Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But 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.
The modern Olympics find their origin in the ancient Olympics which took place from over 700 years before Christ to almost 400 years after him (source). The New Testament was written during the time the ancient games were taking place, so several New Testament authors allude to the Olympic Games. In today’s passage, the Apostle Paul likens the Christian life to an Olympic race. He wants to teach Christians how to run a good race, and he boils his advice down to this: forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead. Over the next two weeks, we will look at these two pieces in turn.
First, Paul tells us that we must forget what is behind. The word Paul uses for forget means “to forget, neglecting, no longer caring for, given over to oblivion” (source). Paul is saying that Christians need to make a clean break from their way of living life before they accepted Christ. We must completely abandon it, because as long as we are looking to live like the past we cannot strain toward the life God calls us to.
“What was behind” for Paul is laid out in verses four through seven. Paul’s former way of life was full of religion and ritual lived out to try to earn God’s favor. The problem? God doesn’t grade on a curve. He doesn’t consider our worthiness in relation to other people, but in relation to His own holy perfection. Scripture tells us that our righteous deeds are all like filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Thus, Paul could never be good enough or perform the rituals well enough to stand before our perfect God having earned His favor. Thus, Paul learned that it is only the grace of God applied to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus that has the power to make us worthy of God’s acceptance. Having left this old way of relating to the world and to God behind, Paul is dead set on never turning back to it.
How do we live this out though? What is behind for us? For many of us what’s behind is not all that unlike Paul’s background. Many of us grew up in various forms of legalism trying to earn God’s favor as well. Others most certainly did not. Others grew up in the world with no religion to speak of, living for the moment, and doing whatever would bring pleasure or dull the pain. Whatever your background is, Paul’s exhortation holds. We must all neglect our old way of living. We must give it over to oblivion and make a complete and clean break. The tendency to fall back into old habits and old ways of relating to God is strong for all of us. So what can we do to prevent it?
Warren Wiersbe pulls a helpful illustration from these verses. He says that Paul is conjuring the image of runners in a race who all of the sudden decide to look behind them as they run. Can you imagine the comical and disastrous scene that would unfold if all the runners in an Olympic race started looking behind them as they ran? They would all but certainly collide and fall all over each other. His point, of course, is that it is just as disastrous and silly when Christians try to strain forward to their high call in heaven as they look backwards at their old way of living life (Be Joyful, p. 108, 1974).
So how can we avoid looking back? We all know that Olympians must have a carefully controlled diet if they are to compete at peak performance. So too, Christians must control what they take in spiritually. The most helpful thing I have found in my own life is a steady diet of the Word of God. I must be careful to remind myself that when I read the Bible daily I am not doing so in order to somehow impress God, but rather I am doing it for myself. I need to daily look into the mirror (James 1:22-24) of God’s Word and be reminded of my own sinfulness, God’s grace, and His unending forgiveness. This alone has the power to kill the arrogance of self-righteous legalism, or the ongoing shame and guilt tied to my sin. So, daily read God’s Word for your own health, and remind yourself not to turn back to your old way of life. Remind yourself that Christ saved you from that empty way of living. You left it behind. Don’t look back. Don’t keep the artifacts and the relics of that old life around to trip you up.* Make a clean break and give your old way of living over to oblivion.
For further reading...
- James 1:22-24- God's Word is a mirror that we not only need to daily look into but we also need to act on what we see.
- Isaiah 64:6- ALl of our righteousness is like filthy rags before God.
- Luke 9:62- No one looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.
- I Corinthians 9:24-27- Do you not know that not all the runners in the race get a prize.
- Luke 14:33- Jesus asks for a clean break from our old life. He says that we must give up everything to become His disciple.
*Although there is no direct quote to be noted. Much of my thought in this last paragraph has been shaped by Paul David Tripp's book Dangerous Calling (2012). More specifically the idea that I need to daily read God's Word to be reminded of my own sin and be met with God's grace has been brought back to my attention by Tripp. Also, he applies the words "artifacts" and "relics" to refer to those holdovers of our pre-Christian selves that we find popping back up in our lives from time-to-time.