Thriver’s Guilt: Some Remedies (Part 1)

Thriver Remedy Gratitude shutterstock_729671911

In my previous blog, I presented the phenomenon 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. What do we do with the guilt we feel when we thrive, but others around us struggle?

Thriver’s guilt triggered an unhealthy dynamic of self-consciousness by which I became embarrassed by any signs of “success” in my life. I felt I had to apologize and minimize when things were going well. I also became self-deprecating in my conversations and presentations. I was reluctant to share the blessings I was experiencing.

Thriver’s guilt falls under the broad category of false guilt. Genuine guilt is our healthy reaction to violating a law or standard, especially God’s standards. False guilt is the feeling we have done wrong when we have not, in fact, violated a law or standard.

The question is: have we truly done something wrong? Compare the warning lights on a car dashboard with the conscience. When a light comes on, we need to discern whether it is indicating a genuine problem, or whether there’s a short circuit in the warning light itself.

In our lives, it may not be a problem of faulty lights, however. It may be that we have many “extra” warning lights that continually flash, giving us false information.

False guilt is spiritually corrosive. It denies God’s truth and undermines our experience of grace. False guilt disrupts our relationships, draws our focus inward, and robs our joy.

The “remedies” for false guilt are found primarily in the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We correct the lies we are telling ourselves by learning the truth of God’s Word, applied by God’s Holy Spirit.

So what about thriver’s guilt? Because I want to respect the relative brevity of a blog post, I will share my remedies in two posts. In this post, I want to consider the most important remedy.

Remedy #1: Be Grateful

Be grateful and receive God’s blessings with humility.

Enjoying the good things God provides does not mean we are materialistic, nor that we are spiritually immature.

We are too easily seduced by the lie that “poverty is a virtue and success is a sin.”

We may have a tendency to believe poverty is the ideal condition for true spirituality based on Jesus’ exhortation to the “rich, young ruler” to sell all he has in order to follow Jesus (Mark 10:17-22). Here’s part of the encounter:

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

This one incident, however, was not meant to be a prototype for discipleship any more than being a literal fisherman was required to make us “fishers of men.”

Jesus was addressing this man’s idol. The Lord calls us to turn from anything we value more than the Lord. But that doesn’t always require literal all-or-nothing decisions.

For example, if a person struggles with ambition and success, Jesus would not counsel that person to fail. If a person struggles with beauty, Jesus would not counsel that person to become deliberately unattractive and unwashed. We must be careful not to move from specific situations to general principles too quickly.

God blesses his people. Think of the amazing beauty and delight of the Garden of Eden and the splendor of the New Jerusalem. We honor the Lord by appreciating these blessings and remembering their source. Deuteronomy 8:7-18, spoken as God’s people were preparing to enter the Promised Land, clearly presents this principle.

7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills… 10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God,… 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant…

Blessings are expressions of God’s goodness. Gratitude reminds us that God is the giver.

If Sarah and I give wonderful gifts to our children, we want them to enjoy those gifts to the fullest, with due appreciation. To reject the gift would feel like a rejection of our love.

But there’s more to this subject. This remedy alone could be perceived as a “bless me” gospel that does foster worldliness and self-centeredness.  So please keep reading! In my next blog post, Thriver’s Guilt: Some Remedies (Part 2), I suggest how to manage our blessings faithfully and interact with others compassionately.

Thriver’s Guilt: The Problem


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.