The other day, I was sitting down to a scrumptious-looking meal with friends and one person said, "Don't you feel guilty having all this food?" It's a common sentiment I hear, being surrounded by people who are immersed in stories and images of poverty. Guilt seems to be a natural response when we juxtapose our relative wealth with others' relative poverty. But I think guilt is often the wrong response.
Guilt implies we are guilty.
"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life." 1 Timothy 6:17-19
This is an amazing passage. I wish I'd heard more sermons on it. (I can't recall having heard any.) Here, as well as many other places in the Bible, some guidelines are set up for those who are wealthy:
- Don't be snooty about your wealth. ("My home is so much nicer than theirs...")
- Don't put your hope in your money. ("I'll be fine; I have money.")
- Do lots of good things for other people. (And not just yourself.)
- Be generous.
If we sit down to a meal and we suddenly feel guilty because we are stingy, we are snooty, we don't help other people and we never share our money, then, yes, guilt is the right response. We feel guilty because we are guilty.
But if we are following the Bible's guidelines for living with wealth and we still feel guilty, I think it is an unhealthy response based on our lack of understanding of one little phrase sandwiched in the middle of this passage:
"God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment."
God provides for us. God has provided everything good; it didn't spontaneously generate. ("Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." James 1:17) And he doesn't simply provide for survival, he provides for enjoyment.
Food tastes good because God made it taste good. Beaches are beautiful because God made them beautiful. Sex is good because God made it good. But in our earnest desire to not put our hope in our wealth and this world, how often do we throw out the good things God created for our enjoyment with our bad attitudes toward them.
We trade hedonism for ascetism.
God calls no one to hedonism - living only for the pleasures of this world. But he does call some to ascetism - "Jesus looked at him and loved him. 'One thing you lack,' he said. 'Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.' " Mark 10:21)
This fact and our over-active guilt complexes can lead us to believe that any enjoyment of the creation is evil. That wealth itself is evil. It's just not so. Putting your hope in this world is wrong. Enjoying it within the boundaries God has set is sanctioned.
The other day, I was sitting at Starbucks and I overheard a woman discussing with her friend whether she should accept an $85,000 job offer or hold out for $90,000. Being a writer, I'm pretty sure this is one of those tough life choices that I will have the luxury of avoiding. Mike and I have always lived on one income, and that of a writer/editor. So I'm not saying that we should all go buy yachts and sail to Aruba in order to embrace "everything for our enjoyment." (Not that being a Christian necessarily precludes this.)
But I do think that we can each take a little time each day to wonder at and enjoy the beauties of life that God has created and given us. I can bite into a strawberry and marvel at how such a sweet and beautiful thing grows out of the dirt. I cannot worship the strawberry. I can hug my husband and marvel at the sensation of unconditional acceptance that a hand on your back can give you. I cannot worship my husband. I can enjoy making my home comfortable and cozy for my family. But I cannot worship my home.
None of us are called to revel only in the beauties of this world. Some of us may be called to sell everything we own to follow Jesus. But for many of us, we must strike that elusive balance of always putting Christ first while living as flesh and blood in this world in which God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.