Let’s talk about time. To the friend who refuses to move on from a broken relationship, we say, “You’ve got to put the past behind you.” To the brother or sister who’s upset because of a lost opportunity, we say, “Stop worrying. You’ve got your whole life in front of you.” Put the past behind you. Your whole life is in front of you.
For years, I parroted these same things to build up others. I assumed the future was in front of me and the past was behind me. And all the while, I had things backwards.
Give me five minutes, if you will, and let me tell you the joy of a radically new—but ancient—way of thinking about time: a way in which the past is directly in front of your eyes, and along with it, incredible hope and joy for the future that lays behind you.
Walking Backwards into the Future
The foundational part of the Bible, the Old Testament, teaches this ancient understanding of time. In the language of the OT, the future is behind you and the past is in front of you. The Hebrew word for “in front of” (qedem) is the same word for “past.” And the word for “behind” (achar) is the basis for the word for “future” (achareet). Thus, if you were to ask Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob where the future was, they’d point behind them. Likewise, ask them where the past is, and they’d point in front of them.
The reason for this is as simple as it is insightful: we have seen the past, but we have not seen the future. We know what has happened. It is done, finished, and laid bare before our eyes. Thus the past is in front of us, where our eyes can see it. On the other hand, we don’t know what the future holds. We cannot see it, thus it is hidden from our eyes or behind us. Therefore, in the Hebrew conception of time, one might say that we are always walking backwards into the future.
History Is Pregnant with the Future
And walking backwards into the future is not only a good thing; it is a gift from God. Because if we want to know what will be, we open our eyes to what has been. History is pregnant with the future. It cradles in its womb the child of tomorrow. And in that fact is great hope for us as individuals as well as the church. Let me give you an example.
In one of the sacred songs of the OT, Psalm 77, the poet Asaph laments how bad things have become in his life. He’s so troubled that he suffers from insomnia; it’s like God’s fingers keep his eyelids pried open. He asks a series of painful questions, like, “Will the Lord spurn forever?” and “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” But instead of being strangled by despair, he says to himself, “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.” That phrase, “your wonders of old,” could also be translated, “your wonders in front.” These divine wonders of old, the ones in front of him, are when God redeemed Israel from Egypt, split the Red Sea in half, and led his people like a shepherd leads a flock. When Asaph needed hope for the future, he locked his eyes on the past. He walked with confidence backwards into the future because he saw, before his eyes, the past wherein God had heard the cries of his suffering people, saved them, and brought them joy and hope once more. And as the Lord had done in the past, he was sure to do in the future.
We Need More Asaphs
We need more Asaphs in the church today. We have an abundance of those who forecast dark days in the near future, even storms of persecution brewing on the horizon for the church in America and around the world. That may very well be so. I’m not writing to silence or downplay their warnings. I am writing, however, to remind the church that, come what may, she is marching backwards into a future rich with hope. The past is in front of us. And that past is replete with the saving acts of God in Jesus Christ for all his baptized children.
In front of us, in the past, is the hill upon which God has already defeated every foe we might face. On that bloody beam the heel of Christ crushed the head of the lying serpent. He hung upon the walls of his resurrection tomb the trophies of victory that mock death. In fact, his victory on the cross was so utterly complete that it was like the Last Day, for even tombs opened up and saints rose and walked into the holy city (Matt 28:52-53).
Open your eyes and see. Look at the past before us. There is God, our Father, smiling at us, his sons and daughters. There is Christ, our Brother, naming us his friends. There is the Spirit, our Comforter, filling the inner darkness of our fears and worries with the brilliant rays of his love and hope. What future calamity behind us shall separate us from the love of Christ before us? Shall tribulation or distress? Shall persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword? Tell me, what shall separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing at all.
Then why are we worried? Why, as one of my friends wrote, do we so often act like the sky is falling? “Have no fear, little flock; have no fear, little flock?” the church sings. Why? “For the Father has chosen to give you the kingdom.” He made us kings and queens on the day he poured a liquid crown upon our heads in baptism. He named us priests on the day he clothed us in the vestments of Jesus our great high priest. These gifts are before our eyes. This is what God has done for us.
So let us, with Asaph, remember the days of old, the days in front of us. Christ has died for you. He has been raised to a life that cannot end. He has joined you inextricably to his death and resurrection in the waters of baptism. These pasts acts are present gifts. And they are the basis for the confidence by which we walk backwards into the future fidelity of the Christ who is the same yesterday and today and forever.