The problem with “If Only” thinking (a devotion from King’s Cross)


Reading, actually listening during my commute, to Tim Keller’s King’s Cross, one chapter at a time has provided lots of time to reflect on Jesus and our response to Him. The book presents Jesus as seen through Mark (the Gospel writer) and Keller. The purpose, much like the works of C.S. Lewis, is to show the reader how Jesus’ “life makes sense of ours.”
It is an extended meditation on the historical Christian premise that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection form the central event of cosmic and human history as well as the central organizing principle of our own lives.
In chapter 3, Keller explores the scene where the paralytic, carried by four men, is brought to Jesus, through the roof.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

As Keller unpacks this passage, and what Jesus has done, he explores what might have gone through the head of the paralytic as he heard these words. As he does he presents us with the problem of “if only” thinking, which goes something like this:

If only [some longing that you have] then I would be happy
Keller shows us the fallacy of this way of living. The excerpt from the book (emphasis added) follows below the horizontal line. I did not use block quotes to make it easier to read. As you read it wrestle with some of the “if only” hopes that shape your thinking.

… What were these men so determined to get from Jesus? Well, it doesn’t seem at first that Jesus understands. Jesus turns to the paralyzed man, and instead of saying “Rise up, be healed,” he says, “Your sins are forgiven.” If this man were from our time and place, I believe he would have said something like this: “Um, thanks but that’s not what I asked for. I’m paralyzed. I’ve got a more immediate problem here.”
But in fact Jesus knows something the man doesn’t know – that he has a much bigger problem than his physical condition. Jesus is saying to him, “I understand your problems. I have seen your suffering. I’m going to get to that. But please realize that the main problem in a person’s life is never his suffering, it’s his sin.” If you find Jesus’ response offensive, please at least consider this: If someone says to you, “The main problem in your life is not what’s happened to you, not what people have done to you; your main problem is the way you’ve responded to that” – ironically, that’s empowering. Why? Because you can’t do very much about what’s happened to you or about what other people are doing – but you can do something about yourself. When the Bible talks about sin it is not just referring to the bad things we do. It’s not just lying or lust or whatever the case may be – it is ignoring God in the world he has made; it’s rebelling against him by living without reference to him. It’s saying “I will decide exactly how I live my life.” And Jesus says that is our main problem.
Jesus is confronting the paralytic with his main problem by driving him deep. Jesus is saying, “By coming to me and asking for only your body to be healed, you’re not going deep enough. You have underestimated the depths of your longings, the longings of your heart.” Everyone who is paralyzed naturally wants with every fiber of his being to walk. But surely this man would have been resting all of his hopes in the possibility of walking again. In his heart he’s almost surely saying, “If only I could walk again, then I would be set for life. I’d never be unhappy. I would never complain. If only I could walk, then everything would be right.” And Jesus is saying, “My son, you’re mistaken.” That may sound harsh, but it’s profoundly true. Jesus says, “When I heal your body, if that’s all I do, you’ll feel you’ll never be unhappy again. But wait two months, four months – the euphoria won’t last. The roots of the discontent of the human heart go deep.”

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