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?"
This worked as a coping mechanism until I ended up with too much on my plate. I worked full-time, volunteered for three dif-ferent organizations, regularly visited my ailing mother who lived three hours away, and continued to meet with difficult people. Although all this assuaged my guilt, it wore on my body and spirit, leading me to a point of total exhaustion. I couldn't keep going at that pace. And it dawned on me that I had survivor's guilt.
Since then, I've learned a few things to cope with this unnecessary and unhealthy guilt.
Focus on Your Gifts, Not the Need
My doctor, who went to my church and knew my crazy schedule, told me I'd have to cut back on my activities. He "ordered" me to keep every other weekend free, scheduling it in, just as if I were scheduling any other activity. If someone asked me to do something on a free weekend, I was to tell them I had a scheduling conflict. I was shocked at how difficult that was for me to do.
I had to decide what activities to keep. But everything I was doing seemed important. They were all responses to genuine need. I had no clue how to sort them out.
My daughter helped me by asking what activities I liked doing most. Without skipping a beat, I answered, "My job. I love my job. But that's not my ministry."
She looked at me wide-eyed. "Mom, you work for a Christian organization. You write and edit Bible studies all day long. How is that not ministry?"
My reply? "But my job is fun."
That conversation pointed out the root of what was wrong with my attitude toward ministry. It only counted if I was doing some-thing difficult—something that went against my natural inclinations. Saying this aloud helped me see how messed up this was.
Obviously if God made me, he designed me for certain tasks, as Ephesians 2:10 bears out, "We are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." I should be relishing the chance to do what he made me to do rather than looking for things I don't like to do!
Surround Yourself with Healthy People
When I realized how warped my thinking had become, I began to go out with friends for fun and not just to work on some project together. As I reconnected with people I enjoyed, my spirit soared. It was great to spend time with friends for no other purpose than to have fun. These friends showed me that being committed to Christ doesn't take away our joy but multiplies it exponentially.
That also meant, for the time being, I needed to quit meeting with really broken people. I recognized that someday I may be able to do that again, but at this point, I needed to be with those people who are healthy emotionally.
It's Okay to Say No
Because of my volunteer excess of the past, now my immediate response to almost everything anyone asks (outside of my job) has to be no. If God wants me to say yes, I ask him to make it abundantly clear. That has happened only a handful of times in three years, which shows how guilt, instead of God, was driving me all those years.
That means when someone at church asked me to be on the care team, I politely declined and suggested my friend who has the gift of mercy. When our Sunday school director asked me to teach a class, I said no but suggested a friend who loves to work with children. When someone from my community's international ministry asked if I could house students, I said no but suggested friends who love that ministry. In the past I said yes to all those things, not because I felt called to them, but because I could see the need.
That doesn't mean I never say yes to anything. For example, we recently housed a young man for a semester who was trying to start a campus ministry. I said yes to that because I felt no burden, only joy when I prayed it. Of course, I still have to obey God and do some things that are difficult for me. When I was asked to speak at our women's retreat, my gut reaction was no. But when I prayed about it, God gave me all sorts of ideas I felt he wanted me to share. Though speaking is never fun for me, I felt encouraged that what I shared was useful to others.
I knew I was making progress when a friend told me excitedly about her call to mission work in Africa. I rejoiced that God called her to such a great and important ministry, but did not confuse her call for mine.
Deal with Demanding Scriptures
When I first recognized I had survivor's guilt, I had trouble reading the New Testament. I just wanted to read Psalms. This was okay at first, but I knew I had to get back to the New Testament eventually. I recognized that God's Word was true—it was my reading of it that was off, so I had to figure out how to deal with the demanding things there.
As a new Christian, I committed to memory passages such as Philippians 2:17, "Even if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you" (NIV). Now as I look at this verse I realize Paul said he was being poured out as a drink offering—God was doing the pouring. Somehow I twisted this into thinking that I had to endlessly pour my life out as a drink offering—so I did that to the point of exhaustion.
Or what about Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus tells us that if we do something for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, sick, and those in prison, we do it for him. I interpreted this to mean that I had to ferret out every person who had such needs so I could personally meet them. There is nothing from this passage that tells me otherwise. But I tried that and couldn't do it. So as I read this now, I take it to mean that if such a person crosses my path, then God has sent them to me and I have a responsibility to help them or find someone else to help them (something I never did before). However, if I go looking for such people in our modern world, I'm quickly overwhelmed by needs I can't possibly keep up with since I receive daily reminders of people's needs in my mailbox and inbox.
An important part of my healing has been reading these demanding passages with "new eyes" so that I can once more love the whole Word of God.
Learn to Accept God's Good Gifts
Instead of feeling guilty for God's many blessings, I now embrace them. I thank him all the time for the healthy upbringing, great husband, terrific children, and meaningful work he's given me.
My husband and I were able to take a vacation to London a few years ago. I wrestled with it, knowing the money could go to countless other good causes. But we asked God to convict us if this vacation was sin. We felt no conviction, so we assumed we had freedom to go. My resolve was tested when an acquaintance said, "How can you think of a vacation like that when so many are struggling in our economy?" But the trip was rejuvenating and became an affirmation of God's goodness and generosity to me.
God's grace is amazing, and I don't deserve anything God gives. All of it is by his grace and goodness. It's also true that God loves obedience, rather than sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22). Therefore, I should obey what he asks me to do. If that includes working at the homeless shelter, then I should obey. But if it doesn't include that, then I'm just looking for ways to sacrifice unnecessarily if I go do it anyway—and that doesn't please God.
Not only is my workload revolutionized, but also my prayer life is revolutionized. Now instead of agonizing over my friend's wayward son, I rejoice that God loves him, is holding on to him, and will never let him go. Instead of being miserable about my niece's broken marriage, I rejoice that God still loves her and is constantly wooing her back to him. This attitude of praise turns everything around, because I see God working everywhere, even when there is no visible evidence of it.
I've entered a new phase of enjoying God. Instead of constantly wondering what I should be doing for him, I just enjoy being in his presence. I love listening for his voice and delighting in what he has made me for and called me to do.
JoHannah Reardon is a TCW regular contributor and managing editor of ChristianBibleStudies.com. www.johannahreardon.com