“If only…” I wonder how many times we say those two words in our lives. If only the relationship would have worked out. If only I would have gotten that other job. If only I had studied harder for the exam. If only the doctors had caught it sooner. If only I would have known then what I know now. If only I would have listened better. If only I had not said what I did. If only I had worked harder. If only they had understood where I was coming from. If only things had turned out differently. If only there would have been some other way. If only …
If only – they are words of regret, words of longing, words expressing something hoped for that has not come to pass, words that signify the incongruence between expectation and reality.
We all have countless “if only” moments in our lives. Some of them are rather insignificant: they come and go, leaving no lasting impression on the trajectory of our lives. Others, however, mark our stories like signposts along the journey. We can look back and see where and how our lives changed because of them. These “if only” experiences indeed alter the very course of our lives.
I have been thinking about the “if only” moments in my own story in recent weeks. Perhaps it is the turning of the calendar to a new year that has caused me to be somewhat reflective. Perhaps it is the reality of mid-life — looking back and looking ahead, realizing that there is most likely more in the rearview mirror than there is on the horizon, unless I live past 100, that is!
In these ruminations, I have turned to various places in the Christian Scriptures wherein God’s people of old found themselves in “if only” moments. Most prominent in my thoughts is the story of God’s people in the wilderness, after having been miraculously led out of slavery in Egypt.
The short of the story is this: God’s people ended up in Egypt amid a famine. A new ruler arose, and they were enslaved — for a very long time. After generations, God called Moses to lead them to freedom, and they ended up in the wilderness. While in Egypt, they longed for freedom. Once free, facing the hardships of a wilderness journey, they looked back upon Egypt with hearts filled with “if only” moments of lamentation and complaint (Exodus 16). Amid their wilderness sojourn, things were not turning out as they expected or anticipated. If only …
On the one hand, we may look at this story and think that the newly freed slaves were acting ungrateful in voicing their complaints, that their lamentations are a sign of doubt. But I prefer what Elna Solvang, Associate Professor of Religion at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, says. Solvang argues that “complaint is a turning to God — not away — trusting that God the Almighty does not ignore, dismiss or punish those who call out in fear, anger, suffering, and need.”
I like that. It makes sense to me: voicing our complaints to God is a sign of trust in God, trust that God can handle our gripes, trust that God’s relationship with us is strong enough to withstand whatever it is our hearts have to say, especially amid those “if only” moments that are in fact, life altering, trust that our fear, anger, suffering, and need matter to God.
Solvang looks farther on in the story and sees that amid the complaints of God’s people, God does three things. God hears. God recognizes their need. And God responds. Hears. Recognizes. Responds. The people are hungry, and God sends them bread and quail: it may not be the response that they desired, but it met their needs still the same. A God who hears, recognizes, and responds. That is a God in whom we can trust.
I have no idea what the “if only” moments in your life have been, or what they may be now, but I encourage you to do what God’s people of old did: name your complaints, your “if only” sentiments to God. I encourage you to trust that God will not ignore, dismiss, or punish you for naming them, and I encourage you to take comfort and find hope in the assurance that God will hear your complaint. God will recognize your need. God will respond in grace.
God Bless your “if only” moments.
Jan. 24, 2018
Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Dr. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.