Forgetting What Lies Behind & Straining Forward to What Lies Ahead


Philippians 3:12-16

Please turn with me to Philippians 3. I want to return to a series I began last spring which I am calling “The Quotable Paul.”

He puts things in such unforgettable ways. We have looked at a few passages. We have looked at what I called his epistle sentence in Ephesians 1. We have looked at three memorable passages from 1 Corinthians and I called that sermon “With Paul in the School of Suffering.” Paul endured a lot as you well know. We had two sermons from Colossians 1:15-20 which I entitled “Your Christ is Too Small,” and then this summer we looked at the armor of God passage in Ephesians 6.

As I thought about would be appropriate for the start of the New Year, Philippians 3:12-16 came to mind, but especially v. 13. I intend to use v. 13 as my launch pad. I say launch pad because this will not be a verse by verse exposition of the paragraph. Rather it will be a topical sermon borrowing truth from other parts of God’s Word to challenge our thinking and living for the coming year.

I suspect you think and feel like I do throughout the course of the year at times, and that is life is so busy and the Christian seems like there are so many, many pursuits to chase after. Paul reminds us here in our passage that really there is only one thing to think about and do if we would follow in his steps. Paul says, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind (that’s the first half of the one thing) and straining forward to what lies ahead (that’s the second half.)

Let’s listen to it in its context.

Read Philippians 3:12-16

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 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. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in any­thing you think otherwise, God will re­veal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”

Pray

We will take this sentence in two parts.

“Forgetting what lies behind” is the first half of the one thing Paul does. As Christians we are called to forget anything and everything that impedes forward progress: past attainments and past disappointments.

I. Forget past attainments.

 Not that I have already obtained this…” Paul says in v. 12. The “this” seems to be practical righteousness, spiritual maturity, holiness, perfection and Christ-likeness. “I do not consider that I have made it my own,” v. 13.

Paul seems to be saying, “Whatever strides I have made, whatever ground I’ve covered, I don’t consider myself done running. There is more race to run.” Remember when he says this he is in Rome, he is in prison. He has already lived what we read about in the book of Acts. He has already been on three missionary journeys. He has attained a lot! Miracle after miracle, convert after convert, church plant after church plant.

How do you measure growth in grace? This is J.I. Packer from Knowing God.

“We must learn to measure ourselves not by our knowledge about God, [although I hope every year you and I are increasing in such knowledge] not by our gifts and responsibilities in the church [although I pray we are using more and more of our gifts and making more and more of a contribution to Kingdom matters,] but by how we pray and what goes on in our hearts. Many of us, I suspect, have no idea, Packer says, how impoverished we are at this level….” [how we pray and what goes on in our hearts.] p. 32

As a man I tend to measure my own spiritual maturity by deeds done, initiatives begun and accomplished and checked off my list. Not the apostle Paul. He is not done running even after all he has accomplished.

II. Forget past disappointments.

And just as glorying in past attainments can impede forward progress, so can wallowing in past disappointments. We are called to forget anything and everything that impedes such progress such as past sins, what I am calling accidents, and failures.

A. Forget past sins…

I wonder how often the apostle Paul thought of, regretted, even lamented, his part in the stoning of Stephen? He was there you remember. He heard Stephen’s brilliant defense. What an intellect! He witnessed Stephen’s final words, “Forgive them, they know not what they are doing.”

What a saint! How Christ-like was Stephen! What a man of God; what a spiritual force; what a leader in the early church; what a light to the Gentiles!

He might have made a great mentor for the apostle Paul; he might have been a great partner on those three missionary journeys, but the apostle Paul put him to death. And Paul put countless others in prison separating fathers from families. I wonder if he lay awake at night remorseful about all of that.

But that of course was before he became a Christian, a sin of ignorance. At the time, honestly, Paul thought he was doing God’s will. He thought he was putting to death a cult just begun. But now having become a Christian he regards it as being an accomplice to murder.

Thankfully I suspect that most of us do not have what we would call a heinous sin in our background, something that bothers us and harasses us still to this day and we have a hard time forgiving ourselves. But some do! Some Christian women are harassed by the memory of aborting a child before they were a Christian. They were pressured by their boyfriend or their father or even their husband and they have repented of that, but it still comes to their mind. The apostle Paul committed murder. David committed murder. Moses committed murder. If you were guilty of aborting your baby and you have repented, don’t look back. It is not the Holy Spirit who keeps bringing this matter up. Not the Holy Spirit at all.

There is something else in the apostle’s life that makes you wonder if he regretted it. It is his departure with Barnabas. You remember the story. They disagreed as to whether John Mark should join them on the second missionary journey. Paul thought he was not ready and failed on the first trip. Barnabas, who was also John Mark’s cousin, thought he had learned and grown from that whole experience and it was worth the risk of trying him again. They had words and they parted and it is not hard to imagine that the parting was something that both of these two godly men regretted afterwards.

Let’s follow Paul example here and move on and not let these things impede forward progress. Let’s also follow David’s example when he prayed, “Remember not the sins of my youth.” When we hear that, when we read that in the Psalm aren’t there certain things that come immediately to our mind? “Remember not the sins of my youth.” Let’s put those behind us.

May God give us grace to forgive and forget what he so readily forgives. Remember he is the father in the parable of the prodigal son – recklessly lavishing mercy, forgiveness, kindness and restoration upon a wayward son come home. Even if our sins in the past are tantamount to murder God has shown us over and over again that he has forgiven Moses, David and Paul. Certainly he will forgive us.

B. Forget past “accidents”

Let’s also forget past “accidents.” We are responsible for the choices we make and sins we have committed. We have no excuses. But then there are hardships that come our way, difficulties that alter our lives that we were passive in it all. It hits us and hurts.

I am reading the life of Jonathan Edwards for the second time and was reminded of the way he died. You remember that he submitted to being inoculated with small pox and that took his life at the age of 55. I wonder if his dear wife Sarah lay awake at night and wondered, “Why didn’t I plead with Jonathan to hold off for a year, hold off for some time. It is still a risk to go forward with this and it is just not a good time right now. Our daughter, Esther, just lost her husband, Aaron Burr, to some illness. Jonathan was called to be the president of New Jersey in his son-in-law’s place. This is not a good time to take this risk. Jonathan, hold off for awhile.” I wonder if she was plagued by any of that.

Most of us are familiar with the life of Joni Erickson Tada. We would never have heard of her if she let her “accident”—if she let her “accident”—paralyze her. Listen to those early days in the hospital.
           
“It wasn’t long after I had broken my neck in a diving accident that I spent one particularly hopeless week in the hospi­tal. I had endured long surgeries to shave down the bony prominences on my back, and it was a long recovery. I had lost a great deal of weight. And for almost three weeks I was forced to lie facedown on what’s called a Stryker frame—a long, flat canvas sandwich where they put you face-up for three hours and then strap another piece of canvas on you and flip you facedown to lie there for another three hours.

Trapped facedown, staring at the floor hour after hour, my thoughts grew dark and hopeless. All I could think was, “Great, God. Way to go. I’m a brand-new Christian. This is the way you treat your new ‘Christians? I’m young in the faith. I prayed for a closer walk with you. If this is your idea of an answer to prayer, I am never going to trust you with another prayer again. I can’t believe that I have to lie facedown and do nothing but count the tiles on the floor on this stupid torture rack. I hate my existence.” I asked the hospital staff to turn out the lights, close the blinds, close the door, and if anybody came in—visitor, parent, nurse—I just grunted. I justified it all. I rationalized that God shouldn’t mind that I would be bitter—after all, I was paralyzed.

My thoughts got darker because no longer was my bitterness a tiny trickle. It had become a raging torrent, and in the middle of the night I would imagine God holding my sin up before my face and saying lov­ingly but firmly, “Joni. What are you going to do about this attitude? It is wrong. This sin is wrong. Get rid of it.” [See if you can relate to this.] But I, hurting and stubborn, preferred my sins. I preferred my peevish, snide, small-minded, mean-spirited comments, grunting at peo­ple when they walked in or out……I did not want to let go of the sick, strange comfort of ‘my own misery.

So God gave me some help. About one week into that three-week stint of lying facedown, staring at the floor, waiting for my back to heal, I got hit with a bad case of the flu. And suddenly, not being able to move was peanuts compared to not being able to breathe. I was claustropho­bic. I was suffering. I was gasping for breath. I could not move. All was hopeless. All was gone. I was falling backward, head over heels, down for the count, decimated.

And I broke. I thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t live this way. I would rather die than face this.”

This is an amazing story of the grace of God at work in the life of a saint, of a young Christian.

Now this is the next area that I pray for delicacy. Has something happened to you that justifies wallowing in self pity? Is this thing in the past stunting your growth? Has it arrested forward motion? He or she or they or it may have meant it for evil but your God has meant it for good, for progress, for Christ-likeness. None of us are ever victims. No Christian is ever a victim—not in God’s eyes. There is more of life to be lived as Joni models for us. There is more race to run whether we are 17 or 97. Don’t look back. Forget past “accidents” and also let’s get past failures.

C. Forget past failures.

When I first heard about Abraham Lincoln’s failures back in the late 1970’s, it gave me a fresh appreciation for his character and perseverance. I want you to listen to some of these. Certainly during this time he had successes along the way too. But how many of these failures can a soul endure?

In 1832 he lost his job and was defeated for state legislature. In 1833, a year later, he failed in business. In 1835 his sweetheart died. A year later, 1836, he had a nervous breakdown. In 1843 he was defeated for nomination for Congress. In 1849 he was rejected for land officer. In 1854 he was defeated for U.S. Senate. In 1856 he was defeated for nomination for Vice President. And in 1858 he was again defeated for U.S. Senate. Just two years later he became the President of the United States.

Perhaps we have experienced some financial loss in the last few years. Maybe you invested in what turned out to be a significant loss. Or maybe it is in even a more touching matter than that in which we feel ourselves to be a failure. Maybe you think yourself a failure as a parent – one or more of the kids just isn’t turning out the way we had so prayed, they are not “adorning the gospel,” and show little interest in kingdom matters and that bothers us.

Or maybe you think your marriage a failure or at least very disappointing. Your spouse is a disappointment. He or she hasn’t done anything that allows you an honorable out, but habits being what they are you have very little hope of things improving in the coming year.

The world and the church need more examples of persevering and overcoming marriages – marriages that honor their vows “Come wind, come weather.” I don’t have any hope for non-Christian marriages that are in trouble. I don’t know what to say, of course, except to recommend Christ. But as Christians we are never out of hope. As Christians with the Holy Spirit living in us we are not beyond hope. We can change. God can change our spouse, but he might want to begin with us first.

I say this to our ladies especially. Remember the goal of marriage is not the perpetual feeling of being in love, but it is Christ-likeness. God has used through the ages a disappointing marriage to wean us from each other and get us seeking in him what only he can give. Please don’t run from God’s work in you however hard it may be, but run to him, the finish line and your prize.

Whatever our past attainments or disappointments, sins, “accidents” or failures, don’t let them impede forward momentum in this coming year. Let’s not look back, let’s strain ahead.

“On August 7, 1954, during the British Empire Games in Vancouver, Canada, the greatest mile-run matchup ever took place. It was touted as the “miracle mile” because Roger Bannister and John Landy were the only two sub-four-minute milers in the world. Both runners were in peak condition.

Roger Bannister, strategized that he would relax during the third lap and save everything for his finishing drive. But as they began that third lap, John Landy poured it on, stretching his lead. Immediately Bannister adjusted his strategy,…. The lead was quickly cut in half, and at the bell for the final lap they were even. Both flying around the track.

Then came the famous moment. Landy could not hear Bannister’s footfall and looked back and lost by 5 yards.”

May God give us the grace to forget those things in our past that impede forward progress. That is the first half of the one thing that Paul calls us to. Here is the second.

II. Straining Forward to What Lies Ahead

Look at these verses 12-16. Our paragraph shows Paul leaning into his race. “I press on to make it my own,” “straining forward to what lies ahead,” “I press on toward the goal.”

The picture is of an athlete who is heeding Philip Doddridges self-exhortation, “Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve and press with vigor on; a heavenly race demands your zeal and an immortal crown.”

What is the goal that we strain toward this year? I think of it this way. The immediate goal is holiness. The intermediate goal is the finish line or heaven. And the ultimate goal is the prize – Christ himself.

A. Press on Toward Holiness

More spiritual maturity and more Christ-likeness is what we are after. But there is a right way and a wrong way to pursue holiness.

This is Dr. Packer once again: “Sanctification…is an ongoing cooperative process in which regenerate persons…are required to exert themselves in sustained obedience. God’s method of sanctification is neither activism (self-reliant activity) nor apathy (God-reliant passivity), but God-dependent effort.”

One hundred percent God at work in us and one hundred percent us exerting ourselves in sustained obedience.

It seems to come down to how we view obedience to God’s law or maybe better still what motivates us to obey the law of god.

If we merely exert ourselves in sustained obedience to merit salvation, we might as well belong to another religion. The world is populated with people recommending themselves to God by their “good” works. But you and I exert ourselves in sustained obedience because we have been saved and out of gratitude and love we want to please our heavenly Father. We try to stress this every Lord’s Day as we read the Scriptures in unison together.

But sin nature being what it is even the best saints starting off well, with the best of motives, can be corrupted. An obedience begun properly is not always carried out properly.

Listen to a more mature Jonathan Edwards as he reflects back upon his efforts to live by his famous resolutions.

“I pursued holiness with far greater diligence and earnestness than ever I pursued anything in my life, but yet with too great a dependence on my own strength, which afterwards proved a great damage to me. My experience had not then taught me, as it has done since, my extreme feebleness and impotence; and the bottomless depths of secret corruption and deceit there was in my heart.”

I suspect Edwards’ experience speaks for many of us. We are always tending to one error. We either play down the necessity for exerting ourselves in sustained obedience, our part, or we play down the necessity to depend on God’s strength to do his part. It is probably naïve to think we will ever get to the place that we always get it right in this life. Such is the challenge of pursuing holiness with a sin nature. But to pursue it we must. It is our calling.

Having said that let me set before us again four of Edwards’ resolutions for our consideration as we desire to strain toward holiness this year. He begins like this:

“Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake…”

Without this important orienting introductory sentence Edwards’ resolutions are going to sound like they’ve been penned by a duty-bound moralist which he was not. Listen to how this saint leans into holiness. Four resolutions:

First: “Resolved, to strive to my utmost every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before.”

He seems to want to chart his growth Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. How does he intend to do that? Here is the next resolution:

Second: “Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.”

He is going to make a diligent use of the means of grace found in the written Word of God.

Third: “Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.”

I am so glad he attached those last few words. “However unsuccessful I may be,” an honest and frank admission that ground gained in this race is not easily won. And one more:

Fourth: “Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.”

He is going to approach everyday as yet another opportunity to lay up treasure in heaven. That is Edwards leaning into holiness,.

One of the strengths of our pulpit is its stress upon our duties before God. If our sustained obedience, say for example in the area of disciplined Bible reading, tends to puff us up or cause us to think less of those who don’t read as much as we do, we can be sure our motive was tainted by too much self-reliance and too much self-righteousness.

It is especially important for us who have a natural strong sense of duty or who take seriously the duties impressed upon us Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day to hear Edwards orienting introductory sentence again and again.

“Being sensible that I am unable to do anything without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions….”

Holiness is the immediate goal we are called to pursue. The intermediate goal is the finish line, heaven, where our race comes to an end.

B. Press on Toward Heaven

When you get to the place I have been often and you feel like you cannot go on in your race, try this, try turning your thoughts toward heaven. This is Jonathan Edwards:

“…think of that state, where there is fullness of joy; where reigns heavenly, calm, and delightful love, without alloy; where there are continually the dearest expressions of this love; where is the enjoyment of the persons loved, without ever parting; where those persons who appear so lovely, in this world, will really be inexpressibly more lovely and full of love to us. And how sweetly will the mutual lovers join together, to sing the praises of God and the Lamb.”

Fix your eyes on the finish line. Think of heaven.

Finally, our ultimate goal, our ultimate pursuit, our reward, our victor’s crown is Christ himself.

C. Press on Toward Christ

Earlier in this chapter Paul speaks of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus…” Knowing Christ is ultimate. As breathtaking as heaven will be, it will lose all its luster, allurements and inducements if Christ himself were not there. We know this.

We are momentarily going to sing:

         “The Bride eyes not her garment, but her dear Bridegroom’s face;
         I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace;
         not at the crown He gifteth, but on His pierced hand;
         the Lamb is all the glory of Emmanuel’s Land.”

What good is it to be eternally engaged but never married? You and I are betrothed! We were made for Another and we long for our true Husband. We want to live in intimate communion with him forever. We want to be fully his and him to be fully ours. He is our Chief End. He is everything to us.

Forgetting what lies behind, straining forward even if it only means putting one heavy foot in front of the other, it is still progress. It is still forward momentum.

Here is a last athletic illustration.

“In 1981 Bill Broadhurst entered the Pepsi Challenge 10,000 meter race in Omaha. Surgery ten years earlier for an aneurysm in the brain had left him paralyzed on his left side. But on that
July morning, he stood with 1,200 other men and women at the starting line. The gun sounded, and the crowd surged ahead. Bill threw his stiff left leg forward and pivoted on it –  plop-plop-plop – around the track. Some of the runners completed the race in about thirty minutes, but two hours and twenty-nine minutes later Bill reached the finish line. A man approached from a small group of remaining bystanders. Though exhausted, Bill recognized him from pictures in the newspaper. It was Bill Rodgers, the famous marathon runner, who then draped his newly won medal around Bill’s neck. Bill Broadhurst’s finish was as glorious as that of the world’s greatest.”

With Christ living in us and Christ before us as our goal, it is quite within the reach of every one of us to put one heavy foot in front of the other until we reach the finish line. In this New Year let’s do one thing. Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.

Amen.