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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 that his attitude was killing both himself and the church. I said, If only the people had made a different decision over Pastor Johns 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 Kens 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 classical 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 Potiphars 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 wasnt 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 now 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 isnt, and so embraces life as he immediately finds it.
I am not merely talking from my studies, but from my experience. I know what it is to sit on the edge of lifes 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.
To retreat into the world of might have beens is to endanger and harm ourselves in many ways. First and foremost it is to slander Gods 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 our-selves with the pagans and their finite gods-gods that can be surprised by the activity of their adherents.
God 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 also actually weaves our mistakes into His plan and turns them for good.
Those who have left swamplands 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 good.
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 of 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.
But more so it is significant to me that in Matthews genealogy of Jesus, when we come to Solomon, mention is made of the fact that his 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 in my plan. Through the worst David did, I turned it around and used it as a vehicle to bring my Son into the world.
The Gospel does not only come to us with the message of forgiveness, but also hope that God will turn the worst into the best.
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 didnt and 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 Gods 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 of the New Testament. We do not discover God in what might have been but in the hard facts of what is.
Only 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 woman sobbing hysterically: What a beautiful life we might have had, but he divorced me and now there is nothing.
The fact of what has 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 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 its head sadly as it walks away from us saying, 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. The Christian lives in that faith and glorifies God that He is at work in the disasters of life.
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 become the best and healthiest soil in my garden. So Gods grace will take our failure, if we will give them to Him, and put them into His redemptive compost, actively working them in 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 strength.
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 Gods 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 Gods best? I think that that is a mis-wording 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 a mention of a permissive will of God.
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 lost 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 #2, and they also serve a meal that is in no way inferior to the meal on flight #1. It comes up to the standard set by the airline.
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...
The 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.
But is there never a time when a man can miss the beautiful life that God has 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 I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)
In Galatians 2:21, Paul spoke of the possibility of frustrating the grace of God.
God will never work in our lives against our will. We are not called Gods robots, but His sons, members of His family who cooperate with Him. Before the grace of God can take our mistakes and turn them into strengths, there must be a response to Him. That response is in repentance and faith.
Repentance is simply changing our mind about ourselves and our actions. We see it Gods way. It means we admit our wrong to God, and turn helplessly to Him. If we choose a path of sin, refusing to acknowledge it as sin, we cannot expect the redemption of our failure, only a compounding of despair. Paul spoke scathingly to this 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 longer?
But repentance can never be divorced from faith. Faith responds to Gods love and grace, daring to believe it, receiving it for ourselves. If we do not believe God is working in our failures, If only becomes a final resting place. We have paralyzed ourselves to the departure lounge never daring to embark on the ongoing purposes of Gods grace. We become locked into the past instead of 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.
Paul is probably the greatest example of this kind of faith. He might have set in Damascus condemning himself for the saints he had imprisoned and killed. Instead, his attitude is that whatever wrong he has done, God is using it to demonstrate His mercy to sinners. As for himself, he chooses to forget the events and press on to Gods bright future. He wrote in Philippians 3:13-14:
...But one thing I 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.
The word forgetting is a strong word in the original, it means to completely forget and put out of the mind.
Omar 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 turns to Gods 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.
So what shall we do when we face the very real mistakes of life? We acknowledge that we have sinned and ask forgiveness, and go on in the faith that God is working in the situation as it is.
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 Lord delivered Jerusalem into the hands of the Babylonian king (Daniel 1:2). There is no If only this had not happened, but an embracing of life as it really was, and a looking to the future as God continues to work out His purposes.
The way we view God at work in ourselves is the way we look at others. If our life is a tangled bog of "If onlys, 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, looking for what God is doing in their lives now.
I reminded Ken in the diner that night if the church he spoke of was gossiping of what might have been if the Pastor John had seen it their way, they were still in the departure lounge of the church split. By the same token, if Pastor John told his friends that the will of God had been missed by the congregations action, he too was paralyzed into that moment of resigning the church. Christ lives in the now with all its hurts and sadness, living in us through it all, bringing us to His redemption. The congregation should be looking with excitement at what the Spirit was doing in Pastor John, Having forgiven him all: even as he should be looking at what God is doing in them.
It is a fact that the hatred and bitterness that plagues the world and the Church in great part is born out of the If only attitudes. It begins by hating ourselves for not reaching the standard; it soon matures to despising the Pastor Johns and the stubborn folk who did not see things our way because they have upset what we consider to be the perfect plan.
A new life can begin now as you accept the fact of the way things are, walking out of the fantasy world of what might be. Embrace life as it is with the knowledge Christ lives in you in it. Choose to see others not as they might be, but as they are. Instead of cutting them off with the If only of the Pharisees, become a channel of Gods love that makes over anew.