Generosity, not guilt
“I know there are many poor in the world, but I worked hard to be financially stable. Do I have to feel guilty about enjoying the good things in life?” P. V.
By Msgr. Michael Magee
The first time the word “good” is used in Scripture (Genesis 1:4 and then several more times in the same first chapter of the Bible) it is the word used to describe everything that God had created. Goodness is his fingerprint in creation.
So taking delight in good things is actually a way of praising God for what he has done. Early in the Christian era, St. Paul even criticized certain people for erroneously teaching others not to enjoy good things that God had created for them, saying, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected when received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4).
So the first part of my answer to this question is “No, you don’t have to feel guilty for enjoying the good things in life. Good things are created by God precisely to be enjoyed!”
On the other hand, our lives can sometimes be complicated and weighed down by our failure to distinguish what is truly good from what only seems good at the moment. It is even possible that our choices among several good things are so disordered that we hurt ourselves and others by the imbalances that we create.
Some things, such as good food and drink, are only good when we use them in moderation. Other things, such as salacious or violent entertainment, may seem to be attractive at the moment but may be bad for us, and perhaps even for others.
Or perhaps I might forget that the love that flows between me and God, my family and my neighbors is actually the greatest good and the most profoundly fulfilling thing to be enjoyed this side of heaven. If I neglect them while accumulating or hoarding more good things than I really need, I might indeed be making bad choices even about things that are good in themselves.
Should I feel guilty, then? Only if and when I have made bad choices — choosing bad things instead of good, or choosing excess rather than fulfillment, or neglecting greater goods while seeking lesser ones.
But even then, it is not guilt that will lead me to make good decisions; only love will do that. Guilt is only a signpost telling me I should change directions; love, lived in concrete choices for God and others, is the better roadmap to real happiness, both in this world and in the next.
When someone has worked diligently while saving and investing prudently, the resulting freedom from financial anxiety and the ability now to enjoy good things are the natural result of that diligence and prudence. These benefits should not give rise to any guilt at all.
But they do give rise to new questions focusing on new responsibilities than can be undertaken prayerfully and even joyfully. What can I do with my earned resources that will achieve the most good — both for me and for others? Might I utilize some of my wealth in economic activity that will provide jobs or other benefits to others? What part of my earnings should I consider to be in excess of my true needs so that I can “invest” it in works of charity that will actually be far more deeply satisfying than the accumulation of more “stuff”?
There is indeed a great and very conspicuous imbalance in the world today in the distribution of wealth. Some in the world have undeniably amassed enormous wealth even while exploiting others who live at subsistence levels.
Some are poor because of the circumstances. Some, on the other hand, are poor as a result of their choices. There are many differing opinions about the kinds of political and economic systems that would be most effective in seeking to equalize these imbalances. But it would be misguided to think that the problem will ever be solved by focusing only on that macro level. Ultimately, the imbalances in whole societies and in the world are the cumulative result of imbalances in the daily decisions of individuals.
The most effective thing any one of us can do is to examine our own daily decisions to ensure that they are not contributing to the imbalance. Then we should resolve that our ongoing decisions about financial resources will be guided not by greed, nor even by guilt, but by love, lived out in concrete deeds. Anyone who can honestly say that he or she is making daily decisions in that way should have no reason to feel guilty.
Msgr. Magee, a professor at St. Charles Borromeo seminary,
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