But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.Philippians 3:13b
I have had nine confirmed concussions though I know I have had many more than that. There is a six-month period of my life that I am unable to remember with any clarity. There are a few disjointed pictures of scenes in my mind, but I still struggle to string them together chronologically. This includes the birth of my second child, a wedding I officiated for a high school friend, a mission trip to North Dakota, and my father-in-law’s emergency open-heart surgery.
To say I have some memory problems would be an understatement.
It is amazing to me, however, that my memory of past sins is sharp and clear. I can remember images from my childhood that I wish would go the way of the six-month concussion chasm. But alas, they will be there until I enter into glory.
We Must Forget
Paul is a man with a past that anyone would like to forget. Although Paul is striving to attain the “resurrection of the dead” and to “press on because Christ Jesus has made [him] his own” (Phil 3:11-12), Paul still wrestles with himself. He claims he does not believe (or consider) that he has already made the resurrection his own. Why?
I am convinced it is because of his past. Paul was a notorious persecutor of the church (see Acts 7:58; 8:1; 22:5). It is not hard to believe that Paul was at the very least overly abusive in his zeal when we read that he “was ravaging the church . . . drag[ging] off men and women committ[ing] them to prison” (Acts 8:3). It is not a far stretch to think that his abuse became murderous.
Think about that for a moment. The great apostle Paul, known in the Scriptures as the epitome of a godly man, who planted churches and suffered much for the sake of the gospel, struggled with his past. He was haunted by the lives of men and women he had destroyed, and all in the name of God! It is no wonder, then, that he says he does one thing when striving to attain the resurrection, and that is to forget about the past. But it is precisely his reproachful past that seems to be the one thing nagging at Paul throughout his epistle.
Forgetting is hard. Especially if you have a past like Paul’s. Even more so when Satan constantly stokes the fires of your imagination and memory. Try as you might, you cannot shake your past.
You may not have been a murderer like Paul, but maybe you were an abuser like Paul. You may not have been a murderer like David, but maybe you were an adulterer like David.
Recall Peter who told Jesus to depart from him because he was a sinful man (Lk 5:8) and then resolutely proclaimed he would stand with Jesus even if everyone else fell away (Mt 26:33). Peter had walked with Jesus for some three years before he ultimately denied even knowing Jesus. We may not have cut off an ear or denied Jesus like Peter, but you and I have walked with Jesus and still sinned.
Regardless of the sin, there are plenty of men and women we can relate to in the Bible who had a terrible past—until they met Jesus.
Meeting Jesus is the key.
When the sinner encounters Jesus, everything changes. Peter is restored from his sinful denial (Mt 26:69-75; Jn 21:15-19). David has the joy of his salvation restored (Ps 51:12). So, too, was Paul restored when he encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Meeting Jesus by faith at the mercy seat of his sacrifice for our sins is a life-altering, past-changing, shame-covering experience. Sinful pasts no longer have to haunt us because they are covered, erased, and made new by the blood of Jesus.
So how do we forget?
Even though Jesus frees us from our past sins, the memories can still plague us. So how can we emulate the apostle Paul and forget what lies behind? The easy answer is what follows: to strain forward to what lies ahead. If we focus on forgetting what lies behind, we will only focus on the past. That is what we are trying to forget. As long as we keep the focus on what we want to forget, we will never forget it. Instead, we must strain with all our might to what lies ahead.
And what lies ahead is a resurrected, glorified body that has been redeemed from all sin and all suffering (see 1 Cor 15:35-49). This is the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14) and this comes with maturity in the faith (Phil 3:15). In other words, you are not going to quickly forget your past. In fact, you may never be able to completely forget it in this life because Satan is so good at what he does and we still fight against our sinful flesh in the already/not yet tension that is our salvation.
We may never forget, but we can stop dwelling on what lies behind by straining forward toward the hope of glory in Christ Jesus—the present hope that God has removed our transgressions as far from us as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12), and the future hope that one day Jesus will return and we will no longer struggle with sin or shame.
We must strain to see Christ in all his glory as revealed to us on the pages of Scripture. And when we sin again (and we will sin again), we run to encounter Jesus one more time to receive his grace and mercy in restoration and reconciliation. When we struggle to forget, we must remind ourselves that God has chosen not to remember our sinful past. “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isa 43:25). And it is his record that matters.