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"But should I feel guilty?"

Over the years I have remained friends with the Dean of Students from the college that I attended in Toronto. He was both a friend and a mentor to me during my time in Toronto and so I always try to connect with him when I go back that way. A few weeks ago, I was passing through Toronto, and the Dean, knowing of my plans, invited me to give a guest lecture at a course he teaches on Christian community. I spoke rather anecdotally about rooting Christian community on the margins of society, about journeying into places of exile and suffering there, in order to be God's agents of new creation, and about uniting the confessing members of Christ's body with the crucified members of Christ's body — all familiar themes to anybody who as spent any amount of time reading this blog!
The lecture was fairly conversational, and there was actually quite a good amount of dialogue. However, there was one student who kept pressing me with the same question (he was the first student to ask a question and later, after the lecture ended, he approached me and continued to press the issue). This, in essence, was what he was asking:
“Look,” he said, “every now and again, I hear a speaker, like you, talk about the need for Christians to care for the poor and all that. Then they tell stories, like the stories you've told, and I think to myself, 'I'm not doing anything like that.' So my question is this: Should I feel guilty?”
Take a minute to think about how you might respond to that sort of question.
What I said went something like this:
“Well,” I said, “I don't know you and I don't know the first thing about the way in which you live your life, but let's step back for a minute and take a look at the big picture. The themes I am presenting are themes that I believe need to be at the centre of the identity and mission of the people of God. The people of God, as a corporate body, must be involved in this other-centred movement into dark places so that the victory won by Jesus can be made manifest in the here and now. So, when I tell stories about what my community is doing, I am not suggesting that y'all need to go out and start doing precisely what I'm doing. What I'm saying is that the Church needs to exercise a 'preferential option' for the poor that mirrors the heart of God. Thus, you as an individual within the Church, must discover the darkness that God is leading you into. You might not be lead to journey with sexually exploited people and homeless youth… but maybe you are being lead to journey with seniors, or with people with “disabilities,” or with wealthy children who are completely abandoned and unloved by their parents. Or whatever. There are many places of exile still left in our world and the people of God must be moving into all of those places.”
The student was quite dissatisfied with this response. He really didn't want to hear about priorities within the corporate body of Christ. What he wanted to know was, well, if he should feel guilty. I don't know if he had some sort of Evangelical addiction to guilt, or if he wanted me to let him off the hook. Regardless, he asked me again:
“But should I feel guilty?”
And then I realized why I didn't want to answer his question. So I said this:
“Look, I don't want to say if you should feel guilty or not, and here's why. I don't want guilt to be what motivates you. I don't want you to feel guilty that you don't care for the poor, and then go out and start journeying with the poor out of some sense of guilt or duty. That's not what I want at all. What I want is for you to be so overwhelmed by the wonder of God's love that it overflows out of you and leads you naturally to those who are the most desperate for that love, to those who are, literally, dying without it. If guilt is what motivates you, then the chances are that what you do won't be that meaningful, and it probably won't be something you end up doing for any sustained amount of time. But if love is what motivates you, then I think the world will be transformed and you will be able to remain in hard places because you delight in the company of God's beloved — the 'lost sheep' and the 'least of these.'”
The student still looked sort of unhappy but the lecture and the discussion moved on. After the class had ended, he was the first student to approach me.
“I see what you're trying to do,” he said to me, “but should I feel guilty?”

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  1. Hi Dan. I’ve been obsessively reading every one of your posts since discovering the blog.
    You told this guy you weren’t excited about telling him he should feel guilty, because you wanted any decision he made in regards to living and journeying with the poor to be made out of love and not guilt.
    So then, if I call myself a Christian, and certain feelings of guilt impel me to move into a poorer neighborhood and to develop relationships with poor people, should I abandon that plan until I feel motivated by love?

  2. Hi Andy,
    Thanks for reading my blog, and thanks for asking this question.
    First off, do note that I wrote one follow up post on this topic ( and I also recently deal with the topic of guilt in my review of Bell and Golden’s “Jesus Wants to Save Christians” — which I believe was posted at the start of Nov /08.
    That said, I think that you should go ahead and begin to develop relationships with poor people. The love will come. Indeed, it is hard to love people unless one is in proximity to them! Guilt, as I say in my recent book review, might be an excellent motivating force to start us onto this trajectory… it’s just that it is not that great at sustaining us thereon.
    Hope that helps. Would be interested to know a bit more about you, and what you’re thinking. Grace and peace.

  3. I’d be delighted to tell you what I’m thinking.
    I grew up in the bible belt, and considered myself to be “saved” from the time I prayed a prayer with my mother at four years old. Fifteen years later, I read Claiborne’s The Irresistable Revolution, and I also started hanging out at a church that consisted largely of homeless people, where I first heard the term “systemic injustice”. That was enough to make me realize I was not at all where I wanted to be in my life – I was materially well-off and isolated from the poor.
    Now I’m still pretty well-off and isolated from the poor, but I’ve gotten married to a girl who feels the same way, and our plan is to move to the ninth ward of New Orleans, where I can get a degree and then teach high school, and she can be a midwife. It still feels hazy at this point, since we may not actually move there until my wife completes her midwifery training, which takes a year – but we’re decided on it.
    When I read this post, I got a bit nervous, since it’s more guilt than anything else that’s motivating me. I’m actually sort of scared I’m going to hate it in New Orleans. But at this point, I’d know I had cheated myself and abandoned my faith if I didn’t go through with it.