Thursday, August 18, 2016

What Lies Behind

What do we do with the past?

In one sense, obviously, not much. It is what it is. We can’t change it, we can’t rewrite it, and while we can reinterpret it, that may not be a particularly useful exercise if our current outlook is an honest one.

Still, how we process our past and how our thoughts about it affect us today are significant.

Paul, On the Past

Remember that saying, “Do as I say, not as I do”? Here’s the apostle Paul on his past:
“One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on …”
Whenever I read an apostolic instruction (or one of the Lord’s for that matter), I like to comb through the speaker’s experiences and see how he applied his own advice. So how exactly did Paul apply this bit of wisdom?
I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women …”

“For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

“You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”
I could go on, but you get the general idea. What lay behind for the apostle was a very serious history of opposition to God, and he remembered it in painful detail. He forgot nothing.

In fact, you find him telling everyone — Galatians, Corinthians, Philippians, the Jews in the temple when he was arrested, King Agrippa, and so on — all about it. His past informed his present and he used it in testimony all the time.

Clearly, he does not mean “forgetting” here in the sense we generally use it, to describe a total absence of recollection about an event.

When the Past Doesn’t Matter

What did Paul mean then? I’d suggest the following:
  1. Paul did not allow his past to discredit his message.  Yes, he says, I persecuted the Church of God. Yes, he says, I am the least of the apostles. But when I speak, Paul says, I speak for God, and what I say is not to be dismissed, and my example is not to be discounted. Where we might fear to move forward for God because of our past, Paul recognized that his message remained fully authoritative notwithstanding the very human vessel that carried it, and that vessel’s history.
  2. He did not allow his past to shake his confidence of reward.  “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness”, he could say with conviction. “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Ultimately, if Paul was to be disqualified for his reward, it would not be because of his past but because of what he was doing (or failing to do) in the present.
  3. He did not allow guilt to motivate him.  Paul’s motivation is clearly spelled out to the Romans: he was “called to be an apostle” and “under obligation both to Greeks and barbarians”, though it was Jewish Christians he had persecuted. Some might have made the Jews a personal crusade out of a guilty conscience. Instead, Paul took note of his responsibility to all men, including those he had not wronged. While retaining his intense passion for his own nation, he did not allow guilt about them to influence his choices in the service of his Master.
Paul never forgot where he had come from and what he had done. He remembered it constantly, and used it whenever it would serve a higher purpose.

But he would not allow his past to shape either his present or his future.

What lies behind us does not determine what lies ahead.


  1. Not to deny the validity of what you touch on in this post; I have often thought that, contextually, Paul is continuing with his thoughts of verses 1 to 11 where he points to his previous grounds of supposed acceptance with God, and his present grounds. As he does in Galatians, he is pointing out that it is necessary to live our (Christian) lives on the same grounds as we began.

  2. Quite so. Thanks for the thought, Patrick.