A Perfect Time To Forget
We learn, very early in life, about the importance of remembering. If your childhood was like mine, you were told countless times to, ‘remember your manners’. And, of course, we wouldn’t have managed very well in school if we did not remember what we were learning in the classroom. You could say that our progression in most things in life is largely tied to our ability to remember.
The Bible says a great deal about the importance of remembering. Read a chapter like Deuteronomy 8, and you’ll see how remembering the Lord and His works leads to blessing, while forgetting the Lord leads to discipline and correction. In Psalm 103, blessing the Lord with our soul and all that is within us requires that we not forget the Lord’s benefits. Even a cursory search reveals that the Bible is replete with commands to remember the Lord.
Did you know that the Bible also speaks about our need to forget? While we are commanded to remember the Lord—His works and His Word—we are also exhorted by the apostle Paul to forget some things.
In Philippians, chapter 3, Paul explains, “one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13, 14).
From this statement we glean a two-pronged outline for today’s sermon. First, what does Paul want to obtain? And, secondly, how does Paul envision obtaining this?
Very simply, what Paul wants to obtain is Christ. On the one hand, Paul has already gained Christ—Paul is speaking as a Christian. But there is another sense in which there is more to be gained.
Look at verse 8 where Paul declares, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.”
Though Paul identifies with Christ, though Paul understands that he is no longer what he used to be, he also understands that he is not yet what he ought to be. Though Paul has become like Christ on one level, he has an appreciation for the prevailing distance between his nature and the nature of Christ.
Paul will soon launch into a metaphor of an athlete in a race, but before he does that he articulates his need to lay aside some “rubbish” that has accumulated. Paul understands what we must understand: Gaining the fullness of Christ will require our singular attention.
Paul has just finished listing his credentials as a Jew. These credentials were in Paul’s ‘gain column’—these were things that brought Paul notoriety in his social circle. Now, Paul says, “I count them as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I . . . count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (3:7, 8).
If you look in your King James Bible, you will see that the word for “rubbish” is “dung”, which is the more accurate rendering of the Greek, ‘skubalon’. By comparison, “the surpassing value of knowing Christ” compelled Paul to regard his formerly cherished credentials as manure.
What is it, precisely, that Paul wants to obtain? He talks about “knowing” Christ (3:8, 10), and he talks about “gaining” Christ (3:8). More specifically, Paul talks about gaining Christ’s “righteousness” (3:9), he talks about gaining Christ’s “power” (3:10), and he even talks about gaining Christ’s “sufferings” (3:10). Paul goes so far as to express his desire to eventually obtain from Christ the “resurrection from the dead” (3:11).
‘Paul, can you narrow down your list for us? What exactly, are you looking to gain?’ Paul answers in verse 12 when he states, “not that I have already obtained it”—‘Tell us Paul, what is the “it”?—“Not that I have already become perfect”. There it is. Paul is striving for nothing less than the total perfection of Christ. We call that Christ-likeness. Paul knows he’s not perfect; he knows that he is not fully Christ-like. But, nonetheless, this is his “goal” for life, and ultimately, in heaven, total Christ-likeness will be his “prize” (3:14).
This leads us to our second point: How does Paul envision obtaining this Christ-likeness? In large measure, Paul envisions making progress in Christ-likeness by forgetting his past.
My first instinct as I considered this text was to make a sports analogy. As a goaltender in hockey, it is not uncommon—at least for me, it is not uncommon to have a game when I let in a lot of goals. Now, if I allow myself to dwell on how badly I played, it has a detrimental affect on how I play in the future. For me, it is extremely important to forget what has taken place in previous games. You hear that kind of thing in sports interviews all the time: ‘We need to put this one behind us’, you hear a player say, ‘Our focus has to be on tomorrow’s game.’
At first glance, the analogy seems to fit. But, upon further consideration we recognize that Paul is not talking about forgetting his ‘bad games’. Remember, Paul actually begins this passage by boasting! Paul begins by listing his spiritual credentials for us. It may be that Paul means to include forgetting the bad things he has done—that he means to forget the day when he persecuted Christians, but it is also the case that Paul wants to forget about his list of past accomplishments as well.
This makes a lot of sense to me in that it reveals that Paul is primarily concerned with the present condition of his relationship with Jesus Christ. For Paul, his religious accomplishments of yesteryear are irrelevant to what he is hoping to obtain in the present. What matters most to Paul is his present pursuit of Christ and His righteousness.
I don’t know how this strikes you, but this really hit home with me. It would be very easy for me to coast on my previous devotion to Christ. As the result of a time when I walked closely with Christ, I have become very familiar with the contents of Scripture. As the result of a time when Christ was, for me, the surpassing One; I was led to apply to seminary and to begin the process of becoming a minister of the Gospel. As a consequence of satisfying the requirements for ordination, and as a result of receiving a ‘call’ from two congregations, I was ordained as a minister within The Presbyterian Church in Canada at the tender age of 25. Conceivably, I could go on, like Paul, and outline my resume . . .but then I am arrested by Paul’s words: “forget was lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead.”
Never mind what your prayer habits were like 3 years ago, what are they like now? Never mind what your Bible reading habits were like 10 years ago, what are they like now? Never mind how you excelled in Sunday School as a youth, never mind what your commitment to Christ’s Church was last year, what is the current condition of your relationship with Jesus Christ? Is He, today, the surpassing One?
It is not appropriate for you and I to coast upon our previous devotion. Today is a new day, moreover, today marks the beginning of a new year and so we must seek the singular focus of Paul, who says, “one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13, 14).
What does Paul mean by forgetting? We can best interpret what Paul means when we consider his statement from within the analogy of an athlete in a race. Paul is referencing the fact that a disciplined runner does not look backwards. The runner who looks backward loses speed; the runner who looks backward loses direction; the runner who looks backward will ultimately lose the race.
Many of us were reminded of the danger of not looking forward as we went about in the malls shopping for Christmas presents. If your experience was at all like mine, you were constantly on the alert for those individuals who walked forward while looking in another direction. Paul’s message is that we cannot make spiritual progress while looking in another direction.
Paul brings his point to conclusion as he transitions from the negative act of forgetting to the positive act of pressing on. Again, the image Paul employs here is that of a runner straining with maximum effort towards the finish line. Paul’s message is that progression is only possible if we focus our efforts forward without any regard for what we have left behind.
Most of us are familiar with the fable, The Hare and the Tortoise. While the tortoise pressed ahead with a slow, but unwavering pace, the hare took a nap, discovering too late that his opponent had already reached the goal.
I worry that many people who sit in church pews today are like the hare in the fable. We have come to the race with an abundance of ability, a great track record, and tons of promise. But, at the end of the day, it is your present effort—not your past accomplishments—that will succeed in moving you towards the goal of Christ-likeness.
What will it take to motivate that kind of effort, focus, and concentration? What will it take for you to forget what lies behind you and to press forward? For Paul, it was the contemplation of the goal and the prize, which inspired his efforts. Paul desperately wanted to obtain an increasing measure of Christ-likeness and he knew, by faith, that at the end of his striving—in heaven—he would obtain the prize of total Christ-likeness.
As you can well imagine, there is a strong connection between our pressing on and our longing for Christ-likeness. If we were lukewarm about becoming like Christ, why would we ever regard our previous gains as irrelevant rubbish. If, at present, we were entirely satisfied with ourselves, why would we ever invest in the sacrifice of pressing forward toward Christ?
Dear friends, the plain truth of it is that we, like Paul, are not yet what we ought to be. Rather than discourage you, that reality should inspire you. God intends for you and I to make consistent gains in becoming like Christ.
The journey is not yet done. The race is not over. There is work to be done to improve the current state of your relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not too late. It is a New Year. Forget what lies behind and press forward to a life of joy, peace, and immeasurable satisfaction in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.