(…continued) This difference between looking back or looking forward is the very thing that the apostle Paul describes in Philippians chapter three. Beginning with verse four Paul describes all the things in his past that molded him into the faithful Jew he had become: he was born into the people of Israel, he was circumcised on the eighth day according to tradition, he was an expert in the law, enthusiastically faithful, and faultless in his righteousness according to the Jewish legal requirements.
But now, Paul says in verse seven, he is glad to forget about all that for the sake of knowing Jesus. What is more, (verse eight) he would gladly give up all in the past, “considering everything a loss,” in exchange for the greatness of knowing Christ as Lord and Savior. Then, in verses ten through twelve, he is completely future oriented, saying, “I want to know Christ, I want to become like him, and I want to attain the resurrection from the dead, pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” This forward looking, future oriented approach is made even more clear in next two verses where he says, “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.”
Paul had been proud of his past. It was, in fact, his proud religious heritage that made him persecute the Christians who he believed posed a threat to his traditions. But then Jesus appeared to Paul, and Paul became a believer. Now Paul would live for Jesus and the future hope of seeing him again. Now, everything Paul would do would be done with this future goal in mind, this heavenward call and promise of Christ Jesus. So, says verse eight, he will gladly give up all things here on earth for that future hope. He will gladly give up even life itself to proclaim and live for that promise, because as he says in Romans 14:8, whether we live or die we belong to the Lord.
The stories men and women tell of time spent in the most desperate circumstances all point to the same truth– people can endure almost anything if they have at least a shred of hope for the future. Jews in concentration camps, prisoners of war, and political prisoners held in solitary confinement, all have been able to endure years of hunger, mistreatment, and even torture, if only they were able keep alive the hope of a future release and a return to their homes and families and freedom. But without that hope, the spirit dies and the body withers and fails. People who find themselves together in those types of situations are often from a wide variety of backgrounds; but the determining factor for their survival was not their past, but what they hoped for in the future. If they believed all they had to look forward to for the rest of their life was to die in that miserable prison, they had every reason to give up; and if they did, they died. But if they were able to keep alive the hope that there would be a better life ahead, they would find the strength persevere, and were far more likely to survive.
Most people do not have to live in such terrible conditions, but even the best of lives are far from ideal, filled with anxieties and troubles galore; and all to what end? Remove our Christian hope and there is not much to look forward to in the long run. But with this Christian hope, every day can be lived to its fullest. To feel you must greedily grab all you can out of life because this is all there is, becomes a desperate way to live. But if this life is only the opening act of a much longer play, we can be more able to, as the old saying goes, “Let go and let God.”
It is a rather unusual historical fact that the African-American slaves so readily took to the religion of their white owners and masters. Even in the midst of the worst cruelty, the slaves did not despise, but rather embraced the religion of their tormentors. This is not what you would expect. But the slaves saw in Jesus one who was himself oppressed, and who endured his sufferings with courage and strength; and could do so because he had his hope set on the future. “In a little while you won’t see me,” he told the disciples, which is a fact of life. In a little while none of us will see each other at all. “But,” said Jesus, “then in a little while you will see me again.” There was that future hope that changed everything. There were 400 years of slavery in the South, and for all those generations of slaves this world offered little hope. But Jesus gave them, and us, a future hope that can shape and influence and determine every part of this life.
Philippians 3:12-14 — Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have yet made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Almighty God, draw our hearts to you, guide our minds, fill our imaginations, control our wills, so that we may be wholly yours. Use us as you will, always to your glory and the welfare of your people. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg, 1978