Thriver’s Guilt: The Problem

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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.

Good Stuff?

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Let’s face it, stuff can be a problem. We are body/ soul beings. (I don’t like to say we “have” bodies because we really are a “package deal” of body-and-soul together in this life—and the one to come!) As a result, we need food, shelter and clothing and have to deal with economic realities. But is it okay to enjoy our things? To have and do nice things? There is a strong streak of asceticism in Christian tradition, in which people abstain from or minimize material and sensual pleasures in order to express their spiritual commitment. This is very personal matter that some really find a struggle, and many have never considered.

I was leaving church at lunchtime one afternoon when a young mom I’ll call Jen saw me unlock my car. “That’s your car?” she exclaimed (Yes, that’s an unusual word to describe her speech, but she sounded alarmed).

“Sure is,” I said, with a bit of chuckle, confused by her excitement.

“That’s not… but that’s not a pastor’s car!” she said with a sense of disappointment.

She was joking, right? She had to be. But she wasn’t. My mind was racing (no pun intended) for a spiritual response. All I could come up with, “It’s a gift.”

You see, my wife, Sarah, is all about gifts and grace and spoiling people, especially me. For my 50th birthday she got an amazing deal on a seven-year old German import convertible by purchasing it from a very close friend. It cost far less than a new Toyota Corolla or similar “affordable” car. Sarah knew I would never buy a car like that for myself—but how could I refuse her gift?

So there I was, standing next to this love-gift, this grace-gift, from my wife, feeling judged by a member of our congregation. Like I had to defend my wife’s expression of love and care?

I have honestly blanked on the rest of my conversation with Jen, if there was any. But I’ve never forgotten the sting of her comment. It made me do some soul-searching, to be sure. I am one who is quick to feel guilty. I spend a lot of time in the tension between enjoying God’s good creation and not being captive to materialism.

I thought of Paul’s words to Timothy in response to those who were teaching against marriage and the enjoyment of various foods.

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5 ESV).

There is certainly a basis for drawing the principle from this passage that there are definitely times and places for good stuff. And we also have Paul’s exhortation to the “rich,” in which he does not condemn their wealth per se, but encourages them to look beyond their own well-being and enjoyment.

“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19 ESV).

If you really want to wrestle with this more deeply, start with Romans 14:1-5. But for now, let me just say I thank God for the goodness of life and seek to enjoy that goodness and share it with others. How about you?