This year I’ve probably uttered a thousand prayers on my knees bridged with the infamous line ‘but if not…’ I’d like to say I’ve prayed them with the confidence of a warrior, unafraid of the unknown, but as I’ve been tested, my heart has revealed they’ve been nothing more than blanket statements to avoid fearing my prayers would not be heard. And so, I have found myself wandering in the Land of If Nots, where nearly everything I feared, nearly everything I prayed against, God has not only allowed, but seems to have intentionally inserted into my life, and I have not handled it graciously. I have struggled to say ‘He is still good’ in a season where prayers seem cruelly answered from a God whose mercy and justice have vanished like smoke.
This whole ‘Christianese’ phrase ‘and if not he is still good’ comes from the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who defied their pagan king by choosing to worship God alone in spite of the decrees made over them to do otherwise. When King Nebuchadnezzar confronts them, enraged, they respond with fierce faith:
“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)
Even if the worst happens, we will not bow – is what they said. They staked everything not on the goodness of God, but on his holiness. And they faced the fire, not knowing what laid on the other side, but God delivered them in a miracle so extravagant it might be one of the most famous stories of Scripture. As exiles they lived in so many areas of ‘if nots’, but the furnace was not one of them that day.
Esther is another one that steps out in bravery to face the Land of If Nots. She was a Jewish girl who had found favor with another pagan king. But her people were on the brink of genocide by the hand of her own husband (and a devious advisor), and her cousin Mordecai beseeches her to approach the king (which would mean certain death for her). She wrestles with her fear, but eventually steps up to bring her request to the king:
“Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
In an act of bravery few had wielded before, she goes to the king not knowing if she’d leave the room alive. She could’ve failed, she could’ve died. She faced the if not, but chose to say in a defiant surrender, ‘if I perish, I perish.’ But she too walked away unscathed. She more than walked away – she helped preserve the people of God through a gracious king.
I have struggled through the Word as I have read story after story of men and women who have faced ‘if nots’ but seen victory and retribution through the power of their God. I honestly was bitter. Why, oh why was it fitting to the God of my heart to put me in the furnace and burn me? Why was it fitting for Him to take me into the chamber of the king and slay me? I had striven to be obedient and humble, yet it felt like I was being punished in a barren land devoid of both His mercy and justice. Why, why was he not coming?
But over the months I have been reminded of something our pastor constantly reminds us when reading the Word of God – that every character led by God is only a shadow, a sign post for the perfect Man, the One who fulfilled what every renowned hero of the faith lacked. It was then I remembered that Jesus, too, prayed a prayer of if nots to his Father in the Garden of Gesthemane.
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:38-39)
Jesus, feeling the weight of our sin that was about to be laid upon his shoulders, prayed that his Father would not make him go through it. While he stood open-handed under the will of the Father, he so desperately did not want to suffer the cross that he sweat blood while he begged God to spare him.
But God did abandon him. God answered the prayer he begged not to be answered. Jesus, the beloved and only perfect Son of the Father, who deserved to be heard, who deserved to be saved, who deserved to be protected, was left to suffer the weight of the world – alone. He was thrown into the furnace and consumed. He was put before a king and declared guilty and discredited. He was put in a room and accused of heinous things he never did and was slain for them. God did not come to his aid. God purposefully led him into the barren land of ‘if nots’ where justice and mercy were eerily silent.
This is obviously not the end of the story, nor should we dwell at the cross when there is an empty grave to celebrate. But in this season, it has helped me to linger in the only moment in history that Jesus cried out and God not only did the opposite of his desire but he led him into a cruel, dark place and left him there. As incredible and encouraging as the faith of Shadrach, Meeshach, Abednego, and Esther might be, their stories seem taunt those who dwell in the Land of If Nots. And when living in the Land of If Nots, it’s hard to see much farther than your agony. It’s hard to care about these giants of the faith when there is nothing to cling to but the ashes. But we’re not supposed to look at them – not when our prayers are answered, and certainly not when they’re denied. The only person who we can look at and be satisfied in any place, especially in the Land of If Nots, is Jesus Christ.
He alone can say, where you are, there I will be. He traversed the universe to immerse himself fully into the brokenness of our hearts and absorb the weight of a world we were condemned to live in for sins he never committed. All because he wants us. I truly don’t understand why God chose to save us this way. I don’t understand why he withholds justice when we feel like we need it most. I can’t comprehend why mercy seems delayed when we are most desperate for it. But I know that Christ is here in this land with me. He went there before me, ready for when I cried out that I can no longer be faithful, that I can no longer take a single step he commands, to wrap his arms around me and say, ‘I know. Oh, I know what this feels like. And I will feel every moment of agony again for the love of being with you. I will strengthen you with my blood, spilled for you.’
This is not the end. The grave is empty, and the Savior of the world dwells in the Land of Victory, and he lives interceding for us before the Father. So I know that’s where we’re heading, but he’s also dwelled here in the Land of If Nots. He wants to meet us and teach us about his faithfulness here too, a faithfulness so humble as to walk with us in a land he, as a holy God, should never justly have to walk in. But for the love of us.
He’s pleased to be with us, in whatever state we are in, even if we rage against him. He holds us fiercely in his hands and says, ‘I’ve come here for you. I’m not leaving you, not now, not even if the rest of this story is lived in agony. I will overcome every evil and every sin. Nothing can separate you from me. Nothing.’ And belief in that promise is what keeps our eyes and ears open. Can you hear it? Salvation whispers the sound of your name in the Land of If Nots. And that’s why Daniel and Esther give hope – he’s got a perfect track record, especially in the Land of If Nots. But in the meantime, he will dwell with you there. You are not alone.
“For a people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you. And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.”