The Danger of ‘If Only’ Living

I love the song If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye, a Russian peasant, asks God ‘what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?’ and then goes on to describe the kind of life he’d live if he did.

We all have a tendency to ‘do a Tevye’. It might not be about money, but fairly frequently we rest our chin on our hands, gaze out of the window of our lives and daydream… IF ONLY. If only X hadn’t happened. If only X would happen. If only I was better at X. If only I could do X. If only I had X. If only I could have what I ask for. If only God would give me what I want (Job 6:8).

What If Onlys do you live with? Are they about money, or possessions, or relationships, or talents? Whatever they are, I want to encourage you to ditch the If Onlys in your life.

When her brother Lazarus died and Jesus showed up several days later, Martha’s words to Him were:

“Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” John 11:21, MSG.

Martha’s If Only was simply that her brother had not died, and that seems a very reasonable wish given the circumstance.

But if Martha had got her If Only, we’d have missed out on one of the New Testament’s greatest miracles, because Jesus went straight to Lazarus and raised him from the dead! We’d have missed a display of God’s incredible power and heart to heal, a demonstration of Jesus’ divine authority, and everyone who was there would have missed the most amazing thing they’d ever see in their lives!

Sure, your If Onlys probably make a massive amount of sense. They’d bring you benefit. They’d benefit other people. They probably seem completely innocuous, and you’re wondering why I’m even making a fuss about them. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t know what the full effects of our If Onlys would be. We don’t know what we might be messing up.

God knows the things you need, and He’s not stingy: He’ll give them to you. We just need to remember that God knows what we need better than we do:

 This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. 1 Corinthians 25, NLT.

He knows what He’s doing. You, generally, do not. You are staggering around in the dark with a little torch, seeing only what’s at your feet. God’s wearing His night-vision goggles. If God’s allowed something into your life, you’re better off for it. Or, at least, you will be eventually. If something is taken away from you, or your never attain it at all, that’s also for the best. Either it’s like that because He made it so, or He’s going to fix the whole situation up so good you’ll be sure it was His plan all along. It might not make sense to you, but God’s logic is way superior to yours. You cannot see all ends, you’ve just got your torch, remember. Stop If Onlying and trust The Man With The Goggles.

You see, no matter what good things you want for yourself, or for others, God wants even better. What’s more amazing than being raised from near-death? Being raised from actual death! On the face of it, Martha’s If Only seems out-there enough – that a man on death’s door would be healed. People would probably have told her she was foolish to think it could happen. But we learn that Martha’s crazy-big If Only was actually way too small! God had even bigger and better in store. If we all got our If Onlys we’d probably miss out on a whole lot that we can’t even begin to imagine!

I think there are three main kinds of If Only. The first is the past-tense If Only; if only this had / hadn’t happened. That’s the kind of If Only that Martha experienced with Lazarus.

The second kind is the future-tense If Only. It’s the one that says if only this would / wouldn’t happen. This is when we aren’t happy with what we’ve got and are wishing for something better around the corner. It’s the ‘if only I could find someone to marry’, the ‘if only I could get that promotion’. And maybe those things are just around the corner for you. But they’re not here yet. And because our lives are in the hands of the One who knows what’s best for us, that’s probably a good thing!

I am the absolute worst for wishing my life away. I’m so future-oriented that I rarely stop to look at the view. It’s always tunnel vision to the next big thing. And I think to a certain degree, we’re all like that. But you are where you are for a reason. Make the most of it. If you feel like you’re in a season of waiting, check out my post on why.

The third kind of If Only is the If Only about ourselves. If only I was cleverer. If only I was more athletic. If only I was more musical. If only I was less short-tempered. This last kind of If Only is often the most insidious and destructive, because it makes us call into doubt our very worth. But you are beautiful. Flawed, yes. Imperfect, yes. With room for improvement, certainly. But you are absolutely wonderful. You can always be a better you, but never wish you were a different you.

So what if there are things you really suck at? That’s how it’s meant to be!

Clay doesn’t talk back to the fingers that mould it, saying, “Why did you shape me like this?” Isn’t it obvious that a potter has a perfect right to shape one lump of clay into a vase for holding flowers and another into a pot for cooking beans?  Romans 9:20-21, MSG

Maybe you’re not a tall, elegant and showy vase. Maybe you’re a bean pot. Well I know who I’d go to if I was hungry. But if we were all bean pots, we’d have a whole load of beans and no way to brighten up our homes. We need both.

I really cannot draw, and sometimes I think it’d be nice if I could. But it seems God doesn’t intend for me to devote my life to creating wonderful works of art, so that’s totally okay! I could look at an artist and wish I had their talent. I could dream up a whole life for myself where that was the case, and say If Only. But I’m made for a different purpose.

So strive to be better, by all means, but never wish yourself away. You are a world-changer, and as you journey through life you can create amazing wake in a way completely unique to you.

Now, when I say we need to lose our If Onlys, I’m not advocating that we never want for anything other than what we have, that we never dream, that we never want to improve ourselves, our lives, and the lives of those around us. I think as Christians we’re called to be big dreamers.

But there’s a big difference between saying ‘if only’ and asking God for something in prayer. God wants us to come to Him with our desires. But if we make a request to God, we have to be prepared to accept the answer. Whether it’s a yes, no, or not now. Whatever it is we should take it, praise God for it, and run with it. Be empowered by it. Take action on it. Our If Onlys come when we don’t accept the answer. When we listlessly linger on our request. When we chew on it or, more accurately, let it chew on us.

And it’s not healthy. It shows that we don’t trust God to deliver His best for us. It demonstrates a lack of gratitude for what He has given us. It’s taking a stance of powerlessness in our lives when really we can move mountains with God on our side. It takes away our joy and peace because we’re always hankering after something different. It makes us look at the bad instead of at the good. It stops us from loving ourselves and our lives.

So kick your If Onlys, no matter how innocent they may seem. Live in the present. Make the most of every day. Be yourself. Ask God for what you want, and thank Him whether He gives it to you or not. Because, to quote Albus Dumbledore:

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.


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