The If-Only Trap


Is your "if only" really just a disguise for refusing to change?

If only is a trap. I learned this afresh today. The reality is that we set conditions on our living. In recovery circles, there is a deep and true understanding that setting conditions on your sobriety is just playing a game with time and relapse… eventually your ‘if only‘ will not work, and it will give you permission to do whatever you’ve been telling yourself you wouldn’t do ‘if only your job was fulfilling’, or ‘if only your spouse was more understanding’, or ‘if only your schedule had time for reflection’, or ‘if only my friend wasn’t sick’ or ... on and on and on I could go. Whatever the ‘if only‘ is for you – can I humbly suggest that it is just a disguise for a reason not to change?

There is no ‘if only‘ for people who truly understand that change comes from the inside out. I was reminded about this in the story of Lazarus, the guy Jesus raised back from the dead. When Jesus arrives three days after Lazarus has already died, Martha comes to greet Him but she isn’t so happy. She says ‘If only you’d been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.’ Mary comes next, but she has something different to suggest. ‘But now, you are here.’ It’s not too late is what she is suggesting.

Jesus digs this kind of posture.  And in many, many ways we are connected to that story. We confront death all day long in our lives if we are honest. The hardest death is the one we die to ourselves. Our own insane desires to do the very things we know deep down are destructive (see Romans 7 for a drawn out dialogue of the reality we face). And we say, ‘If only we were more self-controlled’ or ‘If only we really believed’ or ‘If only my church was better’ and we forget that we can actually live in a posture that precedes resurrection, ‘but now‘.

But now suggests that we are starting right where we are this moment.  Right in the thick of some dire circumstances, wherever we live, whatever our job is, however toxic our relationships are, whatever our disappointments, we are starting right now, right here with some but now faith (which will always kick death in the gut and spring us a resurrection moment).  

Many of us -- dead as Lazarus, others as disappointed as his sisters -- many of us living in the ‘if only‘ of another life need to be reminded of the ‘but now‘ reality of Jesus ... ’cause that is where He lives.

But now is what Steps 6 and 7 [in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous] are about:

  1. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  2. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

It’s like a revisit to Step 1 ("Admitted that we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable") but with more clarity about what we actually mean and where we are actually at. It follows the awkward and terrifying step of actually opening our secret selves up to another human being – to let the darkness see the light of day. In that light we realize we have some choices. We can spend the rest of our lives in the ‘if only’ space of wishing for a different life, or a different past, or at least some different choices – or we can enter the liberating ‘but now‘ of surrendering to a God who is here. right. now.

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