By Luke Holmes
I didn’t get nervous until I saw cars begin to pile up behind me. There wasn’t a wreck, but they were getting anxious and waiting for me to go at the stop sign.
The problem was I was 15 and my dad was teaching me to drive a standard transmission for the first time.
I had already killed it a couple of times at the stop sign. Then as cars came in behind me I got more nervous as I watched them in my rearview mirror.
The road was open in front of me, but what behind me was what I was focused on.
Staring too much at the past can make us lose sight of what’s ahead. That’s not only true in driver’s ed; but also it’s true in the Christian life and in leadership. It’s very easy to focus on the past.
One of the most well-known passages in the New Testament tells us why we should forget what’s behind, look to what’s ahead, and not spend any time looking around.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul has plenty of memorable statements. One that stands out to me is Philippians 3:13-14. Many a sermon has been written about these verses, and rightly so.
Paul writes that he doesn’t claim to have everything figured out, or to have arrived at his prize, but instead aims to have a simple focus on Christ.
He describes his focus by telling us how he plans to focus on Christ. He aims to forget what is behind, strain towards what is ahead, and press heavenward in Christ Jesus.
In this passage Paul gives three directions, but curiously leaves one out.
He has already talked about his willingness to let go of the past. Paul doesn’t spend time focused on the rearview mirror.
Paul had accomplished great things in his past. He was an educated Pharisee, of the tribe of Benjamin, and blameless before the law, but was willing to let go of all those things to follow Christ.
He also says that he counts all those things as worthless compared to knowing Christ—not only his accomplishments, but his great sin as well.
Paul was a persecutor of the church, the chief of all sinners, and stood silent at the death of Stephen.
He was leaving these sins and these accomplishments in the past, “letting go of what is behind” him so that he can grab onto the future.
Paul also had a singular determination on the future, most simply expressed by his statement “to die is gain.” His grasp on the present was loose, for he longed to be in heaven with Christ.
To be absent in the body, Paul writes, is to be present with God. He longed for the future when he was set free from the wretched body of his death.
He anticipated a day when he would no longer see through a glass dimly, but would see face to face.
Paul knew a time was coming when he would no longer know in part, but be known in full. His preaching was driven by his belief that Christ would return, that Christ crucified would be the only claim that could stand up on that day.
Paul longed for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. To be called into heaven is what he wanted the most. Living his life in such a way as to win the prize, Paul worked so that he could receive the crown when it was his time.
Heaven was no pie-in-the-sky place for Paul, but a place where he could rest, where he would be in the presence of Christ, and where he could worship Christ forever.
Paul was focused on what was in front of him, and on the call of Christ upward in his life.
Paul is driven to forget what’s behind, focus on what’s ahead, and work for the call upward in Christ. Three directions, three pushes. Curiously absent from Paul is the one direction that most of us spend our time looking: around.
Almost all of our time is spent on looking around us and seeing what others are doing. A scroll through social media makes us envious of what others have that we don’t. You and I are too often consumed by the present.
At times in the New Testament, he even seems to have nothing more than a loose grasp on the present because circumstances meant nothing to Paul.
He sings hymns in jail with Silas and writes of being anxious for nothing to the church in Philippi as he sits in prison.
He even says famously in the next chapter that it doesn’t matter where he is, he has learned to be content.
Like Paul we need to learn to let go of the present and focus on the future. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the good gifts from God. It means that the present doesn’t define us. We’re more than what our current circumstances say we are.
We aren’t defined by our past failures. We need to follow the example of Paul and let go of the past, look toward the future, and press upward for the call of God in Christ Jesus.
When we focus on the circumstances around us we lose sight of the promise of God in our future. No matter what situation you find yourself in you can be confident that God has a plan for your life and your leadership.
We can’t see God’s promise for our future if we’re constantly looking behind us and around us. We need to keep our hearts set on the upward call of God in Christ Jesus so our hands and feet will work for that, too.
No matter how dark the circumstances are around you, every Christian—every church leader—has a future that is brighter than we can imagine.
LUKE HOLMES (@lukeholmes) is husband to Sara, father to three young girls, and pastor at First Baptist Church Tishomingo, Oklahoma since 2011. He’s a graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and can be found online at LukeAHolmes.com.