If only I could find my soulmate to marry. If only my mate felt like my soulmate. If only I could find that friend who really understands and accepts me for who I am. If only I could pursue the career I really want. If only my church were more [fill in the blank]. If only I weren’t so [fill in the blank]. If only I lived [fill in the blank]. If only I had [fill in the blank]. If only my family [fill in the blank]. If only [fill in the blank] hadn’t happened to me.
What are your if only’s? We all have them, because if only’s are a form of regret, and regrets are simply unavoidable in our experience — though not all of them are unavoidable. Some are nothing more than delusions.
Either way, we must take care with our regrets, because, whether based on something real or fantastic, they can erode our faith in God by subtly shifting our faith from God to our regrets — and that is truly regrettable.
When I say that some of our regrets are unavoidable, here’s what I mean:
1. We are sinners who, even as regenerate believers in Jesus, are committing or omitting sin in greater or lesser degrees all the time, and this scorns God and damages ourselves and others to greater or lesser degrees.
2. We live our lives intertwined and interacting with other sinners whose God-scorning sin affects or damages us in greater or lesser degrees.
3. We live in an age riddled with futility, so things are always breaking down or not working out the way they should (Romans 8:20).
4. And we live in a world under the power of the evil one, so we are frequently affected by the oppression and opposition of demonic forces (1 John 5:19).
This means we all have legitimate regrets for past occurrences that have detrimentally influenced who we are and where we are. It’s right to regret ways we have harmed or been harmed by others. And it certainly isn’t wrong to feel some if only’s over certain effects of the fall that we or others have suffered, resulting in terrible grief and loss.
There are numerous appropriate reasons we might wish things could have been or could now be different. And having a robust belief in the sovereignty of God does not necessarily preclude our feeling regret. Paul even begins Romans 9, the Bible’s most clear defense of God’s sovereignty in election, with an anguished “if only” lament over his fellow Israelites’ rejection of Jesus as the Christ (Romans 9:1–3). It’s just that confidence in God’s providence allows us to faithfully rest in God’s power and wisdom to work all things together for his children’s good, even if, like Paul, on a human level we really wish things were different (Romans 8:28).
But not all our “if only” regrets are legitimate and unavoidable. Some of our if only’s are rooted in imagined ideals or fantasies we believe because we’ve absorbed messages from our family, friends, and cultures (or indulged selfish desires).
Fantasy Ideals are not as easy to spot as our real regrets, because they are not as poignant. Unlike real regrets stemming from painful events we’ve endured or caused, we often can’t identify the genesis of fantasy regrets because they are amalgamations of various messages, impressions, aspirations, envies, and hopes we’ve picked up along the way, some extending back into childhood.
These are often unexamined, uncritical assumptions about what will make us happy that wield remarkable power over us because they keep forming mirage dreams we end up chasing. We don’t recognize them as fantasies; they just impress us as the way things should be. And when they keep dissipating as we approach them, they become sources of chronic “if only” discontentment.
The End of If Only
Whether we’re dealing with real or fantasy regrets, the way we know we are focusing too much on them is that we find them draining our hope and sapping our joy. They lead us into a wasteland of discouragement or sitting in the dungeon of despair.
What’s happening is that these regrets are shifting our focus away from trusting the promises of God — the grounds and fuel of our future hope — to trusting the promises of our regrets. Discouragement and despair set in because we feel trapped by regrets we cannot seem to change.
The path out of the wasteland, the key out of the dungeon, lies in two small words that convey omnipotent power to deliver us from every regret: “But God.”
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1–7)
You were once spiritually dead, living in regrettable sin, no matter how sordid or relatively well-behaved you were. But God! He loved you, he saved you, and he has made your future brighter than your heart has yet imagined (1 Corinthians 2:9).
The gospel truth is this: you are not trapped by any “if only” regret — real or fantasy, legitimate or illegitimate, past or present. All of your if only’s will find their end in your God, who is rich in mercy and abounding in a love for you so powerful, it conquers death and hell. All of his promises to you are yes in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). All your real, deep longings for joy he will fulfill, to some degree in this age, and in the age to come with all joy you will be capable of experiencing (Psalm 16:11).
So if your regrets are weighing you down, examine them. What is giving them life? Once you know, lay them aside and turn your gaze to Christ (Hebrews 12:1–2) and seize some of his promises. Remember: But God. Let him work your regrettable past for good, and let him blow away the fog of any fantasies.