God Behind Me, God Before Me

Looking Backward and Forward by Faith

The end of a year invites us to take a look backward and forward — back to the year whose last pages are turning, forward to the year whose cover lies before us. Depending on where you are in life, however, studying the past and the future might feel like more than you can bear.

Our worst days — or weeks, or months, or years — have a way of burying the mercies of God in our past, and darkening the promises of God for our future. The past becomes a list of hopes deferred, relationships lost, opportunities squandered, all telling the broken story of how we landed here. And the future, as far as we can see, will only get worse.

For God’s people, however, what we see never tells the full story. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Faith, not sight, must be our guide as we scan the pages of yesterday and turn the page of tomorrow. And faith has a different interpretation than what our worst moments would suggest.

When faith looks to the past and to the future, it says with David, “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us” (Psalm 40:5). The past, no matter how many ghosts walk there, is full of his wondrous deeds. The future, no matter how many sorrows await us there, is full of his merciful plans.

Wondrous Deeds

As David surveys the years gone by, he is not naïve. He sees the sins and the sorrows behind him, some of them too numerous to count (Psalm 40:12). But these are not the most fundamental, the most weighty, parts of his past. Against the blackness of this sky, he sees stars shining: “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds . . . toward us” (Psalm 40:5).

“God has so sanctified every sorrow that it has become, in his hands, a minister of mercy.”

Throughout the Psalms, the phrase wondrous deeds refers to the works of God in creation and redemption — from the miracle of the exodus (Psalm 106:22) to the mystery of our own nerves and sinews (Psalm 139:14). God has multiplied such marvels in the past, not only toward David, but “toward us” (Psalm 40:5), toward all of God’s people. The past — our own past, if we are in Christ — is not mainly a story of sin and sorrow, but rather of the wonders of God that forgive our sins and heal our sorrows.

We should not be surprised if we sometimes struggle to see such wonders when we look behind us. Another psalmist would pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). Only the Holy Spirit can reveal God’s wonders to us, whether in the pages of Scripture or the pages of our past. The Spirit does open our eyes, however, and he does so as we look. Consider, then, the wonders that God has wrought in your past — wonders that David could have only dreamed of.

Every Sin and Sorrow

Perhaps, when you look back, sin stands highest on the horizon. You know what David means when he says, “My iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head” (Psalm 40:12).

But keep looking. If you belong to Jesus, then God has not withheld his mercy from you (Psalm 40:11). He saw you in your pit of destruction, as you were sinking down by the weight of your own sin (Psalm 40:2). He bent his ear to you; he placed his arm beneath you; he set your feet on the rock of his Son (Psalm 40:1–2). He put a new song in your mouth: a song of the Son of God, who loved you and gave himself for you (Psalm 40:3; Galatians 2:20). Here is mercy enough to forgive all your sins.

Or maybe, when you think of your past, sorrow is the story that you read. With David, you say, “Evils have encompassed me beyond number . . . my heart fails me” (Psalm 40:12).

But keep looking. If you are Christ’s, then God has drawn near to you in all your neediness (Psalm 40:9–10, 17). He has heard every sigh, seen every sadness, caught every tear (Psalm 56:8). He has so sanctified every sorrow that it has become, in his hands, a minister of mercy (Psalm 119:71; Romans 8:28). Here is comfort enough to heal all your sorrows.

“Our worst days have a way of burying the mercies of God in our past, and darkening the promises of God.”

No past can be a wasteland if Christ himself has walked there. No matter how much guilt and grief is buried in the years gone by, the ground bears the footprints of “the God who works wonders” (Judges 13:19). As we find ourselves rehearsing all the bitterness behind us, then, we need to tell ourselves the fuller story: “God has forgiven me; Christ has redeemed me; the past is full of his wondrous deeds.”

Do not miss the footprints of mercy amid the shadows of the last year.

Merciful Plans

Now, what does David see when he looks forward? “You have multiplied, O Lord my God . . . your thoughts toward us” (Psalm 40:5). The word for thoughts here is the same word translated elsewhere as plans, most famously in Jeremiah 29:11: “I know the plans that I have for you . . .” (see also Psalm 33:10–11; Micah 4:12). When God multiplies his thoughts toward his people, he is multiplying his merciful plans.

God is not content to fill only our past with wondrous deeds; the chambers of his merciful imagination are always full of fresh wonders, waiting for their proper time. He is continually eager to unfold new dimensions of his grace, his love, and his kindness, adding fresh installments every day (Lamentations 3:22–23). Nor need we worry that God’s mercies will someday cease, for “they are more than can be told” (Psalm 40:5; Ephesians 2:7).

Of course, the merciful plans God multiplies for us likely will be quite different from the plans we would multiply for ourselves. And we can thank God they will be, for we are poor planners, every one of us: we dream up seventy years of happiness, while God has eternity on his mind (Romans 8:18).

God’s merciful plans, then, should not lead us to expect days of untroubled serenity ahead — rather, days that will reveal more constellations of God’s glory to us, even if we must walk through deep darkness to see them. The most merciful plans of our God are those that bring us to say, whatever it takes, “Great is the Lord!” (Psalm 40:16).

All Mysteries Shall Be Bright

Whatever else you see when you look ahead, then, see the mercies God has multiplied for you. Do you see a mind-numbing job that you cannot escape? See also the God who is able to put a new song in your mouth (Psalm 40:3). Do you see children whose needs and complaints swamp your days? See also the God who notices you, hears you, takes thought for you (Psalm 40:1, 17). Do you see the lingering wreckage of your own sin, which will take months or years to clean up? See also the God who will never fail to preserve you with his steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 40:11).

Well might we sing with Katharina von Schlegel,

Be still my soul,
Thy God doth undertake
To guide the future
As he has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence
Let nothing shake.
All now mysterious
Shall be bright at last.

The future, though mysterious, is not the gray blank many of us expect it to be. The future is the storehouse of God’s merciful plans, if only we had eyes to see them.

As we sit on the edge of a new year, we are hemmed in by the faithfulness of God. Behind us are his wondrous deeds. Before us are his merciful plans. Both of them are marvelous and more than can be told. With such a God behind us and before us, we need not allow the past to swallow us, nor the future to worry us. The past and the future belong to him — and most importantly, so do we.