Handling the What If’s

Over the years, I have often found myself struggling with the “what ifs”, primarily in regards to my relationships with people I work with (yes, with fellow missionaries). What if the person responds in a negative way to my email? What if that person decides to go in that direction, contrary to what I have recommended? What if they refuse to do anything at all in response to my request?  What would I do or say then?

I have far too often found myself absorbed and distracted by ongoing dialogues in my mind, imagining different responses from people to particular situations and what I would then do or say in response to their response. In these situations, I find myself falling into the trap of imagining various ways that I could retaliate, rather than responding in grace. These internal dialogues prove to be very unproductive, both because they tend to portray other people in a very unflattering and distorted light, and because my fantasized response to the imaginary situation would only make things worse.

Furthermore, I have come to realize that my “What if” thought processes are devoid of faith. I am guilty of thinking like an unbeliever, as if God does not exist or is uninterested in my life and ministry.

Just to be clear, these “What If” internal conversations are very different from the necessary process of developing rational contingency plans for realistic risks that a missionary team might encounter in a particular part of the world. Those type of contingency plans are developed by a group of people, based on a systematic risk analysis, recorded on paper, and then filed away for a time when they might be needed. What I am talking about here is the non-stop fretting about possible negative scenarios, without involving other mature people in the process of planning a measured response.

How do we shut down these unproductive and even sinful “What if” dialogues? Recently I found an excellent example in that man of faith, Abraham, in Genesis 24.

Abraham needed to find a wife for his beloved son, Isaac.  The future of his family depended on it. But so did the promises of God. Yahweh had repeatedly promised Abraham that he would become a great nation, that his descendents would be like the stars of the sky, that the land of Canaan would become the possession of his descendents and that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him (Gen 12:2-3, 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:5-7). These promises were all dependent on Isaac having children, and having children that would worship and follow Yahweh faithfully (Gen 17:4-16).

So Isaac needed a wife, and this wife needed to come from among those who knew and feared Yahweh, the God of Abraham. Abraham decides that the best place to look for such a wife would be among his relatives in Northwest Mesopotamia. But he is too old to make the journey, and he fears that if he sends Isaac, Isaac will never return to the promised land of Canaan. So he sends Eliezer, his senior household servant.

The servant asked him, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?” “Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” – Genesis 24:5–8

But Eliezer immediately sees the risk. What if the prospective bride he finds is unwilling to return to the “Wild West” of Canaan? He realized that asking a young woman to agree to marry a man she had never met, living more than 700 km to the west, did not have a high probability of getting a favourable answer.

How does Abraham respond to the “What if”?

  1. First of all, he is very clear on what cannot be compromised. Isaac will not be allowed to go back to Mesopotamia to court this girl. Abraham is not willing to take the risk that Isaac will stay there. God sent him to Canaan and the family was going to stay there. Maybe Abraham suspected that Isaac’s conciliatory personality would make it difficult for him to insist that he needed to return to the promised land.
  2. Secondly, Abraham unwaveringly stands on the calling and promises of God.  He is where he is because God called him from Mesopotamia and brought him to Canaan. God promised on oath that he would give this land to Abraham’s descendents. Abraham quotes the very words God used. He identifies his God as the God of heaven who brought him to his land. This Abraham knows for sure, and it is his foundation. God has led him thus far and has declared what he will do for Abraham, and of this Abraham is sure.
  3. Thirdly, Abraham expresses his trust in future grace.  The God who has led him thus far will not abandon him now. He believes that Yahweh will send his angel before Eliezer to make his trip a success. God did not specifically promise Abraham that he would make this trip a success. We have no record that God told Abraham to find a wife for Isaac among his relatives in faroff Mesopotamia. Abraham has no idea what his younger relatives think about their old uncle’s journey to Canaan so many years ago or how they might respond to an invitation to accompany this servant. But Abraham believes that the grace and abundant provision that God has consistently demonstrated to him and his family up to now will continue because God can be trusted. He also believes that God is sovereign over everything, including the hearts and decisions of young unmarried women, 700 km away!
  4. Finally, Abraham accepts all the risk and consequences if the trip proves to be a failure. Eliezer will not bear the blame if the woman refuses to return with him. He will not lose his job or be accused of not trying hard enough. Abraham’s confidence in God is so strong that he believes that if this trip is a failure, God will provide a wife for Isaac in some other way.  (This approach to life was likewise demonstrated when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac on an altar on Mount Moriah. He believed that if his son was killed, God would raise up his son from the dead (Heb 11:17-19).) So Abraham is willing to live with the risk of failure, and does not worry about it because he knows that God will then provide in some other miraculous way.

Abraham does not get caught up in the trap of the “What ifs”. He refuses to think up a “Plan B” if Eliezer’s invitation to the prospective bride is turned down. His faith in what God has promised is strengthened by the repeated evidences of God’s faithfulness and grace in his life up to this point. So he thinks it is very reasonable to believe that God will continue to give him success and provide a wife for Isaac.  In light of God’s demonstrated blessing, his “desperate gamble” to find a wife for his son is neither foolish or risky.

Likewise, when I find myself wandering down “What If Street”, I need to remind myself that I serve a God who has called me, and who has promised that he would provide all the resources I need for accomplishing his call (John 15:16).  God is bigger than all the contingencies and risks we face. As we have trusted in his grace up to this point, we need to continue to trust his “future grace”.  To think further on this topic, I would recommend John Piper’s book by that name: “Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God.”

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