Struggling with Guilt in the Face of Poverty

Struggling with Guilt in the Face of Poverty

I was in Wal-Mart shortly after getting married, shopping for household necessities. I’d bypassed the paper goods section, as I never buy napkins or paper towels, but found myself staring blankly at the row of trash bags. I couldn’t bring myself to put the trash bags in the cart, the internal guilt was overpowering, “You don’t need trash bags,” I kept repeating in my head until I was so disordered, I turned and walked away.

Mongolia was an impoverished country when I moved there and I imagine it still is in many ways. Food was scarce and we often ate expired foods, even going so far as to pick out the mouse droppings from our flour because it was what we had and there were no other options. Stores and restaurants were often open, yet they carried no food, only flat Pepsi and Russian Vodka. For snacks we would mix barley flour and hot water, topped with sugar or simply added some powdered milk to a can of sweet and condensed milk, making a thick and sweet dessert. It was a normal experience for our tongues to swell with sores from malnutrition and vitamin deficiency.

This poverty taught me that humanity could live off little and still survive. It also taught me, however, to carry guilt over any purchase or perceived luxury I might experience in its face.

I spend emotional energy feeling guilty that I have a refrigerator, AC units and enough food. In Southeast Asia I’d hide things I owned so ‘they wouldn’t feel bad.’ I wouldn’t be wasteful by using too much dish soap or buying a new shirt just because I’d like one. I’d feel guilt at the most random things and it has hurt me.

I don’t buy beautiful things because I feel guilty. I don’t buy everything I need at the grocery store because I feel guilty. I don’t buy shoes because I feel guilty. I don’t enjoy food because I feel guilty.

Honestly, when Paul talks about being content in both abundance and need, I can’t relate. God could pour out an abundance of security on me and I wouldn’t know what to do with it. At this point in my journey I wouldn’t even be able to enjoy it. It would feel wrong. I would feel as though I was sinning by having enough.

It’s a funny thing how exposure to poverty can be a two sided coin. On one hand I can relate to and connect with and humanize those who experience such impoverished conditions. I can see the faces of my friends; I know their pain and their struggle to survive. Yet, the guilt of leaving, of having a way out of poverty, carries on with me. 

I was a young teen when this guilt began in me. I can remember the thoughts. I can remember the feeling in my chest when I differentiated my own poverty from those around me. I knew I would leave this place, whereas my friends, those that I loved, would remain.

I have lived my life in such a state of intensity, from childhood to college re-entry, to 4 babies in 3 years, support raising, moving back overseas and now returning ‘home’ that anything less then chaos is scary. Anything enjoyable I experience for the sake of being enjoyable carries an anxiety with it, like I’m going to get in trouble with God. Or that I am betraying those I left behind.

So, chaos, need, sacrifice and pain have become my norm. Maybe it’s a type of self-flagellation nested in the belief that I am not worthy of God’s good, peace or security. Is it any wonder I struggle with depression?

This struggle with guilt is real but I yearn to be open to receiving gifts of God as he sees fit to give. I want to enjoy what he deems enjoyable and I want to lean into his chest, hear his heartbeat and trust that he is working out a beautiful plan of reconciliation in the world. Yet the guilt holds me back. The shame I carry when I experience good things keeps me from diving head first into God. But I know he’s there, waiting for me, and I know that I am getting closer. I can feel it. I can feel the transformation of my own heart and in that, I have peace. 

How do you handle feelings of guilt in the face of poverty?


  1. Patty October 20, 2019

    Thank you. Emotionally I think I have been all over the board since returning from Latin America. In my mind I see people hungry and struggling to make ends meet. Young moms trying to feed their kids. Churches reaching out to street kids by providing them some form of education. I rarely go into Walmart for this very reason. There is so much abundance and yet so many are hungry and struggling. Maybe it is guilt for me too. Depression possibly. I hear middle school kids complain daily about wanting more and tell me they are entitled. Then I see little David, Joel, Nana, Xavier, Sabdi, and the many other children in my head. I see Anna and Karol and wonder where they are tonight. Did they find food in the trash can on the street or did the homeless man beat them to it. Trash bags only remind of them. Cookies remind me of the many kids who came to VBS because they knew they would have drink and cookie for that day. I see my young friend who 4 kids crying over the bag of rice and beans I brought her. As I explain Thanksgiving to her, she is thankful her kids can eat that night.

    1. Joy Smalley October 21, 2019

      It is so hard to reconcile the two worlds, isn’t it Patty?

  2. Kara October 21, 2019

    Your post makes me want to read much more about your story!

    My own experiences are so much less intense, yet I know living in a very mixed income environment in Russia has been good for me. Examining how much we really ‘need’ is different when we observe norms of communal apartments or 3 generations in a one bedroom apartment. Gardening with my neighbor who survived the Blockade of Leningrad teaches me how to reuse everything!

    In my opinion, it is a blessing to have these middle-class-white-American blinders removed. I am so grateful to study the Bible with those of different cultures, both in the US and outside, which has shown me how much God speaks to the poor, and about the dangers of being rich.

    I’m not sure how much I deal with guilt. For me it is a needed and healthy awareness of my privileges and undeserved blessings. Many small things have changed in how I give and interact with those in financial need, but I know there is so much more I could do to give and serve, out of my abundance and choices.

    1. Joy Smalley October 21, 2019

      Totally, Kara, I agree. There is great value in removing the blinders of ‘wealth’ and relearning what it means to ‘need’ and being exposed to many beautiful human attributes and ingenuity that are otherwise untapped.

  3. Emily Jackson October 21, 2019

    I struggle with this, too, though the specifics of our backgrounds are different. It feels extravagant and wasteful to go back to things that are considered normal (even frugal?) in the U.S. And yet, there’s a lot of relief and comfort in those normal American things. I have a mental back-and-forth: Shouldn’t I be content with just having basic needs met? But isn’t is also okay to enjoy the good gifts that God gives?

    1. Joy Smalley October 21, 2019

      Totally, Emily, that mental back and forth! I relate completely.

  4. Emmy October 21, 2019

    I feel so many of these emotions right along with you, Joy! The guilt of having anything of value… I think this is a common plague among a lot of us. I have noticed our tendency to explain how nice or expensive things were paid for when others mention them. “We’re taking this vacation using miles and points!” “I bought these shoes at a garage sale!” Honestly, I think these justifications are just as much me trying to explain to myself that maybe I shouldn’t feel so much guilt as they are to keep other people from thinking I’m extravagant. You’re right; God’s gifts are good! The struggle is convincing my heart that it’s ok to be thankful rather than guilt ridden. Thanks for this beautiful post!

    1. Joy Smalley October 21, 2019

      I just did that last week, Emmy, with a basketball hoop I got for free. I totally tried to justify our having it. It’s interesting because, instead of being grateful to God that he provided a hoop for my son for free, I was more concerned about justifying it. In any case, I relate to what you’ve said.

  5. Beth October 21, 2019

    Your vulnerability and realness of your words speak volumes. The inner debate is fierce. We live in Nicaragua and I too struggle… then feel guilty for not sacrificing enough. What is enough? One day at a time.

    1. Joy Smalley October 21, 2019

      Yeah, Beth, I can take myself down a rabbit hole with that question, ‘what is enough?’ Thank you for the reminder to take life one day at a time. Blessings.

  6. Elena October 21, 2019

    Having been raised on the mission field, and now as I am still in traditional missions, I can certainly relate. In my case my husband helped me a lot in moving past the guilt. I learned to get over those thought patterns of “What will others think?” and came to gradually understand that it’s okay to have things that others don’t. But the journey was–and still is–long. I still draw a deep breath when others comment on how nice our car is…and wonder if I should explain about the designated offering that made it possible. So yes, the struggle goes on. Thank you for being open with your journey in this.

    1. Joy Smalley October 28, 2019

      Hi Elena. The struggles are so real and it continues on well after childhood. I find that just when I think I’ve got a handle on it, I’m back at justifying and wallowing in the guilt. Blessings to you in your journey!

  7. Kristin October 22, 2019

    I resonate with this so much… I find myself feeling guilty all the time for what I have and choose to buy or spend money on (travel, private school for my kids) on a daily, or even hour to hour basis. It can be so crippling. I am trying to lean into noticing my mental judgment of myself, of others, and of God, and ask the Lord to lead me into healing and seeing with His eyes. Thank you for sharing your heart. It helps to know that I’m not alone. 🙂

    1. Joy Smalley October 28, 2019

      Hi Kristin. The guilt is so crippling! I like that you chose that word because it defines how I feel much of the time too. Blessings to you.

  8. Amber Thiessen October 24, 2019

    For me, I noticed the guilt worse on re-entry. We were immersed in our rural african culture that upon return to North America, “stuff” was overwhelming. It was easy to judge and become indignant to wealth of America. We had amazing mentors who made us aware of this common struggle, and that awareness helped us in the moments when we noticed ourselves shift towards anger. We slowly began to resolve that we could only focus on our own responsibility. That the way one culture functions, with what they have (or don’t have) cannot be the same somewhere else. The privilege of access to healthcare, the education of a population about common medications, etc were found here, but I could do my part in africa in treating and educating those around me. I can lead our family towards responsible living and gratitude for what we have, trusting that God is watching over His creation and using us as vessels of a greater hope. Not a hope in wealth and stuff, but of the goodness of the Gospel.

    1. Joy Smalley October 28, 2019

      Amber, I love what you said about leading your family in responsible living and gratitude. I like the idea of those two things balanced out in life. I also appreciate your photo 🙂 Blessings to you.

  9. Jennifer Henn October 28, 2019

    Content with abundance. I never even thought about that part. The enemy will use whatever it takes to sidetrack us from a loving relationship with the Lord.

    1. Joy Smalley October 28, 2019

      It’s true, Jennifer, that satan is always trying to get us sidetracked and he doesn’t just use the bad, he tries to twist God’s good gifts too.

  10. Jennifer October 28, 2019

    Oh know! I hope you can delete that. Resize first, resize first!!

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