For the last month, my social media feeds have been full of celebration as friends around the country post about the school year ending. Many of my friends have posted before-and-after pictures of their children: one photo taken the first day of school and the other taken on the last day. Without fail, friends or family comment with some variant of Look how little they were! when comparing the older photo to the new one.
Children change so quickly that the differences between the before pictures and the after pictures can be dramatic. In the busyness of daily life, it can be difficult to notice or appreciate the small, continual changes occurring in their appearance, in their emotional or spiritual maturity, or even in their knowledge and skills. Often it takes a comparison of then and now for parents and children alike to realize just how far they have come in the span of a year.
Likewise, in our spiritual lives as children of God, we can be unaware or forgetful of how far we’ve come by God’s grace. We can almost forget our then as we live in the now, trying to keep our eyes on Jesus and walk forward in persevering faith. Sometimes we might wish we could forget where we’ve been because it hurts too much to look back at what we were. For me, remembering the brokenness of the past costs me something emotionally, every time. However, I gain even more if I look back with God’s focus and perspective.
If I look back only to focus on myself, I cringe at my failures and shudder at my former ignorance and unbelief. I weep at the steep cost of sin to me and those I love. If I stop there, focused on all I got wrong or all the wrong that was done to me, I could become mired in grief, regret, and self-condemnation—or anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness—none of which is God’s will for me as a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:16-17).
On the other hand, if I never remember where I’ve been or what I was, I am at risk of forgetting the unutterable glory of God’s grace on my behalf. There is a piercing sweetness in my relationship with Christ that only remains as long as I retain an awareness of just how much he has done for me. There is a depth of love that only continues to be passionate as long as I remember precisely how he has lovingly intervened with breathtaking, life-changing grace. Scripture warns against losing our first love for Christ and becoming lukewarm in our relationship with him (Rev. 2:4; 3:16). I believe that remembering where we’ve been and what we were is vital to maintaining our first love for the One who makes us new.
So is there a way to remember what we were without spiraling into emotional turmoil inconsistent with God’s will for us? As always, Scripture shows us the answer. While attempting to read all the New Testament passages that describe what we were before Christ, I was struck by the pattern I found. While telling us unequivocally how wretched our state was without Christ, each divinely inspired writer carefully contextualized these truths by also telling the rest of the story, beginning with a little coordinating conjunction, the word but.
We need to read and remember the truth about what we were, remaining humble and worshipfully broken. But we also need to keep reading and focus our attention on the but now and but God truths of Scripture and our life experience. If we do, we cannot help but be filled with joy and thankfulness and white-hot love for the One who has never been anything but Grace and Love to us. Here are my favorite examples of the extravagant grace of were in Scripture (emphasis mine):
“We should have suffered God’s anger because we were sinful by nature. We were the same as all other people. But God’s mercy is great, and he loved us very much. Though we were spiritually dead because of the things we did against God, he gave us new life with Christ. You have been saved by God’s grace.” Ephesians 2:3-5, NCV
“Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord….” Ephesians 5:8a
“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which, I, Paul, have become a servant.” Colossians 1:21-22
We were spiritually dead, separated from God, enemies of Christ, in darkness and hopelessness apart from him, helpless in our sin. But that was then. What we were is forever past-tense in God’s reckoning once we belong to Christ. The most wondrous truth in all of life is that God loves us so much, he refused to leave us as we were and instead sent his Son to be our savior. He offers, by his grace, to make us new in Christ when we accept his gift of salvation through repentance and faith.
But there’s more. At salvation, God gives us his Holy Spirit, who continually acts in grace to transform us into the image-bearers and ambassadors our Creator always meant for us to be. Therefore, the things we now are—all the qualities and benefits God gives the new creation he has made us to be—are eternal, though ever-changing toward greater Christlikeness.
Perpetual transformation is one of the most beautiful promises of Scripture. By God’s inspiration, Paul boldly proclaims, “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Phil. 1:6). We are God’s work of grace, a work in progress until the day Christ comes again, when our salvation and our sanctification will finally be complete.
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3:2
I asked Jesus to save me as a nine-year-old girl, and, mercifully, I don’t have many heavy regrets from before I became a new creation in Christ. All of the were scriptures apply equally to me, regardless. I, too, was a sheep who had gone astray and needed a Great Shepherd to rescue me (1 Pet. 2:25). I am overwhelmed that Jesus saved me at nine, hopefully just as much as I would be if he’d saved me at twenty-nine.
But this means that the parts of my past that hurt the most to remember occurred after I’d been walking with Jesus a long time. It means that many of my most powerful were statements are those of sanctification, of God showing up with extravagant grace to free me from a struggle with sin or transform me through suffering various trials. Here are just a few:
I was lonely, feeling isolated and abandoned, but God taught me that because of him, I’m never alone, never unknown, and never unloved. He made my heart full when he was all I had.
I was fearful, terrified of losing the ones I loved most. But God mercifully gave me a promise that imparted peace, and he gave me grace to surrender my will, my attempts at control, and my fears. He made me trusting when he was all I could hold on to.
I was broken with grief and devastated by my helplessness and confusion in the face of our child’s suffering. But God met me tenderly in that utter darkness. He brought the light of wisdom and walked us step-by-step into healing and restoration. He made me strong when he was the only guide I could trust.
It costs me to revisit those places, even briefly. If I looked back without also remembering—and focusing on—the but God parts, I might not be able to get out of bed in the morning. But in the big-picture context of God’s merciful sovereignty, his loving-kindness, and his relentless grace working miracles of redemption, restoration, and transformation in my life, my broken weres now mark the places where God stepped in and poured out grace to bring beauty from ashes and set me free.
Moreover, because of the grace I’ve experienced in the past and because of God’s promises, I have an assurance in future grace that gives me hope and peace about the past, the present, and the future. Revelation 21:3-5 tells us that one day, all our wounds will be gloriously healed, and every tear will be forever wiped away. One day, every injustice will be utterly undone, and every painful were will be gone forever as God completes his work of redemption and makes his dwelling with us for all eternity. That’s a promise I cling to and eagerly wait to see fulfilled. In the meantime, I am promised grace sufficient for each day as it comes (2 Cor. 12:9).
When I recall the glorious grace God has given me—especially the sweetness of knowing him more intimately—my regrets are swallowed up by wonder and my pain is overcome by love and thankfulness. Though it can hurt to look back because some things won’t become fully redeemed until God makes all things new, by his grace I can say, It is well. Much like the moms looking at their little ones’ school pictures, when I compare my before with my after, I am in awe and can only worship with all the love and gratitude the Holy Spirit has poured out in my heart.
Maybe you wish the place where you are could already be the place you were. Maybe you are still praying and waiting to see God transform you or your circumstances in a way that gives him glory and works all things together for your good, as he promises to do for those who love him and are called by him (Rom. 8:28). I know what that’s like, friend. And I know we can trust God to keep his promises and give us grace to persevere.
As Christians, we are always in the state of awaiting transformation and, at the same time, we are being transformed day by day, just like our children. Like them, we long to become what we will be, and we can easily grow weary and fearful and grieved as we wait for God in his grace to complete his work in us. My prayer is that we can, by faith, say (and truly experience) with the Apostle Paul, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:16-17).
If it’s been a while since you’ve remembered how far God’s grace has brought you, look back today and be amazed in a fresh way by his extravagant love and mercy. Then look forward, boldly claiming as yours the many great and precious promises of God that assure us he will never stop working miracles of grace in our lives until we see him face to face in glory. By his grace, there is so much more were to come.