Guilt. A Foe or Friend in Christian Finances?

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Right now there is literally $100 under my feet.

I got some cash to use as change when people bought my books at a recent seminar.  The unused money was put beside my safe which is on the ground under my desk.  Yesterday, my daughter decided to ‘scrubble’ (how she says shuffle) it around, and I’ve not yet taken the time to pick it up and put it in the safe.

Ironically, when we lived in PNG, the average annual income was about $775 USD.

As I write this article, I’m using (as a foot rest) 13% of what some people will make in a year.  In fact, the computer I’m writing on costs 70% of what some people make in a year.

Should I feel guilty about the money I have?

Guilt is the act of violating or even getting temptingly close to ones own conscience.

No doubt, there is such a thing as misplaced guilt, there is inaccurate guilt, and there is undeserving guilt.  Guilt is indeed something that a person with false motives could use to manipulate us.

But, is there any theological, sociological, or pragmatic element of guilt that comes from God?  If so, would guilt ever play a productive God-ordained role in our finances?

In his book, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators, David Chilton says (pg. 9):

God wants us to feel guilty only when we are guilty of breaking Gods commands, and then we should repent and obey, and not have to feel guilty any longer, because God forgives those who turn to him.

Another way to illustrate this would be to discover God’s moral law.  Moral law would include any teachings clearly written in Scripture.  An example of this moral law is don’t murder. We could say that when a person breaks God’s moral law they should feel guilty.  However, outside God’s moral law there is freedom, and is there any God ordained use of guilt?

Does God use guilt as a tool in situations where sin is not involved?

If it’s not direct, God definitely indirectly uses guilt to his glory in situations beyond sin.

In December, there was a young couple at a mechanic’s shop.  They were clearly upset about something, and I asked what was wrong.  They explained that their car broke down and needed a new engine.  I gave them a gift card and left.

Then I felt *guilty*. (It’s always hard to know what exact emotion you’re feeling.)  I felt like I could and should do more.

After talking with my wife, we decided to invite them over to our house so they would have a more comfortable place to wait while someone drove three hours to pick them up.

Was God at work in that situation?  Was it appropriate for me to feel guilty?  Was it even a feeling of guilt?

I believe that God can, through the Holy Spirit, utilize guilt as a tool to bring about his glory.  Still, he may not directly be the cause of that guilt.  God has always been able to use bad choices for his glory.

Our level of guilt should be proportionate to who we are.

If I earned a million dollars in 2013 and went and bought a $750,000 home, I’d feel guilty.  That’s more home than we need, and since I’ve lived in a developing nation for 16 year of my life, it would be a violation of my conscience to live in a house that was that expensive.  That doesn’t mean it’s wrong and you should feel guilty living in a $750,000 house.  The place where you live in the States might make a $750,000 home a just above average middle class home.

I believe that God has given me guilt as a guide to know when my choices are most pleasing to him and when my choices are less pleasing to him.

However, guilt isn’t always the best standard.

My wife and I talked about this a lot when we went to Budapest last year.  We used frequent flyer miles to fly over there, so our out of pocket cost for flights was $300 total.  However, we flew business class and were treated very nicely.  We felt guilty to be in such luxury.  We stayed at a beautiful hotel (Hilton Budapest) and didn’t pay anything for the hotel because we used points.  We were treated like royalty there and found ourselves feeling guilty.

In that case, I think our guilt was misplaced.

There is no standard to know when guilt is of God and when guilt is an inappropriate emotion.

Unresolved or unaddressed guilt can take an emotional toll like no other emotion.  God doesn’t want us to always function with guilt as a primary motivation.  Yet, when we feel guilty, I think it’s worthwhile to give an appropriate amount of attention to that emotion and to question its origin and its validity.  God did give us the capacity for guilt.  The role of guilt is to bring about change in our lives.

So, should I feel guilty if I’m rich and others are poor?

I don’t think I’d be able to find a single passage in the Bible (help me out if I’m missing something) that encourages the feeling of guilt because of our possessions.

Instead of guilt, I think we should feel obligation and responsibility as God’s stewards.

There is inequality in the world.  We ought not to feel guilty that we’ve been blessed.  Instead, we should feel motivated to seek ways we can use our blessings beyond ourselves.

Perhaps this would not be the case if a direct transference of wealth was possible.  If I could give my $1,000 to you and you’d be $1,000 worth better off, then I could feel like my $1,000 has caused your suffering.  However, the poverty around the world has not resulted from some people keeping too much.

I remember an Everybody Loves Raymond episode where Robert is struggling to pay bills.  Ray and Deborah give him money and Robert decides to use the money to go to Vegas.  A lack of money is not the only cause of poverty, and so my possessions do not cause others to be poor.

If I’ve made my money helping people instead of taking advantage of them, there is no reason for guilt.  In fact, guilt would cause us to see our possessions as a ‘curse’ from God.  Instead, I think the response to wealth ought to be thanksgiving.  To see how lavishly the Father has blessed us.  Yet, if I took those possessions exclusively for myself and was not rich towards others, then I’d hope my guilt reflex would trigger.

We should seek to be people who, when the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.

While guilt may be a tool God uses to change us (even in non-sinful situations), there are much better motivations that will help us accomplish more and bring more glory to God.

Do you ever feel guilty about your wealth?  Do you think financial guilt is from God or not?

Comments

  1. ken says

    If one has worked the disciplines of wealth, gone to work when everyone else does not, creates more than one income stream in their lives and takes the risks that acquiring assets requires, it is unthinkable that a feeling of guilt would ever take root.

    If however, I was slovenly, received the govt. assistance and depended on the achiever in life to supply my income, I suppose guilt would drive me wild. I imagine that then the guilt would turn to envy and that would lead me to wanting a “fair distribution” of wealth that is so succored to the masses today.

    • says

      Ken,
      I agree that on the income side there is no reason for us to feel guilty. We should earn as much as we can. However, in the post I was trying to focus more on the spending aspect. What about lifestyle? Is God please when a Christian spends extravagantly without concern for others? Or, as long as our spending is in line with our income is that God honoring?

  2. Cecilia says

    I don’t think anyone should feel guilty for having a lot of money unless it was gained or earned in a dishonest way. If our money owns us, or if we fail to honor God with what we have, that might produce guilt, I’d like to think that would be conviction leading to a change of heart instead.
    I personally do not have a problem with people who have more than I do, I do have a problem with people who resent the wealthy or anyone who has more than they do.

    • says

      Cecilia,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I think the question regarding guilt isn’t as much about thinking with jealousy others or comparing oneself with others (which clearly isn’t healthy).
      I guess the question is if I were to spend a lot of money on something and feel guilty (even something I can afford) is that an emotion simply to overcome or it is possible God is working in that situation to teach us?
      Said another way, does God ever use guilt as a motivation to do his will or if we feel guilty does it always come from an inappropriate source?
      Typically, when I feel guilty it’s not because others are wealthy, but because I know I can do more for God’s Kingdom. Is that ever appropriate?

  3. Cecilia says

    Thank you for clarifying. I associate guilt with shame. Yes, I do believe even if we can afford something God in his desire to teach and train us would convict. I associate conviction with a loving nudge, maybe a very strong “no” because I don’t have to have everything I want just because I can afford it. Maybe it’s “lust” I need lay down or maybe just learning to live to please Him first. Thank you

  4. says

    Hi Craig,

    We are not sure if our response will directly answer the “guilt” question, but we would like to piggyback off of Ken’s comments, with which we agree, and possibly open up an opportunity for you to answer the “guilt” question for yourself.

    An aspect that is often overlooked in these discussions is the good accomplished by those who earn money morally and spend money morally. In other words, those who earn and spend money morally for their own perceived benefit often, not so indirectly, benefit others. When someone contracts to have a house built, they are effectively putting many people to work. When someone contracts to build a larger home, they are responsible for putting even more people to work. Would an honest person rather receive a handout or a job? If one could afford a large and expensive home and desired such to be built, would it be better stewardship of their resources to go ahead and do so or abstain and simply give an equivalent amount of money away to those who did nothing to earn it?

    Please don’t misread our questions and assume we have a problem with charity. Charity (love) is good. It is our contention that providing jobs is also a form of charity and much more spirit building to the receiver than a handout. There is no doubt room for both types of charity, but we think things have gotten a little out of kilter over the years with far too many handouts.

    Steven & Debra

    • says

      Steven and Debra,
      I do completely agree that there can be tremendous economic value to spending. Hey, that is undoubtably how our economy functions. The buyer ultimately is the one who is responsible to analyze his or her motives.

  5. Reader says

    Great post Craig, thank you. I can empathize with a lot of the things you described, and I have thought a lot about guilt & the conscience over the last few years. It’s amazing how much those things guilt, shame, and the conscience were preached on a few hundred years ago by Finney, Spurgeon, Calvin, Luther, etc. Today our vocabularies have whittled down a bit so these things can often feel very unclear or unaddressed in our generation.

    Personally, in regard to the money that God has entrusted me with– I find my conscience wide awake when I break the moral law with my money, since God has written these laws on our hearts:

    “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

    I am a believer, like you, that I owe everything to the grace of God. All power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise… all are His. Therefore, I will give an account for how I’ve handled His stuff on that day. That keeps my conscience pretty alert and I do strive to maintain a clear conscience.

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