When You're Attacked By The "What If's"

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Finding rest in God when the “what ifs”come calling

When I was a child, probably around the time I was in third grade, I was introduced to a poet by the name of Shel Silverstein. One of my favorite poems of his is entitled,“What If?”

You can find it here

I suppose to some extent, all of life is a “What If”

“What if I’m late to work?”
“What if the traffic is too much?”
“What if that mentally unstable person on the corner comes at me?”

These are the regular, everyday sorts of worries we  have, sometimes all before nine in the morning. Often in the mix are some really big concerns too:
“What if I end up alone?”
“What if we’re entering World War III?”
“What if my marriage doesn’t make it?”

The Root of Our “What If” Questions 

Chances are we’d like to think the “What If’s” come up because we’re just really responsible  and caring people. That may be at least a part of the reason we’re prone to worry, but at its root, our “What If’s” actually come from something much deeper within. In Luke 12:28, Jesus tells us the root of anxiety stems from “little faith” (or to put it another way, “little trust in God”). The picture you need to have is something akin to a baby being held in his parent’s arms; that is to say, utter dependence. Unfortunately, there is probably nothing we naturally resist more than dependence on Someone else, especially God.

Why do we resist this so much?

It’s because we like to feel like we have some level of control over our lives, our future, our destiny. So we plan, we plot, and we buy insurance of every kind to have a sense that no matter what happens, we’ll be okay. Fair enough: Most days we  can wake up by an alarm at the right time, commute into work on time, be assured that our jobs will be waiting there for us, etc. But then, every once in a while the alarm doesn’t go off, we’re stuck in traffic, or we get fired. It’s in these moments we are reminded that the control we think we have is actually just an illusion. Thus, my friend David Zahl has wisely said, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s control.” We confess with the Scriptures that the Lord directs our steps. But because our faith is small, we’re not so sure that he knows how to direct our steps very well. That lack of faith or lack of dependence upon God is what causes the “What If” questions to rush in with a vigor. And when they come, they leave a mark. 

We confess with the Scriptures that the Lord directs our steps. But because our faith is small, we’re not so sure that he knows how to direct our steps very well.

The Effects of Our “What If” Question

The “What If’s” inevitably lead to stress, panic and deteriorating health. The way Jesus describes it in Luke 12:27 is simply, “Toil and spinning.” What a perfect picture of what happens when we’re dominated by worry. The word for toil in Greek literally means to exhaust oneself doing wearisome work, and what does this look like? “Spinning around”. The idea is that you’re busy, but you’re not actually being productive. That is precisely what happens when we get caught up in worry and anxiety isn’t it? In an opinion article for the New York Times, Pico Iyer states it this way: “It’s only when we’re living in the future, the realm of “What If,” that we brilliantly incapacitate ourselves. And it’s mostly when someone abruptly cries, “Watch out!” that we lose control of the car we’re driving.” Research tells us that we are living in a time in the West where we’ve never been more stressed out, more worried than we are right now.

Dr. Robert Leahy, a prominent psychologist and anxiety specialist has said, “The average high  school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early  1950’s.” But this anxiety doesn’t come out of nowhere, rather it is part of the air we breathe. We live in what some have referred to as a performancist culture. That is to say, we have imbibed the idea that our worth in life is based on how we perform. So we strive to get into the top schools, we strive to work at the top firms, and we toil and spin to make more money. And if we don’t, well then, that must mean we’re just not all that valuable to the world. This mindset, that our performance justifies our existence may initially lead us to work harder, but eventually it will leave us burned out and filled to the brim with anxiety. So what does Jesus say the cure is? 

The Cure for Our “What If” Questions 

In the NYT article I previously referenced, the author insightfully says, “We worry only about exactly those things we can never do anything about. And then that very fact becomes something else we worry about. The cycle goes on and on…until we let the mind give over to something larger — wiser — than itself.”

What is that Something larger, wiser than ourselves? Jesus spells it out in Luke 12:22-24: 

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body  more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither  storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.

He continues, in verse Luke 12:29-30, “And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them.”

What is Jesus saying here? He’s saying to you when the “What If” questions plague you,  remember who your God is: he is not simply the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, but he is the one who cares so intimately about his creation that he feeds the birds of the air, he clothes the grass of the field. He is not merely your God, but he chooses to be called your  Father, your provider and your protector. 

Secondly, Jesus goes on to say remember who you are!  

Luke 12:24, “Of how much more value are you than the birds!” 

There’s two things that become strikingly clear that we need to remember about ourselves when the “What if” questions come:

1. Your worrying won’t help you at all because you are not God. 

  1. In spite of that, you are incredibly valuable to God. How valuable are you? Valuable enough that God comes in the person of Jesus Christ, suffers, bleeds and dies for your sins so that he would have the right to have you as his child.

This is the key: If you know you’re this valuable to him, you can’t help but feel more secure. And the more secure you are, the greater ability you’ll have to swat away the “What If’s” when they attack.

In light of that, Jesus instructs us to remember to pray, “Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you” (Luke 12:31).

If you know you’re this valuable to him, you can’t help but feel more secure.

Martin Luther put it this way: Pray and let God worry.” This is the way Paul states it this way, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication  with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which  surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). As you pray, remember the Fatherly goodness of your God and as a result you will be granted peace that goes beyond your circumstances.

I was very privileged growing up to have a great dad (and he still is). He played catch with me  and listened to me and really made it abundantly clear that he loved me. One of the ways my father showed his love for me was when I’d have a hard time getting to sleep or have nightmares. I can remember many times as a child, my father would lay down next to me, scratch my back  and begin reminding me of whose I was: “Your Dad won’t let anything happen to you. I’ll  protect you.” He’d pray with me and stay near me.

What happened to me as a result of my Father’s word and my father’s presence? Whatever “What Ifs” were filling my mind began fading away until I felt secure enough that I could rest. 

So too, when the “What Ifs” plague you, remember the presence of your Father, remember his  word to you and rest well in his care.