Questions From Readers
What did the apostle Paul mean when he said that he was “forgetting the things behind and stretching forward to the things ahead”? (Philippians 3:13) Can a person deliberately forget something?
No, in most cases we cannot deliberately remove a memory from our mind. The fact is, we forget much that we would like to remember and remember many things that we would sooner forget. What, then, did Paul mean when he penned the words of Philippians 3:13? The context helps us to understand.
In Philippians chapter 3, Paul describes his “grounds for confidence . . . in the flesh.” He speaks of his impeccable Jewish background and his zeal for the Law—things that could have given him many advantages in the nation of Israel. (Philippians 3:4-6; Acts 22:3-5) Still, he turned his back on such advantages, writing them off as a loss, as it were. Why? Because he had found something better—“the excelling value of the knowledge of Christ Jesus.”—Philippians 3:7, 8.
Paul’s major goal was to attain, not a position in this world, but “the earlier resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:11, 12) Thus, he writes: “Forgetting the things behind and stretching forward to the things ahead, I am pursuing down toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God by means of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13, 14) When Paul said that he was “forgetting the things behind,” he did not mean that he had somehow erased “the things behind” from his mind. He evidently still remembered them, since he had just listed them. Besides, in the original Greek, he uses a form of the verb indicating an action in progress, not completed. He says “forgetting,” not “having forgotten.”
The Greek word translated “forget” (e·pi·lan·thaʹno·mai) has different shades of meaning, one of which is “be unconcerned about,” or “neglect.” According to the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (edited by Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider), this is what “forgetting” means at Philippians 3:13. Paul did not constantly think of the things he had given up. He had learned to view them as of little concern. They were as “a lot of refuse” compared with the heavenly hope.—Philippians 3:8.
How can Paul’s words apply today? Well, a Christian may, like Paul, have made sacrifices to serve God. He may have given up a lucrative career for the full-time service. Or he may belong to a wealthy family that has cut him off financially because they disapprove of the truth. Such sacrifices are commendable, but they are not something to be constantly dwelt on. A Christian ‘forgets,’ ceases to be concerned about, “the things behind” in view of the glorious future that awaits him.—Luke 9:62.
The principle behind Paul’s words can perhaps be applied in another way. What of a Christian who engaged in wrong conduct before learning about God? (Colossians 3:5-7) Or suppose that after becoming a Christian, he committed a serious sin and was disciplined by the congregation. (2 Corinthians 7:8-13; James 5:15-20) Well, if he is truly repentant and has changed his ways, he has been “washed clean.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) What happened is past. He may never literally forget what he did—indeed, he would be wise to learn from the experience so as not to repeat the sin. Still, he ‘forgets’ in the sense of not constantly berating himself. (Compare Isaiah 65:17.) Having been forgiven on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, he strives to put the past behind him.
At Philippians 3:13, 14, Paul describes himself as a runner in a race, “stretching forward” to reach the goal. A runner looks forward, not back. Likewise, a Christian should look to the blessings ahead, not to the things left behind. Paul also says: “If you are mentally inclined otherwise in any respect, God will reveal the above attitude to you.” (Philippians 3:15) Hence, pray to God to help you cultivate this point of view. Fill your mind with God’s thoughts as found in the Bible. (Philippians 4:6-9) Meditate on Jehovah’s love for you and on the blessings you enjoy because of it. (1 John 4:9, 10, 17-19) Then, through holy spirit Jehovah will help you not to be concerned about what you left behind. Rather, like Paul, you will look to the glorious future ahead.—Philippians 3:17.