There is a common emotional experience amongst those who survive a tragedy that resulted in the death of many of their peers—guilt. It could be a school shooting, tsunami, or escaping a burning building. Those who survive are left with a question that defies answer and troubles the soul, “Why me? Why did I avoid the bullet, flood, or collapsing ceiling?”
It may be as simple as watching a commercial about starving children and opening a pantry full of food. Why me?
It should quickly be stated that this guilt is a form of false guilt. There is no moral standard that is broken by surviving a tragedy. But we can all sympathize with the kind of emotions this experience would bring. Why was I spared and my classmate died? Why did I happen to be out of town when the rest of my family was at home near the coast? Why did I happen to be just out the door when the building collapsed?
This emotional experience turns what is traditionally understood as “the problem of evil” on its head. No longer are we asking, “Why are these bad things happening to me when I’ve been good?” Instead we are forced to ask the question, “What did I do to be spared when so many I cared about perished?”
The question echoes in our soul because we know there is no answer. We cannot say, “I did [blank] so I was spared.” We can’t even really say, “I did [blank] so I shouldn’t have been spared.” There was nothing substantively different (for better or worse) between us and those who perished.
I believe the experience of survivor’s guilt can be a powerful lens for us to gain a better understanding God’s grace, salvation, and our motivation for evangelism.
As Christians we face “the problem of grace” that is equal to or greater than “the problem of evil.” We are forced to answer why we have been spared the consequences of our sin more than why particular intense consequences of the Fall (not always consequences of personal sin) are still permitted.
Ultimately, Christians ask questions about evil from the grace side of eternity. This does not negate the real impact of real tragedies on Christians. But it does mean we ask question about these great tragedies as those who have been spared from the greatest tragedy – Hell and separation from God.
What does that sound like? If you have had a conversation with someone who is well-adjusted after surviving a major calamity, you know. They do not down play the pains of others, but they have a way of sympathetically putting other’s hardships into perspective.
They listen well; often as they wish they had been heard. They empathize deeply; because they know pain is real. When it is appropriate they are able to speak timely words that highlight hope without condemning the hurt and confusion of the moment.
How are they able to “be with” the person and yet “outside” the experience at the same time? The answer is that life has taught them to ask a different question, or, at least, to ask the same question (Why me?) from a different perspective – the problem of grace rather than evil.
This new perspective allows for both compassion and wisdom. Our calling as Christians is to wrestle with the problem of grace – why would God have mercy upon us? But not in a way that leads to self-deprecating insecurity. Instead we should allow this question to offer a compassionate, God-centered perspective as we gain the strength to enter the real pain of other people.
We begin to realize it was actually Jesus who faced the problem of evil (Heb. 2:17-18, 4:14-16) so that our experience could be the problem of grace. Yet He did this without losing any of his compassion for us in the experience. As we bring the gospel to people who are both hurting and sinful, we must show the same compassion as we help them see that their “problems of evil” (which are real) can be re-contextualized as “problems of grace” by faith in Christ.
This side of heaven we may never answer the problems of evil we face (it is often hurtful when we try to “connect the dots” and give answers). But we can remember the question of grace that allows us to trust our faithful God in the midst of confusing hardships of life.