“Straining forward”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
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. (Philippians 3.12-14)
This passage is particularly appropriate at the end of a year and the beginning of a new one, and even more so when the outgoing year is 2020. The whole world is happy to see a new start, and many assume the sun will shine brighter, food will taste better, the air will smell cleaner, the pandemic will go away, our political divisions will heal, and a new era of peace and harmony will begin, in which “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;” and “the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” (Is 66.25).
If this is your impression, then I hate to be the one to spoil it for you, but it’s not going to happen. Strife, tribulation, oppression, and disease may subside in 2021, but they won’t go away completely until all things are subjected to Christ. The question isn’t whether these troubles will continue, but how we will react, when they do.
When Paul wrote the words of Philippians 3 quoted above, he was facing trial and possible execution due to his faith. Even with the axe hanging over his head, he didn’t give in, didn’t give up, and didn’t see any reason sit back and relax. He didn’t dwell on the struggles of the past, nor did he rest on his laurels, but instead continued to press forward, answering Christ’s call to heaven. The reason Paul mentions this is not to make his readers think more highly of him, but to encourage them to adopt the same mentality, and to continue pushing forward themselves, as he says in verse 17, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
It’s not that God doesn’t want us to learn from history or our own experiences—otherwise we wouldn’t know where to go, what to do, how, or why. But we shouldn’t dwell on the troubles of the past. We shouldn’t relive the past at the expense of the present and, more importantly, the future. As we enter into a new year, we shouldn’t become stuck in the old one, but we should learn from it, and use that knowledge to better serve God and his Kingdom today and tomorrow.
Some of this learning and pressing forward is mostly informational, such as what tactics work, and don’t work, in preventing outbreaks of a particular virus. But much more consequential than that, is the moral dimension. Were you perfectly righteous in the year 2020? Perhaps a handful of people would claim to have been, but they should take a look at 1 Corinthians 10.12: “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall,” as well as James 3.2: “we all stumble in many ways,” and 1 John 1.8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Most people are either humble enough or tactful enough to admit to imperfection, but we ought to go beyond that, as John says in the following verse, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1.9).
Yet, at the same time, we shouldn’t dwell on our past sins, or relive them so that they hinder our progress today. That’s not what Jesus wants—he wants to forgive and cleanse us! He wants to give us eternal life! He wants us to join him beside his Father, as he says, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Re 3.21). We must not continue to live in past sins. On the one hand, simply continuing to behave in unholy and harmful ways puts a barrier between us and God, because he does not allow anything unholy in his presence. On the other hand, even a person who is sorrowful and repentant can ruin his own efforts to clean up, as Paul says of himself, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Ro 7.15). He takes it even a step farther a few verses later, saying, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (v18). Just thinking of yourself as the sort of person who would do that awful thing, makes it easier to give in and do it again. This inward struggle with fleshly desires is a part of the human condition, ever since Adam and Eve opened the door to the knowledge of good and evil, and took themselves and their descendants out of the realm of innocence, and into captivity under sin. None of us is guiltless. In fact, our awareness of the past and our own actions’ physical consequences, is part of what makes us accountable for those actions. We knew better, or should have known better, yet we did it anyway.
That is why each of us must die to sin and “put off the old self with its practices,” putting on “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Co 3.9-10). The year 2021 will not be your perfect year. The New Year does not miraculously make a New You. But there is something you can do—refuse to dwell in past sins and mistakes, and focus instead on pushing forward with all of your strength, learning from the past and imitating those who walk according to the example of Christ and his apostles. Confess your sins and seek forgiveness and cleansing, and pursue the prize of eternal life with Jesus in his Father’s home, where evil can no longer tempt you, and no longer hurt you.