"If Only . . . "
by Malcolm Smith
It was after the Sunday evening service and Ken, one of
the elders of the church, was visiting with me in the local diner. He
had been sharing with me the horrors of a division that had taken
place in the church during the past months that had resulted in the
pastor resigning and the congregation being scattered.
He stared into his coffee cup, saying, "If only Pastor
John had seen it our way, things would be so different now!"
I looked at him over my orange juice. He was so
sincere, not realizing his attitude was killing both himself and the
church. I said, "If only the people had made a different decision over
Pastor John's decision! The fact is, Ken, we do not deal with what
might have been but with what is. God is not at work in some fantasy
world of `if only,' but in the concrete world of what is. You are
moaning to me of what might have been, which tells me you are not
living where Christ is working! You have placed Yourself in the
fantasy world of nowhere!"
We are all guilty of Ken's paralyzing mistake. We play
God! Looking at the facts of life as they are, we assume an infinite
knowledge and talk of what might have been, "if only." The fact is, no
one knows what might have been. All we do know is that the infinitely
good God will take the mistake and turn it for good.
The story of Joseph in the Old Testament is the classic
example of the man who could have spiraled into the fantasy
world of "if only." "If only" his
family had taken his dreams seriously. What might have been if
Potiphar's wife had not tried to seduce him. "If only" the servant of
Pharaoh had remembered to tell the authorities about him when he was
released. But it wasn't so, and in it all Joseph did not whine with
self pity, "If only things were different." His attitude comes through
clearly in Genesis 50:20:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish
what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
The simple fact of the matter is, the "if only" does
not exist and never will. The pulsating
with all its
problems and hurts is the only reality. Christ does not live and
express Himself in the wishful world of dreams, but in our present and
actual history. Our mistakes and failures do not send Him away! He
makes all our negatives to be the expression of His positive answer.
Proverbs describes the fool and sluggard as a man whose eyes are ever
on the horizon, never looking at what is now. The wise man knows that
what might have been isn't, and so embraces life as he immediately
not talking merely from my studies, but from my experience. I know
what it is to sit on the edge of life's craters and inhale the sulphur
of defeats, failure and sin. I have chastised myself knowing that I am
responsible for my foolish decisions and wrong actions. Above the
clamor of my thoughts I hear myself saying, "If only you had not done
thus and so..." or, "What might have been today if you had acted
differently." When I hear the dialogue beginning I want to enter in,
to agree, and discuss with myself what might have been. Instead I take
myself in hand: the fact is I did act as I did and said what I said.
To live in the fantasy world of "if only" will paralyze me in the real
world of now.
retreat into the world of might-have-beens is to endanger and harm
ourselves in many ways. First and foremost, it is to slander God's
character. He knew from before the foundation of the world what we
would do and say, and knowing it all He loved us. Now that my failure
has been actualized in history, He does not stop loving me. To say "if
only" is to place ourselves with the pagans and their finite gods -
gods that can be surprised by the activity of their adherents.
knew what we would do, and fully forgives us through what Christ
accomplished at the cross. Better than that, His love is an infinitely
wise love that not only forgives but actually weaves our mistakes into
His plan and turns them for good.
Those who have left swamp lands of what might have been are the
supremely happy ones of this world. They have seen their mistakes,
admitted that they were wrong and turned from that way knowing all is
forgiven through the cross. They now walk on through life, daring to
believe that God in His wisdom now actually turns those mistakes to
David committed adultery with Bathsheba and went on to arrange the
murder of her husband, Uriah. We are stunned - surely it is time to
close the story of David with a sob "if only...," what might have been
the story of David if he had not sinned! We would record him as one of
the sad might-have-beens of history. But not God! He lives in and
works with the actual fact of our history; and beginning where David
was, in his sin, He brought him to repentance and the writing of
Psalms 51 and 32.
It is most significant to me that in Matthew's
genealogy of Jesus mention is made of the fact that Solomon's mother
was Bathsheba. It is as if God is saying, "See, I am not thwarted by
the sins of my people: rather I use their mistakes, incorporating them
plan. Through the
worst David did, I turned it around and used it as a vehicle to bring
Son into the world."
gospel does not only come to us with the message of forgiveness, but
also with the message of hope that God will turn the worst into the
Theologians still discuss whether Paul should have taken his last trip
to Jerusalem that resulted in his arrest. Certainly the Spirit warned
him ahead of time what would happen, but he chose to go ahead. What
might the Acts have been like if Paul had avoided Jerusalem? The fact
is he didn't, but rather was arrested and taken a prisoner to Rome.
Nowhere in Scripture are we introduced to the discussion of whether he
was right or wrong. The fact is he made the choices he did, and God's
wisdom was at work in every one of them. In the two years of house
arrest in Rome he wrote some of the greatest letters in the New
Testament. We do not discover God in what might have been, but in the
hard facts of what is.
Over the years as a
pastor, and even more so now that I speak to millions each day over
radio, I hear the cry of thousands sobbing out their own "if only."
The mother kneeling
by her son dead in an auto accident: "If only our last words had not
been in anger. I will never forgive myself."
A husband bowed
beside the hospital bed of his wife: "She was so good to me, if only I
had told her how I loved her. Now it is forever too late."
A young man in his
twenties stared moodily at the floor of my study: "If only I had
studied while I was in college instead of fooling around. Now it is
too late and I do not have a degree."
A young woman
sobbing hysterically: "What a beautiful life we might have had, but he
divorced me and now there is nothing."
The fact is that
what happened is past -- you are who you are! To allow your mind to
wander into the land of might-have-been is to exit this life for a
non-existent world. God is at work in the now-situation. In us as we
are and where we are He works to glorify His name.
The Christian lives
in that faith, and glorifies God that He is at work in the disasters
My hobby is
gardening by the organic method. I depend on a compost heap for my
healthy soil. Everyday I take the waste from the kitchen and garden to
the compost heap. The junk, filth, and garbage of the house and garden
actually becomes the best and healthiest soil in my garden. So God's
grace will take our failures, if we will give them to Him, and put
them into His redemptive compost, actively working in them for good.
As the months go by we realize that the areas of our life where we
failed have become ever increasingly the expression of Christ our
To say and expect
this is a massive step of faith, for legalism, ever challenges this
ultimate stand of grace. We are surrounded by very sincere Pharisees
who look in disdain as we wallow in our failures saying, "If only you
had acted differently...." Sadly they assure us that although we have
been forgiven, our sin has forever doomed us to the permissive and
secondary will of God. To this, faith in God's grace answers that the
blood of Christ has cleansed us from all sin and God is now at work in
the failure bringing to pass His marvelous purposes.
But do our failures
exclude us from God's best? I think that that is a miswording of the
question. We should ask, "Can the infinitely perfect One have anything
in His plans but the best?" There are many routes that lead to the
consummation of His plan for us, but all of them are best, for we deal
with the God who can only be best. Nowhere in Scripture is there
mention of a permissive will of God.
The world of
might-have-been is a child of legalism. Implicit in the phrase is the
condemnation that we could have done better, tried harder or
disciplined ourselves more thoroughly. Now that we have failed to be
what we might have been, all we are left with is despair. Legalistic
religion shakes it head sadly as it walks away from us saying, "If
only you were a different kind of person; because you are as you are,
you will have to settle for second best!"
From our pit of
misery we look at others who have not failed as we have and are
convinced that God loves them better than us. "If only" we had learned
the secret of being like them!
The grace of God
does not only hold out forgiveness for our failures, but the strong
hope that God is at work in the failure. God does not condone the sin,
nor does He grind His plans for us to a halt whining, "If only she had
seen what I was getting at." Knowing what we would do, His love wisdom
has already planned to redeem the mistake and make it part of His
great plan for us.
Let us suppose I am
traveling from Seattle to New York. There is to be a plane change in
Chicago, but due to weather conditions, I miss my New York
connection. I am not doomed to spend the rest of my life in the
Chicago airport! There are other flights to New York from Chicago. I
do not sit in the departure lounge wringing my hands saying, "If only
I had not missed the flight."
I missed meeting
the person who was assigned to the seat next to me, and I missed the
meal the first flight was to serve. But there is someone else to meet
on flight no. 2, and they also serve a meal that is in no way inferior
to the meal on flight no. 1. It also comes up the standard set by the
When we fail, God
does not condemn us to the departure lounge of His second best; life
does not become a hopeless
penance of "if only...."
infinitely wise One has other ways of accomplishing His will and
purpose in our lives. Our involvements will be different, and the
circumstances too, but they will come up to the standard of the good
and perfect wisdom.
is there never a time when a man can miss the beautiful life that God
had planned for him? Is it not possible for a man to sit out his life
in ever increasing despair? Certainly! Even Jesus wept over Jerusalem:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you will kill the prophets and stone those
sent to you, how often 1 have longed to gather your children together,
as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
In Galatians 2:21 Paul spoke of the possibility of
frustrating the grace of God.
will never work in our lives against our will. We are not called God's
robots, but His sons, members of His family who can choose whether or
not to cooperate with Him. Paradoxically, however, He is the One who
wills within us, creating in us a response of repentance and faith.
Repentance is simply changing our mind about ourselves and our
actions. We finally come to see it God's way. It means we admit our
wrong to God, and turn helplessly to Him. If we choose the path of
sin, refusing to acknowledge it as sin, we can expect a compounding of
despair until God finally reaches us through the very real mistakes of
life. Then we acknowledge that we have sinned and thank Him for the
forgiveness that is already ours.
spoke scathingly to the idea that we can go on in sin in Romans 6:1-2:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may
increase? By no means! We died to sin: how can we live in it any
repentance can never be divorced from faith. Faith responds to God's
love and grace, daring to believe it, and we go on in confidence that
God is working in the situation as it is, no matter what shipwreck we
may seem to have made. If we did not believe that God is working in
our failures, "if only" would become a final resting place. We would
paralyze ourselves in the departure lounge, never daring to embark on
the ongoing purposes of God's grace. We would become locked into a
deadening past instead of into the fantastic futures of grace.
Faith dares to forget what God has forgotten; faith rests in the good
news that in our failures we are not terminal. God is not put off by
our mistakes, but takes us wherever we are in life and brings us on to
His perfect purposes.
is probably the greatest example of this kind of faith. He might have
sat in Damascus condemning himself for the saints he had imprisoned
and killed. Instead, his attitude is that whatever wrong he had done,
God is using it to demonstrate His mercy to sinners. As for himself,
he chooses to forget the events and press on to God's bright future.
He wrote in Philippians 3:13-14:
But one thing 1 do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward
what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which
God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
word "forgetting" is a strong word in the original: it means to
completely forget and put out of mind.
Khayam wrote, "The stars are setting and the caravan starts for the
dawn of nothingness." The pagan can only look to the future with that
kind of despair. The Christian looks at his defeats and mistakes and
rests in God's forgiveness and the outworking of Christ who now lives
within. He understands that God makes the dark holes of our life the
foundation of His most beautiful buildings.
Daniel, as a young man in Jerusalem, shows this daring
faith. He was taken as a prisoner of war to Babylon. It looked like a
massive victory for the demon gods of Babylon, but, instead, Daniel
writes that the
into the hands of the Babylonian king (Dan. 1:2). There is no "if only
this had not happened," but instead an embracing of life as it really
was, and a looking to the future as God continues to work out His
way we view God at work in ourselves is the way we look at others. If
our life is a tangled bog of "if only's," we can only offer
condemnation to those who fail around us. If we have seen that God has
forgiven and is now working in us, we are quick to assure others of
forgiveness and join our faith with theirs,
and acknowledge that fact our lives will overflow with
power. From out of our innermost being - out of the heart, where we
are one with Christ - will "flow rivers of living water," so that the
desert will begin to turn into a fruitful field. And as our lives
touch others, we will be used to transmit the love and life of God to
We are saints, not sinners, even though the outer flesh
still commits sins. But let us "see through" the outer flesh and
acknowledge the fact, not the appearance. Let us guard our
confession, watching what we say - for when we confess that we are
saints instead of sinners we speak the truth, and so it will come
about in visible experience.