I hadn’t opened the old shoebox in a decade, but lifting the frayed lid, I laughed in delight at the faces of dear friends and family staring back at me. For hours afterward, I sat on my closet floor, poring over stacks of these pictures that held constant vigil for happy college years, newlywed days, long-ago ministry events, and first days home with babies.
My heart filled with wonder at being able to see so clearly in the present as I peered into the past. A friendship that began in college through a chance meeting has, in time, grown into one of deep joy and importance. The man who’d become my husband, pictured still very much as a boy, whom I’ve seen grow more and more into who God’s made him to be. The little baby, the object of several lifetimes of my worry, who’s now matured and overcome.
Looking at time past, I marveled at how the pictures gave me the gift of sight, and how this sight affirmed the truth of Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Even in what I could never have imagined becoming beautiful, God had proven himself good.
You Don’t See the Whole Picture Now
But then I turned back to my present moment, the very day I was going through old pictures, and I tried to wrap my mind around that day’s gifts: the already teenager and the almost teenagers, taking up more space in my home and heart, eating their way through life. I tried to squeeze every ounce of thankfulness from my heart regarding my husband and the state of our union, and I ticked through the church we planted, friends, extended family, our health, the opportunities and influence God’s given.
I couldn’t enjoy today’s moments like I could the past, because the present was so difficult to see without fear creeping in. What if my beloved is taken from me? What if this boy of mine never learns from his mistakes? What if God asks us to say a gospel goodbye to the church we love? It’s as if my heart wanted to protect itself, belying the deeper question at the core of my fear: What if God isn’t actually at work, bringing all things to the beautiful end he’s promised?
We’re told by our culture, seemingly on repeat, to live in the moment, to be present. And I know there is good in this charge, but living in the present and especially grasping what God is doing in the current moment is like looking through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). We cannot fully see nor can we comprehend the shape of what God is making and the tools he’s using to bring all things to the beautiful end of redemption. We “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and on a smaller scale, we can’t grab hold of a present moment with joy unadulterated by sin and darkness. We must not chide ourselves over missing the moments if we can’t grab hold of their fullness as they pass.
There is a better way to live in the present. The box of old pictures helps us understand how.
What We See in Old Pictures
Why are we often more moved by old pictures than new? One reason is that when we look back, those memories are informed by a longer and wider perspective. We’re able to view them through the filter of God’s goodness, without the fear or uncertainty we might have experienced in the moment.
We see this same phenomenon in Scripture. In the Old Testament, God repetitiously required his people to build altars, recall stories of his acts to their children, and celebrate feasts that marked the miracles he’d done on their behalf. Over and over, he said to them, “Remember.” They were to remember how God made freedom from slavery and provision from lack so they’d trust him in their present darkness.
And then, through the prophets, God’s refrain became, “Look forward.” They were to look forward to a perfect deliverer and forever rescue, when God would make beauty from their ashes — so that they might trust him with those ashes in their present state.
The Goal for Our Present
We also see this in the New Testament. In the moment of Christ’s crucifixion, everything appeared horribly bleak. Now we’re able to look back on his death and resurrection and see unparalleled beauty, the kind that fills us with joy. This perspective fuels our hope as we look forward to seeing the promise of his second coming.
Looking back at the past and forward to the future helps us walk by faith in a promise-keeping God in this present darkness. For many of us, both the past and the present are pockmarked with pain. Our hope in this life is set on God’s ever-present help, and on the reality awaiting us when Jesus sets all things right and all our pain is transformed into glory. Beauty awaits everyone in Christ.
The goal for our present, then, is not grasping the moment as it passes or trying to see clearly now what God is doing at every turn. The goal for our present moment, though seen dimly for what it is, is faith — believing that the God who was and will be is also the God who is with us, helping us, working in us, and hurtling us toward a beautiful end.
What You Can’t See Today
God has designed us to comprehend and value the true beauty of his work most significantly over time. As an artist pulls the cover off a portrait in dramatic reveal, as the hiker’s perspective of where she’s traveled comes into view as she steps onto the mountain peak, one day we will see the scope and beauty of our redemption in full.
More importantly, we’ll see God, and in our first awestruck glimpse we’ll see beauty that John, in his Revelation vision, struggled to compare with anything we currently call beautiful. As we take him in, and as we take in a broader horizon of time and God’s work in time, our understanding of his beauty will come into far greater focus.
Perhaps then too we will follow the pattern Scripture gives: looking back with eternal eyes, seeing God’s goodness in every point of history. A heavenly shoebox of joy waiting for our unending discovery. And what will we look forward to in the future? In heaven, the future is one of joy’s eternal increase, every discovery of God’s handiwork a new facet of his beauty.
We do not need to see or understand all that God is doing on our hardest days. We just need to know that God is behind this, and in this, and that he will make it beautiful in time.