"What's the worst that could happen?"
The book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie takes the reader on a silly cause-and-effect journey through the possible consequences of giving a mouse a cookie. He'll want milk, and then a straw, and then a napkin... all the way through to an ending where the mouse (spoiler alert) asks for another cookie.
When you ask a "normal" person, "What's the worst that could happen?" you will hopefully get a rational description of the plausible worst-case consequences of a given action.
- Person 1: "I feel like I should ask my boss for a raise; I've done a really good job this year."
- Person 2: "What's the worst that could happen?"
- Person 1: "She could say no."
- Person 2: "Well then ask!"
When you ask a person living in a state of anxiety, "What's the worst that could happen?" the results may be very different, and they could end up sounding like a despairing grown-up's If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
- Person 3: "I feel like I should ask my boss for a raise; I've done a really good job this year."
- Person 4: "What's the worst that could happen?"
- Person 3: "She could fire me on the spot; or she could let it slip to my co-workers and they'll all ostracize me; or she could think give me a raise but then hold it against me all year, and my life at work will be miserable, so I'll be miserable at home, so my wife will be miserable too, so she'll leave me, and I'll get so depressed that I can't do my job, and I'll get fired, and I'll end up living on the streets and fishing day-old bread out of a dumpster."
- Person 4: "Well that escalated quickly..."
A lot of times, when a person says, "I can't do that," or "I can't bring myself to...," or "That's just not me...," they are basing their assessment on a mentality like the one Person 3 displays above. In therapy for anxiety, a counselor will often ask, "What's the worst that could happen?" and then coach their patient through reasonable, non-alarmist ways to respond.
The Apostle Paul knew a thing or two about "the worst that could happen."
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28, NIV)
The "worst that could happen" to Paul was far worse than most of us are ever likely to encounter in our lifetimes, yet day after day, he went out and proclaimed the Gospel. How did he manage it? Unless the "fear center" of his brain was severely damaged, I firmly believe that Paul couldn't have done all he did under his own power.
Romans 8 has long been one of my favorite passages of scripture. Here, the apostle Paul, intimately aware of the worst that could happen, laid claim to the power of the Holy Spirit as the source of his seeming fearlessness. Consider these verses (all from the NIV):
- ...but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. (verse 6b)
- But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. (verse 10)
- And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. (verse 11)
- The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again... (verse 15a)
- What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (verse 31)
Take a moment to meditate. Think about your "worst that could happen" fears - fears for today, tomorrow, and forever. Now lay claim to the promises of the Spirit who lives in you. If God is for you, who can be against you? This act of taking hold of the power and protection of the Spirit isn't something to do once, nor is it something to do only in times of crisis. Every day, for every situation, we lean into the Holy Spirit as the source of our very breath. Why? Because then the worst that could happen has no power over us.