Don't Worry About It, It's In the Past

One of the things I love about scripture is the divinely inspired tensions that seem to riddle its pages. One of those moments comes from the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:13-14. In it, Paul says, 

"13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

See, it's right there in black and white ... "forget what lies behind." Forget about the past. Millions of dollars have been made in self-help books telling us to just "pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps", forget about the past and move on with our lives. They tell us the past doesn't matter and is meant to be overcome and forgotten. At least that's what they tell us, and what Paul seems to be saying here. 

The tension comes in as we look at what Paul actually did. This fellow talked about his past all the time! In Acts 21 and 22 he goes to great lengths to tell about his past in great detail. In Romans 11 and 2 Corinthians 11 he rehearses how he is a Jew, always has been, the BEST Jew. He does it again in Philippians 3:5. In Acts 26 he tells how he was a Pharisee. In 1 Corinthians 15, he even debases himself before the rest of the apostles because he ... in the past ... persecuted the church of God. More could be said, but suffice it to say here that Paul, (though in Philippians 3 exhorts us to forget about the past and push on ahead) told of his past a lot, every chance he had it seems. Why? Why the tension? Why the incongruous word and action? that's a really good question. 

In the Lion King, Rafiki almost gets it right in that iconic scene where he raps Simba on the head with his staff and basically tells him to "forget about it, it's in the past." Simba is having none of it, but Rafiki speaks some almost right truth to the young lion when he says you have two choices: run from the past or learn from it. Again, he almost gets it right, but not quite.

Even as you read really good and thorough commentators and theologians, there is almost ubiquitous agreement on the textual interpretation to "forget the past." However, when I read Paul in other places, he simply didn't forget it. Maybe it is because the letter to the Philippians was likely written some 30 or so years after his Damascus experience, maybe he had forgotten. Wait, that won't work either because he spends the first half of chapter 3 remembering those things which are behind! He does it again! 

Why? There has to be a reason Paul says one thing and does another. The skeptic will say it is because the Word has inconsistencies. The intellectual might say it is just a teaching method. I don't know, but here's what I think. I think there is a way in which we are to remember the past. We should remember it in such a way that it catapults us onward into our relationship with Christ. (We will explore the whole 'relationship' issue in a later post). Our relationship with Him could actually be better stated as our posture with him. 

Paul didn't so much reject, or forget, his past as he simply handled his past appropriately; separating himself from it to some degree. He defined his new self as opposed to his old self. We see a similar idea in Hebrews 6:1 as the Hebrew writer tells us to leave elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity. 

The idea isn't to completely forget the basic doctrines of Christ but to use them as a foundation for greater things. I believe this is part of what Paul is saying to us in Philippians. He refused to let his dark persecuting past define him as unfit for the Grace of God. Neither did he allow his success, even in suffering, to define any sort of greatness in him as a Christian. His point is simply to press on. Move towards the mark; the mark he describes as attaining the resurrection of the dead, the goal of fellowship in suffering, the goal of being like Christ.

Let us be careful of the "bootstrap theology" disguised as empowerment and self-worth. Our worth comes from Christ, not from anything we can muster or any experience in the past. Equally, our worth is not diminished by our past sin. Rafiki almost had it right, though I would argue there are other options. As we look at the sin in our past, we should find it disdainful and revolting, but we can't wallow in it. There is, therefore, now no condemnation for us who are in Christ.

By the same token, as we look at our past successes in the faith, we can't be swollen with pride in our accomplishments. I'm sure they were good times and I'm certain God mightily moved, but we have not yet attained that goal. We are still stretching with all we have to the goal; the goal of sharing in His resurrection and suffering; the goal of clearly reflecting His beautiful image.

So, forgetting those things means to disregard them in defining who we are. It means not to uphold them with undue glory, but to use them for a launching pad into greater things; into His image, character, and nature. I love the tension of scripture. Let us press toward the mark together.