Forgetting the Past – Reaching Forward to the Prize

Dr. Brian Allison

Are you dissatisfied? Are you a dissatisfied Christian? Dissatisfied with your present spiritual condition and your present spiritual attainments? We ought to be dissatisfied Christians – we ought to want more holiness, more righteousness, more godliness, more wisdom, etc. Now, our present state of affairs ought not to discourage or depress us, but rather it ought to motivate us; it ought to inspire us to strive for more. So, dissatisfaction ought to be translated into determination to press on.

The apostle Paul writes, "I press on toward the goal" (Php. 3:14a). And what is the prize to be gained in reaching the goal? – Jesus Christ Himself. What a prize! Can you believe that God is pleased to give us such a prize, as we press on to assume Christ's character and to know Him more intimately. Now, there is a certain way by which we are to press on. There are certain things that are necessary, if we are to press on effectively and successfully. Philippians 3:12-14 reads, "Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

The apostle states, in effect, "I have not reached the spiritual goal – I have not been morally perfected yet; I have not gained Christ and His fullness yet. But one thing I do." Just one thing – that is not very complicated, is it? He reduces all that is required to successfully reach the spiritual goal to the bare essentials. Sheer simplicity! There is no clouding of the issues. It is a simple game plan; one that is easily executable. He says, "One thing," not 15, or 25, or 50 things I do, "but one thing I do." Anyone is able to be committed to 'one thing' because it can be so plainly and clearly understood.

Now, this 'one thing' consists of two aspects: "forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead." We have here not only that which comprises a prerequisite to pressing on, but also that which is necessary in order to actually press on. So, the question is this: how are we to press on? How are we to pursue hard after Christ? Here we have the essential elements of the spiritual race.

Forgetting the past

Suppose you were competing in a 100 metre race. What do you think would happen if, with the gun fired to start the race, you slipped while bolting out of the blocks, and paused to look around at the blocks to see why you had slipped? What would happen? Most likely you would lose the race. Or, suppose you were running a 400 metre race, and were positioned beside a runner known for his speed. And suppose that when the starter fired the gun, you thought that this adjacent person started falsely, but there is no such indication from the starter. What do you think would happen if you stopped to argue with the starter about what you perceived? You probably would lose the race. Or, again (and I know that this may sound monotonous), suppose that you were running a 1500 metre race, and coming around the last bend of the track, neck and neck with a competitor, with 100 metres to go, you tripped and stumbled, but you did not fall. What would happen if you were to look behind, wondering what caused you to trip and stumble? You probably would lose the race. In these examples, I think that it is clear that you only have an opportunity to win if you forget what previously happened and simply pursue the goal.

Do you see the obvious application? If you are going to press on, then, in one sense, you have to forget what lies behind. More particularly, you need to forget the past, in a qualified sense. You need to forget the past so that there may be nothing hindering you as you press on toward the goal for the prize. To be preoccupied with the past can present an unfortunate and debilitating distraction so that you may not be able to press on as you ought to and successfully finish the race. Now, I am not advocating irresponsibility, nor I am suggesting that we avoid dealing with 'unfinished business', but I am stating what is necessary in order for us to advance.

Some Christians are still living in the past. Are you? You know the heartache, the struggle, and the pain this is causing you. Some are still trapped in the past, overwhelmed or troubled with what has happened, and thus they remain in bondage. Perhaps you are thinking about your spiritual walk, and you want to move on in the Lord. You want to grow and develop, you want to mature, but something is holding you back, and it is the past because you are still living in it. The instruction of our text is that if you are going to press on toward the goal, you have to forget the past. There comes a time when you must break with the past, when you must forget it. For instance, I think of a young man who grew up in a rather austere and cold environment; a home in which there was no love, no affection, no warmth; a home characterized by criticism and judgement. That young man carried emotional baggage into his adult life. And as a Christian, he was not able to move on. He continued to deal with the pain and hurt of past years, not able to be reconciled with the past, not able to give it up or leave it behind, being perpetually preoccupied with it, wrestling with phantasms in his mind. He remained stuck because of this preoccupation, chasing after something that he could not even define. You cannot press on unhindered unless you forget the things that lie behind.

Forgetting past accomplishments

Notice that from the immediate context, the primary sense of this forgetting, to which we are called, refers to past accomplishments, achievements, attainments, status, etc. (see Php. 3:5,6). It refers to past power secured, past prestige experienced, past position enjoyed, etc. The apostle Paul, in effect, affirmed, "What was gain for me I counted all loss for Christ. I have left it all behind. It no longer means anything to me; it no longer affects my life. It does not matter what level I attained socially, religiously, or politically; I have left all that behind in order to press on." Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, the renowned twentieth century Welsh preacher, trained to be a medical practitioner. As a young man, he show clear signs of enjoying a very promising medical career. He was experiencing growing fame. Yet, one day he realized for himself that it was senseless to repair people's bodies while their souls are perishing; and he subsequently entered the Gospel ministry; and the Lord mightily used him. Here is an example of one leaving his past accomplishments and achievements behind for Christ. He gave it all up – prestige, reputation, status, etc. because he had his eyes fixed on the goal and the prize – "forgetting what lies behind."

I suppose that what we are basically considering here is forgetting the self-life, that which pertains to our comfort and ease, that which relates to status and recognition, that which brings attention and applause. We need to spiritually forget (i.e., no longer be controlled, influenced, or shaped by the past) – not to be preoccupied with earthly glory; not to be concerned about whether someone thinks we are important; not to put self-centred stock in our training, education, and degrees, as if these things define us and determine what we are; as if these things determine our sense of personal value and worth. Now, I am not against degrees and various marks of achievement, but how do we view these things? Be honest. Do these things give you a sense of importance and value? Do they cause you to feel distinguished from the general masses? Christ is to be the centre of our lives, not self. He is to be the focus, not self. It does not matter what people think of you. It should not matter whether they think that you are intelligent, or scholarly, or academic, or important. None of that should really matter. The only thing that really matters is Christ and gaining Him.

Forgetting past lifestyle and practices

We must not only forget our past accomplishments, achievements, etc., but we must also forget our past lifestyle and practices, that which was marked by worldliness. Having become a Christian, there ought to be a very clear distinction between the moral habits and activities which characterized your lifestyle and practices before becoming a Christian and those that characterize your lifestyle and practices after becoming one. And if there is no marked moral difference, I suggest that you take a hard, long look at your life in order to determine whether there is any grace in you, or whether it has all been a matter of mere externals. If the old habits and practices are still evident, you need to examine yourself. The Word of God says, "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Cor. 5:17). Christ has given us His Holy Spirit to overcome our past lifestyle and practices. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you became a new creature in Christ when you became a Christian? It is true, if you really are a Christian. And if all things (i.e., interests, aspirations, desires, etc.) have not become new for you, my Christian friend, I suggest that you seriously consider your life in the light of God's Word. Either God's grace can overcome your old practices and habits or it cannot; either God's Spirit can overcome your past lifestyle and practices or He cannot. When I was a non-Christian, my weekends were characterized by a pleasure-seeking, worldly lifestyle. Friday night I would go to the pub or the disco, imbibing alcohol. Saturday night would consist of the same. Sunday night I would often go to the theatre (though going to the theatre itself is not wrong; it is a matter of Christian liberty). That was my weekend. I lived for the weekends – the partying, the drinking, the dancing, etc. But when I became a Christian, something radically changed – new desires, new aspirations, new goals. Has that happened to you?

Forgetting past sins

We must not only forget our past lifestyle and practices, no longer seeing them as attractive and appealing (recognizing that they do not promote holiness nor contribute to gaining Christ), but we must also forget our past sins. Some are seriously haunted by their past sins. Is that true for you? Some of you know what I am talking about; the sins that you committed before you became a Christian: the debauchery and licentiousness that you fell into because of your natural desires and lusts. These are the sins that Satan may continue to mercilessly use to discourage you, to make you feel guilty and ashamed, to drive you to condemn yourself, to make you question your salvation, to make you feel utterly unworthy of Christ. You are to forget these past sins, for Christ's blood has atoned for them; and you were freed from them when you became a Christian.

Further, you are not only to forget the sins that you committed before you became a Christian, but you are also to forget the sins you committed after becoming a Christian, of which you have repented and for which you have asked forgiveness. Many Christians have been sorely abused by the devil, and even by their own sensitive conscience, because they have not allowed themselves to forget their past sins because the sins have been so gross and evil. Many Christians have committed a gross sin in a moment of weakness or blindness (though I am not condoning or excusing such action, but just acknowledging it). Perhaps you yourself have spiritually slipped and morally fell, and your heart has been ripped out of you, and a black cloud has descended upon your soul, and you have wished that you were dead. Perhaps the pain of such a failure and disgrace has left you bewildered, incredulous, and hopeless, having lost the sense of acceptance with God and personal self-respect. I know that some who read this message keenly feel the weight of what I here write. You know the sin for which you have asked God to forgive you, perhaps a hundred times, and not being able to feel His forgiveness and acceptance, though you know well the truth that 'if you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive you your sins and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness' (1 Jn. 1:9). However, you are more affected by your feelings than by God's truth. And even though His truth never changes, you continue to be haunted by what you have done.

The problem is not that God does not forget (cf. Jer. 31:34), the problem is that you cannot forget. Again, God's Word is either true or it is not true. If we have, in Jesus Christ, the provision made for our sins, then that provision covers all of our sins. If we confess our sins, with a true spirit of brokenness and sorrow, then God's Word assures us that God will forgive us our sins. It does not matter if you have slipped into fornication or adultery (of course, I am not condoning nor excusing these), God forgives. There are many good Christians, and even good Christian leaders, who have had a moment of blindness, and have repented of it; and yet they continue to lacerate themselves spiritually, and they continue to whip themselves emotionally, which really is a form of self-induced penance, because they feel that they have committed some kind of 'unpardonable sin'. My friend, God does not want your penance. He is pleased with faith in His Word, not with self-gratifying sorrow.

There comes a time when you need to believe God's Word and to forget the things that lie behind. You know, as well as I do, that unless you forget, you will not move on. You will remain rooted and trapped in the past so that you cannot move on. And I direct these words particularly to those who have a sensitive conscience. Those heart-wrenching, despicable things that have happened in the past, which have rubbed your conscience raw, and continue to rub your conscience raw, and which cause you to feel tormented, you must, by God's grace, forget or else you are sunk. You will spiritually stagnate and die. And, of course, Satan knows exactly the right 'buttons to push'; and he laughs at your pain. I suggest to you, my friend, that you are dishonouring God when you fail to forget in this way, having sincerely confessed your sin and genuinely repented of it. You dishonour His Word, you dishonour His Name, because you implicitly deny the truth of His Word and the provision in Jesus Christ for sins and failures. We can learn from the past, but we are not to live in the past. If God forgives us, then we, by His grace, need to forgive ourselves and press on; and it is only in forgetting that we can truly advance. Leave the past with God. He will deal with us justly and graciously on judgement day. We can do nothing about the past now, only about the present. He knows our hearts and what we deserve. Leave the matter with Him. We need to be forward looking. Address the past, deal with the past, then you need to forget it. Therein is your liberty, and therein is empowerment – "forgetting what lies behind...I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

Reaching forth with hope

With forgetting, you need to reach forward – "reaching forward to what lies ahead." I still remember that dramatic day in Atlanta, in the 1996 Olympics, when Donovan Bailey, running for the gold in the 100 metre race, smoked down the track. It was a proud day for Canada. Though he ran in a relaxed fashion, every muscle in his body seemed tense for action, expending all the energy possible. In finishing the race, he stretched his body over the finish line, and won in world record time. This is a picture of what the term 'reaching forward' means in the original language. In running the spiritual race, one must strain every muscle in order to secure every ounce of energy from them in order to stretch forward, not simply to advance, but to win – unrestricted effort.

Are you showing that kind of spiritual commitment to win the race? Are you following hard after Christ, the prize, and not casually, saying, "Well, I had my devotions this morning, I punched my spiritual clock. I am good for the whole day." Are you following hard after Christ, using all your spiritual energy, to reach the goal? Now, if we are going to follow hard after Christ, if we are going to strenuously stretch forward toward the goal, then the first thing that must be evident is a desire to win. Are you even thinking in terms of winning? Do you have this desire to win; that you must do everything in your power to win? If you do not have the desire, then you are not going to run well. You will plod and dally. If an athlete does not have the desire to win, to intensely and determinatively race down the track, he will lose the race. If he does not have the desire to win, evidenced in conditioning himself, training himself, and regularly exercising, he will lose, regardless of what he or she thinks. Now, it is a simple question, but it demands an answer: Do you have a desire to win? I am not asking you whether you have a desire to finish (we all, to be sure, want to finish), but do you have a desire to win? And if you do, then what will that look like in your life?

Second, not only do we need a desire to win, we must minimize distractions. It is the distractions that trip us up. We need to have the distractions minimized, and eliminated. My brothers and sisters, we have many distractions in our lives, and many do not mind having these distractions. These distractions have become conveniences for us; and we justify our coldness and our waywardness by them. We say, for instance, "Oh, the Lord understands." Do you think so? Do you think He really understands when Christ is not first in your life, when Christ does not have the priority? Do you think He really understands? I do not think so.

We have to get rid of the distractions, the things that cause us to be unfocused, undetermined – the countless hours spent reading inane novels or watching frivolous, worldly television programs; the endless, unproductive telephone calls; the time-consuming, image-building community activities, etc. There are many good things in life that we could do, but there are only a few necessary things we should do; and those are the things that we need to focus on. On that final day, we will stand before the Lord and may say, "Lord, look at all these good things I have done and been involved in." And I suspect that He will say to you and me, "Were they the necessary things?" What will you say then? What will I say then? I am concerned about whether I am running well, whether I am giving everything I have, whether there are more sacrifices to make, more commitments to make, a deeper surrender to make. Are you? Are you honestly wondering, "Lord, are You pleased with me? Did I focus on You today? Were You my priority today? Was Christ first place in my life today?" We are to reach forth to what lies ahead.

Hebrews 12:1 reads, "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us [those who have run the race, those who, in their own right, have won, revealing to us that it is possible], let us also lay aside every encumbrance [every bad habit, every wrong practice, every needless distraction], and the sin [whatever is keeping us back] which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance [let us press on] the race that is set before us." Now, the strength to actually do this will come from seeing the prize, as this passage further states, "Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith" (Hb. 12:2a). When we are focused on Him, really focused on Him, He draws us to Himself, and we have no choice but to run well. To be focused on Christ is to desire Him, and as a result, you will pursue Him. Truly seeing Him is inspiring; it is motivating. Are you fixing your eyes on Jesus, the prize? How are you running brother? How are you running sister? Are you running well? Are you pressing on toward the goal? Run, Christian, Jesus is waiting at the finish line.