There are a lot of “what ifs” and “ifs” in life. A lot of “ifs” we have no idea the answers to. There are even fewer “what ifs” that we have any control over.
For all the unknown of the ifs and what ifs we face, they sure have a big impact on our life. Just look at the ifs of the weather. Preparation for this latest storm “Stella” included a state of emergency, school closings and rushes on grocery store staples. Stock trading influenced by the ifs of oil price futures impact fuel prices we pay at the pump today. Parents making plans can include bunches of speculation on the what ifs of their children’s anticipated behavior.
Do what ifs or ifs excite you, terrify you, worry you, motivate you, consume you?
There are two if situations in the gospel that resonate with me. And they boil down to this:
“If you can…”
“If you will…”
In Mark 9 we find a father who has come to Jesus in need of a miracle. His son had been afflicted in an awful way, “He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” He’d been suffering since childhood and the situation was dire. Word of the miraculous healing had spread far and wide. This father came desperately seeking a miracle. The disciples were unable to help. Jesus hears the commotion and intercedes.
21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
“If you can…” I think about that father, what he very well could have endured as his son was afflicted for years. The fear, scrutiny, anguish, anger, and doubt. No help was found for his son, no relief from this torment. And then word spread through the people about the miracles this man named Jesus was performing. Healing things that could not be healed. So he brought his son, first to the disciples. Was the father full of hope? Hoping beyond hope that this time would be different? And then it wasn’t. The disciples were unable to help the boy.
How would you have felt in that moment? If I had dared to hope only to have that hope dashed… I’m thinking I would have been in despair, possibly feeling frustratingly panicked. Scripture describes Jesus having heard them arguing. Upon learning the situation, Jesus asks the boy be brought to him…
21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
if you can do anything…
I understand the father’s if response. No one else could do anything. Not even Jesus’ own disciples. Years without answers. Years filled with this torment. Oh yes, I fully get this if you can…
His if you can does not bring this encounter to an end. Jesus meets him in this if you can moment and challenges the father to believe. “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” The father’s if you can heart needed faith. And his response speaks to my struggling.to.believe.heart.
Then there is another if story. This time it is Jesus with the if. The book of Luke is tells of Jesus entrance to Jerusalem with fanfare fit for a king. But it isn’t long after that events take a drastic turn, Judas has agreed to betray Jesus. He will hand him over to the very people looking to take his life. Jesus sees that his time is coming. After the “Last Supper” he withdraws, as was his custom, to pray. But what we see here in Luke 22 is a prayer that was less than ordinary.
39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him.40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
“if you are willing…” While there is no way for me to comprehend the magnitude of what Jesus, Son of God, was facing in this moment, I can at least catch a glimpse into the enormity of it. There are few moments in my life that compare but I do “get” what Jesus was experiencing. While I have never been so anguished that I could be described as severely as Jesus was here… I know of moments that come close. Those times when mental/spiritual/emotional/physical turmoil are so great, well… you feel like you are dying.
And Jesus, in that most dire state, turns to the Father and earnestly prays, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Oh man, this if… it hits deep too. God if you are willing… ever wonder that? Ever wonder if God is willing to take suffering away from you?
But Jesus has something I am often missing, a resolve often hard for me to muster:
yet not my will, but yours be done.
Two stories, of the father and of Jesus, facing major what if situations with two different if responses. Both are still ifs. See here, the ifs exist. There are and will continue to be unknowns, unseens, uncertains… There is much that isn’t ours to know.
We know the heart of God for us. The will of God for us that we love Him and love others. But the specifics in any given situation can often be beyond ours to know. I am reminded of that over and over as I read through both the Old and New Testaments. From Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego through to Paul, people in scripture faced HUGE situations with enormous what ifs beyond their control, without knowing how it would all work out, and they remained faithful.
How to be faithful in the ifs?
#1- Come to God.
Bring your ifs. Both the father and Jesus brought their pain, brought their need, brought their brokenness to God in the form of their if request.
Fear can keep us away from God because fear allows our what ifs to rule. Fear keeps us from coming to God because what if he can’t, won’t, isn’t willing… it gets us thinking, “I’d better just not ask.” Fear allows the ifs and what ifs to hold us back and separate us from our loving Father. Fear uses the ifs and what ifs to keep us from showing up. God is our ever-present help in times of trouble, our refuge, our strength… but we get in the way when let those ifs keep us from coming to God.
#2- Ask for what you need.
When Jesus rebuked the father for his heart of doubt the man didn’t respond with anger, he didn’t give excuses, he didn’t demand proof… he asked for what he needed: help. For him it was help with his unbelief maybe for us it is wisdom, or relief from burdens, or hope, or faith.
Jesus said to this father, “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” That father knew… oh, he knew, he knew he needed to believe. And he knew he was dealing with big doubt. So what did he do? “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’”
When the what ifs and ifs of life warrant belief, hope, faith, strength, trust… but doubt gets in the way… incapacitate the doubt by asking God for the very thing you know you need but you don’t have. Because that doubt, it is trying to incapacitate you.
#3- Rely on the will of God.
Jesus brought his heart felt, anguished to the deepest pain, request to God, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me…” He brought that earnest desire to God. He didn’t sugar coat it. He didn’t avoid it. He didn’t modify it. But Jesus’ prayer didn’t stop there: “yet not my will, but yours be done.”
There is a thing (to me a very significant thing) I noticed about Jesus request. By immediately following his request with “yet not my will, but yours be done” it reveals something my heart struggles with greatly. When Jesus said “if you are willing” I think it is very different than when I say “if you are willing” because Jesus was able to submit to the will of God.
See, and I think this is more than playing semantics here, there is a big difference behind the heart of me saying “if you will” and “if it is your will.” H.U.G.E. difference here. What do you mean when you say those two ifs?
For me, to say, “if you will” is to say that I have an idea how I would like things to go. If you will, would you please do what I would like. I have very strong ideas on how lots of things should go and that doesn’t just pertain to me. I know what I would like other people to decide, to choose, or to do. So, when I say, “if you will,” I’m often meaning if you will do what I would like. For me to say, “if it is your will” is to not just want the other person to do what I want but to do it because it is their will, their heart, their desire.
When it comes to asking of God it is no small thing for me to bring my request to God and then, responding in faith, ask that God’s will be done. Because God’s will might not look like what I want, might not make sense to me. And that is where the biggest stretch and growth of the strength of my character in faith comes: relying on the will of God no matter the ifs and what ifs I’m facing.