Releasing the Past - Holy Amnesia
Releasing the Past—Holy Amnesia
There is holy amnesia and practicing it is one of the healthier ways to keep our souls growing.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Brothers, 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.
A leading women's magazine (McCall's, Oct. 1986) recently carried the story of a thirty-nine-year-old mother of four who suddenly suffered a splitting headache. Before she knew what had happened, she was undergoing surgery for a brain aneurism. The operation was successful but had an unusual side effect. Partial amnesia caused her to forget sixteen years of her life. In her mind, she was twenty-three, the mother of four small children. Can you imagine the courage and patience it took for her to overcome that kind of experience? She'd forgotten all those years of happiness and achievement. But isn't it interesting to realize that she had also forgotten the hardship and the regrets of those years, too?
Some of us might think it would be a blessing to forget some of the things that have happened to us. Wouldn't we like to forget some of the things that we've done, things we're not proud of, things that keep haunting us?
In a spiritual sense, the apostle Paul would agree, but he'd also probably say that we might be better off as Christians it we would forget some of our achievements, too.
Does that sound strange? Paul spoke of wishing for a sort of "holy" amnesia in which he would be able to forget both the guilt of past failures (that could paralyze him) and the pride of past achievements (that would hinder his pace in the spiritual "race" he was running). So what does Paul say? "Forgetting both things, I press on."
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul makes it quite clear that growing believers should confess a kind of holy discontent with their spiritual growth. Often we allow one of these two things to keep us from continued growth—either we are paralyzed by guilt from the past or we are content through the pride of our past achievements.
Think of one experience from your past that you feel guilty about. Just one. Most of us have many to choose from, but one is potent enough to keep us down. We may even believe that God has forgiven us, but we just can't forgive ourselves. Our memory becomes an enemy and slows our pace in the spiritual race. We're slowed to a crawl, as if we're having to drag this mighty weight behind us every step of the way. And yet we do this to ourselves.
Now think of one experience from your past that you are proud of. Just one. Most of us upstanding Christians have many to choose from, and this list is not one we'll usually hide. Pinned on our mental bulletin board, we have that list out front so we can remind ourselves again and again how upstanding we truly are. Yet believe it or not, even one of those experiences is as potent as a guilty memory in slowing us down on our way to that goal of Christian maturity. How? We're so busy patting ourselves on the back for how far we've already come that we aren't concentrating on what's still ahead. And we may be quite content with right where we are. Again, our memory becomes an enemy in our quest toward wholeness in Christ.
Paul knew these two kinds of memory were deadly to spiritual growth. And Paul's own life is a great example of the possible effects that both sides of this memory coin can have.
To Brag, or Not to Brag?
First, Paul certainly had a lot of accomplishments to brag about, didn't he? Religiously, he probably had as many bragging rights as anyone who ever lived. And yet he was the first to point to his spiritual imperfection. In fact, he uses the word "perfect" in a strange way to describe himself. As he put it, he has not been "made perfect."
What does that mean? As evangelicals, we believe that the work of Christ for us on the cross was a perfect work—but we must confess that the work of Christ in us through the Holy Spirit is an imperfect work in that it is not yet complete.
Why? It's not because Christ or the Spirit is imperfect, but because we are. Paul made that clear in his own life. He said, "It is not that I already obtained all of this, or have already been made perfect, brothers. I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it." So Paul confesses a discontent, a dissatisfaction with his own spiritual progress, even though his credentials were absolutely impeccable. A lesser person would have been sitting on his laurels.
Think about Paul's situation. Here was a man who by this time had suffered imprisonment for the cause of Christ, who had founded churches all over Asia and parts of Europe. Here was a man who'd written the letter to the Romans, the greatest treatise on Christian doctrine ever written. Yet he's saying he had not obtained perfection. He had not grasped the goal of the high calling of Christ. Like a child standing by the seashore with the waves lapping at his feet wondering what the entire ocean must be like, Paul feels discontented, wanting to see more.
But let's look at the rest of Paul's bragging rights. Even before his conversion, he had a great deal to brag about. He tells us of his blue-blood background, of his orthodox upbringing, of his perfect education, and his card-carrying membership in the very elite group called the Pharisees. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
Then after his conversion, he could have bragged how his family disowned him and his friends snubbed him. He had also suffered physically for the faith. He then continued down an unparalleled list of achievements as one of the greatest disciples of all time. Yet, he said, "I consider all of these things rubbish, that I might gain Christ. I press toward the mark for the prize."
Startling, isn't it? If we'd been put in prison for spreading the gospel, wouldn't it be somewhat difficult not to mention that sacrifice as quite a spiritual coup for us personally? How many of us wouldn't be proud if we had written Romans? Yet as Paul looked back on his entire Christian life, deliberately, fully, cautiously reflecting on it, he said, "I do not count myself to have apprehended the fullness of Christ." He had not achieved the maturity that a Christian ought to have.
Since he was writing to the Christians at Philippi about this situation, it's probably fair to guess that maybe some believers in that church were resting on their past achievements. Gnostics did believe that if a person kept the law of God perfectly, he or she could have absolute righteousness on earth—that spiritual perfection was possible on this side of the resurrection. And, of course, believing that, it would be only natural to keep quite a list of one's personal accomplishments, wouldn't it?
But are we that much different now? I have no doubt we know ourselves to be far from Christian perfection. Our difficulty may be that we haven't arrived—yet we're satisfied anyway. And smugness will remove us from the race toward spiritual growth faster than anything.
At the time of this writing Paul could easily have felt he had arrived. He had put in years and years of service. He could have pointed back to those early years of daring enterprise, those middle years of great responsibility, and sat back in smug satisfaction feeling retired with honor and distinction in Christian service. He could have had the attitude we see so often exemplified in the church today. But instead, he was making big plans. The impulse of his heart, the beat of his pulse was to get out of prison and take the gospel all the way to Spain. He literally wanted to march off the map before he ended his earthly life. Paul was never satisfied or seduced by his past accomplishments. He kept on pressing on.
Yet, if Paul had allowed it, his past could also have crippled him. Just as he had reason for pride in his heritage, he also had much in his past to be ashamed about too. The apostle could have been paralyzed with guilt. He had held the cloaks of those who had stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He could have cloaked himself with guilt the rest of his life for being an accomplice to that murder and many more. In his religious zeal to commit more murder in the name of religion, he had made it his duty to hunt down Christians. According to the Book of Acts, Paul at that time was like a wild beast stalking and slaughtering the believers. Can you imagine the way he must have felt when he finally became one of those believers himself? Think of it
Not too long ago, a news story told of a forty-year-old man who, because of his overprotective parents, had never been outside the house in which he was born. His parents died, and for four years relatives had brought milk and cheese snacks into the single room in which he lived. Finally someone reported the man's situation to the authorities. When he was taken from the house, they found that his muscles had atrophied. He was so crippled that he couldn't move.
The parallel is easy to see. Paul would testify that there can be a spiritual crippling that can have just as dire consequences over a long period of time. If we give ourselves over to our guilt, punishing ourselves over the years, beating ourselves down, then we will certainly cripple any future effective service. Whatever our mistake—a moment of irresponsibility or immorality or greed committed a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago—if we do not allow the grace of God to cover it and unshackle us from it, we'll certainly become spiritual cripples. And we will never be able to effectively "press on toward the mark of the high calling" of Christian living. Paul was somehow able to do it and we are still benefiting from the results of his effort.
But I can almost hear you saying: "Paul being able to do it is quite a different matter than my being able to do it." Is it really possible for people like us to forget as Paul suggests? Can we control the past instead of letting the past control us?
Good questions. And the answer to both is yes. There is a way to be in control.
The solution lies in understanding this idea of a "holy" amnesia. Consider how Paul did it. In his explanation to the Philippians, he in essence keeps saying over and over, "This one thing I do, this one thing... I may be writing epistles and I may be founding churches, but I am really doing one thing. I am straining toward the goal of winning Christ that I might know Him in the fullness of the mystery of all He is."
And Paul went after that priority with characteristic intensity. He says, "I press on..." What does that mean? It literally means, I hunt, I chase, I run after this one thing.
How did Paul overcome his past? By the power that focusing on one single priority gave him. Concentration, strangely enough, actually releases power in our lives. Paul didn't suffer from what someone called the "modern psychosis of fragmentation," of thinking that life consists of taking on more and more totally unrelated activities. Anyone who's ever watched what the power of harnessed water can do in making hydroelectric power understands the power of concentration. When we harness that priority and intensity, when we can say that whatever I'm doing I'm doing it for the solitary reason of "winning" Christ as Paul puts it, then we embrace the absolute answer to striving for what lies ahead instead of being a slave to what has been behind.
Such focusing of priority is what kept Paul going, planning, striving—full of energy and life. Not long ago I read a study of Nobel Laureates, those distinguished men and women who have won one of the highest prizes our society offers for achievement. One single trait was noticed in all of them. They didn't stop doing what they were doing because they had won a Nobel prize. In fact, none of them even broke stride. It was characteristic of all of them that they continued pursuing the excellence that haunted them all the previous days of their lives. When Bishop Desmond Tutu was given his Nobel Peace Prize for his work in South Africa, he responded by risking his life as never before in the cause for racial justice. When Carlo Rubbia was given the award for physics, he went straight back to his laboratory and his calculations at Harvard.
When Bruce Merrifield of Rockefeller University received the Nobel prize in chemistry, he simply stepped on the elevator and went back up to the laboratory where he had spent twenty-five years. "It was the worst thing that happened to me," one prizewinner said. "I didn't get any work done the whole year." These great men and women have a sense that what they are doing is more a race than a destination, more a battle than an armistice to be signed. They were focused; they had goals and each strove to reach that goal.
Straining for the Goal
How can any of us live that way? We can, because as Paul put it, we are straining to reach a goal. It was Paul's continuous, persistent goal to strain forward toward that which was ahead. The word comes right out of the athletic world. It refers to a runner whose body is bent over, hands stretched out, head straining forward, eyes riveted on the goal, never daring to look back. How could anyone do that without energy and enthusiasm? That goal is the runner's vital priority. There's nothing casual in this word picture.
In fact, Paul could not imagine a casual commitment to Christ. We can have a casual commitment to an athletic club or a country club or a civic club, but not to our faith. To be focused, to experience that intensity of "pressing on," there can be no casual-ness in thought or action.
In Colorado Springs there is an institute called The Olympic Athletic Training Center. There they train elite athletes, gathering the thirty greatest track and field athletes in the United States and subjecting them, both men and women, to intense, rigid scrutiny. They are photographed at 2,000 frames a second; their every breath is measured. Coaches even count every heart beat, watch every move the athletes make, searching for the tiniest flaw, hoping to gain one hundredth of a second in a performance time. Here are people who are willing to submit to arduous training to help them reach the mark in the shortest possible time. They will strain for it with all their might.
Why does our society associate that kind of intensity almost exclusively with athletic achievements and goals? Paul went after the Christian life with that kind of intensity, and expected everyone else to do the same. If there is the slightest flaw in my technique, he says, if there is the smallest fault in my pace, I want to correct it, for I've fixed my eye on the goal. I'm living in the now, forgetting the past so that I press on toward the future.
Sometimes it seems that we are saving ourselves for something. But what would it be? Life number two?
Great herds of caribou, 400,000 strong, leave one part of northeastern Canada every year and by instinct make their way across barren land and rushing rivers all the way from Labrador to Hudson Bay to reach their winter grazing grounds. Those people who have seen it say it is one of the awesome spectacles in the natural world. Last year, though, an unusual thing happened. The huge herd of caribou came to one of the great rivers of Canada and found it swollen over its banks. To swim it was to court almost certain death. Instead of turning back or trying a more indirect route, the whole herd plunged straight ahead toward their goal. Over 9,000 didn't make it across. Their bodies were a mute testimony to the inner drive moving the 400,000 toward their goal. They would allow nothing to keep them from reaching the mark.
Paul writes in Philippians that every believer who has encountered the Lord Jesus Christ has been given an indwelling instinct, however we may have muted it. However weak the voice may be from years of neglect, it still calls us upward and onward toward that goal. We can forget the past—the good and the bad, so it will not make us stumble. And we can focus on that intense priority of the high calling of Christ that keeps us keeping on. There is a holy amnesia and practicing it is one of the healthier ways to keep our souls growing.
Growing Pains of the Soul.