Liberated from the Incarceration of “IF ONLY”

Dr. Tommy Boland, Cross Community Church Pastor

“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3).


We all have an inner critic that must be kept in check if we are going to live lives for the glory of God and the good of others, including ourselves. Because we are broken people living in a broken world with other broken people, our lives will inevitably be marked by brokenness, personally, professionally and relationally.  


Our inner critic

One of the favorite focal points for our inner critic comes under the heading of If only. Satan loves to stir up our inner critic by feeding us a seemingly endless supply of “If onlys” designed to drive us into despair over our past, dissatisfaction with our present and disillusionment about our future. 

  • If only I had more education . . .
  • If only I had a better job . . .
  • If only I had seized that opportunity . . . 
  • If only I had tried harder . . .
  • If only I hadn’t gotten in that argument . . .
  • If only I had studied more for that exam . . . 
  • If only I hadn’t waited so long for . . . 
  • If only I had taken better care of my health . . . 

This list, of course, is virtually endless. Now, to be sure, these two words can indeed be an accurate assessment of our activities in the past, and the Bible encourages us to self-examination. Perhaps, “if only” you had a better nutrition and exercise plan, you would be healthier today. That can be a positive take-away to help you course correct in the future. However, when these words are marked with mournful meaning and gnawing guilt, it can keep you prisoner to your past, causing you to grow only into a fraction of the person God is calling you to be. So, if you took a moment of prayerful consideration, what would be the top five “If onlys” marked by mournful meaning and gnawing guilt on your list today? These two seemingly innocent words weaken our will, water down our witness, and lay waste to our faith in Jesus. “If only” has the ability to keep us from living the promised abundant life Jesus purchased for us on the cross, a life marked by freedom, forgiveness and faithfulness. 


Chained to the past

Every “if only” looks achingly back to a past that cannot be changed . . . but if it somehow could be changed, we tell ourselves, life would be so much better than it is at present! We would be happier. We would be healthier. We would be holier. Every “if only” incarcerates our imagination and chains us as a prisoner to our past, causing us to live in our past rather than learn from our past. And when our “if onlys” go silent for a moment, the troublesome trinity of would haves, should haves and could haves, rears its ugly head. But there is hope for all of us today! 


Jesus will rescue us from our “IF ONLYS” ONLY IF we give them to Him.


if onlyJesus knows everything perfectly — including the beginning of our story right straight through to the end and all points in between. Jesus not only knows everything perfectly, He is in sovereign control of everything perfectly. Because of these twin truths, we can give Him every “if only,” knowing none of it caught Him by surprise or caused Him to think less of us. Jesus can and will use every “if only” for His glory and our ultimate good. Jesus is in the business of redeeming our past including our regrets and gnawing guilt, but we must first give them to Him. We must intentionally place every “if only” in His nail-scarred hands because only Jesus has the ability to orchestrate our entire past to accomplish His purpose in our lives while using it all for the expansion of His Kingdom in this world. 


A new creation

Remember, the problem with “if onlys” is they keep us living in and reliving our past. Trusting in Jesus is the only way for us to live a life that is liberated from every “if only” that seeks to pull us down and slow our forward progress in life. The way to guard against this is to continue marinating in and meditating on the Word of God which tells us, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). 

The great hymn writer and clergyman John Newton put it this way: “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” 

This is the life-long process of sanctification, whereby God is conforming us more and more into the image of Jesus. Every “if only” is being used by God in that process. Instead of looking back we need to keep looking up which will empower us to trust in Jesus with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding, submitting all our ways to Him. When we do this, we will experience His perfect peace, a peace purchased for us by His precious blood on our cross.

We may not understand why everything that has gone on in our past took place, but we don’t have to because Jesus does understand. He is using every “if only” for the praise and glory of His Mighty Name and for our eternal good. Trust Him, keep your mind stayed on Him, and all those nagging, discouraging “if onlys” marked by mournful meaning and gnawing guilt will be redeemed by the One who says, “Follow Me!” Looking back at our “if onlys” or looking up at Jesus is always a choice, moment by moment. Choose wisely this day and Jesus will rescue you from every “if only” ONLY IF you give them all to Him.  


This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

Dr. Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach ( He blogs regularly at

For more articles by Dr. Tommy Boland, visit


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