We’ve all heard of survivor’s guilt, that feeling of guilt and remorse people have because they survived a traumatic event when others did not.
I recently read an article on those who survived the Las Vegas massacre of October 1, 2017. Many reported feeling guilty for running away because others ran into the danger to help those in need. Or they feel guilty because they were spared when their loved ones or friends were injured or even killed. “Why my friend or loved one? Why not me?” they ask.
Survivor’s guilt has gotten me thinking about a related phenomenon. I’ve never seen it named before (so perhaps I’m coining a new phrase), but it’s been real in my experience. It’s what I call “Thriver’s Guilt.” That’s the guilt we feel when we succeed and do well when others around us, especially those we care about, do not.
Let me assure you that I have experienced many failures and seasons of discouragement. I’m not always thriving. But there are, by God’s grace, some very fulfilling times.
What do we do with the guilt we feel when we thrive, but others around us struggle?
I realize it borders on boasting even to discuss something like this. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t read about it before. But I think it is a significant dynamic in relationships, and can also affect our spiritual lives and performance. So here goes!
I first became aware of my own thriver’s guilt when I attended a pastors’ retreat about five or six years into pastoral ministry. I had been an associate pastor for four years and had then been called to be a senior pastor (now we call it “Lead Pastor”) of a mid-sized congregation. I’d also published a few articles in Christianity Today and Leadership Journal.
At the concluding communion service of the retreat, the leader invited us to a time of prayer and confession. He included Jesus’ exhortation, “If you have anything against your brother…” (based on Matthew 5:22) and encouraged us to be reconciled with each other before we participated in communion. One of the pastors came over to me and said, “Doug, I want to ask your forgiveness for my envy of you.”
I was confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well I’m not alone in envying what’s already happening in your ministry…” I’ll stop there.
Of course, pastors are as guilty of comparison and competition as anyone else, but my colleague caught me completely by surprise. His confession suddenly made me realize that while I was guilty of focusing on how much better I thought others were doing—there were some who were watching me.
That revelation triggered not only my own guilt for envying others, but also an unhealthy dynamic of self-awareness. I became embarrassed by any signs of my “success.” I felt I had to apologize and minimize when things were going well. And I became self-deprecating in my conversations and presentations—a problem that people challenge me on to this day.
I became reluctant to share the good things that were happening. I’ve noticed this pattern in many settings: I feel far more comfortable sharing what’s going wrong than sharing what’s going well.
In my next blog post, I’ll share some of the remedies I’ve found so that I can live with freedom, gratitude, and compassion. But for now, let me affirm that “success” (which I define as fruitfulness) and experiencing the “rewards” of God’s goodness are not evil, bad, or wrong in themselves. Scripture abounds with stories of blessing, such as Joseph’s experience in Genesis.
The Lord was with Joseph, so he succeeded in everything he did (Genesis 39:2 New Living Translation, NLT).
And we are exhorted to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation and life in this world.
Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks. For we know it is made acceptable by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5 NLT).
Stated most simply: Poverty isn’t a virtue, and prosperity isn’t a sin. So what do we do with our guilty feelings? Log on next week and consider what I have to share.