Posted on September 6, 2023 by Rev. Jonathan Conner
Shel Silverstein, the children’s poet (author of the well-loved Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, Runny Babbit, and more), in the playful poem below, raises a question that plagues us all: What if…? In this article we will dare to answer the question. But first, the poem:
Whatif by Shel Silverstein
Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don’t grow talle?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won’t bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don’t grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again!
Adults may smile at some of the silly whatifs dancing in this child’s ear, but several of her whatifs are serious and sobering. And the honest adult will admit that those whatifs age with us and continue to climb into our ears at night (and, if truth be told, all throughout the day).
So what do we do about them?
First, acknowledge them. Acknowledge the whatifs. The first step is simply admitting that these questions plague us all. Yes, some of them are probably as silly as the imaginary child in Silverstein’s poem, but some of them are just as serious and sobering.
Whatif I lose my job?
Whatif my spouse dies?
Whatif I can’t afford my medical bills?
Whatif someone brings a gun to my kids’ school?
Whatif I say something stupid?
Whatif my child gets hurt… or worse?
Whatif I can’t stay in my home?
Whatif I make a bad financial decision?
Whatif the economy implodes?
Whatif persecution breaks out?
Nobody likes these whatifs, but everyone is visited by them. Everyone. Denying them is no good. It only gives them power over us because denying them keeps them in the dark and ensures that we will be tormented by them alone.
So after acknowledging them, the next thing we need to do is to say them out loud. Say your whatifs out loud to your husband or wife, to your friend, to your pastor, to your counselor, even to your mirror. The important thing here is to drag those little pesky whatif bugs out into the open so you can get a good look at them and put them in their place. And, ideally, you will say them out loud to a mature Christian. We’ll see why in a minute.
These whatif bugs thrive in the darkness, in your unspoken thoughts and fears. They’re a lot like the monsters that used to live under your bed as a child. They were much bigger in the dark. The light had a way of making them smaller. Saying our whatifs out loud drags them out into the light and immediately makes them smaller.
Now, with them dragged out into the light, it’s time to start answering them. This is key. These whatifs maintain power over us when they remain unanswered. That’s what makes them so scary. They peddle in the unknown. They thrive in the darkness of uncertainty. We don’t like the unknown. It scares us. It keeps us up at night. It paralyzes us into inactivity. That’s why we need to drag our whatifs out into the light and answer them. Yes, the answer might be unpleasant or even painful, but then we will be dealing with the known and operating in the light. Then we can bring God’s truth and wisdom to bear.
In order to bring God’s truth to bear, we need to know God’s truth. So before we answer our whatifs, let’s review the promises of God that we will use to answer them.
The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore (Psalm 121:8).
Jesus says: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [my church]” (Matthew 16:18).
We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son Romans 8:28-29
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me… (Psalm 23:4).
If we have been united with him in a death like his [in baptism], we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:5).
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea… (Psalm 46:1-2).
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Meditate deeply on these words. Marinate your mind in them. Rehearse them out loud. Make them your mother tongue. These (and the hundreds of promises like them) will form the basis for the answers you will speak into your whatifs.
Please appreciate the essential nature of this step. You must know the promises of God. And the only way to know them is to hear them, to study them, to sing them, to confess them, to speak them, and to pray them. There is no shortcut. Without a mind ruled by the promises of God your whatifs will reign.
So let us learn to say our whatifs out loud and then to answer them with the promises of God.
Well, that would be very unpleasant. I might have to give some things up. I might have to move. I might have to start over on some things. I might need to depend on others for help. But Christ’s Church would remain and His promises would still be mine and I could trust Him to give me grace for each day and to provide my daily bread.
That would be terrible. I would have to rethink most things in my life. I would experience great grief. I would cry… a lot… for a long time. I might have to move. I might have to start over on some things. I might need to depend on others for help. But Christ’s Church would remain and His promises would still be mine and I could trust Him to give me grace for each day. And I would yearn all the more for the resurrection.
Well, that would be embarrassing. People might think I’m incompetent. I wouldn’t like that. But, I might learn from it for the future. And I would remind myself that my identity is not built on my competence or ignorance but on my status as a beloved, redeemed creation of God. And Christ’s Church would remain and His promises would still be mine.
I would be sad… very sad. But I would tell myself true things. The things of this world are transitory. I can’t cling to them forever. They will fall through my fingers. Further, I would strive to find something beautiful and good about the place to which I was going. And I would choose to focus on that. I would choose to define my life by my present abundance, by the good and enjoyable daily bread that God provides, and not by my lack, not by what I don’t have.
That would be horrible. If someone was shot and killed, if my children were shot and killed, I would be devastated. I would struggle with anger and guilt and a whole host of emotions that I probably can’t even imagine right now. So I would need to get help. But dying an unpleasant death isn’t the worst thing imaginable. Dying any death without knowing Jesus is. Therefore I will ensure that my children are equipped to confess Christ with every fiber of their being. I will ensure that my children fear the Lord not death, that they know the power of His promises and the certainty His resurrection gives us even in the face of death.
We are all harassed by the whatifs. But we are not helpless before them. In fact, God has mightily equipped us to fight back against them – and fight back we must! It’s no accident that Scripture depicts His Word and promises as a sword. It’s our offensive weapon. So let’s learn how to use it to slay those little whatifs that try to crawl into our ears at night!
If you or someone you know is plagued by the whatifs and would benefit from Christ-centered mental health counseling, refer to or contact us today.
Lutheran Family Service walks with those experiencing difficult times through mental health counseling, marriage counseling, crisis pregnancy counseling, and adoption services.
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