After graduating from college, I went through a period where I questioned almost every decision I had ever made. From wondering why I bought a particular pair of pants to second-guessing what career I wanted to pursue, I fielded an unending stream of “if only”s. If only I had as many connections as her, if only I had the same experience as him, if only I had the same opportunities as so-and-so.

Whether it’s pining over a job we didn’t get, lamenting the one that got away, or wishing we could change parts of our past, it’s easy to constantly play the “if only” game and wonder what might have been. We convince ourselves we would be happier if certain circumstances had worked out how we wanted them to. We crave the things we think we want instead of the things we actually have. It’s tempting to focus on the could have been rather than the here and now, but it’s not healthy. Here are three reasons we should avoid playing the “if only” game:

It Causes Discontentment.

When our lives aren’t following the blueprints we envisioned in our minds, it’s natural to second-guess our decisions or deplore our circumstances. This is the time of life we always dreamed of, yet navigating the real world is more difficult than we thought it would be. It’s hard not to compare ourselves to our peers and think life would be so much better if “x, y or z” transpired.

We sometimes assume different circumstances would lead to more desirable outcomes, but our perfect fantasies always omit the hardest realities. Even if everything worked out exactly as we wanted it to, there would still be complications and difficulties along the way. Playing the “if only” game can cause our hope to be rooted solely in circumstances: getting the job we want, going to a certain school, living in a particular city. If these things are stripped away from us, or if they’re not unfolding in the way we think they should, we become discontent.

In his theology of the cross, Martin Luther confronted Christians’ desires for success and glory by noting Jesus revealed Himself primarily through the cross. Believing “God can be found only in suffering and the cross,” Luther encouraged Christians to let go of the notion that following Christ would guarantee a picture-perfect life. When our self-worth, joy or purpose is dependent upon circumstances, we will only be satisfied when life is going according to plan. But when we find our identity and meaning in Christ and His cross, we can experience joy regardless of our circumstances. As Paul wrote in Philippians 4:12-13, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

It Causes Us to Focus on the Past Rather Than the Present.

Spending time wondering “what might have been” is a little like trying to drive merely by using the rear view mirrors. You can’t focus on the road ahead when you’re looking at the ground you’ve already covered. Hindsight is 20/20, so most of us probably have situations we would navigate differently if we had a second chance. Yet focusing too much on the past can keep us permanently stuck there, replaying memories we are powerless to change.

After faithfully following Jesus for three years, Peter knowingly denied him three times. He could have easily spent the rest of his life haunted by the mistake he made. But Jesus transformed Peter’s life through offering him forgiveness and a second chance. The story is a powerful reminder for us: in the midst of our past sins and shortcomings, Jesus simply calls us to follow Him. Rather than replaying past scenarios in our minds and wishing we could create alternate outcomes, we should move into the future knowing our failures never determine our futures.

It Can Prevent Us From Fully Trusting God.

During junior high, I began experiencing some neurological problems. As I visited countless specialists and underwent numerous tests, I remained confident God would heal me. But when He didn’t, I started doubting His goodness. I felt discarded by God when I needed Him most. I felt like He was laughing at my expense rather than coming to my rescue. It took me a long time to realize God was still good even if He didn’t answer my prayers in the way I thought He should. The Almighty Creator of the universe really does know what He is doing.

When we play the “if only” game, we strive to be in constant control because we’re not sure God is up for the job. We struggle to always make the right decisions instead of realizing God can redeem our dead ends and detours. We hold onto situations that aren’t good for us, career paths that aren’t best for us, and dreams that aren’t true to us because, when push comes to shove, we’re not convinced God has our best interests at heart. Focusing on what might have happened can shape our image of God in a negative way and prevent us from seeing His faithfulness in every situation.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “God never withholds from His child that which His love and wisdom call good. God’s refusals are always merciful—‘severe mercies’ at times, but mercies all the same. God never denies us our hearts desire except to give us something better.” We have to know God well enough to believe what is actually true about Him. God is not a vengeful God who keeps good things from us; He is a loving Father who sometimes steers us in a different direction because He knows it is best for us. 

When we rest in the knowledge that God is trustworthy, we don’t need to worry about what might have been in our past. We can move boldly into the future knowing God “works for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28).

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