December 04, 2017
by Tom Locke, TMF President
My dear friend Bill Enright introduced me to the idea of “comfortable guilt,” a term originally coined by Patricia Snell Herzog, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Arkansas. Dr. Herzog explains that comfortable guilt is not selfishness; it is the phenomenon of comfort with the gap between what money we give compared to what we think that we should give.
Bill is the former Senior Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, and later, the founding Director of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He now serves there as Senior Fellow.
Bill’s newly published book, Kitchen Table Giving, explores the intersections of faith, money and giving. It was during our exchange of ideas about his book and its concepts that Bill and I began discussing this notion of “comfortable guilt” and how many people know they can give more but opt to give “just enough” in order to assuage their guilt, i.e., comfortable guilt.
My guess is that many of us not only determine our financial giving by this unfortunate standard, but also generally live our lives by this principle. Offering just a few everyday examples, we realize, deep down, that we could be more compassionate to others, so we give spare cash to the homeless to keep from feeling too guilty about our deficiency. Or we know we could be more environmentally responsible, so we recycle, most of the time, to keep from feeling too guilty when we allow the water to run too long.
In general, we stay aligned with what we know God to be asking of us just enough to not feel too guilty about our shortcomings. Comfortable guilt . . .
How do we align ourselves with the difference God intends for us to make rather than succumbing to the inclination to be and do “just enough,” to be safe, to bury what we’ve been given? Because while doing “just enough” may safely appease our guilt, it also prevents us from ever really experiencing the deep joy of investing in God’s expansive purposes.
At TMF, we believe that we are all called to steward potential, both our own and that of those around us. God has an imagination for our world at its best, and within that imagination lies our potential as individuals and collectively, as God’s church. Because stewarding potential is at direct odds with comfortable guilt.
Stewarding potential is striving to reach our highest, while recognizing and celebrating the abundance that is all around us. Comfortable guilt is reaching only as high as we absolutely must, while living in a perpetual state of scarcity and protecting what we have.
As people of faith, is there anything about which we can afford to be comfortable – as individuals, a foundation, congregations, organizations, or a denomination? Given God’s investment in us and in our world, can we do anything less than continually working to do better tomorrow than we did today?
When we reach a state of pursuing our potential, we may be uncomfortable. Embrace the uncomfortable and see where that takes you.