Few would refute that God's work in (and through) the life of Paul (the apostle) is extraordinary. He was given the name of Saul at birth, approximately 5-10 years after Christ was born, in a place known as Tarsus (modern-day Turkey), into a Jewish family descended from the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5), and sent to Jerusalem at the age of ten to study under Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3). Eventually, Paul worked his way into prominence within the Pharisees (a sect that existed during the days of Christ, known for their rigid adherence to the letter of the law – Acts 26:5, Matthew 23:3, Luke 11:39). As a zealous young man he took it upon himself to persecute followers of Christ (Acts 7:58-8:3). While on his way to Damascus to hunt down more followers, Paul experienced the risen Christ, committed his life to following his Savior (Acts 9:1-19), and became the catalyst used by God to take the gospel message out to the world beyond Israel.
On his second of four missionary journeys, Paul arrived in Philippi (modern-day Greece) sometime around 50A.D. About a decade later we find the apostle imprisoned in Rome where he produces his seminal letter to the church in Philippi: it's central thrust –– work toward having the mind of, knowledge of, and peace of Christ! In Chapter Three, where the apostle makes his appeal for the knowledge of Christ, he asserts the following:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 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 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. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. (Philippians 3:10-16, NRSV).
This passage comes right on the heels of Paul's warning about the continuing problem of legalism (3:1-9); wherein, the once legalistic but now transformed apostle asserts that true righteousness is received through faith, not by mechanical obedience to any law. His keen mind then shifts into the exceeding excellence found in the knowledge of Christ. Honing-in on the above cited passage, lets examine v. 13:
"Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead..."
Many times over the years our ministers at Kingdom Community Ministries have heard counselees cite this passage as justification for their self-deception. Survivors of abuse have asserted this passage directs them to not think about the impact of what they've suffered; on the other hand, perpetrators of abuse have leaned on this verse to avoid address of their sins; and addicts have told us this verse means whatever damage their addiction has wrought in their life (not to mention the lives of others) is now to be overlooked. In certain respects we understand how people arrive at such conclusions, for the most part these are misperceptions, and, yes, at other times an outright, deliberate attempt to avoid dealing with deep seated pain, guilt, shame, fear, etc. But what was it the Holy Spirit was directing Paul to convey in this particular verse?
To gain clarity let's apply the hermeneutic of lexicology. The apostle originally wrote his letter to the Philippians in the Greek language. The word Paul used for "forgetting" is: epilanthanomai (ep-ee-lan-than'-om-ahee), which means: to lose out of mind. Yes, by implication this word means: to forget, or be forgetful of; however, when interpreting this verse, one would be wise to ask what does it mean to lose out of mind? In effect, to lose is to cease to have or retain. Sin that impacts our life, regardless if it is our own, or the sins of others perpetrated upon us, is always episodic in terms of memory: in other words, memory with retained emotions.
When I think about my wedding day, or the birth of my children, a smile comes to my face because I'm re-experience the joy retained within the memory. When I think about my father's absence on those days (he died of a heart attack when I was two years old) I feel a degree of sadness. But there was a time in my life where the emotions associated with my father's death were so intense and thoroughly overwhelming that I was desperate to stuff away any notion of him. As a result, I remained stuck in my grief for two decades. My efforts to avoid the grief led me into sin (i.e., drugs, promiscuity, and more). Of course, my grief is no excuse for my sin, but, rather, an explanation. In truth, it was all I knew to do to numb my pain, and it was not until I faced my grief that I was able to lose it out of my mind. In other words, reduce the emotional intensity of my pain by paying attention to it, instead of avoiding it.
The Spirit of God, working through the Apostle Paul, afforded him the ability to overcome his legalistic mindset. How did this happen? By God giving Paul the strength and endurance to face this stronghold. But not just any stronghold, no, his drove him to murder. One can only imagine the intense pain of guilt Paul had to work through in order to lose it out of his mind. This did not happen as a result of ignoring his pain. Paul asserts, "...this one thing I do...;" meaning, if he had only learned but one thing in his walk with Christ, it was his need to face the truth about his life, and not just in part, but in total. Clearly, such reflection led Paul to the painful truth, that his sinful ways resulted in the murder of Stephen, one of Jesus' original disciples (Acts 7:54-8:2). Paul's involvement with Stephen's death was not a matter of self-defense; rather, he shed the man's blood because of Stephen's public profession of faith in Christ. Those of us who have not walked in the shoes of Paul can only imagine the intensity of his pain as he wrestled through the guilt of just how depraved his legalistic mind had become.
Certainly, there will be some who read this post and say this is only my interpretation of this passage, and that they interpret it different. I would say to such individuals they are smart to question me on the matter, for I'm asserting something profound here based on only one of the more than 30,000 verses found in the Bible. Thus, allow me to apply the hermeneutic of harmony by looking to other passages of Scripture to see if my interpretation aligns. Consider the following verse:
When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. (Psalm 4:4)
Here, God is directing us through the writings of the psalmist to ponder (i.e., contemplate) the things that disturb us. My father's death was disturbing in the most truest sense. One does not expect a healthy looking, 42 year old father of eight, to die from a sudden heart attack right in front of his wife and children, but that is what happened. Only God knew of my father's arteriosclerotic disease, and when a blockage that had been building in the wall of his artery burst inward the stoppage in blood flow was immediate, and fatal. But how does a person face such immense grief? Not on their own, that's for sure; and not by avoiding it either.
Still, another verse to support the precept of not living a repressed life is:
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. (Ephesians 5:11, NRSV).
We utilize this passage a good deal in our counseling sessions to help counselees wrap their mind around the need to bring a deeply repressed matter out into the light of Christ. I noted earlier there are eight siblings in my family, of which, I am the youngest. I do not recall what age I was, but when I was still young (perhaps 7 or 8), some of my older siblings told us younger sibs that we could never tell anyone that our mother drank alcohol. Because if anyone were to find out, the police might come and take us away, and that we might end up separated into foster homes. As a youngster, the thought of this occurring scared me to no end! I'm sure you can put it together: my mother did not just have the occasional glass of wine, she was a widow mired down in her immense grief who coped by crawling into a bottle. Her drunken tirades were filled with profanity and abuse. I was young but understood the gravity of the situation; as difficult as life was, we feared it might get a lot worse if word got out that our mother was an alcoholic. So I learned to keep the unfruitful works of darkness in the dark. Doing so in no way equated to my pain being loosened out of my mind; rather, the more I tried to avoid the truth, the more my mind seemed gripped around the issue.
Fast-forward about a decade later, when God made provision of treatment for my mother, and the beginning of the loosening of my mind around the grief, dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors. The healing and transformation did not come overnight. It certainly did not come by attempting to forget the traumatic, horrible events of my life. No. The healing and transformation in Christ came when I called on Him to fill me with all that was needed to face the grief, to lean into the pain and press through to the other side. The more I followed the guidance of my counselors and ministers to "ponder" the challenging events of my life, the more I felt the pain. Like a patient with an infected wound being scrubbed-out, and given the proper attention, I began to heal and transform. This was most unlikely to have happen without facing the unresolved issues of my life.
Today, glory to God, my mother has over thirty years sobriety, and I write about these matters with her permission and encouragement. I too have lived a sober adult life, praise Jesus. What's more, God has replaced my sorrow for joy, just as He promised (John 16:20)! What say you? Have you been running from the truth? Is there unresolved pain in your life? If so, I invite you to contact us today, and if not KCM, I pray God directs you to someone who can give you sound, biblical counsel and support.
Dr. Michael Mannia, D.Min. is Co-Founder and President of Kingdom Community Ministries (KCM), and author of The Conditioned Mind: Overcoming The Crippling Effects of Sin and Guilt (CrossLink, 2014). For more information, visit KCM's BIOS page. Dr. Mannia can be reached at 661.324.4070, ext. 301, or firstname.lastname@example.org.