Philippians 3:13-14 - Looking to the Future, Forgetting the Past
One thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3:13-14
We cannot interpret these words to mean that for Paul the past counts for nothing. Rather this is a statement about the overall outlook of Paul's life. On balance, the future was more important to him, more in his thinking, than the past. The way this is recorded in Scripture, suggests that this should be our outlook too.
In arguing that he doesn't forget the past entirely, we are only doing justice to the overall teaching of Scripture.
A Time to Remember
After all, Paul himself has been recounting here the story of his early life and of his conversion (vv. 4-6); elsewhere he similarly recounts past experiences (2 Corinthians 12:1-9; Galatians 1:13-24; Acts 26:4-18).
More importantly, the message he preaches is founded on past happenings: historical events in the life of Jesus are the basis of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). In preaching these, he is recalling the past. He is also well acquainted with the story of previous generations of God's people and he sees their experiences as relevant for the believers of his own day. "These things," he says after recounting Israel's experience in the desert, "happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us" (1 Corinthians 10:11).
In displaying that interest in history he is only following a path, well marked out in Scripture. The Psalms recount the unfolding of God's purpose in human history (Psalms 105 and 106, for example) and tell of parents recounting to their children the "praiseworthy deeds of the Lord" (Psalm 78:4). In the annual Passover ceremony, past events were engraved on the memory (Exodus 12:26) as they are on ours by the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11: 24-26). "Remember the days of old" (Deuteronomy 32:7) is a Biblical injunction.
Any Christian who does not appreciate Church History has failed to recognise God as a God of providence and to grasp the fact that the Bible is God's revelation given in history.
And a Time to Forget
On the other hand, there are times to forget. As the bride "forgets" her father's house on marriage (Psalm 45:10), so in the light of the great things that God is going to do, the prophet tells the people: "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past" (Isaiah 43:18). It is that spirit that Paul has when he speaks of forgetting what is behind and straining out to what is ahead. Why centre our thoughts on the past when the best is yet to be? Why be shackled to the past, when the future is brighter than what has been?
The testimony of Scripture in regard to the past and the future leave us a knife-edge to walk on. To forget God's past dealings is to deprive us of much that is important and useful; to dwell over much on what has been is to distort our outlook and diminish our vision for the future.
Let's explore this further to try and get a balanced Biblical outlook on past and future.
An interest in the past may help us to understand the present or even to forecast or prepare for the future. An interest in the history of the church can stimulate faith, give us a pattern which we can follow or warn of dangers to be avoided. It can provoke a sense of humility, of dependence on God and of thankfulness that he has laid hold on us. But thinking on the past can be harmful, too. I want to mention two ways in which it can do us damage.
As we grow in spiritual maturity, we become increasingly aware of what our faults have been. What seemed to us in our immaturity to be adequate Christian behaviour, we now look back on with a profound sense of shame. Our failures now seem mountains when once they were molehills. Hindsight becomes a microscope through which we see our sins with greater clarity. And there's nothing wrong in that — if it leads to deeper penitence, greater humility and a new resting on divine grace.
The danger is when dwelling on past sins turns us in on ourselves rather than outward to Christ. A morbid raking up of past misdeeds, long since repented of, makes us self-centred; a constant turning over of silly acts or wrong decisions can make us downcast; swamp us with self-pity; produce a sense of frailty that cripples our spiritual outlook and incapacitates us from service; engulf us in shame and cause us to take our eyes off present and future spiritual realities.
Moaning and groaning over sin has its place in Christian experience but it is not an end in itself, only a means to an end. It is not the characteristic feature of the believer (for it happens to unconverted people too). The Christian whose mind is flooded with thoughts from the past needs to be told: take your eyes off the past and set them on the present reality of Christ, your agent and representative, who is seated at the right hand of your Father. Look to him, cling to him. Lay hold on the status that belongs to you in him: justified, accepted in the Beloved, adopted into the family of God.
If God himself no longer remembers our sins and our iniquities (Jeremiah 31:34), it is ridiculous that we should drag them to the forefront of our thoughts. What we should do is take ourselves to task and look to a brighter future like the Psalmist did (Psalm 42:11) and so concentrate our mind on what we are now in Christ — and what we will be yet. In other words, this is a case where forgetting what lies behind and straining towards what is ahead is especially appropriate.
The narrow experience of the past which is known to us can sometimes be taken as an infallible guide for our conduct today. "That's what we've always done; that's what we'll always do" is a recipe for spiritual disaster.
It works on the presupposition that the past was beyond criticism and so it sets up a standard to which we appeal as our guide. This strikes at the very heart of the faith that we profess, for it undermines the unique binding authority of the Bible and sets up human standards in its place.
Our belief, founded on the way Paul argues (in 1 Corinthians 11:13-14, for example) is that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, and that they are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence. But tradition fails to recognise that fact, and demands that such details be ordered according to a set pattern laid down by history. This cripples the church's ability to change in things that don't enter into the essence of the faith. It stops it from witnessing effectively in the present.
Tradition binds our expectations of God by alleging that only as he acted in our past history can he work in the future. It undermines God's sovereignty and cramps our vision. It locks us into a straightjacket and enslaves us to the narrow part of past history which we ourselves have known. As it exalts our particular experience of history, it tends to foster pride.
Little wonder that this looking to the past for guidance brings the stinging condemnation of Christ:
Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: 'These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'Mark 7:6-7
The Roman Catholic Lords in Reformation Scotland said: "we will believe as our fathers believed". They too were locked into their own particular patch of history as indeed Roman Catholicism itself is. Little wonder that our Reformed standards contain explicit condemnation of the traditions of men (Confession of Faith I, VI).
If we have worshipped the past, we must repent and embrace the attitude of mind that Paul has. To concentrate on the future frees us from these depressing and enslaving influences of the past.
To look to the future implies that the best is yet to be; that the prospect of the future fills us with a hope that the past can't fill us with. How does this come about?
The promises of God are plain:
no-one shall pluck us out of the Father's hand;
he will complete the good work that he has begun in us;
he shall renew our youth like the eagle's;
though the outward man is perishing, the inner man is being renewed.
In old age, when others fade,
we fruit still forth shall bring;
we shall be fat and full of sap
and aye be flourishing.
These are all statements that should make us anticipate the future with the greatest of confidence. It isn't a case of postponing our hope of maturity until we get to heaven; but rather one of thinking positively of the immediate future, of cherishing hope of progress and spiritual development and greater victory, based on the trustworthiness of our God. We should picture ourselves gaining ground and going on to conquer sins at present unrealised. The prospect is glorious, there to be received with faith.
That's the way it is too for the more distant future. Although it grieves us to think of our bodies coming under the power of the last enemy, that is, lying in the grave and our spirits separated from them, there are thoughts that more than compensate for that. Our spirits will be made perfect and will be in the presence of Christ, which is far better than their state in this world. And one day our bodies too will be raised from the ground; they will be glorified and reunited with our perfected spirits. So, we will spend all eternity with God in glorified body and spirit.
Why dwell on past human failings when we have the prospect of God's glorious future with which to fill our minds?
The Church's Hope
The general picture of the church's future is no different from that of the individual believer's. From time to time the church will have to go through difficult times and be in relative decadence. But these are but the troughs between waves of blessing which will become more and more powerful as time rolls by.
One day the whole world is going to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord (Isaiah 11:9). One day there will be no need for anyone to teach his brother saying: "Know the Lord", for all shall know him from the least to the greatest (Jeremiah 31:34. One day every knee shall bow to him and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11). One day there will be a new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13). Imagine that! How different the world is to be: peace and truth and justice flourishing as the gospel changes the lives of the nations.
The glory of the Disruption pales into insignificance at what is to be. The wonder of the great revivals may seem remarkable to us but it is nothing compared to what there will be in the future. Why use the past as a standard to live by if the future is to be so much better?
Given the nature of God's purpose and promises, Paul had every right to say what he did about forgetting what was behind and straining towards what was ahead. If the balance of our thought does not tilt in that direction we must ask ourselves why.
No doubt there is a variety of reasons: our historical situation has placed us under pressure to glorify the past and we have not successfully resisted the temptation; sheltering in the memory of the past gives us a sense of comfort in a hostile world or it relieves us from asking the awkward question "what does it mean to be all things to all men" today?
But the real reason for the imbalance is not our attitude to the past, but our concept of the future. For many of our people, I believe, the future is extremely vague, their thinking on it confused and lacking in detail. We need more Biblical exposition on the glorious future that belongs to the people of God; the resurrection of the body, the Second Coming and related themes. When there is that Biblical understanding of the future, there can only be one result: folks will see that the best is yet to be and the undoubted glories of the past will be seen in their true perspective.