Are You Motivated by Good or Guilt?

Donald Miller wonders why we do good things—and why we think sacrifice has to be miserable.

I did an interview today and was asked about how I make decisions regarding helping others. I told the interviewer if I encounter somebody in need but don’t feel like helping them, I usually don’t. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But I explained the reason I don’t is because there are plenty of people I actually do feel like helping. And each of us only has so much time and so many resources, so I can’t choose both.

If I help the people I want to help, I’ll actually follow through, they will sense my sincerity, and the whole experience will be more enjoyable for both of us.

Not only this, but if I help the other person out of a sense of duty, I’m not so much helping them as I’m trying to get rid of my negative feelings of guilt or responsibility. My reasons are marginally selfish: I want to stop feeling guilty.

Are there times when we should do something because we feel guilty? Sure. But I don’t think there are as many as we think. I don’t want to be driven by guilt, I want to be driven by love.

In the work I do, I’m constantly asking people for help. All kinds of help. But my friends help me, I hope, because they like me, because we are friends, and because they believe in the projects I’m working on, not because they feel guilty. I don’t want anybody to help me because they feel guilty.

So, here’s how I choose where to serve, based on trying to serve for the fun of it and the love of it rather than the “ought to” of it.

  1. I try to contribute by offering the kind of help that fits my skill sets, talent and passion. For me, this means either writing advice, blogging advice, marketing help and so on. I could easily go volunteer at my local homeless shelter, but honestly, I’d be much better helping somebody who actually needs my skill and experience and I’d make a much bigger difference in their life. Why wouldn’t I choose to help where I could be the most help?

  2. I normally try to serve people I like and respect. This makes serving easy because you just get to hang out and partner with good people. Helping people you like and respect makes helping fun.

  3. I try to contribute to projects I believe in and want to see succeed. This doesn’t mean the other projects aren’t good for the world, it just means they don’t light me up.  I’m not excited about all sorts of amazing things. I’m excited for the people who are excited about them, but for whatever reason, I’m just not feeling it with them. Why? Because we are all different, and different things light us up. If I’m going to contribute several hours a week to something, I want it to be toward something I can get behind, daydream about and help into existence. I don’t want it to feel like work, I want it to feel like fun.

So, an obvious question you might have is: Where’s the sacrifice?

I’ll answer that question in the form of a question: Why do we assume a sacrifice has to feel negative?

People sometimes comment about this point by saying Jesus made sacrifices in the garden. Specifically, some people say Jesus didn’t want to die on the cross, He did so out of obligation or duty. I disagree with this idea, at least in part.

I believe the reason Jesus didn’t want to be crucified is because He was sane! Nobody in their right mind would want to be crucified. In fact, He asked His Father if He could somehow get out of it. Who could blame Him? But to say He was crucified even though He didn’t want to be crucified is to take the idea too far. He wanted to sacrifice on our behalf, He just didn’t want to feel the torture and the pain. A mother wants to give birth, but she doesn’t want to feel pain either. Still, if you tell her it’s going to hurt terribly, she’s not going to back out of it, she wants to have the baby. A dad wakes up and takes care of his crying child, even though he doesn’t want to get out of bed. Are they doing these things out of a sense of duty or obligation? Hopefully not. Hopefully they are making sacrifices because they want to.

God does the loving thing all the time, even when the loving thing will bring Him pain, pain He’d rather avoid. And He does the loving thing because He wants to, because He loves His creation, and because He is love. God is not motivated by guilt, shame or even a sense of duty. He is only motivated by love.

Jesus isn’t in an army, He’s in a family. He’s in a trinitarian relationship in which each member loves the other. They’re not raising the trinitarian flag every morning and saying a pledge, they just love each other. Love is the only motivation God has for anything He does, including acts of justice.

So what does this have to do with you? A lot. I think doing things because we want to, out of a loving motivation, is better than doing things out of a sense of duty. In fact, I think dutiful motivations are closely akin to pride, while loving motivations are not.

I know I’ve just lost half of you. But stick with me and think about these ideas. Answer a few questions for me in your mind:

Do you do acts of kindness out of a sense of duty, or out of a sense of enjoyment and love? Do you do acts of kindness to be right, or because you enjoy doing them and are motivated by love? And here’s an even tougher question: Do you enjoy the sacrifices you make for others? And would it be harder to call those sacrifices sacrifices if you genuinely enjoyed the work? Are you getting some kind of martyr complex by doing stuff you don’t want to do? Does it make you proud that you made such a sacrifice? And if you are getting a sense of pride for your sacrifice, is it really a sacrifice by your definition? After all, you’re kind of getting paid for it …

If you asked your dad why he sacrifices so much for you, which answer would be more affirming: an answer in which he stated it was his duty as a father, or an answer in which he just said, “Because I love you.” Which answer seems more selfless?

And let me ask you a final question. Think about it for a while, maybe for a few days. Can you imagine a life in which you were no longer motivated by guilt, shame or a sense of duty? Can you imagine a life in which you served God out of love and enjoyment and even fun? Would you feel OK with God if you were actually happy? If not, I want to suggest you’ve fallen into a religious kind of trap that may be far removed from the joy of loving and knowing and serving God.

If you’d like a more joyful life, start serving in the ways God has gifted you to serve, and cut out all the duty and obligation and pride crap. If you are teaching Sunday school out of a sense of obligation, stop. Literally stop as soon as you can. Instead, find something that gets you fired up. Who knows what that something is—maybe it’s plumbing or carpentry work, maybe it’s counseling executives, maybe it’s walking people’s dogs or planting a community garden. Who knows, but serve in a way God has wired you to serve. He actually wants you to enjoy it, not offer it to Him as some sort of sad sacrifice. Can you imagine your earthly father wanting you to be miserable all the time? Why do we imagine God would be so dysfunctional and, well, mean?

Make the kinds of sacrifices that you LOVE to make. In other words, be like God.

Donald Miller is the author of Blue Like Jazz (Nelson) and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (Nelson). This article originally appeared on his blog and is used by permission.

48 Comments

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Jessilane commented…

If we only used our skill sets as a primary factor in what

What kind of special "skill" does it take to hand out food with a smile to people who need it? If we only used our skill set and our "feelings" as primary factors in how we help others, there might be many people who don't get the help they need. I see his point of not volunteering just to rid himself of guilty feelings, but all too often his way of thinking can turn into excuses not to assist those in need when we have the ability to do so. Maybe it's not that we need to say 'yes' or 'no' to things to feel less guilty, but we need to open our hearts and love people more. Proverbs 3:27

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anonymous commented…

There are leaders of some countries that only help those they love to help (such as their close family members) while the rest of the country lives in poverty. I think guilt should be knocking on a lot of people's doors (especially in the USA). I think this article skips over the assumption that people are not going to be naturally inclined to love to sacrifice.. anything. That motivation to love the unloveable (or even something outside of our comfort zones) has to transform a whole lot of us before we can ever hope to be at the level of the author of this piece. Sacrifice is hard at first. Or perhaps something else is going on here: If the author of this piece wants to justify a non-difficult experience as a sacrifice, I think he's probably still motivated by guilt in writing this piece... trying to rationalize his life of non-challenge as fulfilling enough. Regardless... thanks for a thought-provoking article. :)

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Chris Van Allsburg commented…

10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty."~Jesus, in talking to his disciples about service in the kingdom of God.

Miller is correct in that we should use our gifts that God has given us to the betterment of His kingdom (though he doesn't mentions God's gifting, calling or kingdom, and not too many here have cited one bit of Scripture--odd).

But Miller misses the boat in communicating the idea that a sense of duty should be eschewed. That's not what Jesus said. Sometimes service in the kingdom of God is hard, like working with widows and orphans.

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Chris Van Allsburg commented…

and maybe we should not pay attention to our motives anyway. Does the Bible every tell us to? Just do good, and the emotions will follow. I don't wait until I "feel like" doing something nice for my wife. I just do it, because it's my duty to do so, and because I love her. The emotional reward of joy in doing one's duty comes afterward sometimes.

Forget your motives. Just do good.

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Anonymous commented…

This article offers a 'bottom up' view of serving and sacrifice. Miller
asserts that we should look around at others, assess our circumstances,
likes, wants and desires (bottom) and then act on these in according
with our generic call from God to serve (top).

I wholeheartedly believe that we need to view everything in life from
the 'top down'. God calls us to many, MANY things that our mortal, human
heart could never process as good, desirable or even worthy of our
time. However, He still wants us to do those things.

I totally agree that God wants us to enjoy life. But who do we trust to
provide that joy? Our assessment of our own skills & hobbies? Or
God's specific callings to specific ministries and areas of service?

Miller spends at least 80% of the article focusing on OUR 'feelings' and
OUR wants and OUR needs. The Bible spends all of it's time talking
about how GOD can fulfill those, as long as we pursue HIS calling for
our life.

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