Letting Go of “What If?”

It can be a very sobering moment when you stop to reflect on the biblical truth that everything in your life and mine – absolutely everything, both blessing and trial – has been preordained by God from all eternity…especially when you think about all those unpleasant events/poor choices in your past that you would rather gloss over, conceal or (better yet) forget entirely.

I’m not at all qualified for the task, so I’m not even going to try to explain in this space how it is that God is absolutely sovereign over all of the details of our lives and the choices we make…and yet somehow we also have free will. We are obviously free, if for no other reason than that we routinely choose to sin; God, by His very nature, can never, ever be the author of sin. Coherently explaining this great mystery is certainly better handled by a pastor or theologian. As just another Christian in the congregation, I simply accept the fact that God has had His hand on me throughout my entire life, and that nothing – no matter how screwed up it may appear to me – has happened outside of His will.

As difficult as it may be to grasp the tension between God’s sovereignty and mankind’s free will, I’ve always found it easier to wrap my head around this mystery as long as God’s revealed truth confines itself to the abstract, i.e. “the life of the mind.” Lofty theological rhetoric, especially solid biblical truth, is all fine and dandy as long as it is primarily limited to the realm of ideas, but it’s something else altogether when it crash-lands like a flaming meteor in my back yard and stubbornly refuses to be relegated to the margins any longer.

This past Wednesday evening (April 14), Dave Cover spoke to The Crossing’s divorce recovery class, a weekly seminar which my wife and I currently facilitate. The topic last week was forgiveness, so Dave spent most of his time in Matthew 18:21-35, a.k.a. The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. Having facilitated this class for two prior sessions, last Wednesday marked the third time that I had the opportunity to “listen in” as Dave delivered a homily on how we all tend to assume the role of the unmerciful servant simply because our fallen, darkened hearts fail to see the weight and seriousness of our own sins against the living God. The sins we commit against God we erroneously reckon as “no big deal” while the offenses that others commit against us are – by our own standards – completely outrageous and in immediate need of redress.

What caught my attention this time, however, was that Dave led off with the firm, confident declaration that “God does not have a Plan B…or C…or D…for the life of anyone who has been called to faith in Christ.” I was caught off-guard by this opening remark, not only by the deeper implications of this clearly-biblical truth for my own life but also by the dawning realization that he had probably said this the first two times he spoke on forgivenesss…and yet the weight of it had failed to land on me both times. (As an aside, have you noticed that it’s incredibly disorienting when God’s Truth finally does break in on us?)

As of today, I’m not sure which of these two truths is “a harder sell” for a room full of people going through an unexpected separation and/or divorce, people who in many cases have lived through unbelievable, appalling treatment by someone who at one time claimed to love them and promised, before God, to honor them. I’m still hopeful enough to believe that absolutely no one gets married wondering how their eventual separation and/or divorce will go down. Because so few people actually plan to get divorced, the sheer number of losses associated with this painful season of life is often overwhelming, and yet there’s Dave standing up in front, bringing two very difficult biblical truths to bear:

  1. Your current life situation is by no means some freak cosmic accident. God didn’t react with surprise when your spouse initiated an affair, threw you out of your home or served you with papers. God is not sitting on His throne in Heaven with a bowl of popcorn shouting, “Wow! I sure didn’t see that one coming!” Just like Job, the suffering and pain in our lives had to pass through God’s approval process first (Job 1:6-12).

  2. There is no “Plan B,” no better roadmap that God had in mind when he knit you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). While God never wills for sin in your life, the life you are living right now is exactly the life that God had in mind for the purpose of drawing you closer to Christ, despite your sinful choices and attitudes. Oftentimes God has to first tear down our existing lives to rebuild them; what feels like painful cruelty to us is in fact God’s merciful plan for calling us to Himself, the greatest of all possible goods.

Whenever disaster strikes, the innate human tendency is to look back wistfully on earlier, pre-disaster days and wonder what we should have done differently to head off the difficulty that we are currently living through. This is certainly true for me. I’ve noticed, though, that men and women who have unexpectedly had their marriages severed, in particular, tend to feel as though they must have screwed up God’s plan so badly that it is now impossible for them to find peace with God, the logic going something like this: “He must be really mad at me for messing things up so badly. I have no right to seek after Him now that I have allowed this great evil into my life.”

Seriously, I can barely manage to sit through a single meal if one of my kids is talking with a mouth full of food or loudly slurping their soup. So when I compare and contrast my level of patience with the mind of God revealed to me in Scripture, I find myself wanting to crawl under a rock and stay there for at least a few weeks. How deeply I have injured the heart of God with my addictions, my sinful choices, my disregard for His image as it is displayed in other people. How often I have been profane, how many people I have hurt, starting with my now-deceased parents and still evident in the words and heart attitudes I display – even today – as father to several children. Far from simply slurping my soup at the dinner table, I have sinned in a manner that is worthy of instantaneous judgment and summary execution. (Think that sounds too harsh? I can’t tell you how many times I have read the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament and mentally checked off the number of times that the elders of Israel would have been compelled to drag me to the city gates for stoning.)

Yesterday, a very brave young woman gave her testimony to the entire congregation just ahead of Dave’s sermon; my heart ached for her as I recognized a strong resemblance to my own life as a young adult. I’m nearly thirty years older than this woman, and quite honestly I still can’t figure out why my early adult years “had to be” so entirely shot-through with apostasy and an appalling amount of sin. While I am grateful to God that this particular woman was brought to Christ at a much earlier age than I was – and thus has that much more to look forward to as God continues His work in her heart – I still found myself wondering what my life “might have looked like” had I accepted Jesus as my Savior in my early 20’s…as opposed to my late 30’s. Wouldn’t it have been “better” somehow if I had started attending seminary as a young man…instead of waiting until I was 48 to enroll? Questions such as this pepper the imagination, whether we want them to or not, and can so easily fuel a lot of regret.

But then, of course, I have to go right back to Pastor Dave opening up a can of God’s Truth on everyone in Wednesday’s DivorceCare class: “God does not have a Plan B.” For Saul of Tarsus, for all the wrecked people in addiction recovery, for the pain-wracked lives struggling through divorce, for those mourning the loss of a child, for the young woman who spoke in church yesterday, and for me personally…we all have a lot to bear in terms of guilt and the relentless assault of countless “What if..?” questions.

While we all sin against God each and every day, there are those of us who have “transgressed quite visibly” and, in ancient Israel, would almost certainly have been dragged to the city gate and stoned to death once our life of sin was discovered. Those of us who have hit bottom at 120MPH have, perhaps, a slightly-more-pressing need to know that before even one of our days came to pass, God had ordained them all (Psalm 139:16). How can a great sinner like myself rightly begin to worship a Maker Who has gone to such extraordinary lengths to redeem my life (Ephesians 2:4-7; 1 John 4:9-10)? What mind can comprehend a God Who accepts the feeble worship offered to Him by a dying criminal and reassures him that He will be with him in paradise that very day (Luke 23:42-43)?

As we find ourselves in relationship with others in the church who feel quite certain that they have “completely blown it with God,” may we all have the presence of mind to remind the broken and the lost that Jesus ever ready stands to save them, full of pity joined with power (Joseph Hart, Come Ye Sinners, Hymns, arr. 1759). Jesus never, ever implements a Plan B…we do (Genesis 3).

Isaiah 46:8-11 (ESV, added emphasis mine)
“Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’

calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.

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