The Fear of “if”

what-ifIf. It is a small word, just two letters. I like the word better in Russian, “если”. Or perhaps in French, “si” or German “wenn”. And even though I can’t pronounce it, the word “if” looks better in Korean, “면” and in traditional Chinese, “如果”. Still, no matter what language you use to say the word “if”, the word strikes fear into my heart. Are you afraid of “if”? This week’s private discussions and in-person dialogues have prompted me to share my thoughts on this basic fear.

A fundamental human question, “What if?”

It seems to me that my fear of “if” stems first from human origins. We human beings seem to have been born with a sense of “if”, and often we fall into fearing the question “What if?”.

There are many examples of those who have explored this word, “If”, and far too many to examine here in this short article. But one example I love is from Rudyard Kipling, one of the great masters of poetry and prose, who was born in India in 1865 and who died in 1935. Kipling wrote a poem entitled “If”.  Here is the opening stanza.

If you can keep your head when all about you  

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,  

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;  

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

Christianity’s unnecessary fear of “if”

So why did I decide to write this article? The reason is because I’ve been processing a fantastic discussion that I had in person last Monday. Someone asked, “Would a person who does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus be saved? Should we consider such a person as a Christian?”

As I pondered this question this week, I found that this question exposed a basic fear in me, a fear that has been deeply ingrained in me from birth, so it would seem. But I also discovered the bible has much to do with this fear. In the spiritual realm, the word “if” strikes fear into the hearts of many.

Here are some examples from the bible:

If you do what is right…

Genesis 4:7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

If you obey me fully…

Exodus 19:5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.

If anyone does not remain in me…

John 15:6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.

If you obey my commands…

John 15:10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.

If we do not give up…

Galatians 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

If you persevere…

1 Timothy 4:16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

If you do not repent…

Revelation 2:5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

My contention: Respond to “if” with love instead of fear

If you find yourself reacting to the “if” question of life or the “if” declarations in the bible, my contention is that you should respond with love and grace. See the bible “if” in light of the grace of God. Let the love of God drive out your fear. Surrender to the grace of God, for there is not a single person in all of history, apart from Christ, who can survive the fear of “if” without grace.

If you are good enough? I invite you to surrender this fear of “if” and cling to love. How much better our friendships would be when we no longer fear the “if” in other people around us, and instead react with love in spite of any “if”.

My hope and prayer is that every time you read the word “if” in the bible or begin to wonder if you measure up, you will recall the love of someone close to you. Remember the grace shown to you. And respond with the joy that comes from seeing the bible’s “if” statements with the guarantee that comes from grace and the living hope that comes from love.

Do you realize that Jesus answers every single “if” statement with a resounding YES! Yes you will persevere, yes you will repent, yes you will obey, for I have already done all this for you. And what is more, I will credit all this accomplishment to your faith, even though it is only my power that saved you. The word “if” is not be be feared, but is meant to be an open door to the gospel.

Stay tuned for my next article where I contend that the fear of “if” can be driven out with the love of “and”.


  1. Thanks, Brian. Here I go again, posting a comment rather than preparing for my Sun sermon in half an hour!

    My original fear of “if” arose because of a statement my aunt innocently said to me when I was a young boy. She said, “No pretty girl will ever marry a cross-eyed boy” and I was and still am cross-eyed.

    Since then, I wondered for over a decade, “what if I was not cross-eyed” and became sorrowful and fatalistic.

    God had mercy on me and led me to a church who then introduced me to marry my wife even though I did not propose to her. That was 32 years ago. I think that since then, I no longer have any fear of “if.” That’s entirely God’s grace to me.

    • Yes, Ben, that built-in human fear of “if I’m not good enough” seems so common. Those personal fears is one of the many layers I had to fight through to become free and swim in the ocean of God’s grace, and ultimately I believe it was God’s grace that drew me out of my entanglements, pulling me with an almost irresitible force (how’s that for TULIP? :)

  2. For what it’s worth, I love these related quotes by Spurgeon:

    “If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies, and if they perish, let them perish with our arms around their knees imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let no one go there unwarned or unprayed for.”

    “I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will return to Christ. My hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, “You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for myself.” My hope arises from the freeness of grace, and not from the freedom of the will.”