I went for a bit of a run this morning. This is a big deal because I haven’t run in a long time. Not even a little bit. But this morning I stepped out the door for my occasional walk and turned it into a partial run. My legs were hesitant but game for the challenge, my skin enjoyed the feel of the cool air, and my lungs raced for the nearest complaint desk to register their grievances with management.
I used to be an avid runner. I was one of those lunatics who would roll out of bed before the crack of dawn, year-round, regardless of withering heat and humidity or freezing temperatures, and go for a morning run. Three or four weekdays and every Saturday I logged modest miles on roads and trails, and I loved it. My goals were to maintain a certain level of fitness and to control my cholesterol. To encourage myself to go for a run when it was tough my mantra was, “What will I regret more?” I knew that I would regret not going for the run more than I would regret crawling out from my cozy bed.
And yet, a few years ago I gradually stopped running. There are a number of reasons why, but basically, I lost sight of my goals. I still have all the clothing and gear I’ll need to resume my routine. As a reminder of past achievements my race medals hang on the bedroom wall right where I can see them every day. There are seven of them: six half-marathons and one full. (These are just finishing medals—I was only a “regular runner,” not a winner of races.)
I regret allowing my running routine to fall away. My fitness and my cholesterol levels testify to the fact that however much I ran in years past, those miles are not helping me now. If I’m to resume the pursuit of my goals, wearing the old medals won’t help me. I need to lace up and rejoin the race.
And yet, as a Christian, my regret over running pales in comparison to a greater regret that I hope to avoid. The apostle Paul spells this out in his letter to the believers in Philippi.
Forgetting What Lies Behind
In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul describes the intensity of his pursuit of Christ in athletic terms that ring true to any runner:
But 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 upward call of God in Christ Jesus. —Philippians 3:13b–14
Paul doesn’t want to get to the end of his life and face the regret that he didn’t give his all in his pursuit of Christ, so he strains forward and presses on toward his goal. But what does he mean by “forgetting what lies behind”?
Paul doesn’t mean that he scorns the memories of what God has done in and through him. The book of Acts, inspired by the same Spirit who moved Paul to write Philippians, is not only a written history of the early church, but a glorious record—worth remembering—of how the Lord used Paul and the rest of the apostles to “be his witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Moreover, many of Paul’s epistles begin with the good news of what God has done for us in Christ as the basis for how we are therefore, to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called” (Eph. 4:1). Even here in Philippians, only three verses after writing that he forgets what lies behind, Paul urges us to “hold true to what we have attained” (3:16). So, he isn’t suggesting that we’re to be a squad of amnesiac athletes as we run toward the goal set before us. What he means is that he’s not resting on his past accomplishments and expecting to coast into holiness based on them; and neither should we.
Focus on the Goal
Paul’s goal was to know and to be like Christ, as he detailed earlier:
. . . I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death—Philippians 3:8–10
Paul was utterly captivated by his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. From the moment he encountered him on the road to Damascus his entire life was changed, and for Paul, there was no going back. His all-consuming purpose in life was to know Christ, to become like him, and to make him known; everything else that he formerly held as important was gladly discarded as rubbish. He knew that this would not only be a lifelong pursuit, but an attainable one, because Christ Jesus had taken the initiative and made him his own (3:12).
Well, now, that’s all very well and good for the apostle Paul, but what about “regular Christians” like you and me?
As for Paul, Christlikeness is attainable for us because Christ has made us his own. And because we belong to Christ, there is nothing “regular” about us. If we are in Christ, we are filled with his Holy Spirit. As we behold him in the Scriptures through the lens of faith, his beauty and desirability capture our hearts and minds and bid us to draw closer. We aren’t called to grow in holiness on our own. Paul assures us that God himself will complete the good work that he began in us and bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (1:6). Throughout our lives, as we work out our salvation, God is working in us to give us the desire and the ability to grow in holiness (2:12–13). Therefore we too can press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The most recent medal hanging on my wall is from a half-marathon I ran almost three years ago. It would be ridiculous for me to take that medal off its hook and wear it around. Because I haven’t continued to press on in my regular running routine, I could no more run a Half-Marathon today than I could fly to the moon.
Thanks be to God, my walk with Christ isn’t like my running routine. The Lord has worked in me to continue pressing on in the pursuit of Christ. But even if I lose hold of what I have attained and lose sight of the goal, if I fail to prioritize the pursuit of Christlikeness and am coasting on past accomplishments, by the grace of God, I can still re-enter the race and entrust myself to the God who is at work in me. It would be difficult to relearn the spiritual disciplines that I allow to fall away, but it would be worth it.
At the day of Christ Jesus, what will I regret more?
“Therefore, . . . let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” —Heb. 12:1–2