By Doug Inglish

Guilt is a terrible motivator.

I don’t mean that it is not effective, or that it has no place in our lives. That feeling that I have done something wrong motivates me to reflect, to change course, to apologize and make restitution if necessary, and to have a more satisfying life afterward. It is a gift from God that we are able to feel guilt.

But the motivation that comes from the internal guilt we feel is a very different thing to the guilt that others try to use to motivate us. We may be shamed into action, but that may be more the result of attempting to relieve social pressure than it is the desire to live righteously.

I think that’s why Paul said that God loves cheerful givers (2 Corinthians 9:7). Of course He loves everyone, but obviously some things motivate God toward loving us more than other things. Same goes with your kids, or even your pets. I love my dog, but I am far more aware of my love when we are playing fetch than when she chews up something I need.

If you got a nice birthday gift from someone who said, with obvious sincerity, “I felt like I had to get you something, and this was on sale, so whatever,” would you cherish the gift? It might have been just what you wanted, but the fact that they bought it out of guilt kind of ruins it. How much more pleasant to get a simple, “Happy Birthday!” from a loved one who really means it.

So yes, God loves you. When you set up an automatic withdrawal for tithe just to avoid feeling guilt, or drop a couple bucks in the plate just so no one will notice you letting it pass, He still loves you. But the truth is, you won’t feel any better about yourself, because you’re not giving cheerfully.

On the other hand, when you are filled with gratitude for your blessings; when you have learned to be content with what you have; when you are stirred to support a mission because you want it to be successful; when you truly internalize the reality that you can’t out-give the Lord; when your gift comes with all that positive emotion behind it, the very act of giving makes you cheerful. When that happens, all heaven sits up and takes notice, and God says, “There! That’s it! That is how I want you to feel! I’m happy because you are cheerful, and I love it when you feel good about doing the right thing!”

I have listened to stewardship sermons that really hit the mark for me. As the speaker talked about blessings that, having been un- locked by our generosity, flow from God like rain in a storm, I’ve thought about how my own experiences confirmed the message. Then walking out of the church, I have overheard someone who listened to the same message grumble, “Well, got my guilt trip for the day.” I don’t doubt that they did, just as the Pharisees got a guilt trip when they listened to Jesus talk about how their extreme faithfulness in tithe didn’t make up for their lack of mercy (Matthew 23:23).

But I don’t think that Jesus was out to lay a guilt trip on them. I believe His message was meant to point out that the way they were giving wasn’t making them cheerful. If they had been practicing justice and mercy and faith, they would have felt a lot better about their own lives. They would have understood that the giving of tithes is a way to spread justice and mercy and faith even further.

So, back to my original point: guilt is a terrible motivator. It has a role to play in our lives, but it isn’t meant as a tool to manipulate people. Nevertheless, if we haven’t learned how to be cheerful givers, even a sermon from Jesus on stewardship sounds like a guilt trip.

It’s true that sometimes well-meaning speakers use guilt as a motivation. We’re all human, all learning, all making mistakes. But when you hear a sermon or an offering appeal that sounds like a guilt trip, remember two things: first, nobody can guilt you into something you are already doing cheerfully, so don’t take offense if they try. And second, if you do feel some guilt, maybe that’s because an adjustment in action or attitude is needed so that you can say, “I can bring joy to my Heavenly Father by being cheerful.”

–Doug Inglish is RMC director of planned giving and trust services. Email him at: [email protected]