“Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)
God has called each and every one of us to live a significant, fulfilling, and fruitful life. Needless to say, not everyone is realizing this in their lives. Part of the reason for this may be that our moving forward into God’s future plan is often dependent upon our ability to release ourselves from a less than perfect past.
The apostle Paul said that while he was still on his journey of fully living out God’s highest and best for His life, He had learned to do one thing, and yet, that “one” thing had several parts. First of all, Paul had learned to forget the past. He said, “…forgetting those things which are behind.” We know that God is faithful to forgive our sins and missteps in life when we own up to them and confess them (1 John 1:9). However, just because God is faithful to forgive us does not mean that we are equally faithful to do the same. Countless, no doubt, are the numbers of people who have forfeited a glorious future because they could not forget an ignominious past. Besides this, even those who have trusted in the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood to remove the stain of their sin and heal their wounded conscience, are often put into remembrance of their past by others.
There is great skepticism in the world regarding man’s power to change. Even the Bible asks the question, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23), but the fact is that what is impossible with men is possible with God. I recently read a brief biography of Chuck Colson, one-time Special Council to President Nixon, who went to prison in relation to the infamous Watergate scandal, though he himself was not directly involved. Colson had been a tough, take-no-prisoners kind of guy who made a lot of enemies by his less than ethical way of dealing with political rivals. However, through a divinely orchestrated series of events, this tough-as-nails political operative came face to face with the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ and was amazingly transformed. His spiritual pilgrimage literally began to blossom while in his prison cell, and he would ultimately become the founder of the largest prison ministry in the world. In 1993, Chuck Colson won the Templeton Prize, a one-million-dollar award for progress in religion, which he gave to his ministry, Prison Fellowship. The far reaching effects of what Prison Fellowship has been able to accomplish cannot be recounted in any book, let alone a brief article, and even now, after his death at age eighty, Chuck Colson’s life is still having a great impact on the world.
However, as I read the brief biography, I was struck by the author’s comment, a man who knew him well, that despite Chuck Colson’s radical conversion and great contribution to the cause of Christianity and prison reform, there were still those who, even up to the time of his death, refused to believe he had changed and still viewed him as the man once famously known as the President’s “hatchet man.” The same is true for many believers who miss the mark in life and fail in their Christian walk and damage their testimony. They too often find it difficult, even within the community of believers, to find those who will see them through the eyes of grace instead of their past failures. This makes it all the more difficult for them to put their past in the past and move forward in the grace and forgiveness of God to the promise of a fruitful tomorrow.
I would imagine that if there was anyone qualified to speak about the power of forgetting, it was Paul. By any reckoning, the man who would one day come to be known as the greatest living apostle of the first century Church, was a terrorist in the early days of his religious career. He himself said that he “persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). He was unmatched in his zeal to rid the world of what he considered to be an aberrant, upstart cult called “The Way.” His conversion on the road to Damascus is, of course, legendary. Jesus met him in a moment of mercy that changed, not only the course of his life, but the course human history forever. And yet, even after his dramatic conversion, there were those in the Church reluctant to receive him for fear his conversion was not genuine (see Acts 9:26). It was Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement” who took Paul by the arm and brought him into the fellowship of believers, testifying on his behalf of the genuineness of God’s redemptive work in his life.
I don’t know if Paul had to face those in the Church whose mothers and fathers he had hauled away to prison. We don’t have record of that in the scriptures, but I would think it likely that a man once so zealous in his efforts to destroy the Church may have had to deal with some inner conflicts regarding his former life. However, it was his faith in the finished work of Christ, and the forgiveness made available through the grace of God, that enabled him to push past his former identity in Judaism to embrace a new identity in Christ and a new assignment to build the Church he once sought to destroy. Yes, Paul did not stop with forgetting. He also moved forward in a new direction. He said, “…and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
We all want to reach forward to the fruitful future God has envisioned for each and every one of us, but to do so we need to learn to forget. We need to realize that while the past might be a good platform from which to learn, it makes a lousy place to live, and God won’t visit you there. Don’t look for God to look with you through the photo album of your past failures. It’s not that God doesn’t take our sins seriously. He took them so seriously He gave His only Son that we might know forgivenss, and because He did, He will not do disservice to that sacrifice by revisiting sins already forgiven. Instead, God wants us to reach for that bright promise of tomorrow that His Son made available through the cross. Besides, there are others who need a Barnabas to assure them that there is life beyond our failures and a bright hope for tomorrow.