If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time you’ve discovered that I don’t have a lot of totally original thoughts. Something I come across in a book or article that I’m reading, or something I hear another person say or some topic the media is focusing on that week usually triggers the subject for the week. This week it was my pastor’s message that caused me to delve deeper into a passage of scripture that I must have read a few dozen times before. A couple years ago I even recall giving a sermon on Philippians 3:12-14 during a Sunday service at a nursing home that Sandy and I ministered at – but it took a much different direction. I guess that’s why the Bible is referred to as a living document – you can read the same passage on successive days and God can bring different aspects of the Word to life each time.
Excuse my paraphrasing, but here’s my understanding of the Apostle Paul’s declaration to the Philippian Christians, after hearing yesterday’s message:
I’ve got a long way to go before I’ll even come close to becoming the exact person that God wants me to be. That’s my goal, but I haven’t got there yet. Nevertheless, I continue pressing on, against all resistance, to reach it and make it mine. That’s what Jesus Christ wants me to do. He sees much more in me than I see in myself. That’s the reason He chose me in the first place. Brothers and sisters, I know that I still have a long way to go. But there is one thing I intend to do: I purpose in my heart to forget what is in my past and focus on those things in my life which are ahead. I intend to keep running hard toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God, in this present life and eventually in Heaven, through Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:12-14 [My paraphrase]
St. Paul is one person I really want to meet some day in eternity. I think we’d hit it off! He seems like he’s a real sports fan – as I am. He’s always using sports metaphors in his teachings. He uses archery terms, for example, when he defines sin – as in “missing the target.” And he often talks about strategy and execution toward winning long distance races. He does this clearly in his letters to his friend, the young pastor Timothy, and in his lengthy discourses to the Galatians and Corinthians. So when he refers to attaining the prize in the Philippians quote above, you know he’s referring back to that “running the race” metaphor. Starting strong is important in any competition, but finishing strong is even more important.
It’s interesting that so many college and professional football teams learned this lesson this past season. My own beloved Detroit Lions started strong. When they were leading their division with a 6 and 3 won/loss record, the local papers wrote articles on their chances of getting to the Super Bowl this year. Then they lost six of their last seven games. When the University of Alabama’s record stood at 11 and 0, ranked number one in the country, all the sports gurus expected them to once again waltz unimpeded into the NCAA championship game. Then they lost a last-second heart-breaker to Auburn in the SEC championship game, and got buried a few weeks later in their bowl game. Many other highly-ranked college teams lost to teams from weaker conferences this past New Year’s bowl season. Not only did these teams fail to finish strong – they began the New Year weak.
As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I think I finished 2013 strong. I had a pretty good year – from a creative stand-point, perhaps my best year ever, with books and other articles written, with graphics software learned and applied to create artistic works, and with my entry into the world of social media, etc. There’s always a temptation to rest on one’s laurels. But I’m expecting 2014 to be even better. With God’s help I expect to accomplish even greater works than these.
This is the message of Paul’s exhortation to his “brothers and sisters” in Philippi. There are four critical recommendations that we can draw from Paul’s declaration that will help each one of us enter the New Year strong: (1) focus on the right things; (2) forget the past; (3) look ahead and plan for the future; (4) press on – in the face of adversity.
(1) It’s so easy to focus on the wrong things – and even to be a success in the eyes of others in the process. But, if it’s not what we are called to do, we’ll never be happy or satisfied, in spite of the outward signs of worldly success. A couple weeks ago, I mentioned a friend of mine who recently resigned from a prominent civilian leadership position in the Army. Mike commanded the respect of one, two, three and four-star generals and Pentagon department secretaries, as well as soldiers on the ground and of his civilian peers and subordinates. With everyone’s blessing, he had every intention of continuing and advancing in this career field another four or five years. But for God! Mike felt led to go a different direction: one that would take him out of the limelight of public service and into outreach centers and soup kitchens; one that would take him back to school for five years – and prepare him to be a deacon; one that would take him into the unfamiliar soil of writing a book about the miracles in his life – subjecting him to the harsh world of artistic and theological critics. But he began the walk down that new path with a joy unspeakable. He adjusted the road he was on, so that he was headed toward his destiny.
(2) There are some things each one of us needs to forget. If you’ve read my book, Soaring above the Storm, you know that we have an enemy that doesn’t want us to forget anything in our past that had a negative impact on our lives. He keeps trying to remind us of every mistake we’ve ever made – and if we’re honest – that list is pretty long for most of us. Don’t fall into his trap. Don’t listen to the enemy’s words of condemnation. If you’ve asked God for His forgiveness, and truly repented of your mistakes and failures – trust that you’re clean. Forget the past and move on. To explain how God sees forgiven sins, the Bible paints the picture that His remembrance of them are “as far as the east is from the west.” In other words, God will never again recount them – so neither should you. My pastor says it a little more colorfully: “Correct stinking thinking!” In other words, live for an audience of One – God. Don’t listen to the devil or anyone else that echoes your past mistakes and failures.
(3) So what are we to think about, if not the past? Look ahead and plan for the future that you are destined for. Only you and God know what that is – though good counseling may be helpful. Wise King Solomon said it this way: “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”
(4) When you change directions in life – whether that’s a change in career, a lifestyle change, or a behavioral change – not everyone is going to pat you on the back and say, “Good for you, John!” Regardless, if you’re confident you’re heading toward your destiny – press on. There are bound to be obstacles: some obstacles will look like well-meaning friends and family; others will look like financial burdens or societal interferences. Turn those obstacles into stepping stones: learning experiences and opportunities to mature. Again quoting my pastor: “Don’t rehearse them or nurse them; traverse them!” Gosh, I wish I had come up with that phrase!
My focus has changed so much in the past twelve months. I look forward to the year of 2014 with renewed interest and excitement – to see what new opportunities and blessings God has planned for me, and what doors He intends to open. I suggest you approach the new year with the same sense of adventure.