‘If only we had stayed awake’ was a reoccurring thought that must have plagued the disciples on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. After they had failed to stay awake and pray three times, they must have felt such anguish and shame that on the night when their Master of three years was most vulnerable, they couldn’t keep their eyes open. How they must have searched their minds trying to figure out what caused such sleepiness and how they must have spent hours trying to imagine what they missed out while they were asleep- what if there was another transfiguration moment?
Life is full of what-ifs and if-onlys.
When we find ourselves in situations we did not imagine for ourselves or some trial, we look back on those deciding moments and ask ourselves these questions. We wonder, if we had taken a different route, would we have achieved our expected outcomes? What if God had revealed something to me, what if He made his will clearer, made the road more defined? Why hadn’t He given me a Gideon moment: ‘Lord, if you want me to go to this school, do this course, when I wake up in the morning, let my garden be wet with rain and everywhere else dry’.
Sometimes, pondering these questions will help us learn from our mistakes and help us make better choices in the future. But often, these questions leave us worse off because we end up frustrated and restless. Incessantly asking these questions reduces our eternal lives into just mere moments rather than the bigger picture God has painted. The truth is, we will not know what may have become of us had we chosen differently; and that is because God didn’t intend for us to live those what-ifs. He, in all his knowledge and wisdom, intends for us to live this life - the one with regret and if-onlys because He is sovereign and works all things to his glory and for our good (Romans 8:28).
I think of the apostle Paul who had committed such heinous crimes as a zealous Pharisee ‘breathing threats’ on the early Christians (Acts 9:1) and how in some moments when he was alone, perhaps in his prison cell, he must have wondered how many more people could have received salvation if he had not spent so much of his time persecuting others. In those moments, he must have realised that it is not about what could have been but what is set before him and that is why he was able to say in Philippians 3:13 that he forgets what is behind him and press on toward the goal.
Yes, God could have revealed his plans, given us some intuitions, caused a supernatural event, but He didn’t. When Abraham was called to move away from his father’s house, he was left absolutely clueless as to where he would finally settle (Gen 12, Heb 11:8). It was such a vital point for God to have told him where to go because he was taking his wife, nephew (and his family), all his possessions and servants. Why hadn’t God given him more information, surely that would have given Abraham peace of mind, some sense of security and assurance? Assurance and peace don’t come from obtaining more information but rather on depending on God’s promises - His promises found in His Word. God didn’t ignore Abraham’s need for peace; No - He promises that we will experience peace through clinging to His precious and great promises (1 Peter 1:4).
In our most frantic times, we will be left in mystery and darkness - there will be wrestling in our hearts about our decisions; yet it doesn’t mean we cannot find rest in His sovereignty. We are like David in Psalm 130 whose ‘soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning’- we grapple in the darkness, desperate for the first light of sunrise. However, in the next psalm, David also declares that his soul is like a ‘weaned child with his mother’. A weaned child sits calmly beside his mother no longer crying for the breast milk that he has been denied. A weaned child has gone through the tears and tantrums of being refused what he thought he needed most and has come to trust that solid food is better although he doesn’t understand why, and he really just wants that easy liquid food. And so like a weaned child, we thought our well-constructed plans may have been the best thing for us (we may still be holding to their remnants) and we do not fully understand the reasons for our disappointments, derailments and confusion. But we will now sit peacefully and humbly at our Father’s feet and receive his better nourishment.
Our weaning process may be painful, too painful for us to see its marvellous beauty. Yet, we really must believe that it is for our good. We may not see that good in this life, but we will definitely see it in eternity.
Rest and peace are not found in trying to figure out the what-ifs and if-onlys but rather in trusting in the One who understands it all.