While serving as a Missionary in Belize I made trips frequently to the southern Toledo District. Up to that point I had always kept my pockets full of random stuff along with leaving several things I wish I could have had with me in my suitcase or in the car when I traveled. Finally, at a small "this-and-that" store in Punta Gorda Town, I purchased a small, black canvas shoulder bag that was perfect for my need. Today you will find that I am seldom very far away from that bag.
When I'm at home, the bag sits by the bed in a convenient place to be grabbed up at a moments notice. When I travel, the bag travels with me. Regardless of where I am, I'm always aware of the location of my little black bag and for good reason. What started as a travel bag evolved into portable storage for important documents. Inside are various forms of identification, certificates, diplomas and credentials along with a variety of legal documents pertaining to my family and me.
Unfortunately, the sight of my little black bag is also painful at times because of some of its contents.
There, along with the marriage license, passport and birth certificate are yet other papers. Court orders. Affidavits. Notarized witness statements. Certified letters. All of them concerning the most horrible event that ever transpired in my life. I still remember the sting of walking out of a courtroom and being handed a stack of papers by my attorney as he said, "It's all done. Just make sure you keep these handy for the rest of your life." With that and a handshake, I was left alone in the foyer outside the Court Clerk's office. "Keep these...for the rest of your life."
And so I have done thus far. There, in my little black bag, are the remnants of the most painful chapter in my life thus far. Not always, but from time to time, the bag seems to mock me repeating the words, "for the rest of your life."
But my little black bag is not alone in accomplishing this task of "cutting me down to size," so to speak. There are always other reminders of "those things which are behind." At times it is people who don't know who ask questions. At other times, those who do know who don't know when to drop it. Yet another group: those who know, don't intend to drop it and revel in the pain it brings to keep it alive. Then again, it's random thoughts. Memories that haven't faded. Small reminders. Wounds that, frankly, will never heal. My little black bag joins a chorus of reminders, both human and ethereal, which would wreak havoc with my heart, my mind and my sanity.
The Apostle Paul had his own little black bag, metaphorically speaking. Imagine the difficulty the great Apostle must have faced during his lifetime. For him "those things which are behind" included the crying of widows who lost their husbands at the hands of the brutal religious fanatic named Saul. The memory of washing his hands and watching the blood stained water run down his arms. And, if his vivid recollection of the victims of his radicalism wasn't enough, now, as a Christian Minister, he had to go back and preach to the friends and family of those whom he had persecuted. Could you imagine looking into the eyes of the children of men you had killed in God's name while now preaching to them that Christ had come?
"That's Saul," some would whisper as he passed by. "No, I'm not," he might have said to himself. "I'm Paul now." But "those things which were behind" followed him. Many were afraid of him because of his previous reputation. Some chose not to believe he had changed. And, even if he had changed, that did nothing to erase the memory of what had transpired in his life before his radical encounter with Christ and his subsequent conversion. Paul knew that and, from his writings, we see that it was at least an issue from time to time. Some have even speculated that his "thorn in the flesh" mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:7 was nothing more or less than memory. No matter the profundity of revelation given to him, Paul could still remember.
Who can say whether or not Paul woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat as he was thrown back into his former life in his dreams? Hasn't such been the case with many who have endured such trauma? And, although Paul had been born again and was indwelt by the Spirit of God, it did not change the fact that he was still human, in possession of all his faculties and subject to retrospection.
This is exactly why Paul's statement to the Philippian Christians is about forgetting. Notice he did not say, "I have forgotten those things which are behind." Rather, the Apostle said, "This is what I do; I'm forgetting those things..." It is an active, purposeful work on the part of the one forgetting to perpetuate the act of forgetting. In other words, Paul is not saying that it is possible to kill the memories. He is encouraging us to take those things and, when they reappear, actively forget them again.
If you're like me and the Apostle Paul, you have things that have happened that sit in your little black bag to haunt you from time to time. You're not a substandard Christian because you have baggage. You're normal. You're human. And you can still accomplish great things for God and live a victorious life. There are things you will never get over. You will "keep these...for the rest of your life." Yet, like the Apostle Paul and me, you can find that the grace of Christ is sufficient - not because it erases the memory of the past, but it redefines you life as something more than the result of past mistakes or injuries.
I'll never forget, no matter how hard I try, the unforgettable events that have transpired in my life. But I am forgetting them and every time my little black bag mocks me, I choose to forget again. Every time someone says something that reopens a wound, I choose to forget again. When the painful memories return, I choose to forget again. I refocus. I look forward. I press on. I keep moving. I refuse to live in the past because, if I do, I'll die there every day. I haven't forgotten but I am forgetting, and you can too.
Look ahead to Christ and start the journey of forgetting today.