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Guilty or Grateful?



"I felt so guilty about being white and privileged," Patti Davis said, talking about her youth. "I felt very guilty about it."

I think her reaction is common, but when I was her age (12, at the time she felt this way), I was faced with the same information but had a totally different reaction. I felt grateful. It would never have occurred to me to feel guilty about something I couldnít help.

But what she said made me think long and hard about why people feel guilty about being white and privileged, and how guilt affects our view of the world and people around us. Pattiís reaction was that she would like to turn herself and her whole family black (this is as a twelve year old thinking, mind you). When I was twelve and my parents told me about all the starving children in China or Africa, I thanked God that I was born and bred in Arkansas in the USA. The last thing I would have wanted to be was black and hungry.

Feeling guilty about being well off is easy to remedy, you know. A rich man came to Jesus one day and asked what he should do to inherit the Kingdom. Jesus told him to go, sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Presto, being rich is remedied that easily. Unburdening oneself of wealth is simple. Unburdening yourself of being white is not so easy.

But why should a person feel guilty about being white, black, Asian, tall, short, male, or female? For that matter, why feel guilty about being well off unless you stole it?

I present for your consideration two sets of feelings:

(1) Guilt.
(2) Gratitude.

Which of these emotions is the most influential in your life? I may be wrong, but I suspect this has a whole lot to do with your happiness. Let me tell you a story.

Paul and Silas had come to the Greek city of Philippi and, there being no synagogue there, they went out to a place where prayer was normally made by the few Jewish women in this town. They stayed and worked with these people, but there was a fly in the ointment. There was a young woman there who was, as Luke puts it, "possessed with a spirit of divination." She followed Paul everywhere he went crying out, "These men are the servants of the most high God, which show unto us the way of salvation."

Paul finally had enough of this, and he turned to her and commanded the spirit to come out of her. It came out promptly. All very good, except for one thing. Her masters had made a lot of money off her fortune telling, and their income had just been radically reduced. To make a long story short, they had Paul and Silas arrested, stripped and beaten. Then they slapped them in the dungeon and made their feet fast in stocks. You can read the whole story in Acts 16:16 ff.

Now how should Paul and Silas feel about this? Guilty? Resentful? Or grateful? They had done nothing wrong, but that doesnít keep you from feeling guilty, does it? We all know what it is like to feel guilty when you havenít done anything. So how did they feel? We are left in no doubt. About midnight, Paul and Silas prayed and began to sing praises to God. All the prisoners heard them. They were probably singing out loud.

About that time there was an earthquake and the whole place was shake. All the prison doors popped open and their stocks broke open releasing them. The prison keeper was awakened by the quake, and when he checked, he found the prison open. He was ready to take his own life, fearing that all the prisoners were gone, when Paul called out and stopped him.

He called for a light, ran into the prison and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. "What must I do to be saved," he asked. As a result, he and his entire household were baptized.

This incident is worth your careful attention. They had been whipped and were in a world of pain. They were bleeding and bruised, and they were locked in stocks in a miserable position. So what was their response? They sang praises to God in the middle of the night from the depths of the prison.

I have an idea that there is something very encouraging and emboldening about being punished for having served God faithfully. They were grateful that they had been accounted worthy to serve God in the first place. Now, they were not only worthy to serve, they were worthy to suffer. (c.f. Acts 5:40-41)

A long time ago, when I was a very young minister, a series of remarkable things happened to me. I found myself deeply troubled by what I called at the time "wrong thoughts." It was a very disturbing thing. I would be trying to pray and thoughts would enter my mind that had no business being there. Mind you, I had spent four years in the Navy and I had all the vocabulary that went with it. But it wasnít just that. It was more. It was like an alien mind trying to take me where I didnít want to go.

I fought that battle and won, but that didnít end the story. About two weeks after the end of the battle, I was out on visitation and a woman told me that she had been fighting a terrible battle with....You guessed it. She called it "wrong thoughts." I was able to encourage her in several ways. One, she was not the only person who had to fight that battle. Two, I was able to tell her how to deal with it. Three, I was able to tell her that the battle could be won.

I went through this cycle with other problems about three or four times before I finally woke up and realized what was going on. How could I possibly understand people who were suffering when I had not suffered myself. How could I tell people how to overcome something when I had not overcome it myself.

Then one day, I found myself in trouble again, and I had an epiphany. I realized that this trouble I was in was necessary for something that lay in the future and that it was important that I overcome it. I had to win for the sake of people I would yet come to know. Sure enough. It wasnít all that far down the road that the same thing happened again.

And so, imperfectly, I have learned to be grateful for every scar on my body. Years ago, while I was in the Navy, I had major surgery and I have a huge scar across my left rib cage. I am grateful for that scar because I know what it is like to lie in a hospital bed in total misery and pain, with tubes coming out of my body, yearning for my next pain pill.

I came to realize that if I was going to be a minister, I had to be trained, and only a part of the training is in the Bible. a lot of the training is in life. I learned some of this from an incident in the life of Paul. Paul said, "It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory." And then he proceeded to tell a story from his own life about great revelations from God that were accompanied by great infirmity. His conclusion: Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)

It is not expedient for me to glory either, so I wonít bore you with more examples. Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that what Paul said is true. When I am weak, then I am strong.

I think all this comes back to the difference between guilt and gratitude. There is a segment of our society who are white and privileged and they feel guilty about it. This is one thing for a 12 year old girl, and another thing altogether for a mature adult. This segment of our society is extremely influential. The reason this is a problem is that these people donít know God, and therefore they canít be grateful for who they are and what they have. They blame themselves for the intractable social problems they see because they are unable to blame sin.

None of this would be such a big deal if they didnít project their own guilt feelings onto the rest of us. They see us as a guilty society and then they set out to solve manís problems without any help from God. And they want to drag the rest of us along with them.

They are the secular privileged class in America, the class that some people mistakenly call liberal. They arenít really liberal. They are merely guilt ridden. They are guilt ridden because they are unable to feel grateful.

We should not let ourselves fall into that temptation. We should learn, as James did, to be grateful, not guilty. He said that a man who wavers in faith is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed. That man should not expect to receive anything from God. The person who wavers probably thinks he doesnít deserve anything. He is guilty, not grateful. (See James 1:2 ff.)

James continued to say, " Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away. For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways."

Why should anyone feel guilty about being privileged? After all, it is just a flower of the grass and it will soon be gone anyway. It is nothing to be proud of or guilty for. James concludes his observations by telling us we should be grateful. We shouldnít just sit around feeling guilty, we should go to work.

That said, the going will not be easy. Jesus said "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12)

Now it is one thing to be grateful for a trial when it is over, and when you can see with your own eyes the blessings wrought by it. It is another thing altogether to be grateful for it while it is going on. Jesus said elsewhere: "Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets." (Luke 6:22-23)

This is not just for then. This is for now. Again and again in the early chapters of Revelation, Jesus said that it was the overcomers, the winners, who would be rewarded. And without obstacles, there is nothing to overcome.

All those who receive these great rewards are winners. They are not necessarily privileged. They are people who were tried in the fire and won. You want to know what it means to overcome? Then you need to read the stories of the people who did. (Hebrews 11:32-40)

These people were not losers. They were not whiners. They were winners all.

They were not guilty. They were grateful.

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