Monday, February 2, 2009

Getting Past the Past

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

                        Philippians 3.13-14

Press On

Paul’s history with the Philippians is quite interesting. It literally gets off to a rocky start. When he and another evangelist, Silas, go to Philippi, they inadvertently cross a few local businessmen, who then accuse them of disturbing the peace. The entire city turns on them. This isn’t unusual, however. Philippi is a mining town whose people are hardworking and honest, but also extremely wary of outsiders. Paul and Silas don’t stand a chance. The city fathers have them whipped and jailed. During their first night there, a huge earthquake shakes the doors open, freeing the prisoners. When the jailer arrives, Paul assures him everyone is present and accounted for—a miracle if there ever was. The jailer converts to Christianity on the spot. Paul becomes an overnight hero. Many follow the jailer’s lead and the first church in Europe is born.

The Philippians aren’t nearly as complicated as the Corinthians, say, or the Romans. They’re less concerned about the whys than the hows. As they put Christ’s principles into practice, they start to see results. Newfound integrity wins them greater prosperity and respect, which they attribute to Paul. This worries him, though, because their admiration verges on worship, which only belongs to Christ. When an occasion arises to write to them about an upcoming visit, he uses it as a reality check. “I’m just like you,” he tells them. “I too am striving for perfection. But I’m not there yet. That’s why I press on.” (Philippians 3.12)

Remember to Forget

“Here’s what I do,” Paul writes. “I forget what’s behind me and keep moving toward my goal of becoming perfect in Christ.” And Paul had plenty to forget. In his former life as Saul of Tarsus, he was the poster child for religious legalism. He was steeped in the Law and so compelled to enforce it, he determined to destroy the Early Church. In Acts 26, he says he wanted “to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus,” admitting he imprisoned many Christians and endorsed their executions. He traveled far and wide to have them punished, trying to force them to deny Christ to escape suffering. He confesses, “In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” (v11) Paul’s troubled past didn’t end with his conversion, either. The persecutor became the persecuted. By the time he writes to the Philippians, he’s endured repeated imprisonment, beatings, hunger, and innumerable personal attacks, many of them generated by fellow believers. Past trauma and turmoil are fastened so tightly to Paul he constantly has to remember to forget.

The Philippians have plenty to forget, too. Although they’re a major source of the world’s gold supply, they’re dismissed as provincials—negligible blue-collar rubes. After faith and integrity improve their standing, merchants and officials who once snubbed them now embrace them. Surely this angers them and stirs feelings of resentment. Furthermore, as a congregation they’ve seen more than their share of trouble. They’ve been abused by legalistic teachers, who seek to undermine their faith by insisting only Jews can be Christians, demanding all Gentile male believers be circumcised to claim Calvary’s inheritance. Paul is greatly concerned that all of these crosscurrents from the past—disrespect, prejudice, false religion, etc.—will continue to haunt the Philippians, causing them to lose sight of their main objective: conforming to the image of Christ. His message is forcefully clear: remember to forget. Press on.

Lose the Weight

Hebrews 12.1 strikes the same note: “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Every one of us, to some degree or another, carries burdens from the past. Many of them are no different than those that troubled Paul and the Philippians. We carry guilt and shame, resentment and fear. We’ve been falsely accused, pushed aside, beat down, severely abused, locked up, and deprived. Our integrity and faith have been challenged, even ridiculed. We’ve been mislabeled, mishandled, and misunderstood. What tremendous loads we bear!

While the past may grow more distant by the day, it will never completely vanish over the horizon. It’s up to us to take the Hebrews writer’s advice and lose the weight—strip the memories of their meaning. Getting past the past is perhaps the greatest task we’ll ever undertake. But we can’t allow the enormity of this challenge to warp our sense of scale. Losing the weight is by far less punishing and exhausting than constantly carrying it. “I have lost all things,” Paul tells the Philippians. “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” Let it go—remember to forget—and press on.


The creator of this Wordle calls it "Focus on the Future". Yet it's dominated by the past, a poignant depiction of someone unwilling or unable to lose the weight, remember to forget, and press on.

(Tomorrow: Arriving on Pieces)  

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