Two little words. Two syllables. A total of six letters. Despite their diminutive size, how much power do those two words bring to affect change in the course of human events, both great and small?
“If only I could eat of the fruit of that tree…” “If only we hadn’t left Egypt, we’d have something to eat…” “If only we had some meat to go with this manna…” “If only there was an easier way to move these big heavy things across long distances…” “If only there was a medicine to cure that illness…” “If only I can get a better job…”
For good or for ill, “if only” is a phrase that motivates people into action. It urges people to change things that they are unhappy with. Something annoys us, something bothers us, something makes us miserable in some way… and we reach into our bag and pull out, “If only…”
Doesn’t it seem like we reach for “if only” whenever things aren’t going our way? Granted, the end outcome might be a good thing, but what starts our movement and our action is a failure to accept things the way they are right now. Instead, we get restless with the hand we’re dealt and rather than play that hand the best we can, we try to change it. Really, though, we’re just upset with the dealer who dealt us the cards in the first place, and who is asking us to play them they way He dealt them.
We are never satisfied with our hands, are we? Like the Israelites in the desert, we are indeed a “stiff-necked people.” We so quickly forget that everything we’re given is for our own benefit. What God gives us is always His instrument of correction, and usually corrections hurt. Fittingly enough, the greater the discomfort, the further out of line we are. But we don’t like to accept these corrections, do we? Like the wayward children we are, we look at our cards, focus on what makes us unhappy and uncomfortable, and start the “if only’s.” And it seems like no one ever wants the hand they’re dealt.
No one wants their political candidate of choice to lose an election, but who our leaders are is God’s will, because who is in charge is what God knows we need. Us? Well, we want our people running the show, to the exclusion of all others, because if only our people were fully in charge, things would be run correctly for a change. (Or so we think.) Do we ever consider that it is periods of persecution that have always led to the greatest increase in faith? Do we stop to consider that by losing an ally at the top, God is asking us to step up, to put our shoulders into the load, and to work harder for Him, so that others may see us as examples of faith? Or do we use “if only” to feed the anger inside against the people who voted the other way?
No one wants coronavirus, but it’s God’s will that some of us will get it, because it’s what God knows we need. Us? We don’t want the downtime or the hassle or the mental uncertainty that comes with the positive test result. But God knows we need it. Perhaps it’s because we wound up back in the same fast-paced schedule-packed lifestyle that we swore we’d give up back in the spring. Perhaps He wants us to spend more time with our family and the only way to do that is force the family to be quarantined together. Perhaps it’s to get us to remember “tempus fugit, memento mori,” to ensure that we remember our own mortality. Do we use the forced downtime to focus on what God wants us to do for Him, or does “if only” keep us focused on what we want to do for ourselves?
And while we’re on the topic of mortality, no one really wants to go to Purgatory, either, but God knows we need it. More than just paying off our debt of sin, we need Purgatory to purge us from our attachments to this life, to burn away our connections to the “if only” complaining we spend our whole lives engaging in. How could we fully embrace the beatific vision, how could we be truly happy in the next life, if we’re still clinging to the imperfections of this one? The only difference between those in Hell and those in Purgatory is that those in Purgatory died in a state of grace and will eventually get out; both are still surrounded by flames, lamenting their current situation with a list of “if only’s.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux reminds us, “We must abandon the future into the hands of God.” The curse of “if only” is born out of being dissatisfied with our current state in this life, and is directed by a fear for our future on earth. Our focus on the future needs to be a focus not on this life, but rather on the eternal, and that starts by accepting God’s will, His corrections, and His call to action for Him… If only we have the faith to do so.