The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Is it selfish to enjoy our own resources when others are in need?

Lorri R. asks, How much should we give of our time and money to help the less fortunate or in the pursuit of social justice? At what point is it selfish to use our resources for personal enjoyment when there are others in need?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].


Doug Van Doren, the pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ, responds:

“Care for the marginalized was clearly Jesus’ example and is absolutely central to the Gospel. Thus it must be the orientation of a follower. Here are but a few clear examples. Matthew 25:45: ‘Whatever you did unto the least of these (in need) you did unto me.’ 1 John 3:17: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help?’ James 2:15: ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?’

“How people can say they are Christian, yet deny a basic safety net, healthcare, and food security for those who need it, is simply beyond me!  The question for a follower is not, ‘What must I do to fulfill an obligation or to justify myself?,’ but rather, ‘How can I use the resources God gave me to care for God’s people, to further God’s just and peaceable realm?’

“As I said, helping those in need is central to the gospel, but this needs to be done not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of justice. An attitude of ‘helping the less fortunate’ preserves the unholy social hierarchy and allows the giver to feel superior. Rather, there needs to be a true partnership between those with more economic resources and marginalized people, sharing and receiving the gifts each have to give, working to tear down systems that perpetuate inequity. When that happens, the reign of God comes a bit closer.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Presbyterianism insists that social justice is an item on the church’s agenda, but not the first or most important item. The gospel must be preached to all nations, churches must be gathered, and church members must be instructed and nurtured in the faith; these ends take priority over all others.  Supporting such necessary work is not “using resources for personal enjoyment.”

“But Reformed Presbyterians also hold that, ‘Both the Christian and the church have a responsibility for witnessing against national sins and for promoting justice’ (RP Testimony, Ch. 23:22). So, for example, Reformed Presbyterians actively and sacrificially promoted the abolition of slavery. Church members and congregations should take care to allocate a due portion of time, talents, and gifts toward fulfilling this part of our duty under God.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“In the Roman Catholic religious tradition, social justice is not something we do, it is something we are. All ‘social justice’ is rooted in respect for human persons that flows from the dignity everyone possesses as created in the image and likeness of God. God never designed human beings to discriminate on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, and religion. (This entire paragraph is sourced​ from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 469-472)

“To answer the questions specifically, 100% of our time should be dedicated to help the less fortunate because this is the action of social justice - please note that what I mean by 100% of time means we always respect human dignity. In my own experience, people who have the least are often the most generous with what they have, and those who appear to be living in what most would consider meager and sometimes filthy environments often experience the greatest joy.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“The most common practice among Unitarian Universalists is that we listen to NPR during our morning routine; one might say we do this religiously. Several years ago NPR reported on a study regarding generosity; who is more charitable? The study found that people who were well-off financially were less generous than the people who make up the working poor. Those living closer to the poverty line were 44% more likely to give than those living well above the line. The reason for this is that people living in or near poverty conditions have feelings of sensitivity and care for the welfare of other people; they feel a connection and compassion to other people.

“I think giving is not a mind or money thing but a heart and connection thing. We often hear the expression ‘give until it hurts’ that is a mind and money response. I personally prefer ‘give until it feels good’ a heart and connection response. So to answer your question make your charitable giving budget first then plan your enjoyment activities.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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