How the Past Holds Us Back

June 17th, 2011
Photo © Ulla Rose |

I’ve sometimes used Philippians 3:13-14 as a source of comfort when I’ve made mistakes. In the passage, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. (CEB)”

Anyone who’s done ministry for any length of time will likely own up to making a few mistakes along the way. Okay, for some of us, it’s more than a few. But when I’ve messed up, this scripture has helped me clear my head. It reminds me that the past is gone, and that the future depends on what I do right now. If I look at everything in those terms, I realize I don’t have a second to lose playing the “what if” game or getting caught up in regret mode. The Greek word translated forget, epilanthanomai, also means neglecting, no longer caring for, losing out of mind.

We’re not supposed to spend valuable time living in the past. We should literally neglect the obligation we feel to spend time worrying and beating ourselves up. Certainly we should right any wrongs we’ve done to anyone else-- I’m not advocating a callous “move on” attitude if we’ve run over others while doing ministry. We should make things right and get back on track as quickly as possible. When we make bad decisions or we aren’t as effective as we think we should be, overanalyzing the situation robs from us the ministry we could be doing now, and it robs the people we could be ministering to. A high school history teacher of mine was fond of quoting English poet Edward Young: “Procrastination is the thief of time.” Good point. And so is worrying.

Many of us can probably understand applying this passage to our failures, but what about our successes? It might sound crazy, but past success can hold back ministry as much as past failure. Sometimes we coast on past wins and forget to go beyond them, avoiding new risks entirely. We settle into a comfort zone of “if it ain’t broke...” We’re essentially paralyzed by our past victories, afraid to move forward because we don’t want to ruin our winning streak if we fail. Trying to live up to the things God did through us previously can sometimes be just as hard as living up to someone else’s achievements.

Paul’s remedy is simple: forget what happened in the past. Not forget in the sense of losing from memory altogether, but forget in the sense of putting it out of our minds. No athlete is going to win if they spend too much time gazing at trophies or looking at old scars.

The road to the future always begins with the present, not the past.


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