At several points in What Is the Mission of the Church? Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert go after guilt-oriented motivations for doing good in the world. I completely agree with them on this note.
My family and I were recently part of a ministry effort on behalf of the poor in our city that was preceded by a presentation playing upon guilt and sentiment. This is short-sighted, ultimately destructive, and isn’t how Scripture motivates.
As DeYoung and Gilbert indicate, being motivated by guilt and sentiment leads to strategies that perpetuate poverty and injustice. If we seek to help others motivated by guilt or emotion, we will typically seek to pacify our own immediate feelings rather than seek to do what’s in the long-term best interest of others.
Doing good that ultimately helps is something radically different. It requires incarnational love and boldness to get involved personally with difficult situations. It may also take long periods of time to build trust and establish healthy relationships of mutuality. Further, most ministry situations will require that we relate from our weaknesses rather than our strengths. That can be very disorienting.
Perhaps most difficult—and why guilt and sentiment hinder rather than help—doing good challenges us to discern when and how to act in ways that benefit others in the long run. We may have to fight our impulses and resist the manipulations of others in the interests of avoiding doing immediate and long-term damage.
Beyond all this, Scripture doesn’t motivate service to the poor and needy out of guilt. Solidarity with the suffering and service to the poor and needy are motivated eschatologically and sacramentally. That is, we are motivated by a future-orientation toward the day of Christ and by an awareness of where we have access to the life-giving and sustaining presence of Jesus.
We could look at a number of texts, but I’ll just point to John 12:25-26:
Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
If you grasp too tightly to stuff and give yourself to lustful accumulation, you will lose your life. But if you let it go in service to Jesus, you will honored by God himself! That’s the eschatological orientation.
But Jesus goes on to say that “whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.”
Where is Jesus? Read the Gospels. Where is he?
Jesus spent his days on earth with the poor, the outcast, the shamed woman in the Samaritan village, the despised and traitorous Zaccheus, the single mother from the red-light district in Syro-Phoenicia. Jesus goes on to say in John 15 that when we serve others we are sustained by Jesus’ own joy. There’s a “sacramental” character to serving those in need. That is, those actions and patterns of life are encounters on earth with the very presence of Jesus.
We serve others, especially those in need, because that’s a pattern of life that is sustained by the life-giving and joy-generating presence of Jesus. And we serve because that’s the mode of life that has its end in exaltation with Jesus himself at the final day.
I agree with DeYoung and Gilbert that there’s nothing life-giving about acting out of guilt or sentiment. Christian leaders would do well to cultivate language that expresses these motivations, shaping the imagination of God’s people to serve the world joyfully in the name of Jesus.