And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? - Matthew 6:27 (ESV)
Many of us are rather advanced in the art of worry. For those of us in this camp, it is an unfortunate skill we have developed and honed over the course of many years. We started young and have kept at it. If only we worked with such diligence in other areas!
For myself, worry is not bound to the future. I find myself at times playing what I call the"What-If" game about things that have already happened. For instance, my children came rather close to a venomous snake the other day. Although everything turned out fine and I was the closest one to the snake, I have since replayed the event various times in my mind and imagined it going different ways. This occurs most frequently when I am trying to fall asleep. This is just one example among many. I don't believe I am alone in this. How often, following some misfortune, do we stoke anxiety in our hearts or conflict with others by harping over sentences beginning with the formula, "If only..."?
How should I understand this? Am I culpable for having these thoughts? It is a complex issue. On the one hand, there is the question of whether I am guilty of some sin for even having the thoughts. Then there is the question of whether I am guilty of sin for continuing the thoughts. I believe I am not guilty for experiencing the initial thoughts, but I am guilty for continuing them. This is because the initial thoughts are uncontrolled. It seems possible to me that they are demonic in origin, though it also seems possible that they are generated purely within my own mind. My perception is that these thoughts present themselves to me. Our streams of thought are always flowing. These streams are influenced by forces and perceptions outside of us, but their origin, so far as I can tell, is the heart (I believe this is part of a proper understanding of Proverbs 4:23).
I used the phrase, "stoke anxiety" earlier. Stoking refers to adding fuel to something so that it produces more energy. We stoke fires by adding wood and positioning the logs to allow proper ventilation. Stoking is also used to refer to encouraging or inciting emotions like anger. It seems apparent to me that there is an ungodly principle at work within me that at times seeks to stoke worry and anxiety of the worst (and by worst I mean most futile) kind.
In any case, my perception is that the initial thought patterns where I begin to replay the scenario over and over represent a species of temptation. Will I continue this stream of thought, or will I arrest it? And that is where I perceive my own moral agency to enter. I can sense how difficult it is to turn my train of thought by an act of my will. It sounds difficult in my head and is difficult in practice. Yet the verse from Matthew above as well as Philippians 4:8 often both present themselves to my mind in the heat of the battle for control of my thinking. I believe this is part of what Paul has in view when he describes himself and his companions as taking every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5). The context speaks to attacking spiritual threats on the outside, especially ideas which are contrary to the gospel. However, it seems to also be applicable to those wrong thoughts which seem to present themselves to our minds.
The What-If Game
So, what is the What-If game? The What-If game is what we play when we ask "what-if" questions in a way that unhelpfully increases and promotes (read: stokes) worry and anxiety. In my experience, many unhelpful, unwise, and/or sinful behaviors related to anxiety and worry can be reduced to as few as a single "what-if" question. For instance, I overate for years. And while I fought for control of my eating and my weight fluctuated, I could never get past the gnawing sense of anxiety I felt almost constantly with regard to food. I did not understand it.
Then, it suddenly dawned on me one day what my problem was with food. It was as though the Spirit connected a few biblical principles and texts together and then flipped on the switch: I had a gnawing sense of worry nearly every time I ate. And that worry was provoked and stoked by the question, "What if I go hungry?" Despite never having starved or even come close to it to my knowledge, each meal I ate was accompanied by worry about whether it would be my last. And so my desire for self-control was pitted against my will to survive, and the tug of war at meal times had been tearing me apart for years. I was playing the "What-If" game with food, and I was losing. The answer was not to win the game; the answer was to stop playing.
I have since pursued a similar line of thought with many others I have met to counsel, encourage, build up, exhort, admonish, etc. Many issues in people's lives are reducible to a question that begins with the formula, "What if...?"
In some situations, I have made lists of versions of this question while asking questions and listening for clues to the most basic fears people have. Oftentimes, I have noticed, there is a temptation to settle for a version of the "What-If" formula that is legitimate but rather superficial. It is more difficult to get at the fears behind the fears, but that is what I am after. I have also found that, just like in the case of my fear of going hungry, the more basic the articulation of the fear and the deeper it goes, the more ridiculous it sounds when spoken out loud.
I recognize that I made a switch to talking about fear when fear has not been mentioned up to this point. That is how fears work, isn't it? They slip in, often unnoticed, and divert our attention and energy in unhelpful or even harmful ways.
At bottom, the "What-If" game is about fear. This is what Jesus was talking about when he admonished his listeners to not worry about tomorrow (Matt. 6:25-34). The verse cited at the head of this article is akin to a divine version of "Qué será, será". The enormous difference, however, is that children of God are not subject to blind determinism but the personal decree of a gracious heavenly Father. Our lives' contingencies are delimited by the promises of God made to his children. What will be will only ever be within the limits of what God has promised.
And this is where Jesus points us. The heavenly Father already has a plan for our lives, and it will not be changed. We are not promised the lack of pain. We are not promised relief from many possible what-if's, but what we are guaranteed and promised about the future is enough to outweigh and displace worry over the future. It is far better for believers to stop playing the "What-If" game in favor of living the life to which we have been called.