This is the first of what may be many guest posts for Off The Cuff Christian. When I started this blog I had no real long-term ideas for where is would be going. It was mostly a sounding board for my ideas that I’d like to put into a book.
My good friend Chris approached me recently and asked if he could write a post for Off The Cuff Christian. I thought is was a great idea and he wrote an awesome article that I am featuring as a guest writer. Hopefully this won’t be the last guest writer, but rather the first of many.
One of my favorite comic books growing up was a series by Marvel called “What If…”. The premise of the book was to present hypothetical situations in which pivotal moments in the lives of superheroes had not happened the way they did.
What if Captain America hadn’t vanished during World War 2? What if the X-Men had died on their first mission? What if the Avengers had never been? What if Uncle Ben had lived?
These comics were interesting to me, not because of their superb drawings or story lines, but because of the question they were asking. A question I’ve found that I ask on a constant basis. What could have been?
In the summer of 2009, my parents and I were taking a road trip down to South Carolina for a wedding. At one point in the ten-hour drive, we stopped at a Burger King to get some lunch. There was a Transformers themed scratch off game happening at the time. You were given a scratch off card with your purchase and then prompted to scratch off one, and only one, of the two spaces. You could choose to scratch off the Autobot’s side, or the Decepticon’s side to reveal your prize (or lack thereof).
After the briefest of deliberations, I scratched off the Autobot side. “Sorry, play again.” Well, no grand prize for me. For a completely rational person, I suppose this is where the game would have ended. But of course… I did still have that Decepticon side. Unscratched. Taunting me. What if it were a winner? I took my quarter to it to reveal the prize I could never claim.
A croissant sandwich.
Phew! A subtle wave of relief flowed over me. Certainly no loss in missing out on a breakfast sandwich. But what would I have done if my ill-fated prize had been the $10,000 grand prize? The subtle wave of relief would be replaced by regret and anger as schemes started to fill my head.
“Maybe if I got a bit of tape…”
But in the end there would have been no solution that could end with me claiming the money. Luckily, my desire to know what could have been resulted in the knowledge that I was not to receive a buttered croissant with sausage and egg on it. Would I truly have been any happier to know that I came within a coin scratch of receiving a life altering sum of money?
And so it is that we get hung up on that seemingly inexhaustible question: What If? When we lose a loved one who is near to us, when we regret the choices we make, when we mourn for ourselves and others, we ask it endlessly. What if I could have done something to stop it? What if I hadn’t said those things? What if they had just listened? What if I had just went home?
But unlike the scenario at Burger King, we are not told what alternate fate may have awaited us. To that end, the question will ultimately lead us nowhere. It provides no insight for the present and no plan for the future. Instead, when faced with disappointment and failure, ask yourself a question that has the potential to guide you forward. Ask a question that can change your trajectory.
In C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novel Prince Caspian, the four Pevensie children are running a race against time to bring aid to Prince Caspian’s greatly outnumbered forces. After losing much time and hitting a perplexing crossroads, the group decides to take their chances and head south. At this point, Lucy, the youngest, sees Aslan, the great lion, in between the mountains to the north. After trying to sway the group to head north, she continues on with them after Peter, the eldest, insists they continue south.
Ultimately, the southern path leads the group to disaster, forcing them to backtrack and costing them precious time. During their return trip, Lucy wanders off in the middle of the night while the others are sleeping. It is then that she encounters Aslan and weighs the decision she made earlier that day.
“… You have work in hand, and much time has been lost today.”
“Yes, wasn’t it a shame?” said Lucy. “I saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so—”
From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.
“I’m sorry,” said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. “I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?”
The Lion looked straight into her eyes.
“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “You don’t mean it was? How could I – I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that… oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you. But what would have been the good?”
Aslan said nothing.
“You mean,” said Lucy rather faintly, “that it would have turned out all right – somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?”
“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.”
“Oh dear,” said Lucy.
“But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan. “If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me – what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”
Let’s flash back to that road trip to South Carolina. I neglected to mention that for much of the ten-hour trip, I sat in the backseat pouring over thoughts about a romantic relationship that had ended half a year prior. Weighing my regrets about what I could have done differently and pondering how reconciliation could ever take place. To put it gently, one could say this woman would be completely justified in never wanting to see me again.
Maybe I was just stir crazy from the drive, maybe I was naive, or maybe I was riding a wave of masculinity that only comes from chucking beer bottles at a brick wall with your brother, but when we got back to Maryland I decided I would give that woman a call. Later that night we walked around her neighborhood as I attempted to apologize for years of selfishness. About two years after that we got married on a Friday in July.
No one can know what would have happened. But anyone can find out what will happen.
At one point during Jesus’ ministry, his disciples are grieved and question him about who can attain salvation. Jesus plainly responds to them that “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In fact, if you look at Jesus’ interactions with people, time after time he lifts them out of their “What If” and points them towards “What Now”. At the pool in Bethesda, he tells the lame man to get up and walk. In Sychar, a Samaritan woman leaves her life of shame behind her after speaking to him. He even points Peter forward by forgiving him after he had disowned and cursed Jesus.
Jesus’ time on earth was largely spent guiding people out of the impossible situations they found themselves in. And that is his hope for you now, to make possible what would be impossible without his intervention. It’s easy to think of divine intervention in terms flashing lights and sounds, but it can be as quiet as a cold heart learning to forgive. If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, God wants to meet you in it and turn your regret into hope. Ultimately, these are the stories that inspire and move us.
At one point or another it’s likely you’ve heard a story about a promising young athlete whose dreams were dashed by a debilitating injury. But that’s rarely the whole story. If the story ended with them feeling crushed and dejected, no news station would ever air it. We long to see someone stand up after falling down and face incredible odds to achieve their dreams. Please don’t misunderstand this, I am not saying that someone must turn to God in order to see a positive change in their life. I presume most of those athletes would attribute their eventual recovery to determination, perseverance, and believing in yourself. What I am saying is that when you step out of a story defined by failure and enter into one defined by renewed hope, you ARE experiencing a taste of God’s hope for your life. This is true of the devout and the pluralist alike.
It might mean swallowing your pride, it might not look like you expect, and it might not even be fun to go through, but stepping into your “What Now” will always prove more fruitful than dwelling in the “What If”. What has happened has happened. It’s time to move forward and see what will happen.