“Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” ( Philippians 3:13-14 NKJV).
Another year is coming to a close. Next week we will celebrate a new beginning, but we will also observe an ending. 2016 will be no more. Our relationship with the past is complex and often difficult. We find ourselves torn with conflicting needs, and advised by contradictory proverbs.
“Don’t dwell in the past.”
“Those who ignore the mistakes of history are condemned to repeat them.”
“Forgive and forget.”
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Which is it to be? Do we strive to record and remember all that we have done, or do we move on and treat the future (as it becomes the present) as the only meaningful time in our lives? The answer is certainly not simple. Perhaps it is best to recognize different categories of memory, and the various responses appropriate to each.
First, there is Paul’s personal commitment shared in the text at the beginning of this article. He made a serious effort to “forget those things which are behind.” But it is obvious that Paul remembered and valued much that was in his past, including his own mistakes (1 Timothy 1:12-13). When he remembered his previous sins, it was with recognition of the magnitude of God’s grace which bestowed forgiveness upon him. When he forgot the past, it was his own accomplishments that he put away, lest he rely on (or boast about) them rather than upon the power of Christ (Philippians 4:13).
Second, we are to forget the wrongs done to us by others, especially when the wrongdoer has expressed penitence and asked for forgiveness. Peter asked Jesus how many times he was obligated to forget the same offense (or offender), and Jesus replied “Up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). Most commentators observe that this number essentially means, “however many times he requests forgiveness.” There is no biblical justification for holding past sins against a brother or sister who has repented.
Third, we remember the blessings we have received and those from whom we have received them. Let us follow Paul’s example as expressed in these words, “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). All of us are indebted to others who have taught us, loved us, and provided good things for us. Many of these blessings were received earlier this year. We should never forget them.
Finally, there are the things of first importance which we are never to forget. Unlike the Hebrew Christians who were told, “You need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12), we should build upon those elementary principles which serve as the foundation of faith and life (Hebrews 6:1-3). Some of those we have learned long ago. Some may have been taught or reinforced within the past months. They are more than simple memories; they are ingrained in our being; part of who and what we are. We must never forget those eternal truths.