Paul wanted to forget about what he did because what he did was really bad. He watched as a crowd led by religious leaders murdered Stephen, a follower of the Way who was so full of the Holy Spirit that his last words were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Who, in the midst of being killed, pleads forgiveness for his killers? Turns out being filled with the Spirit has a rather transformative effect, even in the last moments of life.
Jesus prayed the same prayer on the Cross for “them”. One of the “them” included a young man named Saul who threw no rocks but showed his approval by standing there and letting it happen. “The best thing we can do,” Saul believed, “is kill those blasphemous Christ followers.” This was a welcome directive for just about everyone — politicians, business people, citizens, and even the religious leaders. Obviously the Christians weren’t fans of this policy. But the Gospel cannot be killed off. Stephen served his Lord well, having the honor of being our first Martyr. His death makes the church even stronger today. And don’t worry: he’s fine. Saul, on the other hand, was about to have everything in his seemingly perfect world flipped upside down.
The same Jesus that Stephen saw standing at the right hand of God made a special appearance just for Saul. “Why are you persecuting me?” He asked, as poor Saul took his proper posture on the ground. Though Saul got up, he never really changed his spiritual posture. Jesus was his Lord. Jesus is his Lord. Saul later becomes known as Paul, and the rest is (church) history.
Years later and in prison, Paul was writing a letter to the church in Philippi. In what we refer to as Chapter 3, he goes to great lengths to indicate that yes, by the standards of the world, he is a fully credentialed Israelite/Pharisee/Righteous dude. He makes a complete list and suddenly tosses it in with the rest of the garbage, saying it’s all worthless compared to knowing Jesus. Paul is a Christian. This means that he has found Jesus, he follows Jesus, and is becoming like Jesus. His sins have been forgiven, his heart has been changed, and he’s a new man. But… the past haunts him.
As it turns out, the past haunts many of us. Quick show of hands: who wishes they could forget something in their past? Disappointments? Personal failures? Sins? Destructive habits? Destructive events? Paul has his hand up, too. Yes, Paul? “Persecuting the church and feeling entitled to the murder of Christ’s disciples because of my religious resume.” Yikes, Paul. (awkward silence.) Anyone wanna top that?
Paul wants to leave bad things and good things in his past. The bad: murder, etc. The good: his biography, which he used to justify his worth, his life work, his identity, his relationship to God and others, etc.
Whether you’ve got bad or what seemed good in the past, Paul has some handy advice. In his letter, Paul spouts off a motto that has been tested and found remarkably helpful for those who want to put the past in the right perspective. He says “One thing I do: 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.”
- Forgetting the past doesn’t mean pretending it didn’t happen. This seems to be a common strategy, which is akin to pushing a bunch of filth under a rug. Just because you can’t see it / don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it no longer exists. Paul was open about the past, calling by name that which he wanted to forget. It wasn’t denial. It was a decision.
- We tend to give more authority to the past than we do to the power of Jesus to forgive. A common forgery by that little voice in our heads, false teachers, and the powers of evil, is the one where you hear that what you’ve done defines you and limits the gift of salvation. Paul is wise in looking to Jesus when the past creeps up on him, because what we pay attention to is what occupies our minds. Jesus is enough.
- There’s great power in calling the past what it is: real events that took place and now have a context. It’s all about context. The past becomes an unruly power when we don’t keep it in the Jesus cage. In His grace, God chooses not to hold our sins against us, which is what Paul Tillich describes as something a friend does when saying “eh, forget about it” when we’ve done something dumb. I did it. It was foolish. I’m forgiven. I’ve learned from it. God’s grace is amazing. Let’s move on.
- Learn from the brilliant design your car: a huge windshield and a tiny rear-view mirror. Driving forward while looking in the rear-view mirror is a good idea for about 7 seconds. Next thing you know, your Taurus is hood-first in a pond. As absurd as it sounds, we do this all the time with our lives: lurching forward while looking backward. It’s just as dangerous with our thought life as it is behind the wheel.
- When you find yourself taking stock of the past, choose to obsess instead over the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus AND the fact that you know Him! Only Jesus can lead us to the Father. Only Jesus can be a total life-changing obsession (and a healthy one at that). Only Jesus can lead us out of the past and into the future He has for us, which is marked less by who you are and what you’ve done and more by who He is and what He’s done and doing.
The ability to forget is a gift. Trust Jesus and enjoy today. Let any backward glance be a reminder of His faithfulness to you. #ChooseJoy