
I said something about how Shane Claiborne would probably give his crust away.
Dad reminded me that not everyone can be Shane Claiborne because Shane Claiborne is pretty radical, then I reminded Dad that Jesus was radical too, then Dad reminded me that someone had to fund Jesus’ ministry, and then I reminded Dad that the apostle Paul urged early Christians to pursue “equality” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).
I spent the ride home from the restaurant grumbling to Dan about expensive church sound systems, all-you-can-eat buffet lines, and Republicans. I was convinced I was in the right—so why was I so miserable?
Now, God doesn’t exactly speak to me the way he seems to speak to other people. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t get play-by-play directions from him, and I don’t hear his voice very often. But that afternoon, the famous lines from 1 Corinthians 13 came suddenly to my mind:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
I realized that I was giving out of guilt, not love. And according to Paul, even the greatest, most dramatic acts of charity will leave me feeling empty if I do them out of self-interest (easing my conscience) rather than out of love (easing other people’s burdens).
[Note that Paul says that, “I gain nothing.” For a kid in desperate need of clean water, a well is a well—regardless of whether a donor gave out of love or guilt. I firmly believe that giving out of guilt is better than not giving at all, and that sometimes our acts of faithfulness must precede (or do without) our pure motives.]
So lately I’ve been asking God to show me how to give out of guilt rather than love. A few things have come to mind:
- First of all, I’ve got to stop measuring the amount of love in my life by the amount of money/publicity I give to my favorite non-profit organizations. The truth is, it’s easier for me to love people I have never met (kids with AIDS in Africa) than it is to love people I have met (that hard-core conservative down the street who always gives me flack about my politics). It’s easier for me to have compassion on the widows I spent a week with in India than the women I see every day. It’s easier for me to say I am intellectually committed to Jesus’ teaching that we are to love our enemies than it is for me to let go of the bitterness I carry around from people who have wronged me. In other words, if I have no compassion for my friends and neighbors, what I give to strangers is just charity—not love. But if I can become more patient, kind, understanding, forgiving and compassionate toward those around me, what I give to those in far away places will come from the overflow of love already in my heart.
- Secondly, I’ve got to stop looking at the “poor and needy” as mere objects of my charity and actually form interdependent relationships with the people around me—where I am a part of their community and they are a part of my community. It’s so much harder, yet so much more authentic and rewarding, to give to people I know than it is to give to people I keep at arm’s length. It’s even harder (for me) to make it reciprocal, to accept their help and friendship in return. My pride likes to keep me in the position of giving rather than receiving.
- Finally, my favorite trick for easing my conscience is to judge people who don’t give as much or care as much as I do. But this is not love. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. The best way to inspire others to give more is not to tell them to give more, but to live as an example—without judgment, without pride, without envy, without (gulp) cynicism. (Looks like I’m going to have to meditate on this passage a bit more!)
But even with all these things in mind, I still struggle almost every day with guilt, so I need your help.
How do you overcome guilt and start giving out of love?