Talk to anyone about "survivor's guilt" and they'll define it essentially the same way: when a person perceives to have done wrong through surviving some trauma or traumatic event. It's often found among those who live through combat when their buddies do not, or in those who survived a natural disaster when others lost their lives. It can even be true in layoff situations when one person "survives" being fired while the rest of his or her department was let go.
It was first diagnosed in the 1960s in a study of Holocaust survivors.
I have survivor's guilt. The trouble is I have never been in a war, natural disaster, or concentration camp. In fact, I've had a comparatively wonderful life. I came from a loving and affirming family. In my teens, when I was just getting to the point that I could have made some awful decisions, I became a Christian and wholeheartedly pursued a relationship with Christ. I married a godly man who is now a pastor. I have three grown children who are all following Christ.
And that's exactly why I have survivor's guilt.
It took me years to figure this out. It started in college when I heard about persecuted Christians in other countries. I empathized with those Christians and began to feel that they were standing for Christ in a way I was not. As I wasn't being persecuted, I just felt guilty all the time. As time went on, my guilt extended to just about everyone around me. In prayer meetings, I felt guilty because others were praying for their cancer, wayward kids, and broken marriages, when I had none of those problems.
I once received a prayer letter from good friends who were doing inner-city ministry. The letter described how they'd taught their children to hit the ground if they heard gunshots. It brought tears to my eyes as I thought that if I were really serving God I'd be doing something like that.
To deal with this guilt, I began to give lots of time to those who were extremely troubled; I felt that was the least I could do since my life was so good. I put myself in awful situations. I also volunteered for any need I learned of. If the church needed a teacher, I stepped up. If a missionary needed housing, I opened my home. If someone in the church was in the hospital, I found time to visit them. If the food pantry needed food, I cleaned out our home pantry. I couldn't say no to any need—and as a pastor's wife, I knew of a lot.
My biggest fear was that I would get to heaven and instead of hearing, "Well done, good and faithful servant," I'd hear, "What in the world were you doing down there when everyone was suffering so much?"
For Further StudyDownloadable resources to go deeper
- Carolyn Custis James: What It Means to Be a Woman in MinistryeBook Format Available! Author and speaker Carolyn Custis James offers leadership insights for women.