4 Words You Don’t Want Stuck In Your Head (And 1 You Do)

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Both boys started at a brand new school this week. New teachers, new classmates, new lunch menus. They love it- especially lunch. We love it and are glad they love lunch. Our thumbs are up for different reasons, but three days in, the new school seems like a great fit.

And I’d be lying if I said, If only we had moved them here sooner hadn’t crossed my mind. If only we had enrolled them before the 7th grade and 4th, maybe they’d have missed some of those pitfalls.

I’d be lying if I denied If only’s criss-cross my mind.

If Only I Had…

We all think them. Sometimes it’s after a happy discovery. As in, If only I had known how much they’d love this broccoli-brownie recipe. They would have eaten cruciferous long before now- or like mine, If only they had gone to this school sooner. 

More often though, the If only I had’s that get stuck in our heads come when bad things happen. As in, If only we had left a minute earlier, there’d have been no accident. Or, If only I had called the doctor at the first pang, I’d have missed all this mess. 

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If only’s are some of the sneakiest is Satan’s vast arsenal. They are joy-taking, grumpy-making words. If we let them rest in our heads, they’ll paralyze our spiritual lives.

If-only-I-would-have’s drive out living hope with dead regret. 

Lethal Meditation

You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, Luther said, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. 

But the enemy would love us to be stuck in that rut with a nest of If only’s stuck on our heads. He’d love our If only’s to stink up the present and suck up our life-giving hope.

When we dwell on how life would have been better if we had only known this or done that, we let those dirty birds nest in our hair. Our if-only-I-had’s are a form of meditation- lethal, life-stealing type of meditation.

If only I had’s misplace our focus from the faithfulness and love of our all-wise God to how things would have gone, if I were god. If only I had’s keep us stuck on what cannot be undone. If only I knew’s tell us that we can only find purpose and joy if we know why- one of Satan’s most deadly lies.

Would You Stop The Wheels Of Providence?

If only’s steal joy from ourselves and glory from God. And the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Joy and meaning come when we live out into this reason we were created, and glorify God (Isaiah 43:7). And we reflect His glory when we act, think, feel and live in ways that call attention to the goodness and greatness of God.

But settling in If-Only-Land does not call attention to the goodness and greatness of God. Instead, settling there is second guessing the goodness of the God who guides us with his counsel and leads us for his name’s sake. The God whose ways are inscrutable ways. Providential, interconnected ways.

When a child looks at a clock, it looks first at one wheel, and then at another wheel; he does not look at them all together or the dependence that one has upon another; but the workman has his eyes on them all together and sees the dependence of all, one upon another; so it is in God’s providence…So when God has ordered a thing for the present to be thus and thus, how do you know how many things depend upon this thing? God may have some work to do twenty years hence that depends on this passage of providence that falls out this day or this week.  Jeremiah Burroughs, Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

When I allow If-only-I-had’s to nest on my head, I’m a child fixated on stopping one gear, not seeing how stopping this gear stops all the other connected gears. I don’t see that God may have a thousand good things that he has to bring about, and those thousand good things may depend on this one thing that I’m wishing had never been.

So, no: dwelling on if-only* is never good.

Learning from Scripture’s If Only We Had’s 

The Israelites lived in If-only Land. They may as well have coined the phrase. “The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!’ (Num. 11:4). “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted” (Ex. 16:3).

They let those birds nest. When Moses and Aaron warned them to leave If-Only Land, they refused to move on. So for forty years they remained stuck in that wilderness land.

Contrast that with King David’s “If-Only-I-Had.” His came after his rebel son Absalom died. At first glance his words sound a lot like the desperate rabble’s: “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

But that’s where the comparison ends. When Joab saw the king camping in dangerous If-Only Land, he warned him. “Now therefore arise, go out and speak kindly to your servants…So the king arose and took his seat in the gate,” (2 Samuel 19:7, 8).

Scripture’s If-only-I-had’s betray impatience with or mistrust in God. Dwelling on those four words reveal hearts that refuse to go at God’s pace to his place or hearts that would second guess the discipline of a loving Father.

Neither response reflects His grace and glory to a watching world.

The God of Hope

Eight years ago this month, my niece Hope was born. By that time, she was already home with Jesus. The loss of Hope was great. Scars remain and grief comes in waves and life is never the same.

But.

But Danielle and Drew know. They know there will come a joyful reunion one day. They know that the LORD will swallow up death forever and wipe away tears from all faces (Isaiah 25:8). They know that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:4).

And they know- really know- intimately and in real life and real time- know the God of hope (Romans 15:13). He fills them with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit they abound in hope (Romans 15:14). They abound in hope because they know the God of hope. The God of Hope.

But there is something big they don’t know.

If Only I Knew Why

I have a handful of friends who have endured unthinkable, tragic loss.  If-only-I-knew-why has danced through every one of their heads. And without exception, each one has relinquished her demand to know and understand why.

Vaneetha Rendall Risner isn’t a personal friend, but she has also endured,”unspeakable, unexpected, and preventable,” loss. Vaneetha says, If-only-I-knew-why had her bound.

While I thought that freedom would be found in answers, true freedom was actually found in surrender. I didn’t need to figure it out. It didn’t need to make sense to me. I didn’t need to understand the details. I just needed to trust God. Trust him because he is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more purposeful than I am.

[I]f we could see what God sees, we would be stunned. There is much more taking place in the heavenly realms than we can fathom.

God is infinitely more purposeful than any of us. And he always has a reason. He’s probably got many, because He alone knows all the facts. John Piper says, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” Or none.

By faith, we believe there are reasons. Good reasons. Reasons for delays in our plans and  for huge, unspeakable losses.

Even if we can’t name a single one.

If You Knew All The Facts…You’d Set Your Mind On Hope

Someone once said, God’s will is what you’d desire if you knew all the facts. I like that. It makes me see that most of my If only I had’s come when I don’t trust God knows all the facts. That’s when I end up in If-only Land with a nest on my head. 

So while the boy’s education to date isn’t exactly how I would have planned, I won’t look back. I know God guided us here this year. Not last year- there were too many gears, too many necessary and good connections. He brought us here this year, with His own hand.

Let me close with a little more about Hope.

In the the days and weeks and months after Hope’s birth, my sister and her husband did wonder why. We allwondered why. No test or doctor could explain why they couldn’t get to know Hope this side of heaven.

But Danielle and Drew did not let If-only’s trump hope in their heads. They traded 4 words for 1. They set their hope fully on grace.

And, boy, did that make their God look grand.

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 1:13

*If only’s in this post refer to morally-neutral choices we wish we had made in retrospect. They do not refer to the Spirit-given good conviction that we have sinned and need to repent. The language of repentance is not generally, If only I had, but Against you only have I sinned. But maybe your If only I had needs to be forgiven. More on that, here.

Croagh Patrick & Confession 46

Therefore I should give unceasing thanks to God, for He has often been forgiving of my carelessness and stupidity.  

The Confession of St. Patrick, #46


Last year, I explained why St. Patrick is my homeboy. He still is. And I’m still smitten by the Irish and in love with the people whose speech sounds like a song. And every St. Patrick’s Day every Irishman (and woman) goes out to find another Irishman to make a speech to, said Shane Leslie. 

Here am I. 

Because I can’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without thinking of Croagh Patrick and I can’t think of Croagh Patrick without thinking of what happened on that holiest of Irish mountains. But my memories climbing “Patrick’s Stack” are a wee bit tainted by a real tragedy.

Which should come as no surprise, Irish daughter of Eve such as I am. W.B. Yeats said the Irish had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains them through temporary periods of joy.

I share that sense. But I’m not Irish Catholic and I don’t share their long iceberg of guilt. I go back with Patrick and rest in God’s forgiveness. More on that in a minute. 

Back to the tragedy. The one in blue there on the left might have been flanked by two at St. Patrick’s summit. But the third sister didn’t arrive because of selfish, stupid me.  

What happened at Ireland’s Holy Mountain will stay on that mountain. Suffice it to say, it did not involve a shove of treachery on the high mountain scree. 

But there could have been three. There were two because I stole a mountaintop memory from one.

And godly grief produced repentance that lead to salvation without regret. Mostly. Salvation and forgiveness and grace for sure. 

But still a twinge of regret. Because when we met, as the sun set behind the sacred mountain, her blue eyes were wet. And I knew we couldn’t re-do

Dingle Peninsula and Gallarus Oratory and so many more roads to travel in two last days. Then home. And it’s not an easy pilgrimage to repeat, being from across the sea. 

I couldn’t get over or under or around the truth that my stupid sin got in her way. So, as much as I wanted a do-over, a pilgrimage for all three, grace had to be enough

And it was. It always is. 

So don’t worry. Don’t be Irish that way, you know, worried that you don’t have something to worry about. Sister three assured me she can laugh about it now. Which is quite her gift to me


A day will come when joy prevails, even over regret and tears and tragedy. It will all be swallowed up in victory. The Lamb will reign and in his presence will be fullness of joy. Complete and utter joy, untainted by carelessness and selfishness and just plain stupidity. 

St. Patrick’s day is bittersweet. And that’s okay. Because bitter reminds me of my Lord’s scars, wounds borne for sinners such as I, and sweet for God’s forgiving grace. It’s the air we sisters breathe.

When I asked the sister who didn’t summit if I could post this today, she said, Sure-just don’t be too heavy. Make ’em laugh. There’s grace.” 
I don’t know if I’ve succeeded with that. But onward and upward. Joyfully pressing on through Croagh Patrick and beyond.
I pray I tread as Patrick trod, by grace and with unceasing thanks to God who has been forgiving of my selfishness and stupidity.  
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O LORD, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.

Psalm 130:3-4