Gifts versus Guilt Trips

What’s the difference?

A few months ago, I was driving home from work on a pleasant afternoon, having just finished my morning shift at work. I had just gotten some groceries, and had purchased a bottled ice tea for myself to enjoy as I went about the rest of my day. I was almost home, and took the exit ramp off the free-way up to my house. And there, at the ramp, was a homeless man holding a battered cardboard sign with an entreaty written on it in black permanent marker. Among the normal things such signs said, this one said the man was hungry and the script was asking for food.

I felt a pang – (I often felt a pang when encountering people holding these desperate signs, but this one was more intense.) All at once I felt moved to compassion, I felt compulsion, I felt guilt, and I felt a strong urging by God to do something. I had never experienced an emotion so strong before regarding one of those poor homeless people. But I certainly did now. I never carry any cash on me – I guess you could say I’m of the modern generation who believes strongly in the power of the debit card. And I had been trained never to give cash, because goodness knows they might use it for drugs or cigarettes! But this man said he was hungry.

So with a strong sense of calling, I turned right up my hill and ran straight into my house, filled a bag up with cranberries and peanuts (one of my favorite snacks) and grabbed the bottle of iced tea I had just bought and got back in my car and drove back down to the ramp, parking at a little gas station across the street. I gave them to the man. He was very grateful. And I felt rewarded, knowing that the man wouldn’t go hungry for at least another six hours or so. (The bag was very full.)

But what did I learn that day? Are my reasons for giving food to a hungry man healthy emotions? They certainly are natural. Most people feel them. But why do we feel them? Why do we feel compelled? Why do we feel guilt? Is guilt the right response?

Some consider charity to be primarily a Christian response, and yet an atheist walking down the street will often feel compelled to hand the stranger a few bucks. Why is that? What is it about the condition of man that concerns us so? Why do we feel the need to give of ourselves to those who are helpless, even if we sometimes ignore the urge to do something, or heartlessly turn away with selfish desires? Is there an innate compassion embedded deep within us that longs to do our Master’s bidding; that longs to love as Christ loves? Many people would say that their deepest satisfaction in life comes out of giving themselves to others. That is fascinating to me. And wonderful. We are not apes – we do not live for ourselves. We relate to others, we care for others, (even when we think we don’t), and we consider our fellow men and women to be our equals.

So the homeless man I met became me, I saw him as one of my own, and I felt a responsibility and a desire to give what I had to someone who needed sustenance and encouragement. That doesn’t make me a hero. I didn’t feel good about myself after I had done so. But I did feel a satisfaction knowing that I had helped one of my own – that I had given the tiniest fraction of what I had to help him. That is our calling; to give, and to love. To give is to love, to love is to give. Molding our desires to love will form our compulsion into one of gift-giving, and not guilt-tripping. As Christ says in the Gospel of John, “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in my love… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” While there are many mottos and phrases that, to us, define our purpose, that one, I think, is one to live by.

Reposted from the Mercy’s Gate blog.

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