Forget the Past, Focus on the Future

The apostle Paul said to the church at Philippi, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus” (Php 3:13-14). The one thing that he was intent on doing was to forget the past and look to the future. He had put to bed his former life of “…making havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:3). We may not have committed such heinous acts as Paul, but we all have pasts dotted with words and actions that we deeply regret, and Paul is suggesting that we put those things behind us.

In what sense should we forget our past? Isn’t our past a history of what God has done for us, leading and guiding us through all the ups and downs of life? History is important as it is his story and we are part of that story, beginning with the creation right through to the coming re-creation. Aren’t there lessons to be drawn from our past to aid us in the reforming and sanctifying of our lives going forward? That is all true — we should be grateful for the loving, providential hand of God at work to bring good out of all our experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant. In particular, we should be grateful for the circumstances that led us to embrace Christ as our Saviour and Lord. Paul is by no means minimising the importance of the past. He is simply expressing, in terms of a runner participating in a race, that we are not there yet, and that it is vitally important that we press on with an element of urgency towards attaining the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Runners never look back or look over their shoulder, they press on relentlessly until they reach the finish line. Similarly, in the Christian life we can never rest on our laurels, or be content with all that we have achieved by the grace of God thus far, or even think that we have arrived at perfection. There were some in the church at Philippi who thought they had arrived at perfection, and Paul himself recalled his pride at being the king-pin of the Pharisees, “…concerning zeal, persecuting the church, concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Php 3:6). But then he goes on to say that those things which were gain to him he counted loss for Christ. (Php 3:6-7). Paul is impressing on the Philippian believers the importance of forgetting the past as the way to freeing themselves up to put every effort into the all-important race to the finish.

There will be enough hurdles and obstacles to overcome before we enter in without reliving and rehashing past failures or even glorying in past achievements. The gate through which we enter is narrow, and the way is difficult, and few find it (Matt 7:14). In the words of the Alexanders Hymn “There’s a fight to be fought and a race to be won, there are dangers to meet by the way”. We cannot rest until we have heard the Master’s commendation “…well done good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matt 25:23).

We need to cultivate the same urgency that Paul felt, as time is always running out, and we know not when Jesus is coming again, or if we will depart this earth before he comes. In the meantime, we cannot afford to dwell on past mistakes, or to go through in our heads all of the ‘what ifs’ or ‘if onlys’, or to ask the ‘why’ question. All of our posturing and analysing of the past is a fruitless exercise since not one iota of our past can be changed. Perhaps more importantly, it also reveals our failure to believe that “…all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Our natural tendency when dwelling on the past is to focus on our failures rather than our achievements and to wallow in self-pity. Paul did recount his former life as a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man to his protégé Timothy, but he did so only to magnify the grace of Christ in putting him into the ministry (1 Tim 1:12-13). He was overflowing with gratitude for the great mercy shown to him in forgiving great sins, and though they were horrendous, he saw them as a product of ignorance and unbelief. He did not make light of his former life though, as he went on to tell Timothy that he was the chief of sinners. But Saul was now Paul, a sinner saved by grace through repentance and faith. His life was now lived for his Saviour. His sins had been removed entirely and forever. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). Our past sins are remembered no more by God, so we should cast them behind our back — no more self-induced guilt trips.

Some Personal Application

What does this look like practically, to forget the past and look to the future? Let’s begin with the start of a new day. What will be your first thoughts on rising from bed tomorrow morning? I love to follow the example of King David who says, “This is the day which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). This verse is part of a prophesy of the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus; it speaks of the day of Christ and his coming kingdom. Every day we celebrate the Christ who has come, and who has wrought for us a place in his kingdom. Every day is a gift from God, every day is a day closer to being with him. Consciously or subconsciously, our first thoughts each day should be centred on the blessing of being in Christ, and our second thoughts should be centred on the way in which we can serve and follow him during the day. Should there be a plan for the day? Yes, because we all know that the day will just go by and we will really have nothing to show for it, unless we have a plan.

The whole idea of planning and organising does seem to be a little constricting to some, particularly for those of us who like to be spontaneous and to live in the moment. My wife and I do a bit of both in that we do plan, but we welcome interruptions to our plans for any and every reason. If our children or grandchildren invite us to this or that occasion or to do this or that, we always say yes (if we can). If our church or indeed anyone calls on us for help, we always say yes (again if we can). But we do have a plan, and our plan basically comprises two simple elements. Those things which we endeavour to do on a regular basis, and “other”.

The regular part of our day is governed by the verse “…bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Tim 4:8). Godliness is profitable for all things, so our first priority is to set aside each day a time to draw near to our God in prayer and devotion around his word; and we need the discipline of setting aside roughly the same time every day, or the practice will quickly slide. If we miss a day, so be it, we shy away from any form of legalism. The other “regular” is to attend to our bodies as our verse reminds us that bodily exercise does have some profit, so we take care of what we put into our bodies and how we use them. We have specific inputs into our food/drink for the day to ensure that we have a balanced diet, and we endeavour to have regular exercise, taking care that we do everything in moderation. In remonstrating against sexual sin in the church in Corinth, Paul said “…do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own. For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify your God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor 6:19-20). Clearly, ownership of our bodies as well as our souls is with the Lord. Our whole being is involved in glorifying God.

We now come to the “other” part of the day. Do we have a list of things to do for the day? Yes, we do, but if you are like us, you never get done what is on the list, and there is no point in getting upset over that. We just delete or put off (manually for us, press a button for others). We should never be slaves to a list. We are just thankful for what we are able to do. The important thing is what is on the list, as that reveals our priorities in life. Apart from the reminder notes about shopping and appointments, what is the break-up of the remainder of the list or diary; specifically, what is the proportion of activities that serve ourselves as against serving others, remembering the words of our Lord Jesus Christ when he said “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). At a deeper level though, it doesn’t matter what is on the list or what we do. What does matter is the manner in which we conduct ourselves. Are we emulating Christ who “…increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Christ did not enjoy a good relationship with the leaders of the church who were bent on destroying this man who threatened their authority; but he was loved by the multitude. We too must cultivate a good testimony among those who are outside the church (1 Tim 3:7; 1 Thess. 4:12). We must bring to bear all the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22,23); and all of our good works must be done in the meekness of wisdom (James 3:13). Finally, whatever we do, whether it is something we enjoy doing, or something which do not enjoy, we are to do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men (Col 3:23).

What about planning into the future? James says “Come now, you who say ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’ whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that’” (James 4:13-15). We live in humble dependence on the will of God. At the same time, we should have some sort of forward plan, otherwise we will be caught napping, we will miss opportunities, we will be left out, we will be caught red faced like the man who set out to build a tower. Jesus said “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it, lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all who see begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’ (Luke 14:28-30). Jesus was speaking of the cost of being his disciple, but there is an underlying principle of counting the cost of entering into any project or venture with his money, it is not our own. Jesus also impressed on his disciples the need to employ their worldly possessions as astutely as the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-9). The unjust steward sought to make friends as a means to secure temporal ends, but our objective is to use the shrewdness of the unjust steward to secure our future and eternal welfare. So, we are to “…to do good, to be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for ourselves a good foundation for the time to come, that we may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim 6:18-19).

Jesus also gave us the heads up to take an interest in what is going on in the world. Jesus said to the Pharisees and Sadducees “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather for the sky is red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times” (Matt 16:3). Our reading, research, and study should include keeping up with what God is doing in his world, and profitably using the discernment and wisdom that he has given us through the Holy Spirit. King David’s army included the children of Issachar who were commended for their “…understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32).

Some Concluding Thoughts

As Paul was calling us to “…reach forward to those things which are ahead” (Php 3:13), he was conscious that we are all at different stages in our walk with Jesus, and he was conscious that some of his hearers were puffed up with their own progress in knowledge and understanding. He said “Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind” (Php 3:15-16). He wants us to walk together in unity, bearing with one another in mutual love and respect, and with a common purpose to set our hearts on Christ and heaven. If we struggle to understand certain things, we need to patiently wait for further light. If we consider ourselves superior in knowledge than others, we can easily slip into judgementalism and find ourselves being judged. We are all prone to error. Even Solomon, a man who was endowed above all his fellow men with great wisdom, had to admit, “I said, I will be wise, but it was far from me” (Eccl 7:23). It may sound odd, but the more we read the scriptures and the more we comprehend the scriptures, the more we realise how much we don’t know. The word of God is a never ending mine of treasures and we will never plumb the full depths of it.

“Run the straight race through God’s good grace,

Lift up thine eyes, and seek His face;

Life with its path before us lies;

Christ is the way, and Christ the prize”

(Fight the Good Fight – Alexanders Hymnal)

Rob Humphreys