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One Goal in Life: Forgetting and Pressing Forward

By Claire Smith

1.         Introduction

I want us to begin this morning by thinking about what it is in our lives that we’re looking forward to. What does the future hold for us?

For some of us here, we’re really just starting out. The future is a wide unknown of possibilities, hopes and dreams – perhaps we’re looking forward to a better house, a holiday, a more stable and secure income, heading back to our career once the children are off our hands.

For others of us, at the other end of life, the future is getting uncomfortably clear, as our health and mobility decrease, and as we attend an increasing number of funerals. Then it’s not so much the big things in life we’re looking forward to but the little things: a seat on a bus, a good doctor’s report, a family get-together.

For many of us too the future’s not always promising us good things. When I go back to Australia next week, there are two big things on my horizon: the first is five days holiday with my husband, at a tropical island resort in Fiji, and the second is saying goodbye to our only child as he heads off to Oxford in the UK to work.

One thing I’m looking forward to, the other I’m not. I want the first thing to come quickly but I don’t want the second to come at all!

You may well have the same mixed bag of what lies ahead – some good, some not so good; some more or less in your control, others far beyond it!

How are we to live in the present given what the future holds – those things we know about and those we don’t?

Well, the key according to the apostle Paul is to have our sights set on the right bit of the future – that is, not all the things that are uncertain – but what’s certain, because once we know that then we’ll know how to live in the present, and even how to think about the past.

And so our text today is Philippians 3:13–14 – starting half way through v. 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul, you will know, is writing from prison. He’s uncertain what his short-term future holds – whether he will be released from prison. Whether he’ll live or be sentenced to death.

But as it happens, he didn’t need to know. He might not have known the ‘small’ details of his future – whether he’d be in prison, out of prison, alive, dead – but he did know what his future held, and that determined how he lived. It was the certain future, not the uncertainties that decided how he lived.

And how did Paul live? He did ‘one thing’ – he ran a race. And he ran like those Olympic athletes will be running in a few weeks – he ran to get the prize.

2. Forgetting what lies behind

And he did this ‘one thing’ by doing two things!

See them there? 1) Forgetting and 2) straining forward: forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead.

So what are we to forget? And why must we do this to run the race? Because one of life’s great temptations is to live in the past, to spend our lives looking back.

2.1. The bad

We can do that by thinking about the bad things in our past.

a. Sin and guilt

There are the things that we’ve done. Where we can be burdened, weighed down with guilt about things we should or should not have done. We can live in the shadow of our mistakes. We can live in fear that people might discover our secrets, might discover who we really are – warts and all.

In fact, guilt and unworthiness can be like old friends. We can even feel strangely pious when we beat ourselves up for our mistakes. As if God will be impressed by our lowly opinion of ourselves or our sense of shame.

But of course as Christians we needn’t, in fact, we mustn’t live under the shadow of our past mistakes. That’s why Jesus came and died and rose again.

Without him our past mistakes would be a ball and chain that will one day drown us, but in his death and resurrection we have a Saviour who took the penalty that we rightly deserve from God for all our wrongdoing.

Jesus paid for all our mistakes, all our sins, on the cross.

He died so that we can leave our pasts behind us, knowing that we’re completely forgiven. There’s nothing to be gained by us feeling guilty or dwelling on the past – it is finished in God’s eyes, and so it needs to be forgotten by us.

After all, Paul himself was a militant Jewish terrorist who persecuted and killed Christians, before Jesus took hold of him, and forgave him all his sins.

Paul knows that the past belongs in the past, and he can forget it, leave it there, because he is forgiven.

b. Anger and Resentment

But it’s not only sin and guilt about bad things we’ve done that can keep us looking back.

There’s also our anger and resentment about the bad things that have happened to us, or bad things people have done to us. We hold grudges. We go through life with chips on our shoulders, and tales of woe.

We can have memories like elephants and hearts full of anger and bitterness.

But if we do that as Christians we are denying what Christ has done for us. If he’s forgiven us for the way we’ve treated him, when he is perfect and we’re not; when we’re the reason he died, who are we to withhold forgiveness from people who are just like us. Think of the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Again consider Paul’s life. He was a social outcast and hunted down by his own people, the Jews, and persecuted by the Romans. He was beaten. Even as he writes this letter, he’s in prison, with people trying their hardest to make his life difficult, even end his life. But he’s not bitter or angry. As he says here, he trusts God with the present, and lets the past belong in the past.

Forgetting what lies behind means not dragging the past into the present. We’re to leave justice to the God of all people.

The bad things of our past – our sin, our guilt, our hurts and injustices – they’re all to stay in the past.

But it’s not just bad things that can have us looking backwards. We can also live in the glow of past successes and achievements.

2.2. The good

Maybe the past we choose to remember – is all the good things!

Perhaps we topped the History class at school. Perhaps we were the belle of the high school ball. Perhaps we were once a size 4! Perhaps we had the very best marriage. All of us can be tempted to bask in the glory of days gone bye.

And of course, it’s possible to bask in the glory of our spiritual past too.

Maybe we have a dramatic conversion story or been a member of our church for decades or we’re renowned for our good deeds.

Maybe it’s just that we know God loves us and so we’re happy just to rest in that knowledge. A sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ and God’s done in us all he had to do.

Not for Paul. He says he forgets it all.

Not just the long list of Jewish achievements he used to be so proud of, that he lists in chapter 3:4–6. Perhaps we could understand that!

But it’s not just that! He’s saying that even his Christian achievements need to be forgotten. Take a look at 3:8 ‘I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’. He considers them all ‘rubbish’.

Even though he achieved more for Christ than all of us put together, Paul says he leaves it all behind, because he knows the best is yet to come, and that there’s a danger of resting on our spiritual laurels. Even for Paul the great apostle, he is not content to rest with what God’s already done in his life.

He wants more! He knows that everything he has even as a Christian is because only of God’s work in his life, and he wants God to work in him more and more. And so he wants to cut that thread so he can push forward.

The past’s not going to hold him.

One of my favourite movies is “Chariots of Fire”. There’s a scene in it when a race is lost because the front-runner turns his head and looks back to find out where the rest of the field is. That’s the picture Paul’s giving here. He knows a runner who looks back slows down and he doesn’t want to slow down.

Paul doesn’t want the bad or the good things of his past to hold him back. And the same applies to us too.

We’re to be runners who don’t look back. The racetrack we’ve already covered belongs behind us. We need to leave the past where it belongs.

3. Straining towards what is ahead

But that doesn’t mean we’re to stand still, that we’ve arrived!!

It’s not like Paul stops looking over his shoulder and then just stays in the same place.

No, he strains himself forward. He’s impatient for what lies ahead. In fact looking ahead is so much part of the leaving behind, that he talks about both actions as ‘one thing’ – ‘one thing I do: forgetting and straining’. Straining ahead is part of forgetting what’s behind.

Paul is like those athletes we’ll see during the Olympics, straining forward in the race trying to take up every last centimetre between them and the finishing tape. He’s like that, pushing himself forward, giving every ounce of energy to get to the end of the race and to get there as quickly as he can.

4. The Goal and the Prize

So that’s how Paul’s running the race – but what about the race itself? It’s a race to what? To where? Where’s it heading and what’s the prize at the finishing line?

Obviously it’s in the future – but as I said when we started, all of us are looking forward to something – even if it’s only a seat on the bus.

But Paul’s not talking about the small details of the future – the sorts of things that keep us awake at night or the dreams that fill our spare moments – he’s talking about the prize of knowing Christ or ‘gaining Christ’. That day in the future when Paul – and we, if we trust in Christ – will see Christ, and be like him.

That’s why Paul says in the paragraph before this one: v. 8 ‘I consider everything loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him’; v. 10 ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’.

The future that Paul’s focused on, his sole purpose in life is to know Christ better. He wants to know him more, understand his sacrificial death more deeply, be more like him, love him more, serve him more.

Christ took hold of Paul to make Paul more like him, and so Paul wants what Christ wants!

The prize is perfection. The prize is fellowship with Christ, knowing and loving him, intimately and personally. That’s the end point of his work in our lives.

That’s where Christ is leading us. And as we live the Christian life, as we follow him and turn away from sin, as we trust him through the hard times, and refuse to doubt his goodness and sovereignty even when things don’t go as we’d want, as we suffer as his disciples, we know him more and more closely, and he makes us more and more like him.

Faithful living of the Christian life brings us closer to Christ, closer and closer to the prize.

And so the goal of our lives should be to be perfectly like Christ: to know Christ, perfectly. Of course, we know him now (as Paul did too), but none of us knows him perfectly.

I’m no athlete, but I imagine when an Olympic athlete runs their race their focus narrows right down, so that all they’re thinking about is the finish line and the track they have to run down to get there and the prize waiting at the end.

That’s what Paul’s saying: the race is this life, which we run by forgetting the past and straining ahead. The goal is what we’re heading towards, what we’re focused on – and the prize is Christ Jesus – gaining Christ, being with him, like him, loved by him.

When that’s what the future holds, we can really understand why Paul can be so quick to forget the past, both the good and the bad, sit so loose to the details of the present and even those of the future, but be totally focused on pressing on to that time in the future when we’ll meet Christ face to face, and be like him.

5. Our Lives

So what would this look like if we were to live like this?

If someone looked at our life and had to say what they thought was our goal, what would they say?

Does our life look like we’re forgetting what lies behind, and we’re straining to what lies ahead? And if we’re straining ahead – what are we straining towards, are we straining to know Christ more closely?

a. Christian women

If we’re women who have been forgiven and saved by the Lord Jesus, we’re to be like athletes who are impatient, straining and leaning forward in our desire and sheer determination to know Christ and serve him and trust him and be like him. Of course, that’s only possible if Christ has first taken hold of us, and made us his own.

He is to fill our vision. We’re to be striving to know and love the Lord Jesus more.

And that doesn’t mean sitting on a mountaintop meditating, or withdrawing to a prayer corner with candles. The way we know Christ is by studying his word, and letting it shine its light into every corner of our lives, and then repenting of the sin and ungodliness it finds, and walking in obedience to his word – no matter the cost.

If we’re Christians, it’s not enough to be pointing in the right direction – you can be standing in the middle of the track pointing in the right direction, but if you’re not moving forward you’re not going to finish the race!

Running the race means change, moving forward, growing in Christ-likeness, examining, rethinking, reevaluating every aspect of our lives. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we’ve been given a future, but we’re to race towards it.

Now obviously the details of my race will be different from the details of yours. What it meant for Paul, thankfully, is very different from what it means for me – or, I suspect, for any of you. I’m not in prison for my faith. I’m not under threat of death.

But whatever it means in each of our lives, there’s to be a forward momentum, an enthusiasm for Christ, a restlessness and impatience with sin, a realization that the best is still ahead, a longing to be with our Saviour, and be like him, but none of that will happen without conscious reflection and effort.

The Christian life is not like those moving walkways in airports – where you can stand still and still reach your goal. Without conscious reflection and concerted effort, and without the inner enabling of God’s Spirit, we will not only stand still, we will fail to reach the prize.

b. Others

And if we’re not yet a follower of Jesus, then we need to realize that this race I’m talking about is a race that everyone’s in, whether we realize it or not. But if we’re not a believer in Jesus, then we’re running in the wrong direction!

And like all races, there’s an urgency to do something about that, to turn around, or at the very least to consider Jesus for ourselves, with adult eyes, and with our Bibles open, so that we hear from God’s word what God has to say about our lives and about his loving solution in the life and death and resurrection of his Son.

This is not a race that we can avoid just by not turning up! We’re all in it one way or another.

Modern life has us all running at a great pace, but in the end of the day, there’s only one race that will really matter – and that is whether we’ve spent our lives running towards Jesus.

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