There is a well-known line in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan responds to Lucy after she gets into a “what if” mood. I’m sure we can all relate. “What if this had happened, or that had not happened, how would the situation be changed.” Aslan wisely responds by saying, “Aslan does not tell what would have happened.” The point is this, we must focus on what is, not what we wished would be.
I sometimes fall into a series of “what ifs.” Lord, what if the 7th century Christians had translated the Bible into Arabic, rather than dismiss Arabia as a worthless desert, would Islam have still arisen? What if the pope had not excommunicated the eastern Patriarchs in 1054, would the East and the West be united today? Lord, what if Leo X had taken Martin Luther’s protests to heart rather than dismiss Luther as a “drunken monk who when sober will change his mind”? Lord, what if the mainline seminaries in the United States had remained faithful to historic orthodoxy, what would the United Methodist church look like today? My “what if” list is quite long, how about yours?
Sometimes my “what ifs” are not so grandiose as wondering about great junctures in the history of the church. Sometimes, they can get very personal. What if I had prayed more about this or that situation? What if I had been a better father? What if I had taken more time to listen in this or that situation rather than jumping to conclusions or running my mouth? My personal “what if” list is quite long, too. Turning the clock back is not just an annual ritual at daylight savings time, but is something I rehearse in my mind when I get in a “what if” mood. What if I could turn the clock back and re-live that situation.
The good news is that God does not want us to spend time weighing out all these possible contingencies, with the resulting guilt, or self-righteousness, or pity-parties, etc. that arise. The key is to not focus on human actions or inaction, but on God’s action. The gospel always trumps both our action and our inaction, even though the gospel will not unfold apart from us. The amazing truth is that despite human failings, sins and rebellion, whether it be at great junctures in church history, or last night when a conversation with your wife or children when awry, God is on the move. God can turn every possible scenario, even death on a cross, into an avenue of redemption and hope. We must trust that God is at work in human history and in our lives.
This is, at root, what it means to be an “eschatological people.” This means that we are a people living in the present, but with an eye towards the future and the final consummation of the ages. We know that all things will end with the vindication of God’s true church and the bending of every knee and the confessing of every mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord. Admittedly, the plot is nuanced and, at times, our way seems convoluted. But, if we fix our eyes on Jesus and trust in Him, He will bring us to our final destination. When we look back, even our darkest hour of regret will be yet another testimony to his faithfulness and his redemptive power.