Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
What do you think are the saddest two words in the English language? I think they are ‘if only’. How many times have you said that yourself? If only I had got a second opinion; if only I had listened to my parents for once; if only I had asked for help when I needed it; if only I had said no; if only I could have said yes.
This list could go on and on—those two little words have such sadness about them, because they are really words of regret. I think all of us have said the words ‘if only’. I’m sure the pain of regret has stung all of us at some point. Very few of us walk through life without accumulating some regret. Unresolved regret can destroy us actually if we’re not careful. It feeds on the pain of the past, and hinders any plans for the future.
Regret and remorse
Two other words come out of the if onlys. They are regret and remorse. What is regret? It is our own awareness of the consequences we live with every day because of an event or action. It could be one of thousands of different things—we may have made a poor choice years ago and today still live with it. We say to ourselves why did I do that? I’m not sure there is an easy answer.
And then there’s the word remorse. It’s a stronger word that regret, because it reflects our sense of moral guilt at our own failure, real or perceived. We may have made a bad or seriously wrong choice at one point, and still live with the consequences of that choice. We feel deep sorrow, and think about it every day:
- If only she had worked a bit harder and not failed the exam.
- If only a different politician had been elected last time round.
- If only we hadn’t decided to go on holidays that very week.
And whatever it is, we then start thinking to ourselves, If only the clock could be turned back.
I read about an interesting survey taken at the University of Illinois. They asked questions of 370 adults about their most memorable regrets. About 20% of those that answered reported they had a regret about a romantic relationship; 16% was about family issues, and 9% talked of mistakes they made as parents. Other regrets covered education, their job, financial decisions, and health choices. About half of this group were currently dealing with the consequences of an earlier bad decision.
Are you wondering ‘if only’?
Do you sometimes catch yourself living the ‘if only’ life? The ‘if only’ life starts with something like this: “If only I was born with more brains, looks, connections, personality, charisma, a loving environment, etc. then I would be a happier, more accomplished, kinder, more successful, more generous, more ambitious or better individual.”
In other words, the ‘if only’ attitude claims that if only we had some essential, missing quality, then our lives would be infinitely better, and we would be able to achieve our greatest potential. ‘If only’ keeps us:
- trapped in a past that we cannot change.
- from moving on to a productive future.
- blaming life for things we have no control over.
- trapped living a life of a victim, instead of living a life of a victor.
We must get rid of the if onlys in our lives. We must live our lives unconditionally, without the ‘ifs’. Living in a world of ‘if only’ is to live a life of regret—constantly looking at the past and questioning our previous decisions, actions, and circumstances of life. But God does not live in a world of ‘if only’. God lives in a world of ‘only believe’. God does not look over his shoulder at the past and say ‘if only’. God lives in the future!
‘If only’ thinking takes a lot of a person’s energy and emotions and hopelessly spends that energy on a destructive rehash of the past. But we need to realise that God puts in front of us a future full of possibilities that he wants us to take hold of.