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Motivations To Help


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I visited with a man I did not know at church today. He said that our "homeless prevention programs are nice, but they kind of seem enabling. But, it probably helps assuage the guilt." When I questioned him further, he suggested that the reason why we try to help those less fortunate is to keep ourselves from feeling guilty.

 

I told him that I thought the motivation was to glorify God, to follow the teachings of Jesus, rather than to avoid feeling guilty. I said that I thought Jesus was the master at being able to determine people's deepest motivations, because it is often difficult to tell why someone is doing something.

 

Do the rest of you relate to the idea that avoiding guilt feelings is a motivation for outreach? I'm sometimes on the lunatic fringe and it's not the first time I have heard the idea that there is a self-interest in something I see as altruism.

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Janet,

 

The only way I know how to give you a valid answer is to tell you that in the past there have been circumstances where my conscious motivation for an act was out of guilt. Therefore , I would say that of course it is possible to have ones motivation for an outreach coming out of guilt but it is also possible for it to come out of love so each has to examine his own motives. I find that that which comes from love is natural and spontaneous and doesn't require a lot of thinking or fanfare.

 

Just my view,

Joseph

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Hi Janet,

 

For me it depends from where the guilt comes. Do I feel guilt because I am inherently sinful and therefore wish to do good deeds for no other reason than to asuage that guilt and secure a place in heaven? No. Do I feel guilt that I am in a comfortable position whereas the person I am confronted with is homeless and my comfort gives me guilt in comparison? A little. Do I feel guilt that I so rarely live up to the example of Jesus and the two thousand odd scriptures that tell us to help the poor? Absolutely! I would feel fine with giving from the last type of guilt, but the first is not a part of my theology at all.

 

Adi

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Janet,

 

I wouldn’t let this thought worry you, but I would suggest that volunteer work “to glorify God” sounds a bit too impersonal. The best kind of charity is that which builds up people’s self worth from within, rather than making them feel more dependent. As Henri Nouwen said, the basis for all social activism must be the sense of solidarity, the common sharing of the human condition. He said caring meant “offering one’s own vulnerable self to others as a source of healing. To be present with each other as mortal, fragile human beings who need to be heard and sustained by one another… what a blessing it is when we do not have to live our grief and pain alone.”

 

From An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin: “The old style of compassion meant helping others in order to clear one’s conscience; the new style means discovering others as individuals, exchanging understanding with them. For the only acceptable compassion in a world which regards all as of equal dignity is that all must feel they are contributing something.”

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Janet,

 

I consider myself "progressive" in terms of my politics as well as my theology, so I don't think guilt is why assisting the homeless is necessary. I was also put off by the person's use of the term "enabling." It reminds me of comments to the effect that public assistance "robs people of their incentive" and is therefore counterproductive. I find all such comments offensive. My notion of Christianity is that we are called to do what we can to support the powerless and to challenge the power relationships in our society and world to the end that they are more equitable. If one wants to call that "glorifying God" it's ok with me, though I wouldn't use that particular term myself.

 

Don

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These are just a few amateur thoughts about the matter:

I’m sure some/many, but not all, of our good deeds may be motivated by some sense of guilt. But some/many of our actions may also be motivated by other impulses, as Joseph mentions - by a simple and spontaneous joy of giving of oneself, by pure altruistic love, etc.

 

But let us return to guilt. I don't think it's enough to conclude that actions done because of guilt are ultimately merely self-serving. I suppose it does depend on the individual and the context, but we have to ask, What is guilt?, and Why do we have it?

 

If we are feeling guilty for withholding something from somebody less fortunate, then by definition aren’t we being aware of the other person and concerned about his or her welfare? Isn’t that compassion? Aren't we 'making room' for the other person in our hearts? Instead of entrapping ourselves in our definitions, I'd ask what does this sense of guilt actually tell us about ourselves? What would it tell us about ourselves if we had no guilt at all?

 

If we see compassion as making room for the other person, then to me guilt is a valid reason (yet perhaps theoretically or theologically not the noblest reason)- a pang of conscience when we have made room only for ourselves. If in some sense it is in the interest of self, perhaps it is in the interest of our true and whole Self, because if we know no compassion and have only room for our own little self - the ego - then we’re actually very incomplete and aren't functioning very wholly; we aren’t being True, we’re denying the reality of what it means to be human, the meaning of life. All this is probably too theoretical, but perhaps in some sense a pang of guilt is the sense or awareness of being cut off or estranged from this, from what in reality ought to be. This is what it means to me to do something for the sake of God, for the sake of Truth.

 

Hopefully that made some sense, I'm not even sure myself. Anyway...

 

Peace to you,

Mike

Edited by Mike
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I agree pretty much with what has been said by others on this subject, but I would perhaps put it differently. We are called by God to respond to God's demands for social and economic justiced and for peace. That is why we do the things we do. I don't think guilt has much to do with it.

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I think in one sense people do give to others because we don't want to feel guilty but it's in the same sense that we don't go around murdering people because we don't want to be guilty and go to jail for it. I don't think it's wrong to give out of guilt in itself if you turn your guilt into responsiblity because I think us not wanting to feel guilty is simply a part of human nature. I think it only becomes a problem when your only concern is to self-serve your own conscious instead of using your guilt as a motivation to make this life a better place. It's what we do with our guilt that matters I think, rather than whether you had it or not if I'm making sense here, but I fail to see how feeling guilty enables poverty. It's sort of like why you don't cheat on a test even if you can get away with it later because your concious will make you feel guilty later but that doesn't mean your feeling guilty for having cheated on something somehow enables other cheaters but rather you use your feeling of guilt to study harder next time so you won't cheat anymore.

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