November 2, 2023

Escaping from the Land of “What-If”

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Creativity—and imagination. Humans are blessed with these things by their Creator. It’s part of the image of God in us. He, after all, is endlessly creative. 

The trouble is that our creativity, like all other good things he has given, is twisted by our fallenness; we’re very good at misusing it.

Consider our tendency to imagine the future. There’s a place for planning and organizing, but “thinking ahead” can simply mean manufacturing negative what-ifs. It can become a constant habit of borrowing trouble; it can be the incubator of false assumptions, worry, and despair. We often readily adopt those what-ifs as real possibilities, which soon develop into probabilities. Before we know it, we’re imagining them as prophecies. . . and soon, in our mind’s eye, they’re facts!

This negatively creative mindset can become our regular context of thinking and cause us to progressively doubt much of what God has told us in his Word.

It’s incredibly easy to wander into the fearsome Land of What-If and live there. 

Why Is What-If Thinking So Easy?

Parents and families of sexual strugglers may ask:

  • What if my son marries his partner?
  • What if I’m the only one in the family who says this is wrong?
  • What if my daughter decides to do hormones or surgery?
  • What if the people at church shut us out because our son is gay?
  • What if my daughter tells the grandchildren that Uncle Jim is now Aunt Jane?
  • What if my son stops all communication with me because I accept Scripture?
  • What if my daughter’s new “friends” lead her into drugs, or worse?
  • What if this all goes on for years . . . and years?

 We’re capable of filling our thinking with awful possibilities. But to what end? Why do we do that, especially when we don’t (and can’t) exist in the future?

 Control and Trust

Our desire to be in control is the primary motivation for what-if thinking. We want to make and control the plans. In this, we’re still doing what Adam and Eve did: trying to know, be, and do what only God can know, be, and do. We want to replace him; we want to be sovereign. That may sound like an extreme diagnosis, but when we’re controlled by worry and manufactured assumptions about the future, we usually spend our time fearing and trying to manipulate that future based on the self-deception that we can manipulate or prevent it. 

In essence, then, we have forgotten what we know about a sovereign God who is in charge. His will always culminates in good and glory, regardless of what it looks like to us in the process. When we forget this, fear seems warranted—even necessary. It’s a vicious cycle. Essentially, we’ve panicked over the “horizontal”—the relationships and situations between us and other people—and forgotten the “vertical”—our relationship with our Creator and Savior. We’ve stopped trusting the only One who can help. What-if thinking fixes our eyes on ourselves—our wisdom, understanding, and desires—instead of trusting the Lord who knows and loves us.

How Can We Escape What-If Thinking?

We do what-if thinking so very well. We can’t just stop thinking this way; our what-ifs must be replaced by something even stronger—and the good news is that we have that in the gospel of Jesus. Look at it this way:

  • What-if thinking consists of possibilities. It makes sense to replace possibilities with something that is for sure, always factual—the person of a Creator God.
  • What-if thinking requires that I, myself, create and manage scenarios that look like solutions. However, working a heart-change in a sexual struggler is beyond my ability. So why not rely on the Holy Spirit to do a job that was never mine in the first place?
  • What-if thinking quickly loses its hold on our minds when we see prayer for the struggler as our main ministry. Prayer means laying our concerns before our Father—without including timetables or directions. We admit our inability, we trust him to work, and we ask him to direct us clearly toward any role that he has for us. In other words, we pray; we follow.

Not surprisingly, Philippians 4:6 says that the outcome of this dependent, prayerful, patient-with-God approach will indeed be a stronger way, made-to-order for keeping us from the Land of What-ifs entirely:

“And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Look to the cross of Christ and see our Lord’s faithfulness; consider our Father’s overcoming grace. Ask him for the grace to focus on all he is and says. Let him be God. As for the Land of What-ifs? No need to go there!

More resources you might like:

Joan McConnell

Director of Parents and Family Ministry

Joan McConnell is Harvest USA’s Director of Parents and Family Ministry, providing fellowship, advice, and biblical encouragement for those impacted by their family members’ sexual struggles. Joan holds an MA in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Liberty Theological Seminary.

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