I do not consider myself to have “arrived” spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping even more firmly that purpose for which Christ Jesus grasped me. I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal… — Philippians 3:12-13, JB Phillips
That’s what happened to me. I was walking backwards, lugging a heavy wheelbarrow load of rock and rubble away from one of my many home improvement projects, when I stumbled over an unseen piece of lumber. As I started to fall, my first thought was to set the wheelbarrow down without dumping it on myself. I did that and then fell hard, half catching myself by putting my arm back, which was a mistake. Besides ending up with a bruised backside, I managed to separate my shoulder. At least I was spared injury to my ego… I looked around, and no one had seen me fall.
This past weekend I was watching one of the NFL playoff games — San Francisco, maybe — when late in the game a receiver caught a pass and broke free of the defense. There was nothing between him and the goal line but beautiful green grass. He tucked the ball away and ran hard, then swiveled his head to see who was pursuing him… and tripped over his feet, crashing to the ground on the 30 yard line, on national TV.
I felt like I spent a lot of time over the holidays looking backwards. We all do that, to some degree. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are celebrated with heavy doses of nostalgia. We carefully repeat rituals we have practiced since we were kids, we watch old movies and sing ancient songs, and as we gather together with friends and family, our thoughts go to those who are missing because they couldn’t make it home for the holidays, or perhaps because they are no longer part of our lives.
We look backwards at such times, wistfully, perhaps thinking of better days or wishing for things that can never be again.
The word nostalgia was originally coined to describe the pain that comes from longing for home — literally home-sickness. Nostalgia in the modern sense, that certain wistfulness about the past, isn’t a sickness. I think it’s a very human emotion rooted in a deep love for familiar places and people. But like most things, nostalgia can become harmful in the extreme. We were meant to go through life facing forward, but some of us seem more comfortable walking backwards.
Paul brings this up at the end of Philippians 3:13, where he says he has left the past behind, has turned, and is now stretching forward towards the goal Christ has set before him. The key Greek verb Paul uses in that phrase “leave behind” is epilanthanomai, which means to forget, to put out of mind, or to hide something away from view. What sort of “past” was Paul thinking of, that needed to be hidden away?
We know from what is said about him in Acts that Paul gained a reputation as a zealous young man who was actively engaged in bringing Christians before the religious authorities for punishment. He later regretted his role in persecuting Christians; his about face from Christ-persecutor to Christ-follower meant severing friendships with people who now viewed him as an enemy of traditional Judaism.
We all have a past. There are embarrassing things there, painful things, regrettable things, awful things. We can’t literally forget the past, nor can we go back in time and change events we wish had never happened. But what we can do is move on. We can leave our past in the past, to use Paul’s phrase, trusting in the grace and renewal offered to us in Christ to put all of that behind us.
The Scriptures are filled with invitations to turn around, to repent, to make the correction of thinking and action needed to bring us back into agreement with God. This concept of repentance necessarily assumes that we were once headed in the wrong direction. If we repent, it means there are regrettable things we have needed to repent from. Paul encourages us to leave those things in the past, along with the guilt and shame they may have brought us.
So, we walk backwards at times because we find it difficult to forgive ourselves, or because there is something back there so awful that it won’t let us go. If Christ truly is the healer the Scriptures claim he is, walking forwards towards him is our best hope of being set free from bondage to the past.
Or, we might be walking backwards because our present circumstances suck, and the past seems to offer a refuge from the present. Looking backwards can become an escape from the unpleasant realities of broken relationships, intolerable circumstances, whatever it is that makes the present seem unbearable.
Paul would have understood. He talks about grasping for the purpose Christ has for him, but it’s clear from the way he writes that he hasn’t yet gotten there. He is living in tension; his life is a struggle. His former life was quite comfortable. He had attained a high place in his community. Paul threw all that away when he came to Christ, and traded security and respect for a life of uncertainty, struggle, deprivation and pain.
I’ve written often about my struggles with depression. I think one factor in my own experience with depression, in the cyclical nature of depression, is that the past has a hold on me. I find I have developed habits of mind that can spin me around mid-stride, and before I know it I’m walking backwards, again. I have no control over the attraction of the past, but I have some control over the direction of my gaze, and of my steps.
Paul’s formula, if you can call it that, isn’t sophisticated. He simply chooses to turn his back on the past and walk away. But he isn’t so much fleeing his past as he is running towards his Savior. His focus is on Christ, and perhaps it is that single-minded determination to stay focused on the goal, to keep his eyes on Jesus, that causes the past to lose its grip.
Perhaps that’s the key for us all.