The word “if” can be both powerful and dangerous.
I’ve recently been enjoying a Japanese animated movie that explores this idea. The movie, entitled “Fireworks,” is about a boy named Norimichi who accidentally discovers a way to rewind time for the express purpose of taking a different path in a specific situation. In particular, Norimichi likes a girl named Nazuna, but various obstacles keep preventing their time together. After he realizes he can turn back time and get a do-over, he uses this ability to extend his time with Nazuna. His choices, however, are not without consequences.
This movie has caused me to reflect a lot on the word, “if.” It’s such a small word – one of the smallest in the English language – and yet it holds incredible power. The word connects all kinds of important conditional truths that are important to us. For example, if I pass a certain test, I will receive a certification, or if I get this job, I’ll move to a specific location. But “if” can also imply unknown conditionals that are highly consequential. For example, if I tell this girl I like her, we can’t be just friends anymore, but we may come to be much closer than that. In this way, the word “if” can offer a strong motivation and challenge. Knowing that certain results will or even might come to pass impacts our decisions in important ways. This is why the if/then connection is one of the first logical steps we teach children. It is one of the many abilities humans uniquely possess that makes all kinds of realities possible. Almost every step of progress humanity has made has hung on the word, “if.”
Yet, “if” can also be a highly dangerous word, for two reasons. First, it can imply various negative potentials. For example, “what if I fail this test” or “what if she says no” or “what if I get this disease” and so on. This simple word leads to entire world of possibilities, but not all of the possibilities are pleasant, which leads to worry. As a rather talented worrier myself, I am well aware of the impact these what-if scenarios can have on the mind. The second reason is perhaps more dangerous however – “if” can lead us not only to future potential but also past potential. This is what Fireworks is all about. As Norimichi remembers the past and thinks of the possibilities, he wishes things had gone differently. He wishes he made a different move at one point or another. If only he had done X, then his life would be vastly different right now. It is this thought that leads him to continually rewind to the past to correct (presumably) the choices he made.
For many a person, these past conditionals have the gravitational pull of a black hole, pulling the mind back unrelentingly as we beat ourselves up over what might have been. We desperately wish we too could stumble upon the same ability as Norimichi. We think, “if only I had taken that job” or “if only I had not made that mistake” or, like Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite, “if only coach had put me in.” We can imagine all kinds of scenarios and how life would be much better if only things had been different. Unfortunately, these subjunctive scenarios can easily be nefarious. How much sin and suffering has been caused because someone chose to dwell on such imaginations? “If only I didn’t marry this person” or “if only I didn’t get pregnant.” We imagine life would be so much better until eventually we find ourselves cheating and murdering. Our dwellings on the past can lead us to wicked decisions in the present.
Thankfully, we have a God who is more powerful than our imaginations.
As he encounters the idolatry at Athens, the apostle Paul tells the people in the city one of the more important truths in the Bible:
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:26-27).
We see throughout scripture that God knows not just what will happen, but also all of the potential realities that we find ourselves thinking about so often. He does more than imagine them – he knows them. It is this very knowledge (called “middle knowledge”), that David relied on 1 Samuel 23:8-14, and which Jeremiah was given by God in Jeremiah 38:17-18. It is in his knowledge of all of these counterfactuals – these potential realities, these conditional scenarios – that God chose, as Paul says in Acts 17, to put you here, where you are, right now. He knew the decisions you would make. He knew the decisions of others that would impact you. And he chose for you life to be aligned with this time and place.
That doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for your life choices. You still have the freedom to choose and are responsible for bearing the weight of those decisions. But it does mean that, knowing all the possible worlds he could have placed you in and all the potential lines of reality, God chose to put you here and now. And why? Paul tells us – so that we would seek and find him. God wants us to seek him and find him, and so he aligns the people of the world to that end, using their free choices to accomplish his purpose.
What does that mean for us? It means we no longer need to dwell on unhelpful what-if scenarios. “What if X had happened?” Well, I don’t know, but God does, and he chose to put me in this world where Y happened instead, and he did that for my good and the good of every single person who has ever lived or ever will live. He is putting us in the best possible scenario to freely come to know him for eternity. What a wonderful God!
Ultimately, this means that God is powerful and wise and good enough that I can let go of my what-ifs in peace. I can bring my what-if scenarios to him in prayer, no matter how dark or scary, and trust his will in these things. It means I don’t have to worry about the future, because he holds it in his hands and is working out his plan through it, whatever it may be. It means I don’t need to dwell on the past, because he holds that as well, it didn’t surprise him, and he is still working in my life to draw me and others to him. It means that I should never let my imagination of what might have been lead me to sin against God. Instead, in all scenarios I encounter, both past and present, I should seek God and see that he is leading people (including me) to the power of the gospel. Instead of searching for how I can undo my past to make me happy in the present, I should see how God is using both past and present to lead me to a future with him.
Our imagination can be a beautiful tool in service to God. It can lead us to go to the mission field, to write a book, or start some ministry that may serve the Kingdom. Such uses of our God-given imaginations are holy and good, and exactly what God wants. But I pray that we can see God as powerful enough to handle our past mistakes and future worries, and that we will thus lean on him, knowing his powerful and perfect wisdom is working through it all.
“If” is indeed powerful, but God is more powerful, so let us lean more on his word and less on our own.