As another coaching client left my office, I wrote a summary in her folder, then sat for a while in reflective thought. Five manila folders stacked like cardboard warnings of the two troubling phrases I heard that day. As I reviewed each client’s goals, progress and struggles – I recognized the similarities.
No matter what the specific problem, each client spoke the same words at least twice, “What If” and “I Should Have.”
Were these phrases and the root of their underlying thoughts a common theme for just the women in my clientele? Or are they a simultaneous struggle for all of us? What can we do to identify these phrases and find victory over their causes?
The “What Ifs” force us into the future with a pattern of fear while the “I Should Haves” push us back into the past with regret and shame.
Neither place nurtures the joy of the Lord.
What if this terrible thing happens? What if the stock market crashes? What if terrorism visits my state? What if I can’t meet this goal and I feel like a failure? What if my children don’t turn out okay?
The reality is that most of the “What Ifs” in life rarely happen. We imagine them and we lose sleep over the possible results of a terrible action, but most of the things we worry about never come to pass.
Yet living in that place of “What If” keeps us from enjoying the abundant life God promises.
Jesus reminded us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important that food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:25-27). In other words, stop living in the “What If” world and trust God to take care of the future.
Instead of giving in to the “What If” phrase, start praising God that no matter what happens, he will be with you and he will make it right.
The other phrase, the “I Should Haves” can be even more damaging because that attitude takes us back into the past and places shame and regret on decisions we have made or actions we have taken.
None of us can undo what has already been finished, and truthfully – some of the mistakes we made have taught us and stretched us so that we are stronger today than we were yesterday. Yet we continue to revisit those moments and wish we had chosen differently, moved somewhere else, finished that degree or placed our meager savings accounts within a better portfolio.
The Apostle Paul had plenty of reasons to regret his past behaviors. As a co-conspirator in the death of Stephen, as a hypocritical Pharisee and as a persecutor of the early Christians – he had every reason to live in the “I Should Have” world of shame. Later, when he became a disciple of Jesus, his life was far from easy. It would have been easy for him to give in to the “What If” of fear.
But instead, he focused on forging ahead, learning more about Christ and serving as an ambassador of the truth. He wrote, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
The Amplified Bible states this truth succinctly in a little phrase, “Cease recalling disappointments” (Psalm 48:13).
Instead of living in the “I Should Haves,” we can flip those experiences around and begin praising God for helping us through them, for teaching us and wiping away our shame and regret. Instead of letting fear and the “What Ifs” rule us, we can live in faith each day, trusting God to provide for us.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us to remain in the present. “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13).
Jesus died and rose again to give us the abundant life. The only way we can really enjoy that abundance is to live in the present, embrace today and trust God to take care of all our pasts and our futures.
Instead of living with two problem phrases, we can embrace the one axiom that helps us stay in hope: Trust God.