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What Does it Mean to “Forget What Lies Behind”?

Written by Hannah Woodhouse on

What does Paul mean when he writes that he is “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13)? Paul writes this in his letter to the Philippians, but it comes as no surprise in the context of the first portion of his letter. Let’s take a look at what Paul means, and why “forgetting what lies behind” is vital to our faith. 

Forget What Lies Behind?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There’s a lot of wisdom to that famous quote; there’s a lot of wisdom in learning from the past and seeking to understand. But I don’t think Paul is speaking contrary to that. In this context, the Greek word “forget” could also be understood as “neglect” or “overlook.” In this situation, Paul could choose to fixate on all the destruction, pain, and confusion of his past. That would not be helpful though—for Paul, or for you and me. Paul was so focused on the glory of Christ and his promises, that it was as if he’d neglected, or forgotten, all the pain behind him. He still knew it. His scars were a testament to all he had endured, but the pain was no longer his focus.

When we decide to put our faith in Christ, there isn’t a cosmic light switch that goes off (at least not as far as I can tell). Yes, the Lord graciously breaks strongholds for many people. I’ve seen that happen and it is wonderful. That being said, most of the godly characteristics in the lives of the Christians we respect are hard-earned through years of walking faithfully with Jesus—no light switch needed.

What we do need, however, is focus. The Devil, of course, knows that. He knows and he does everything he can to distract, discourage, and delay our faith. Why read your Bible when you can answer that email quickly and then you’ll be able to relax a bit? Isn’t it a little delusional to think some divine being cares how you do on your presentation? Maybe just wait until tomorrow to ask your aunt if you can pray over her upcoming surgery.

Where Christ has come to bring clarity and hope, the enemy seeks to pollute with distraction, discouragement, and delays. But knowing that is only half the battle. How do we live with our eyes fixed on Christ?

Steering in the Right Direction

Forgetting what lies behind is not the only word of wisdom Paul offers. He completes the thought by saying that he is straining forward to what lies ahead. That is what you and I must do as well. In other words: we must keep our minds and hearts fixed on Christ because it’s not enough to just stop looking back. After all, we have to look somewhere.

In some ways, this reminds me of my first pseudo-driving lesson as a middle schooler on spring break. Our family decided to rent a six-person surrey bike. Despite the exhaustion of trying to move a six-person vehicle in which only two of us were pedaling—those things are never as fun as they seem—I was thrilled when my dad said I could take a turn at the steering wheel. Shortly after I assumed command of the bike, though, I got a little bored. The path was flat and straight, and the views of the waves crashing on the beach were much more enticing. I was pedaling to the rhythm of the ocean when suddenly my dad alerted me with “Hannah, watch where you’re going!” I straightened the wheel just in time to avoid driving us straight into the ditch.

I learned an important lesson that day: we steer toward the things that we are fixated on. Because I was focused on the beach, I steered the bike in the direction of the beach—even though I didn’t mean to. That day, my dad taught me my first lesson about steering a vehicle and one of the most important lessons about faith. Like Paul, I want to be someone who strains forward, putting all my effort and heart and focus into what matters and who matters.

Hannah Woodhouse

Hannah is a member at College Park Church. She is passionate about making Christ known through amplifying hope in her story and others. Hannah enjoys spending time with her family, friends, and fellow adventurers.

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