Survivor’s Guilt

A worn and broken soldier returns home to his lovely wife and unknown child. He shuffles up the pathway to his home and his family swarm him. His shoulders tense and his gut clenches. He thinks, “Why me?” You might think, “Why isn’t he overjoyed? He’s home.” But he’s also seen a half dozen friends die who also had lovely wives and children, who had fathers, mothers, and lives back home. Why is he left alive? What should be joyous turns to grief.

I’ve silently watched a certain brand of Christianity form around this kind of survivor’s guilt mentality. We live in this world, but we don’t do it joyfully. We don’t do it overflowing with the love of God. What should be joyous turns to grief. A lot of the sentiments I hear sound right, but the more I see them, the more I’m convinced the pathos is all wrong. It might be, “ I don’t judge others because if people only knew my sin” (this one is especially sneaky because we should be slow to judge others and be gracious. We should work to see our self and sin more clearly, but that doesn’t mean we neglect Scripture in other areas).

Or “Jesus took my sin away, but I’m still a filthy sinner” (Truth: Jesus took our sins away. Truth: we are sinners. But where I’ve seen this view point expressed the filthy sinner is regularly the major tenor of the Christian life--a kind of mopey pessimism for Christian living).

Or in its most deadly form the weight of indwelling sin and the prospect for victory over it just crushes the Christian. “I’ve failed again. I’ll never be free of this sin as long as I’m alive” (We are already freed from sin).

Brian Habig, my pastor and preaching elder of Downtown Presbyterian Church, made an apt point in the sermon he preached this Sunday. Many of us live two lives. Brian said, “We are believers in Jesus Christ, but, on the other hand, we still need God to punish us.” His text was Romans 5 and there’s such tension in this passage. Paul says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (vv. 1, 11-12).

Paul reminds us we were justified by faith and now have peace with God. That’s not a generic peace. That’s a blood bought peace. That’s a peace from knowing that all the terms of the covenant have been fulfilled on our behalf in Jesus Christ. Here’s the tension. It’s peace--by the death of Jesus Christ. Peace by death? He dies. We survive.

Many stop here and just mope about their sin. “My sin put him there. He died for me. Why am I alive? Why did he save me? Why aren’t I being punished?” Many people want God to punish them just a little. Living the Christian life becomes a Protestant purgatory. But in the Gospels when the prodigal comes homes, the Father doesn’t judge and the son doesn’t mope. The Father throws a feast and invites everyone to rejoice.

Back to Romans 5, Paul says, “we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We don’t mope. There’s no survivor’s guilt. We rejoice. The tenor of the Christian life is rejoicing, while still acknowledging we live in a fallen world and we are sinners. While still lamenting and mourning when the time is right. There’s no real survivor’s guilt in Christianity.

Why can we rejoice? Jesus didn’t just die. He rose again and marches onward to heaven to reign at the right hand of the Father. He enters the throne room of heaven and invites us to join him. “Enter now in prayer,” he says. “Enter now when you eat my body and blood. Reign with me when I come again. I will raise you up as certainly as I was raised up.”

The moment a person is brought from death to life the transformation doesn’t end on that day. We are not the walking dead. We are alive and being made alive in the Spirit. And we must not downplay the transformative power of the Spirit after the new birth. God doesn’t leave those in Christ in our sins, but he doesn’t transform us all at once either. Our overall outlook because of the promises of the Father, the finished work of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Spirit should be rejoicing and expectant hope for change--because Jesus lives and he invites us to live and gives us the Spirit to do so.

That’s good news for the weary. That’s good news for the exiles. That’s good news when the weight of our sin bears down on us. He has not left us alone and he does not leave us where we are at. We do see more of our sin as we see more of the cross. We do need more grace as we sojourn to the celestial city. We never move past the gospel, but God doesn’t stop working either. The Father elects, the Son redeems, and the Spirit gives us life, makes us a new creation, and changes us from one degree of glory to another.

Mathew Sims is the author of A Household Gospel Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and has written for CBMW Men’s blog, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Borrowed Light, and other online publications. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. They attend Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC.

Get Your Copy of A Household Gospel Today: Paperback or Digital.