One of the hardest words to say, comprehend, and embrace in the English language is formerly, for when we use such a word, it does not simply talk about chronology. The order of events is not the only meaning of the word formerly. It also talks about change, like introducing a friend as formerly of Atlanta, Georgia after having moved to Florida, or formerly as Susan Smith after her last name has changed to Jones in marriage. The word formerly has to do with change.
The word formerly is difficult to say because it is difficult to adjust when "who we are" is no longer "who we were." There are moments when we realize that our former life was easier than our current life. It was not better, but it was easier. A life with less conviction and minus responsibility is easier, but it is not better. In striving to live as beloved children of God, we may recall our former life and how there was less to consider, consult, or correct.
We may also run into people who still see us as we were formerly, even though we are different people currently. Our former judgmental comments, quiet prejudices, or haphazard concern for our neighbor remain more a part of yesterday than today, but in the eyes of people around us, they have not noticed those changes, choose not to see them, or disagree with them altogether. It is hard to change first impressions or lasting reputations, regardless of the meaning of the word formerly. The past continues to be a roadblock that is placed in front of our future.
The person we run into who stills see us as we were formerly may also be ourselves. We are not the person we once were, but we fail to see formerly as formerly. We may have forgiven ourselves, but we are not yet acquainted with the person we are currently. We become our own stumbling block by misunderstanding the word formerly.
The word formerly is a hard word to comprehend, but it is central when Paul says, "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods" (Galatians 4.8). Changes happen in the word formerly because of trust and faith. We have not, as Paul says, "come to know God;" rather, we have come to "be known by God." It is not so much that we have made changes, which we have; it is that we have been changed, knowing ourselves in the ways that God knows us. In this case, we come to understand the word formerly by doing less, or even doing nothing.
We certainly work to make changes in our lives, but in comprehending the word formerly, it is more about accepting the changes. We accept by trusting in God's acceptance. We may want to go back. We may want to return to the former traditions, norms, or rules, as the people did in Galatians. In the same way that the Israelites considered returning to slavery in Exodus, we might be tempted to go back.
We might consider going back to former things because there is more certainty there. In Galatians, people are saying that without circumcision or without following certain dietary laws, a person is excluded from the people of God. There is more certainty in following such rules, rather than trusting faith. Paul argues, all that is needed is trust, as we are known by God. Trust is difficult, especially when we are dealing with the word formerly.
I do not know if trust comes first and then faith, or if faith comes first and then trust. As we listen to the life of Jesus, seeing the character of God, we see that God is trustworthy, and so we have faith. We also have faith in the power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and so we trust in God. Faith and trust are an extension of one another. They are different, but never separate. There is energy between them that connects them, so they never stand still. Faith moves towards trust, and trust moves toward faith.
In trying to comprehend the word formerly, we must move from faith to trust, and trust to faith. We move between these two by doing less, embracing the acceptance of God. We have a trust that is rooted in faith, trusting that we are known by God. We must allow formerly to be formerly. The trajectory of faith is not walking away from yesterday; it is walking towards God.
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