If is a very short word, but it can cause a lot of trouble in our thoughts and prayer life. It seems harmless enough, but it can be very corrosive.
“If” is a speculative word. We waste precious time and energy on things that didn’t or haven’t happened. What if my circumstances were different? What if I had made other choices in my past? What if something happens to my health? “If” seems to promise a lot of possibilities, but it delivers nothing concrete.
“If” takes our focus away from the present. We spend time wondering “what if..” about the future, or “if only..” about our past. And “if” is passive. It causes us to focus on fear and regret, instead of action and accountability.
“If” only has two letters, but the first one is “I.” I don’t spend much time asking “if” someone else made the right choices (unless I’m judging them, which is also wrong), or if something good or bad will happen to my neighbors.
“If” doesn’t have to hurt our prayer life or take over our thoughts, but it must be kept in check. The Bible has a lot to say about letting the “ifs”, “what ifs”, and “if onlys” take over our thinking:
Matthew 6:25-28 Isaiah 35:4 John 14:27 Jeremiah 17: 7-8 Luke 12:28-30 Psalm 59:16 Philippians 4:6-7
The Bible also uses the word “if” to focus our minds and prayers on action and on God’s promises:
John 8:36 2 Chronicles 15:2 Romans 13:7 Proverbs 23:15 John 13:35 Deuteronomy 4:29 Romans 8:31 Psalm 139:7-8
There is a lot of power in that little word, “If.” If only we learn how to tame it!
I write about prayer as a pursuit. Prayer is, at once, both simple and mysteriously complex.
It is a simple thing to pray–to direct one’s thoughts and words toward God. It is no more difficult than having a conversation with another person.
And yet it is not the same as talking to another person. God’s ways are not our ways. He is Holy, Sovereign, and Almighty. We come to God in need, but God has no “needs.” He has no need to confide in us, or ask for our help, or plead with us. Instead, He chooses to share with us His promises and His plans. He allows us to be part of His great work, and asks us to be His hands and feet and voice in this world. He pleads with us to come and spend time with Him and walk in relationship with Him.
I spent some time recently reviewing the life of George Muller. https://www.georgemuller.org/ George Muller was born over 200 years ago. He was, by his own admission, a liar and a thief in his early years. But when we came to Christ, his life changed dramatically. His life was a series of miracles that attested to his great faith and active practice of prayer. Muller founded several orphanages in England, and he did all of it through prayer. He never did traditional fund-raising: he never asked anyone for money or donations, he didn’t take out loans, he didn’t find “partners” or “sponsors” to pay for any of the needs. He simply prayed. He prayed for money to buy buildings. He prayed that God would send workers. He prayed for food and clothing and furniture that the children would need. And he vowed to take in any (and as many) children who came.
The stories of George Muller’s faith are legendary. He prayed for money to start one orphanage– he ended up with enough for several! He prayed for supplies– people came and gave furniture. Milk wagons broke down and the milk was donated to the orphanage. One story states that there was no food one morning. Muller prayed. Shortly afterward, he went to the door, and there, on the doorstep, lay a 50-lb. bag of rice. No one knows who left it or how it got there. God showed up in miracle after miracle in Muller’s life. And that doesn’t mean that his life was without struggle or heartache. He agonized over friends who were unsaved; he prayed for them over a period of years. One close friend remained unsaved until after Muller’s death. He experienced the heartbreak of losing his wife. But he was consistent in his witness about the power of prayer.
Muller prayed about everything– as we all should, all the time. (Philippians 4:6, 1Thessalonians 5:17) Little, seemingly unimportant things; huge, seemingly impossible things. God cares about them all. He is the Almighty– there is nothing so big (or so tiny) that He cannot do it! There is no heartache or struggle that He doesn’t want to hear about! Nothing can separate us from His Love (Romans 8:38). No matter what we’re going through, we can bring it to God.
But God’s ways– powerful, compassionate, miraculous– remain mysterious. We can trust that God will hear our prayers. But we cannot predict how, or when, or if He will let us see the answers we seek. Nor can we predict how God will use our simple prayers to impact the world around us! George Muller’s orphanages helped more than 2,000 homeless children survive, grow, and in many cases thrive and contribute to the lives of countless others. And the stories of his faith and the hundreds of small but significant miracles he experienced have inspired generations of people for more than a century and a half! And his story is not unique–we have an amazing “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) throughout history testifying to the power of God to hear and answer prayer in mysterious, miraculous, even mischievous ways! From finding lost keys to feeding multitudes; from protecting kittens to rescuing captives; from stretching budgets to saving souls– God’s ways are mysterious, Holy, and wholly good.
Prayer can be such a simple thing– and it can have eternal impact!
I hope that today will be filled with peace, joy, and blessing for anyone reading this. But I know that today will bring bad news for some, pain for others, and hardship for many. Life is filled with struggle, disappointment, failures, and loss. Our first reaction is often to worry, which can lead to more worry, and a sense of urgency, even panic. In many cases, we have neither the resources nor the wisdom to overcome our struggles–even sustained effort or a “lucky break” may leave us without much hope. And the more we worry, the less we accomplish. But telling ourselves (or others) to simply “stop worrying” doesn’t banish worry; sometimes it increases it! Now we worry about worrying too much, or we find new things to worry about.
But there is a time-honored and proven pattern that can help. Jesus spoke of it in His “Sermon on the Mount.” In Matthew 6, He gives us this advice:
“So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Matthew 6:31-34 (NIV)
The Apostle Paul expanded on this in his letter to the Philippian believers. He told them to be anxious for nothing–that regardless of our situation or circumstances, we should not panic, but pray (seek God’s grace, righteousness, wisdom, and help). But more than that, we should present all of our prayers, petitions, and requests with thanksgiving and praise!
This is not the same as pretending that our struggles don’t exist, or that they are not important, or that we are glad about the pain, uncertainty, or hardship that they bring. Instead it is lifting our eyes to Heaven and finding that God is bigger than it all; that His grace, His strength, His wisdom is sufficient for the next step– for today’s worries–for today’s battles and burdens.
This doesn’t happen naturally or automatically–we must seek, pray, pursue righteousness, ask for help, and continue to stand firm. There are some who point to the words of Jesus, or of Paul as a kind of “magic formula.” If we repeat a few promises from the Bible, or if we pray certain prayers, or convince ourselves and others that we have “enough” faith, God is obligated to change our circumstances and give us the resolution or relief we want. God is not primarily interested in our relief– He is interested in our redemption, our renewal, and our eternal reality. In following this pattern of turning our panic into prayer, and our prayer into praise, He promises that we will experience His peace. Our panic will be transformed–even if our situation stays the same; even if it gets worse before it gets better!
So how do we practice this pattern; how do we train for this transformation?
Here are a couple of suggestions:
Start by seeking God with abandon–pursue Him with your whole heart– thank Him for who He is, and for all He has done. It can be helpful to review some of the names of God–I AM, Almighty, Creator, Lord, King of Kings.. Or read a Psalm or find a song that reminds you of God’s character and power. Think of the times when God has been faithful in your own past.
Find something about your situation for which you can be thankful– genuinely thankful. Years ago, when I was young and single, I was laid off from my first full-time job after nine months. Was I worried? Yes! Where would I find another job? How would I pay my bills? But I resolved to start being thankful about all I had learned on the job– I had met new people, learned new skills, purchased a car…God knew my needs for the future, and even though I had to wait another eight months before I found a full-time job, I was able to find temporary work and interview for other jobs in the meantime. And I had friends and family who offered good advice and encouragement along the way. I know some situations are more painful and perplexing than the loss of a job. When I my father died, nothing made the pain less, but I could thank God for Dad’s life and the time we had with him. This is NOT easy, nor is it meant to be…It may not happen for days, or weeks–don’t give up!
Cry out to God– in praise, but also in petition, pain, confusion, confession, and raw emotion. God wants a real relationship with us, and that includes walking with us in the “valley of the shadow of death.” We don’t have to fear evil, or worry about the future, not because it holds no danger or dread, but because we never have to walk alone and defenseless!
Remember this is a pattern to follow, not a pill to swallow–none of this comes easy, and God’s peace is not an instant “fix.” Instead, it is a growing conviction that God is who He says He is– faithful, loving, victorious, eternal, and sovereign. Such peace defies our panic and erodes our worry, leaving us ready to face the battles before us, and move forward through the struggles.
It is not will power or a change of circumstances that brings incomprehensible peace. It is not magic– it is Majesty!