As we journey through life, many difficult questions confront us. Few are more perplexing than the universal interrogative, “What if?”
You know: “What if I had done this, instead of doing that?” or, “What if I made that decision, instead of this one?” For many people, the echoes of “what if” plague them throughout their adult lives. They wonder what might have been if they had gone to a different college, if they had taken a different job, or if they had married someone else.
Sometimes it’s a singular act: “What if I had turned left instead of right – or if I had just kept going straight?” “What if I hadn’t canceled that appointment?” “What if I had been better prepared for that interview?” “What if I had made that investment, or taken that risk I chose to avoid?”
The problem with what-if ponderings is there’s nothing we can do about them. They exist in the increasingly distant past, and no amount of wishing or remorse can restore them to the present. H.G. Wells’s fanciful time machine has yet to be invented, and even if we could send ourselves back to fateful moments in our personal histories, there’s no certainty we could change anything anyway. And if we could, what might be the impact on the “space-time continuum,” as fretted the characters in the film, “Back to the Future”?
In reality, even if (sometimes it’s hard to escape that “what if” phrase) we could alter decisions or actions in the past, there’s no guarantee that the outcomes would have been better than what we’ve experienced.
For instance, I spent my first year of college in Houston, Texas, then transferred to the Ohio State University, where I majored in journalism. What if I hadn’t transferred? Or if I’d transferred, but not to Ohio State? I would have had a different set of friends and professors. My career path probably would have been different, perhaps dramatically so. I wouldn’t have become the ardent Buckeye fan that I am. And I wouldn’t have met my wife in a Columbus, Ohio suburb, gotten married and been blessed with the children and grandchildren we’ve had.
Sure, there are things along the way I’d like to change. More than a few, actually. But even my failures, blunders, and foolish decisions have turned into experiences from which I’ve profited and grown. We often think, “If I only knew then what I know now,” but usually we know things now because of mistakes we had to learn from then.
If there was anyone who wished he could change the past, it was the apostle Paul. A one-time zealous persecutor of those who followed Jesus Christ, he literally saw the light on the road to Damascus and became an irrepressible Christ follower himself. He sometimes reflected on his past life, but ultimately concluded, “…But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
The apostle wasn’t ignoring or excusing his previous actions and attitudes, but recognized the futility of dwelling on the unchangeable past. Instead, he chose to focus on the present and the future, intent on not adding to his collection of regrets.
We also have the assurance of knowing that when we act unwisely, God already has dealt with the “what if” questions and ordained an acceptable resolution. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).
We needn’t worry about foiling the Master Planner’s sovereign plans. He’s already studied our lives, from beginning to end, and made contingencies for every “what if” along the way. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).