“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 3:13-14
I have known these verses for years, as I’m sure many reading this have, but when the Lord placed them on my heart again recently, He pinpointed the word “forgetting” and showed me something new about this passage.
So let’s talk about it.
First, here’s what forgetting doesn’t mean:
Dismiss or ignore
Pretend it never happened
Acting like it didn’t matter or have impact
According to the Blue Letter Bible and Strong’s Concordance, in the context of this verse the word “forgetting” comes from the Greek word epilanthanomai (ἐπιλανθάνομαι) and means:
(verb) to neglect; to lose out of mind
Let’s keep going with the definitions so we have a clear, complete picture of what Paul is saying:
Neglect: (verb) fail to care properly for
To “lose out of mind…” Still a (verb); losing something happens when you stop paying attention to it. So, we are safe to conclude that “to lose out of mind” means no longer paying attention to it inside your head, or not dwelling on related thoughts.
I note that they are verbs because it indicates action, which often requires intention.
See, neglecting something means that we have stopped being intentional about caring for it, rather than the idea that we have intentionally done anything to/for it. Neglect requires a lack of intention. The idea of “to lose out of mind” follows suit. When something escapes our mind, and we become forgetful of it, it is because we’ve stopped intentionally “caring for” the thoughts related to it. Again, this indicates a lack of intention.
Paul is specifically speaking about a shift in where his intentions are focused, and challenging the church of Philippi to consider this for themselves.
The more focused we are on what lies ahead, the more what lies behind naturally diminishes; especially when what lies ahead is centered on Christ. Perhaps your memory of the past doesn’t diminish, but its power over you certainly will. Our intentions are best dedicated to pressing onward, not dwelling on or pushing down and away what lies behind.
When we walk forward with the Lord, He puts what lies behind in its place.
And contrary to what many may believe, that place isn’t always just “out and away.” The things sitting in our past - good, bad or indifferent - served a purpose in our lives; God doesn’t waste a moment no matter what that moment may have held. This applies to things you’ve done, and things done to you.
Think about Paul’s past. He spent the first part his life murdering Christians. When He became a follower of Christ, he didn’t just start living like it never happened. We know this because look at how often he references his past through the New Testament! He refers back to his past in nearly every letter he wrote; he referenced it (heavily) in Acts when he stood before Agrippa; he outlines his testimony in Galatians, noting in Gal. 1:24 that the people glorified God because of his testimony. Note that Paul never glorified who he once was, but every time, he spoke of his past in the context how Christ redeemed him from it.
Here’s how this looks, practically, in our lives…
If something like addiction lies in your past, this passage isn’t directing you to put it out your mind as though it never happened. It is telling you to remember it - without dwelling on it - in the context of the fact that God is moving you further and further away from it as you pursue what lies ahead of it in Christ.
On the flip side, if you’ve been the victim of something like abuse, this passage isn’t telling you to forget it, and pretend like it’s just all good now that it’s over. What Paul writes in Philippians 3 breathes hope into our lives because it shows me that nothing in my past can prevent me from moving forward towards what lies ahead in Christ - healing, forgiveness, justice, etc.
God has no reason to require us to dismiss our past when He is capable and willing to redeem every last part of it through Christ.
What lies behind happened. What lies behind had an impact, maybe a lasting one. What lies behind meanders into our mind and tries to live there sometimes.
But you don't have to bear the burden of what lies behind anymore. Our role is to be intentional about looking to Jesus, and pressing onward.
He will put all that lies behind in its rightful place, making all things work together for our good and His glory.