Forgetting the past.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 May

Philippians 3.13-14.

Here’s a verse that’s really popular with motivational speakers:

Philippians 3.13-14 NLT
13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

They especially wanna zero in on the “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead” bit in verse 13. Then they add, “This is precisely what we need to do: Forget the past! Don’t dwell on it. Put it behind you. Those things don’t matter anymore. Look only at the things which are right in front of you. They’re the only things which matter.”

Okay. It’s true a lot of people spend way too much time living in the past. People obsess about it. Speculate about all the “what ifs” which might’ve taken place had they done things differently. Regret mistakes. Grow more and more bitter about those mistakes as time go on.

That unhealthy fixation on the past is a real problem, and needs to be discussed and dealt with. But the healthy way we deal with it is not to forget the past; not to blot it out of our minds, suppress it, or otherwise no longer think about it. Our pasts, like ’em or not, are part of who we are and how we came to be.

Meanwhile it isn’t even what this verse is about.

The context: The footrace of faith.

Paul and Timothy wrote Philippians to, duh, instruct the church of Philippi, Macedon. In Philippians 3, Paul briefly wrote about his upbringing as a Pharisee—mainly to compare his credentials with those of fellow Pharisee Christians who insisted they were right and Paul wasn’t. Paul likewise used to dabble in faith righteousness, believing he was saved by believing all the “correct” things. Thing is, on meeting Jesus, he discovered he was terribly wrong… yet Jesus saved him anyway, ’cause grace.

So all the things Paul previously thought made him righteous… were now σκύβαλα/skývala, the nice translation of which would be “dog doo.” The KJV went with “dung,” and the ESV “rubbish,” but I figured “crap” expresses Paul’s contempt for his past without crossing the line into profanity.

Philippians 3.7-16 KWL
7 But whatever was a “win” for me, I now mark it as a “lose” because of Christ.
8 But but: I also count everything as being a “lose”—because knowing Christ Jesus my Lord is far superior.
Compared to him, I was injured by all those things—and I consider them crap, so I can gain Christ.
9 And so I can be found by Christ—not having my own self-righteousness which comes from Law,
but righteousness which comes through trusting Christ;
righteousness which comes from God as a result of this faith—
10 a faith which knows Christ and the power of his resurrection,
a relationship with his sufferings which takes on the form of his death,
11 if somehow I can make it to the resurrection of the dead.
12 Not that I already received resurrection, nor that I’m already perfect.
I pursue perfection—if I can catch it!—because I was likewise caught by Christ Jesus.
13 Fellow Christians, I myself don’t figure I’ve caught it.
What I do is, putting out of mind what’s behind, stretching for what’s ahead,
14 I race for the finish line, for the award—for God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.
15 So if anyone is mature, we should think like this.
And if anyone thinks otherwise, God will reveal this to you—
16 which is only what we already know; we’re walking in it.

Now y’notice: In the very passage where supposedly Paul taught us, “Forget the past,” he’s recalling his past. He’s not happy with it. He was led astray back then. But he hadn’t suppressed it: He learned from it.

Paul realized his salvation had nothing to do with the Law, and never did. It’s based on trusting God—as revealed through Christ Jesus. It’s based on developing a relationship with God—an experiential relationship, where we get to know Jesus, the power which resurrected him, his sufferings, his death Pp 3.10 —all of which Paul figured would make him “perfect.” And he pursued the perfection of that kind of relationship. He didn’t arrogantly claim he had it already; he hadn’t yet “arrived,” like so many arrogant Christians claim we have. But Paul was working on it. The same way we need to be working on it.

For this reason Paul compared working on it, to a footrace. And here’s where our verse of the day comes up. In context it’s about how runners in a track and field competition don’t look back. Because the only reason you’d need to look back is to see how your opponents are doing—are they keeping up? catching up?—and when you do that, it throws off your stride, you slow down, and you don’t win. Unless of course all your opponents are 9-year-olds.

Paul’s pursuit of this relationship with Jesus is a race he intended to win. So he wasn’t gonna look back. Wouldn’t be profitable. He wanted to reach his σκοπὸν/skopón, “goal, target,” and this meant single-minded purpose. Other runners would only throw him off. He’d be comparing himself to them instead of Jesus. You know, like we Christians do.

Now, metaphorically, Paul’s not even referring to his past when he wrote about putting out of mind what’s behind. He’s putting false comparisons out of mind. Not his past.

That’s the context. All sorts of problems occur when we remove it from that context, and claim it means we can overcome our problems by ignoring their causes.

We don’t get healthy by ignoring our hurts.

Humans are the sum of our experiences. Some are good; some bad. Depending on the way we were raised, sometimes most were good or bad. Still, they made us what we are. Especially because of how we reacted to those experiences… and how we currently still react to them. When we choose to react to our past in the way the Holy Spirit wants us to react, he can use ’em to grow us into who he wants us to be.

One of the things we Christians look back at all the time—’cause Jesus commanded us to—is Jesus’s death. We do it with holy communion. Now, Jesus’s death is probably the worst thing to ever happen in human history: God became human, and his fellow humans killed him. Jesus doesn’t want us to ever forget it. He actually does want us to dwell on it. He wants us to realize what a big, big deal it was. And still is.

The important difference is the way Jesus wants us to dwell on it. He doesn’t want us to look at it, and mourn how sinful and terrible we humans are. (Worse, make evil, vengeful plans against the people who killed him—who are all dead, so how on earth could we?—or blame their descendants, like antisemites have blamed the Jews.) Jesus wants us to look at his death with gratitude for what he did for us through it. He wants us to think about how we were part of his death; then think about how we were forgiven through his death. He wants us to see his love through it. He redeemed us through it, and wants to keep on redeeming us through it.

Were we to take motivational speakers to their logical conclusion, we’d have to say, “No no: Skip communion. ’Cause we shouldn’t dwell on the past! We’re supposed to drop the past like a hot potato, only focus on what can be instead of what isn’t anymore. That gory, nasty death is in the past. Let’s only look forward to New Jerusalem.”

But New Jerusalem is entirely based upon what happened in Old Jerusalem in the year 33.

When we say the past doesn’t matter, it means we don’t respect the foundations of the future. We don’t respect cause-and-effect. We don’t respect reality. We’re not really living in reality either, ’cause we haven’t created the future yet: It’s still imaginary. It’s real and solid to God, who fills time and is therefore in the future already… but that’s him. We’re not unlimited like he is; the future is still under construction to us. What little we know of it, is fragments—and we fill in those huge blanks with guesses and wishes. But as we’ve seen time and again, things never turn out just as we imagine them. There’s a lot of wishful thinking in our imagination. And a lot of twisted wishes in our wishful thinking.

Our imaginary future doesn’t exist. It may never exist. What we think the future may consist of, isn’t necessarily or specifically what it will consist of. But the past? That happened. That’s real. The effects of the past are in the real, solid things of our present. And we need to be grounded in real things. Not imaginary things.

For many people, the past is traumatic. I sympathize. I’ve had a traumatic past too. Still, the way to overcome our past isn’t to suppress it, pretend it hasn’t happened, and shove it aside. It’s to change the way we think about it. It’s to think the way the Holy Spirit wants us to think about it.

Paul looked at his past, at all his great study and knowledge, and called it crap. That’s how poorly he thought of it. Paul’s crap only got in his way of knowing God, and Jesus had to cut the crap by appearing to Paul personally. Sometimes we have to look at our own “great accomplishments” and realize they likewise get in the way of knowing God. So they likewise are crap.

In comparison, sometimes we have to look at the tragic events of our past, and realize how God helped pull us through them; even made something good of them. When James advised his readers to take the troubles which came their way, and turn them into joy, of all things, Jm 1.2 yes of course this applies to our past as well as our present: The things in our past may be rough, but God got us through them. Our faith was tested, and our endurance was given a chance to grow. Jm 1.3 Did we let it grow, or did we let it shrink, and become bitter? Well, some of us chose bitterness. And some of us chose denial. And neither is right.

Putting aside the past is a quick fix. It’s like putting duct tape over a broken pipe. It stops the leak for now, but time and erosion are only gonna make the break worse. If we wanna see true growth and healing, we gotta deal with our past. Sometimes this means sharing your problems with fellow Christians—as we should already be doing. Sometimes it means talking with your pastor, joining a 12-step group, seeing a therapist; maybe it’s a medical problem too, and you need a psychiatrist. Regardless, God’s not gonna solve our problems when we pretend we don’t have them. He wants us to get help. He wants other Christians to have the chance to minister to us. He wants us to love one another.

So go get help, and get loved.