By Pastor Glenn Pease
Well over a hundred years ago a young man ran for the legislature in Illinois, and he was badly defeated. He then entered business and failed, and he spent the next 17 years paying off the debts of a worthless partner. He fell in love with a beautiful girl and was engaged to be married. But she died before the wedding. He then entered politics again and ran for congress, but he lost again. He tried to get an appointment to the U. S. land office, but he did not succeed. He then became a candidate for the U. S. Senate, but he lost. He then became candidate for Vice President of United States, but again it was defeat. Defeat after defeat, and failure after failure led this man where? To skid row? Not at all, but instead Abraham Lincoln pressed on to become one of America's greatest Presidents, and one of the greatest examples of the truth that failure need not be final.
The Apostle Paul is the great biblical example of this truth. He writes to the Philippians from prison where he is suffering for his testimony, and for which he has suffered a great deal before. But we do not find him discouraged and writing with a complaining spirit. On the contrary, we find him expressing the most optimistic philosophy of life. It is a philosophy especially worthy of our consideration as we begin a new year. We want to consider 3 aspects that are brought out in verses 13 and 14.
I. HIS ATTITUDE TOWARD THE PAST.
Paul pictured the Christian life as a race, and here he thinks of himself well on the way down the track. He says he is not concerned about the ground he has covered. He is concentrating on the ground ahead yet to be covered. "I forget the past," said Paul. "If I made a poor start or had a bad stumble on the third lap, that is past, and this is no time for regrets, for I have to keep pressing on." All of us can look back with some disappointment on past failures, goals not reached, or opportunities neglected. Paul could have easily made his dungeon a tomb of despair rather than a temple of delight if he had not learned the Christian virtue of forgetfulness of what God has forgiven.
He could have remembered how he persecuted the Christians, and of how he stood by and watched his fellow Jews stone Stephen to death. But why should he dig up and remember what God has buried and forgotten? Concentration on past failures is a sure way to produce more. A runner who cannot forget his mistake on his takeoff will not be concentrating on the goal to be reached. If you harp on the bitter strings of the past, you can expect nothing but sad music in the present. The mature Christian follows the Apostle Paul, and he strums the strings of the yet faultless future, which vibrate with notes of gladness and hope. You may have failed yesterday, but you haven't failed tomorrow, and by the grace of God there is hope that you will not do so.
Satan's greatest delight is to keep God's children conscience of their sin-splattered past that they might concentrate more on the adamic muck of their old nature, and neglect their new nature in Christ. Many Christians dwell on the slough of despond because they cannot forget the past. Martin Luther had an awful time with this. Satan constantly reminded him of his sinful past that left him depressed. He even threw an inkwell at Satan once because he felt his presence so strongly. He never gained victory until he relied on the fact that the blood of Christ cleansed him from all his sin. It is reported that when Satan tempted him after that Luther said, "That is not all. There is this and this also, but Christ has forgiven and saved me."
God forbid that any Christian start the New Year with the weight of past sins. Lay aside the weights and sins, which so easily beset us, and run the race that is set before us. Confess to God and claim His promise of forgiveness. The forget it and press on. The Christian is never to make light of sin, but neither is he to make a weight of it. Lots wife could not forget the past, and the result was she let the past dominate the present and eliminate the future. She became salt for her folly, and the Christian who follows her example will lose their salt and no longer be effective as a servant of God.
Leslie Weatherhead said he visited an orchard and saw a plum tree that had fallen in a storm. He asked the owner what he did with it now. He replied, "I gather the fruit and burn the tree." That was Paul's attitude toward the past. You can learn from past failure, but you don't live with it. You gather the fruit and burn the tree.
II. HIS AIM TOWARD THE FUTURE.
Paul diverts his attention from the past that he might direct it to the future. The word here for reaching forth is used of a runner straining with his chest out to cross the finish line. Paul admits he has not yet attained to perfection, but he is aiming toward it, and he makes that the goal of his life. Paul has been in the race for a long time, and he is coming near the end, but he does not level off and think of retiring before the race ends. There is no such thing as retirement from the Christian race according to Paul. The goal is ever before us, and that is to be the primary motivating factor in our lives.
In 1838 a man resigned from the U. S. Patent Office because as he said in his letter of resignation, which is still on file in the Hall of Archives in Washington, "There is no future in the Patent Office. All the great inventions have been accomplished." In contrast Henry Ford once said, "We, here in this nation, are just beginning! We have the whole of eternity before us. What we have done in invention and industry is just a drop in the bucket. Our real future is ahead of us. I have faith in the future. The result is that he kept pressing on to what was ever new and greater inventions.
When a man loses his ideals, he is no longer pressing on, but beginning to fall back. Sinclair Lewis in Main Street pictured a young man who came back to a small town from college with great ideals. After a year he was going to the office unshaven, and in another year he didn't care if his shirt was dirty or clean. In 3 or 4 years he walked slumped and slouched. He had started out as a lawyer with ideals, but he ended with only deals. He lost faith in himself and in the future, and he quite trying to attain ideals. He settled for the shabby real. Paul says I have not yet attained but I press on. Those who lose their ideals say, I have not attained, and so I quit. Someone said, "The kingdom of God will be brought in by Christians who, when last seen, were heading toward the summit.
Press on! Surmount the rocky steeps,
Climb boldly o'er the torrent's arch;
He fails alone who feebly creeps,
He wins who dares the hero's march.
There is tremendous power in singleness of purpose. Many times people risk their life in a daring effort to save someone by doing what they could never do under normal circumstance. The crisis causes them to concentrate all their energies toward one objective, and with singleness of purpose they drive toward the goal. Mothers have been known to lift a car off the road to pull a child free.
Such goals can only be reached when all of one's energies is concentrated on that goal. That was the source of Paul's power, and it will be the source of ours for the coming year. It is singleness of purpose. Get your eye on the goal and do not let anything divert your attention from it, and the future will be as bright as the promises of God.
Paul was aiming toward the mark of Christian perfection. He was not yet perfect, and Paul knew he never would be until he saw his Savior face to face, and that would be the prize. In other words, there is a distinction here between the mark and the prize. The mark is to be like Christ, and the prize is to be with Christ. Holiness is our goal, and heaven is our prize. The distinction is important because many are confused by thinking that the aim of life is to get to heaven. This is like a runner who thinks that the first one to get to the trophy is the winner instead of the first one to break the marker at the finish line. This would make his task complicated and uncertain if he did not know exactly where the prize was. For those who aim for heaven there is even more uncertainty, for how does one aim for heaven? Our aim is to be like Christ, and heaven then is the reward.
There is a principle here that holds true in many teachings of Scripture. Happy are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Righteousness is the goal and happiness is the prize. If we seek the prize instead of the goal we will miss both, but if we strive for the goal we will get both. The world tries to get the prize, such as happiness, but they ignore the goal needed to be reached, and so they are like the runner who leaves the track to look for the trophy.
The ancient Egyptians had a prize-centered focus rather than a goal centered focus as Christianity has. Before you died you had opportunity to buy a magic formula from the priest that would get you into heaven. They knew their human heart was evil, and their concept of judgment was that their god would require their heart to speak all it knew about you. They knew that no one would ever make it, and so they devised a system of magic that could make your heart lie for you. It would deceive the god and get you into heaven. They had no goal of being worthy because all they wanted was the prize.
We find this in students in terms of their motivation. One student loves knowledge and learns in order to know, and when he gains knowledge the prize comes with it, for the prize is the joy of knowing. The other kind of student studies only for the prize and what he can get out of it. If it will not make him richer, he will not bother to learn it. This is the strictly self-centered point of view, and when it is cared over into one's religious aim it results in people who have no interest in being like Christ, but who only want God's blessings. They want the prize without reaching the goal. All of us are in danger of aiming for the prize instead of the goal, and so we need to make a conscience effort to be like Paul and aim toward Christ likeness.
III. HIS ACTION IN THE PRESENT.
There is no point in forgetting the past and aiming toward the future if one does not do something in the present. Paul says with part of the track behind and part of the track ahead, I press on. On the tombstone of a man killed while trying to reach a peak in the Alps are the words, "He died climbing." This could be Paul's epitaph. Ask Paul at any time what he is doing and will say, "I am pressing on." This should be our motto all through the year. Paul was a great Christian because he specialized in being like Christ. He did not say, these 40 things I dabble at, but this one thing I do. Paul was a specialist.
It is common knowledge that specializing is the trend in our society. Reality is so complex and time is so short in any one life that without specialization man would practically be at a stand still in their growth in knowledge. None of us can know all things and be all things. We need to focus on being like Christ in our realm of life. Students must be specialists as Christian students. Mothers and fathers need to specialize in being Christ like as mothers and fathers. All workers must specialize in being Christ like in their jobs.
Paul's stress is on his personal responsibility when he says this one thing I do. Paul either does it, or it will not be done. In verse 12 he says, "I follow after and I try to apprehend that for which I am apprehended by Christ." The point is, Jesus has already saved him and opened up the opportunity to be in the race. It is no longer up to Jesus to determine how you run it. It is up to you. Jesus has done his part, and now it is up to each runner to run the race. How far and how fast is a personal decision. Whether you make progress or not is not determined by God, but by you. Some will say they will press on, but others will just not do it. You cannot blame God or anyone else. A. W. Tozer said, "I have preached for years to some people who still have bad dispositional flaws. In addition they have moral weaknesses, and suffer frequent defeats. They have a dulled understanding and often live far below the standard of Scripture and thus outside the will of God." What was true for him is true in every church. Millions of Christians are content to level off and stop climbing. But thank God that every church also has those who are pressing on.
The greatest improvement any of us can make in our lives is to concentrate on being like Christ in all that we do. We cannot be just like Paul, but we can have Paul's philosophy of life, and we can give heed to it by forgetting the past, being faithful in the present, and pressing on into the future to reap the fruit of such faithfulness.