Guiltitude: the Guilt of Having in a World of Sacrificing

by Michèle Phoenix

My pastor got a car.

His van was totaled in a wreck and, just as he and his wife were considering what it would take to finance a new vehicle, someone they know offered them a Volvo.

This past Sunday, he spoke with awe in his voice about the miraculous provision for his family. Then he emphasized that the car was well above their means and added, “I don’t want anyone to see the car and think, ‘Wow, my pastor can afford a Volvo?!’”

I turned to the friend sitting next to me and said, “I hate that he had to say that.” Then I remembered how often I’ve done something similar.

I’ve noticed the syndrome beforeI’ve lived it. And it has reached epidemic proportions in the world of missions. Even among the MKs I serve, I see it embodied every day, inherited from parents who might not have realized the lessons they were teaching.

Guiltitude [noun]

Condition in which guilt overwhelms gratitude—most commonly observed in those who are dependent on charitable giving—aggravated by fear of judgment, often resulting in calculated communication and/or conscience-stricken self-restriction. 

 

CONFESSIONS OF A GUILTITUDER
When I moved back to the States from Europe, I found my elation over God’s provision of my townhouse tempered by strong feelings of guilt.

Though I could document every miracle that had paved the way to my new home, I still struggled with the guilt of “having” when I lived in the ministry-universe of “sacrificing.” 

I wondered if guests would see my flea-market European antiques, bought for $50 but worth hundreds in the US, and question whether they’re appropriate for a missionary’s home. I found myself wanting to explain things by saying, “This was given to me by a friend” and “I bought this for next-to-nothing at a charity store in Alsace” as I gave tours of my two-story miracle.

Even today, nearly ten years later, as I look around this home and see the items contributed by the outrageous generosity of friends, I am assailed again by that uncomfortable combination of paralyzing guilt and galvanizing gratitude.

I live in the land of Guiltitude.

Guiltitude is not a uniquely Phoenix notion either. Though it doesn’t afflict all missionaries, it impacts enough of them to warrant some attention. Its symptoms are wide-ranging:

  • Missionary to Germany relinquishes the old, beat-up Mercedes he was given (for free!) by members of his local church and invests his own funds in buying a less “brand-y” car to avoid looking ostentatious.
  • Missionary to Switzerland, while interacting with his supporting church, avoids speaking of the recent purchase of expensive editing software, though much of his ministry relies on producing music and videos.
  • Missionary family scores $25 plane tickets to fly to Monaco for spring break. They post only a handful of pictures taken in the wealthy Principality, but are sure to thank the discount airline and the person who offered them cheap housing when they do. You know…just in case.

When I lived overseas, I vividly remember talking with a friend who had, for a year, bought virtually no furniture for her home. I asked her if she planned on getting a couch and kitchen table at some point, and she said, “My supporters send me money for ministry, and getting furniture is not ministry!”

Like so many others, she’d bought into something I call Donor Demand. There’s an old-school component to it. We like our missionaries to look deprived and to live without. It adds a certain nobility to the minister’s status and to the giver’s sacrifice. 

You might be amazed at the rigid (and sometimes irrelevant) standards by which the validity of a missionary’s work has been judged. Owning a Mercedes and serving in a beautiful location are just two of the numerous reasons for which devoted financial partners have been known to rethink—and sometimes withdraw—their crucial donations.

Guiltitude can be hard to diagnose, as it often masquerades as responsibility or humility. Its most obvious symptoms are:

  • Fear of having (because true ministers, by some accounts, must live in squalor)
  • Fear of doing (because some activities may be misunderstood as frivolous)
  • Fear of full reporting (because some ministry partners may misread the value and purpose of what is owned and done)

I’ve seen all three reach irrational levels in MKs who grew up in an environment where financial guilt of some sort prevailed. Even their adult relationship to money and ownership can be irreversibly skewed by the toxic influence of Guiltitude.

[Note: it goes without saying that there are instances in which missionaries truly have lived in excessive or dishonorable ways and been rightfully confronted about it.]

In my own life, I’ve found how easy it is for guilt to sneak into a spirit of gratitude. I am so grateful for God’s provision of my every practical, physical and spiritual need since I began in ministry in 1991—and for the donors whose gifts have kept me serving for these twenty-nine years!

That gratitude pushes me every day to be worthy of their sacrifice…but it also contributes to a creeping sense of guilt. How can I invest the funds I receive from supporters, who often give sacrificially, on things that are less than essential? Why should I buy a thrift store buffet or the used car of my dreams when others can make do with cardboard furniture and a 16-year old beater?

 

TREATMENT
I’m afraid I don’t know whether there’s a permanent cure for Guiltitude. Something tells me it’s a chronic disease that lurks in subconscious places. Perhaps a good place to start is for both sides (the servers and the givers) to acknowledge its existence, then treat its symptoms with a healthy dose of truthful assessment. If nothing else, this may at least mitigate Guiltitude’s damage.

May I offer a few additional suggestions? 

Missionaries:

  • Remind yourselves that you are called both to live and to serve. For most humans, living well requires rest, some level of comfort and the occasional escape. It’s okay to enjoy places, things, and activities that are financially responsible. You are not supported just to do a job, and there is growing evidence that self-care leads to greater longevity on the field of service.
  • Report clearly and intentionally, not out of guilt, but out of a desire to accurately inform those who follow your ministry.
  • Surround yourself with a smaller, understanding group of friends with whom you can share parts of your life that you don’t reveal on social media or in letters. This will keep you from feeling like you’re being deceptive. You’re just being selective.
  • Counter irrational disapproval with facts and assert truths that contradict flawed rationales.

Supporters and onlookers:

  • Understand that the occasional treat (activity, trip, unnecessary object) may actually enhance the missionary’s ministry, because it contributes to emotional and physical wellness.
  • Don’t apply to your missionaries restrictions you wouldn’t apply to yourself.
  • A poor, burned out, or suffering missionary is not more godly than a comfortable, healthy, and happy missionary.
  • Remember that the pictures you see only tell part of the story.
  • If you must speak with a missionary about what you think you’re seeing, begin by gently asking questions and truly listening with a compassionate heart.

As I sit today in my modest and comfortable home, surrounded by treasured bits and pieces of my years overseas, I am grateful for three decades of ministry rich in locations, accomplishments, and experiences. I am also aware of the challenges that come with the blessings. My commitment to myself, as I contemplate the opinions of others on what they see of my life, is to thoughtfully consider legitimate causes for concern, to adjust my choices (when appropriate) out of faithfulness to God, and to prayerfully let go of unfounded accusations—even those I inflict on myself. 

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Don’t miss the Pondering Purple podcast, available on all your streaming platforms. In each brief episode, Michèle highlights one of her most popular and helpful articles in a format you can consume on the go.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas

I have cancer.

The first time I said it out loud, I actually had to shout it into my phone. Like shout. As in, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” And since I am anti-exclamation points, let the fact that I just used, like, a bajillion, communicate how loudly I shouted it.

I shouted, “I have cancer,” because I was trying to tell my husband the news.

He is not hard of hearing.

He also was not in the vicinity when Dr. D called.

I was in my car. He was not in the car with me. He wasn’t in the city with me. He wasn’t in the state. He wasn’t on the continent.

See, I got cancer while my husband and I are living on opposite sides of the planet for a season. Don’t worry about us, we’re all good. Going on twenty years of a great marriage. But our twins graduated and sixteen years ago, when we moved to Somalia, I told my husband, “When they graduate, I’m going to spend at least their first semester of college in the US.”

So here we are, sixteen years later.

And apparently, God had a plan for my life. That plan included the superb timing of me getting cancer while living in a country that has the medical prowess to detect and treat it. #miracles

But, ahem, God? What about my husband? One big perk of marriage is having a companion for life’s junk. I don’t like that part of this plan, that part that has him in Djibouti and me in Minnesota, and there is a poor telephone and internet connection and so instead of beating around the bush with something like, “The doctor found papillary thyroid carcinoma,” or, “the test results aren’t exactly awesome,” or even, “They found cancer,” which would imply it was not exactly me, or mine, or inside my body, I had to shout, to be very clear and to make sure he got the message before the internet shut off, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” (again, those darn exclamation points).

Anyway. My point is that this international life is hard and beautiful and amazing and sometimes, it really really stinks. Sometimes it means periods of unwanted and un-chosen separation. It means money spent changing plane tickets at the last minute. It means feeling divided. It means lonely grief. Work and team and home on one side of the ocean. Sick wife or worried husband on the other side.

But there are good things, too, about a cancerous life overseas. #learninggratitude #perspective

There are incredible aspects of the life overseas that truly manifest, to my surprise to be honest, during times of pain, grief, confusion, and sorrow.

Here Community. I have had to learn to ask for help and to accept help when it is offered. Why is this so hard? It shouldn’t be. My ‘here’ community for now is in the US and it is a community I haven’t relied on in physically present ways in a long time. Now, they are bringing me meals and driving me around and dropping off bags of goodies and giving me cash gifts for massages or books(!). The generosity of intimate family and friends, as well as near-strangers is breath-taking.

There Community. We have the incredible privilege of a ‘there’ community, which right now means an internationally located one. Usually, these two communities are reversed. But for now, over there, people are caring for my husband while we are apart. They are bringing him meals and having him over for game nights, celebrating his birthday, and checking in on him. And they are sending messages to me of encouragement. Kindness, compassion, practical care. People abroad know that we are all abroad without our closest families or friends and they step up. Local people and other expats. They move in and hold our fear and grief and it is precious.

Surrounded. I have people praying for me literally all over the world. Which means at all times of the day and night, too. I have people from all manner of faith traditions praying for me. I find this so comforting. I feel it, I feel like the inside of a Twinkie, the creamy middle. I feel weak and squishy and like, if I weren’t surrounded, I’d spread out all over the place in a goopy mess. But the prayers of my Muslim and Christian and Jewish and no-faith people are holding me together, holding me in place. I got a prayer message from a dear Somali friend the other day and nearly cried. This is such a profound and unique gift.

Thankfulness. A lot of thankfulness has to do with perspective. I have so much to be thankful for. Hospitals with no wild animals wandering through them. A knowledgeable well-trained surgeon. Fully stocked pharmacies with medications that are not expired. The timing of this adventure. Clean drinking water. An abundance of nutritious food. Toilets that flush on the first try. Hot showers. Fifteen years in a developing-world country has radically changed my perspective.

Identification. I don’t know what it is like to be a refugee or to see my country decimated by war. I don’t know what it is like to watch my children go hungry or to bury a loved one who left too young. But every bit of pain, when it is not ignored but faced, thins out the dividing lines of race, religion, wealth, politics. Like the Grinch, our hearts can grow three sizes in one day, if we choose empathy. When we make space for our own pain, space opens up, almost magically, to hold the pain of others, too.

Joy. I’m not going to say look at the poor, they’re so happy. But I will say that people who have suffered, and that always includes poor people, can develop reservoirs of joy that the healthy, strong, and powerful will never know. It is a ferocious and subversive joy that refuses to be smothered by loss or pain and because of where we live and who we choose to love, I have seen this with my own eyes. I can draw strength from that example.

What are ways that living abroad while going through trials has brought unique blessing into your life and home?

The Expatriate Balance Sheet

A friend visited me once, coming from a country further east. She brought boxed blueberry muffin mix, Cheerios, and other American brand name goodies. I thought, ‘oh, her life must be wonderful and easy.’ When she left, she packed a few cans of Dr. Pepper and bags of Doritos and thought, with such luxuries at my fingertips, ‘Rachel’s life must be so easy.’

I also read Under the Tuscan Sun, or From Paris to the Moon and I think, well of course they love being an expatriate. They live in Paris. They live in Tuscany. For crying out loud. What are they whining about?! This makes me feel both proud, look where I’ve lived! And sad, look at where I could have lived!

Expatriates easily succumb to this lie that the grass is always greener. This is especially true when there is no grass, like where I live. If you have grass, even dead grass, I guarantee you it is greener than my grass. That small truth aside, believing the euphemistic meaning of the phrase is dangerously easy.

In that country they have movie theaters. In that country they have high speed internet that never cuts out. In that country the temperature is always perfect. In that country women can wear whatever they want. In that country they have access to postal services. They have affordable schools. They have cheaper airplane tickets. They have clearer visa regulations. They speak English. They have churches. Parks. Pork. Playgrounds. Kids’ sports clubs. Grandparents. Quality healthcare. Streets clean of litter.

The list is endless.

Keeping the list is dangerous.

It is all a lie.

I mean, those things are true, some countries or cities do have certain amenities or social communities that others lack. But, where there are no boxes of Cheerios, there just might be Dr. Pepper. Where there are playgrounds, there might not be beaches. Where there are churches, there isn’t your small but precious and intimate house group.

And, dig a little deeper, and the same losses afflict expats people everywhere.

Cancer. Car accidents. Loneliness. Interpersonal conflict. Mysterious fevers. Culture shock. Marital strife. Wayward children. Aging parents. Poor career fits. Weak leadership. Isolation. Depression.

Guess what? A bag of Doritos or a can of soda, aren’t going to take away the pain or ultimately soothe the grief.

At the same time, expats people encounter the same joys.

A baby’s first steps, holiday traditions, meaningful work, heartfelt conversations, the sunrise, a child’s spontaneous act of service, success in a new cross-cultural situation, a delicious meal, college acceptance letters (that one’s for my twins).

There are all the unique-to-your-situation griefs and joys, but the underlying emotions – of satisfaction and love, of sorrow and loss, attend everyone, in every place. Comparing only serves to kill joy or foster envy.

Even if keeping a balance sheet of comparisons is done with the intent of summoning gratitude, it will be a gratitude based on a façade. It won’t last, it won’t carry us. It will likely lead to either pride or self-pity.

Instead of looking at our challenges or losses and saying, ‘This isn’t as bad as her pain so I’m foolish for feeling so sad,’ or, ‘This pain is far worse than their pain, so woe is me,’ we need to grieve. Let yourself feel your own sadness, acknowledge your own losses, name them, and mourn them. They are true and real and a comparison to someone else’s is irrelevant.

And, be thankful for your joys. Rejoice in that one simple new word learned, even if someone else learned twelve. Delight in the satisfaction of the food you are able to creatively summon from near-empty market stalls and don’t feel guilty or inadequate.

A big challenge for expatriates is to learn to grieve and to rejoice without keeping a balance sheet of where things are easier or harder.

Be thankful. Rejoice. Be sad. Grieve. Somehow figure out how to hold them both without looking at the grass on the other side of the fence.

We hold two countries, or more. We can hold these complicated, conflicting emotions.

Do you struggle with comparison to expatriates in other places?

I’m Not Very Good at Gratitude

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I like to think of myself as a content, happy person: my life is good, and I lack for nothing.

At least I used to think I was content and happy. That was before I realized — to my horror — that my prayer journal was filled with lament. Not thankfulness, not appreciation, but lament, through and through.

I have an everyday journal where I like to complain to God — er, pray. And I have an extra-special journal where I record the lyrics to my favorite worship songs. But until this year, I didn’t have a place to chronicle my gratitude.

I thought perhaps this was a problem for me. That maybe it’s one of my incongruous places: a place where my orthodoxy doesn’t match my orthopraxy. A bottle-necked area of my life. A cramped space in my soul that needs expanding.

Like many of you, I’d read about the importance of practicing gratefulness, of writing in a dedicated gratitude journal. Ann does it. Crystal does it. Good heavens, even Oprah does it. So I thought I’d try it.

And you know what I discovered? I’m terrible at it. I couldn’t think of specific things to be thankful for. I kept running into trouble thinking over my day and looking for the blessings. I couldn’t always find good things. All I could see was stress — and that very fact troubled me.

I could think of general things; I’m a very thankful person in the general. I’ve written all about my general love of creation, my general love of Cambodia, my general love of the church, my general love of worshiping, my general love for my husband. And those generic things were the only things I could think of when I started this venture. They are the things I kept recording on the pages of my pretty, pink journal.

Now don’t get me wrong, gratitude in the general is GREAT. But I’d like to inscribe more specifics into that journal of mine. I’d like to flex my gratitude muscles. I’d like to learn how to reflect on my day and see the “patches of Godlight” in it.

And I’m starting to. I’m noticing the little things and memorializing them. I’m seeing the small joys and giving thanks. But I’m a novice, a beginner. I haven’t yet learned gratefulness in the particular.

Then again maybe that’s what the gratitude journal is all about.

Do you struggle with gratitude, either in the particular or in the general?

How do you cultivate contentment in your heart?

What are you thankful for lately?

originally appeared here