Coming to Grips with Survivor’s Guilt

survivor's guilt

Today’s guest post is by Pastor Kip McCormick. Kip is the campus pastor for Cornwall Church Skagit Valley in Mt Vernon, Washington—a satellite campus of Cornwall Church in Bellingham, Washington. Kip earned his Master of Divinity degree while running a youth ministry in Seoul, South Korea. Upon retiring from 28 years of service as an active duty colonel in the Army in 2009, Kip continued pastoring youth and men in the United States. He has a passion for God’s Word and recently completed his PhD in biblical studies. Kip combines his experience as a senior officer in the military, former U.S. Military Academy (West Point) instructor, and intelligence professional with his desire to equip and encourage others in their walk with Christ.

My wife, Linda, was asleep, and I was watching the National Memorial Day concert on the Mall in Washington D.C.

I sat in my living room, lights out, weeping. I didn’t get it. Why was it bothering me so much?

I’d spent a lot of time on the Mall when I was stationed at the Pentagon, then later when I went through attaché training at the Defense Intelligence Agency. I was very familiar with that place. I had seen the monuments, and I had strong memories of the places they represented.

As they played the songs and cut to clips from Afghanistan and Iraq and then back to the faces of wounded warriors, their families, and their kids, I wept.

I hadn’t seen the ugliness of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan firsthand, but I had been in combat in Operation Desert Storm and served as a Korean specialist in Seoul, South Korea. I served with my heart and soul for 28 years before retiring.

Five years later, I found myself on the floor weeping from Memorial Day Eve.

Psychiatrists call it “survivor’s guilt”—a phenomenon in which someone survives a traumatic event thinking he/she didn’t deserve to survive. Or, worse yet, they think they did something wrong by surviving. Recently, survivor’s guilt has been recognized as a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Many veterans suffer from PTSD, but it isn’t limited to veterans. PTSD is found in law enforcement, the medical field, first responders, foster kids, victims of abuse—anyone who has experienced a traumatic event or accident could have it.

Explore the purpose of pain with R.C. Sproul's Surprised by Suffering.
Explore the purpose of pain with R.C. Sproul’s Surprised by Suffering.

For those of us in ministry, there is a high probability that we have people within close proximity to us who are struggling with this. We, too, could struggle with PTSD and survivor’s guilt.

Pastors (and Christians) are called to share in the suffering of others. Entering the suffering of others without boundaries can leave the “helper” in need of help.

If you’ve been in a severe car accident or ministered to someone at an accident site, you probably experienced an aftermath of the accident. You may have relived the scene, had some form of flashbacks, dreams, or thoughts about what you saw. Perhaps your anxiety levels increased.

Maybe you survived an accident that caused others to suffer. Your survival caused feelings of remorse and left you with questions like, “Why not me? Why didn’t I die instead of that person? What did I do or fail to do that could have prevented what happened?”

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A big part of survivor’s guilt is refusing to let go of your painful past, even if you’ve made amends to rectify issues from it. It’s as if you’re unwilling to receive the grace that God freely offers as he tries to meet you in your deepest point of pain. You can’t move on. You can’t forgive yourself. You’re in pain.

Survivor’s guilt is real and present with many people in our ministry circles.

Learn from Peter

As I sat and wept on Memorial Day Eve, God brought a guy named Peter to mind.

Peter is one of my heroes in the Bible. Impetuous, impulsive, and impossible to hate, Peter is a guy who is all about action. He never had an unspoken thought, which I think is why my wife often compares me to him in our moments of “tense fellowship.”

Peter was one of Jesus’ closest companions. It was Peter who dropped his nets and followed Jesus against all common sense. It was Peter who recognized Jesus as the son of the living God before anyone else. It was Peter who would tell Jesus with passion he would lay his life down for Jesus. It was Peter who followed Jesus in the early hours of his arrest, unlike the other disciples who had high-tailed it to safety.

Yet it was Peter who, hours later, would deny Jesus three times—the third time to his face.

Fast forward a few weeks after Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection and we find Peter downcast in his soul. He knew he had failed Jesus at his greatest hour of need. He had told Jesus he would die in his place, but he didn’t have the guts to go through with it.

I think Peter was suffering from survivor’s guilt.

Think about it. He had survived a traumatic event—the death of his Lord and Savior. He and the other disciples at first went into hiding, thinking they would be the next ones arrested for their faith. Peter had acted like a coward when courage was needed. He had looked into Jesus’ eyes as he denied him. He knew he’d let down his Lord and Savior. He knew to his very core that his denial of Jesus was wrong, but he did it anyway.

And it ate at him.

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It kept him up at night. It was the place his mind would go hour by hour, separating him further from the reality of the situation. I think he felt he had done something wrong by surviving.

And then Jesus simply met him where he was.

In his pain.

In his guilt.

On a beach.

C.S. Lewis wrestles with pain and the goodness of God in The Problem of Pain
C.S. Lewis wrestles with pain and the goodness of God in The Problem of Pain

At perhaps one of the darkest hours of his life, Peter went fishing. John 21 details what happens next. Peter is fishing and knows it is his master on the shore. Peter sees him from the boat, ties his clothes around himself, jumps in the water, and goes to settle the matter of his denial with the one he betrayed.

John 21:15-19 contains one of the greatest discourses on restoration in Scripture.

In three questions, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him unconditionally, or even as a friend. Peter is taken aback that Jesus would ask him if he was his friend. He answers “yes” every time.

Jesus tells Peter that if he loves him, he’ll care for the flock Jesus will give him. He meets Peter at the place where he hurts most. He removes Peter’s pangs of guilt from the great denial that would otherwise haunt him forever. Jesus shows Peter that he still trusts him. He restores Peter by entrusting him with his precious flock. Restoration from God-in-the-flesh. It can’t get any better than that.

Handling Crisis Situations offers help for ministry leaders to counsel those facing death, depression, and loss.
Handling Crisis Situations offers help for ministry leaders to counsel those facing death, depression, and loss.

Release your past to pursue your future

You have to recognize that feelings of remorse after a tragic event are natural feelings. It takes time to heal. Healing begins with placing these feelings into the nail-pierced arms of Jesus, who longs to lift that burden from your heart.

Surround yourself with a small group of godly men and women to help you walk through the valley; who will continuously encourage you and point you to Christ—the one who restores us. Sometimes healing means seeking a professional Christian counselor to help you process all you have been through. Lastly, healing means getting involved in a cause bigger than you.

That’s what Peter did.

He ran to Jesus, the ultimate counselor, restorer, and healer. He placed himself at Jesus’ feet and listened to what Jesus had to say. As Jesus walked Peter through the concept of loving Jesus and loving others, Peter was restored. His small group of godly men and women helped and encouraged him as he and his fellow disciples ushered in the movement called Christianity. Peter responded to Jesus’ encouragement with faith, direction, and courage.

And we have an incredible application of Scripture for us in this story.

Learn about trauma with the Augsburg Fortress Pastoral Care Collection.
Learn about trauma with the Augsburg Fortress Pastoral Care Collection.

Whether or not we suffer from survivor’s guilt, most of us are guilty of holding onto things that haunt us. Owning that fact and then realizing that Christ yearns to help us release our grip on the past allows us to walk in freedom into the future.

Only Jesus can restore us after we fail. He simply wants to meet us where we are; at the place of our pain. He calls for our godly response, which will lead to action for his kingdom.

As for me, I’m still working through that whole survivor’s guilt thing. It’s bigger than me. But Jesus is bigger than it and me. With time, the pangs are decreasing. I just have to do my job—tend his sheep, and trust in Jesus.

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For biblical help dealing with crises, guilt, and trauma, check out these resources:

1. Surprised by Suffering by R.C. Sproul
2. The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
3. Handling Crisis Situations by Lonnie V. Scott
4. Augsburg Fortress Pastoral Care Collection

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See what Kip has to say about the dangers of being a “driven” leader.

Comments

  1. Rick Wilcox says

    Thanks for this timely post. In the last 10 days 13 EMS professionals in Canada have committed suicide. As a public safety chaplain, this is top of mind for me.

  2. Ben Robinson says

    Thank you Kip for this post, in addition to our military personnel, we need to pray for those who work in law enforcement and all those who serve in rescue, emergency, and medical services, don't we?

  3. says

    We have not always appreciated how great a sacrifice our men and women have accomplished in putting on the uniform for the cause of our freedom. Thank you for serving with your "heart and soul" for so many years. Thank you for continuing to communicate in the service of our Savior's grace.

  4. says

    I retired after 22 years in the US Navy. My ship was the 1st US ship to the scene of the devastation of the USS Cole bombing. I do not think I have PTSD from the experience. But I do carry with me some things I did when I was a much younger man! After reading this I hope to let them go out of my life!

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