If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard (or said), “if only:” “If only I had more time, I could get involved in the local _____________ agency (fill in the name of a service organization of your choice).” “If only my parent hadn’t fallen on the basement steps, s/he wouldn’t need more care now.” “If only we had more young families in our congregation, we could have a strong youth program.” “If only our congregation were bigger, we could afford to do community outreach.”
The “if only’s” are one sign of a common and potentially destructive thought pattern. You might call it pessimism or negative thinking, focusing on the glass half empty versus half full. I look at it as deficit thinking: Despite naming an asset or favorable circumstance, the emphasis is on the lack of availability or loss of that asset. Framing an issue as a deficit leads to flawed reasoning in at least three ways:
(1) It assumes that the absence of the asset is real, that is, it would be confirmed by a neutral observer, and that the deficit is permanent and irreversible.
(2) It implies that the deficit is the sole reason for an unfavorable situation.
(3) It keeps people from looking and moving forward, creating a chronic perception of “without-ness” that skews perceptions of other present and future situations.
When a person believes that there is a deficiency that cannot be changed and is solely responsible for a poor outcome, it’s easy to see how deficit thinking can keep him stuck and actually excuse him from taking action to improve things. If only we could rid ourselves of “if only” thinking!
The good news is that there’s an effective antidote to the “if only” trap: spending the quieter moments of Advent in meditation about God’s promises throughout the ages and their fulfillment in his Son. Pondering what God has already done, still does, and will continue to do for us lends a fresh perspective. He has already paid the penalty for the sin that we are attracted/addicted to. He has already sent his Spirit for our guidance, protection, strength and comfort. When we pay attention, we can see evidence of the Spirit taking action in our lives every day, as individual children of God and in our life together as God’s earthly family. God assures us of his continued presence and providence, and ultimately of life forever in his presence. If Christmas is defined by the giving of gifts, Christians can celebrate Christmas every day.
Some of our daily gifts come wrapped in peculiar packages. Some look like barricades, or feel like arrows aimed at us, or sound like doors slamming in our faces. We don’t get what we want all the time, but sometimes delays and denials are gifts too. Sometimes when our plans don’t work out in the way we’d like, we are instead given opportunities to serve in other ways or to develop other skills and talents. If nothing else, frustrations are an exercise in patience, and most of us can always use more of that!
Claiming the greatest of all of God’s gifts – life with him beginning now and extending into eternity – requires looking ahead. The coming of the Savior into the world is not only a historic event; it happens every day. Jesus promised that he would always be with us, and that he would send his Spirit for our daily strength, guidance and comfort. He did not promise that this life would be perfect, if by “perfect” you mean “problem-free.” Trials will continue to press in from every side, or pull us in a hundred different directions at the same time. The Spirit’s presence helps us look ahead to the other side of trials and crises, possibly identifying options and solutions that may not have appeared before.
Ahead-thinking is possibility thinking. The future always looks brighter in light of God’s grace and mercy. His unfailing love is always present to us in the work of his Spirit. The God who made us and continues to shape us in his image bestows his gifts on us every day of our lives on earth. We have and always will have enough of whatever we need. We can look ahead with confidence and joy.
Questions for Reflection
1. What is one example of “If only…” thinking that keeps you locked into the past and/or prevents you from looking forward?
2. Which of God’s gifts to you can you claim more fully now and in the future?