Looking Forward

"...leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead … go straight for the goal—my reward the honor of being called by God in Christ Jesus.” by Commissioner Robert Thomson

Memory is a wonderful thing. In the twinkling of an eye, it can take you back months or years; it can transport you to a location thousands of miles away; it can stir up feelings long forgotten. 

But memory has one disadvantage: it is written in stone. What has happened in the past—good, bad or indifferent—cannot be changed. 

With this in mind, Christians on the cusp of a new year should well consider the advice given by the Apostle Paul to his fellow believers in Philippi: “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13b-14). 

In that statement Paul was enunciating a spiritual principle as well as giving his own testimony. He was in effect saying, “You can’t live in the past.” 

J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase of “forgetting the past” is: “You can’t live in the past.” Paul here was speaking of all the good deeds and “plus values” he had to his credit. They were considerable, perhaps causing some to think they gave him special standing before God.

“If others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there even was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault” (Philippians 3:4b-6).   

Paul had the right name. He came from the right family. He had attended the right schools and had followed all the prescribed rituals. 

But all these benefits, accrued either by heredity or by gift, all these credits for good deeds, are considered worthless in the presence of Christ. “I consider them rubbish” was Paul’s evaluation. They are of so little value that they are best forgotten. Paul here was speaking of seemingly positive qualities and actions which must be put aside by the man or woman seeking to be like Jesus. On the other side of the ledger, past mistakes and rebellions also should be forgotten. Just as past good cannot help us to achieve the prize, neither are we bound by the errors and sins of yesterday. 

I once heard a recovering alcoholic describe himself as “one grateful, messed-up-but-getting-better-every-day man.” He had three strikes against him. But having been saved, he had discovered the liberating truth that the past can be put aside and forgotten. 

So having cast off the past, both good and bad, we face the present. 

Paul says, in J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase: “I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead, I go straight for the goal.” 

Outstretched hands speak of openness and friendship, of willingness to work and eagerness to receive. The proffered hand in medieval times was an indication of friendship. No weapon could be hidden in a hand held out for another person to grasp. Nor could a harmful blow be struck by an open palm as opposed to a clenched fist. Certainly, the peace of Christ and the love of the Father must possess the man or woman who seeks with outstretched hand to attain the prize for which God has called us heavenward. 

The outstretched hand speaks also of a willingness to work and to serve. In today’s world, there is no shortage of opportunities for God’s people to “serve the present age.” Indeed, individual Christians, churches, denominations and para-church organizations often take the lead in addressing the physical, psychological and emotional needs—as well as spiritual needs—of hurting masses both at home and abroad. 

The Salvation Army is second to none in this ministry to the whole person. Following the example of Jesus who “went about doing good,” His followers have cared for the world’s needy in a way that no government or secular non-governmental agency has done. 

The hand of the Christian also is constantly outstretched toward God, who is the sustainer of life and the source of every perfect gift. Without having first stretched out our hand to God, it would do little good to attempt to serve others. It is mystically true that a cup of cold water given in His name has a different quality and a different result than a cup of cold water without His empowering and blessing. And so, we reach out first to Christ and then to others as we strive to do the “one thing” which is imperative for today.  

The final aspect of Paul’s declaration, according to Phillips’ paraphrase, was to “leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead … go straight for the goal—my reward the honor of being called by God in Christ Jesus.”  

Going straight for the goal. What an invaluable lesson for us to learn! It is so easy in our day to get sidetracked, to deal with peripheral issues, to give undue importance to things of little substance. 

For the apostle, there was only one thing of importance: to respond to the divine prodding; to focus all his energies, all of his time, all of his aspirations on knowing “Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.” 

The fact for us, as it was for Paul, is that the only thing we can touch is the future. A man who thrusts his hand into a flowing river can never touch the water that has gone by. And the water he does touch, even as it hits his hand, moves into that which is past. 

The past is gone, the present already determined. But the future is ahead. And the future is as bright as the promises of God. 

Paul’s position was clear. He had determined not to live in the past. He pledged to make himself useful in the present, regardless of the circumstances. He declared his intention to go straight for the goal. 

Moreover, he has challenged you and me to do the same. “All of us who are spiritually adult,” he said in the Philips’ paraphrase, “should set ourselves this sort of ambition, and if at present you cannot see this, yet you will find that this is the attitude which God is leading you to adopt.” 

What is past doesn’t really matter. But what happens in the future is vital. May each of us, as we begin a new year, strive to win the prize of constant fellowship with the eternal God through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.com

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