The following is a reflection from our Dean Andy Wakefield.
Forgetting the things that lie behind and stretching out for the things that lie ahead, I keep on pursuing according the goal of the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13-14
Along with most Americans and most of the world, the tenth anniversary of September 11 has caused me to do a lot of thinking about what lies behind. Ten years ago a terrible tragedy struck – a tragedy that shook this nation to its very foundations. Ten years later we continue to struggle to figure out how to pick up the pieces and move on. That’s always the struggle, isn’t it? Whether it is a personal tragedy that affects only one person or a national tragedy that affects millions, the question is the same: how do we move on?
Paul’s words in Philippians 3 offer an answer to this question, but at first glance, it doesn’t seem like a very realistic answer. Forget the things that lie behind? Just forget them? Is Paul telling us to ignore the past, pretend as though it never happened? Oh, how I wish that we could just forget the past! Oh, how I wish we could press on as though nothing had ever happened! But we can’t. And Paul knows it.
Look at what Paul does earlier in Chapter 3 of Philippians. He talks at length about his own past. He tells the Philippians about his time as Pharisee, about his diligent work in the law, about his efforts to persecute the church. Paul has not ignored the past. He certainly isn’t pretending it never happened.
So what does Paul mean when he talks about forgetting the things that lie behind? Is he telling us to rationalize the past – to try to “think it into submission”? We certainly try to do that. We try to put things into perspective. We say, “Well, that was bad, but bad things happen every day,” or we look at all the good things that God can bring out of this tragedy. And all of that is true, but does it really take care of the past? Maybe, if it’s something small, we can move on after we have put it into perspective. But what if it’s something truly horrible? What if it’s a divorce that has ripped our lives apart? Or a loved one who dies of cancer? Or a plane crash that destroys the Twin Towers? Can we really think that into submission?
Again, I don’t think Paul is trying to do this. He never tries to minimize the things that he has experienced or the things that he has done. He doesn’t say, “Well, I persecuted the church – but it really was for the best.” He doesn’t say, “I suffered terrible things, but it wasn’t that bad.” No, Paul was honest. The past that he has endured, the past that he has inflicted, was terrible and he faces it squarely. And he asks the church to do the same.
Maybe he’s asking us to hurry on through the past. After all, he does use the analogy of a race here – pressing forward, reaching out for the goal, pursuing the prize. Is Paul asking us to just hurry it up? Is he asking us not to let the past linger – to move on quickly through the time of grief? To hurry up so we can get on to other things, so we can get on with?
We certainly do press each other to hurry on through the past. Someone suffered a tragedy, but it was all of ten weeks ago; why is she still talking about it? We want people to move on. Indeed, it‘s quite unusual that we as a nation have not really moved on ten years after the events of 9/11. Is Paul telling us to get on with it – to hurry it up?
If so, he hasn’t really practiced what he’s preaching. Look at his own life. He tells us in Galatians that after he came to know Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, he immediately went and spent three years in an Arabian dessert. Three years! What was he doing all that time? Could it be that he was dealing with his own past? And what about all the times he relates his personal history, not just here in Philippians but all through his letters? He doesn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to leave his own past behind.
So what does Paul want us to do? What does it mean to forget the things that lie behind? Maybe we should take a look at the rest of the verse. Paul doesn’t just talk about forgetting the things that lie behind; he talks about stretching forward – reaching for the prize, stretching for the goal, pursuing the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.
I think what Paul is telling us here is that whatever lies behind, whether it is great tragedy or even great success, we need to understand that our future is not defined by the past. How often do we say, “If only we could go back to the good old days”? How often do we make it our goal to get back to where we used to be? But Paul is telling us that our goal does not lie behind us. The past shapes our future, it informs our future, but it does not define our future.
This is good news – very good news! Our future is defined by the upward calling of God. God is not limited to repeating the old things of the past; God is the one who can transform and redeem the past. God is the one who defines our future.
Perhaps we could say it this way. The best way to honor the past is to let it be the past, and to stretch out with all of our being for the future that God is creating for us.