Question: "What does Paul mean when he says he is "forgetting those things which are behind" (Philippians 3:13)?"
Answer: The apostle Paul challenged himself and all Christians to keep moving forward in the Christian walk of faith: “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14, NKJV).
When Paul said he was “forgetting those things which are behind,” he referred to not looking back at past relationships, memories, failures, temptations, or anything that might distract from a single-minded focus on “the upward call of God in Christ.” To inspire his audience, Paul drew on the image of an athlete running a race with uncompromising determination to reach the finish line and win the prize. The New Living Translation renders the passage like this: “I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.”
The word forgetting in Philippians 3:13 means “dismissing from the mind or paying no attention to.” To “forget” in this way is to stop dwelling on something. To win the race, a runner must dismiss every distraction from his mind. He must not rehash every early misstep or dwell on the mistakes along his course.
“Forgetting what is behind” is Paul’s way of saying, “Don’t look back! Stop dwelling on the past. Don’t let anything behind you interfere with your present progress or future efforts.” Personal growth as a believer was a constant priority in Paul’s life. He strained with every fiber of his being to keep moving forward to win the prize for which God had called him.
In 1 Corinthians 9:25, Paul compared an athlete’s crown to the believer’s eternal prize: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Paul kept his eyes trained on the finish line because his whole goal and purpose in life was gaining Christ: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7–8).
When it comes to forward motion, our bodies tend to move automatically toward the place where our eyes are directed. A runner who keeps turning back to see what is behind him will lose his race. Understanding this phenomenon, Paul urged believers to stop looking back at the past and stay focused on the future goal. Paul himself was determined to “forget” or “dismiss from his mind” the former way of life when he violently persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it (Galatians 1:13). He quit dwelling on the hindrances and hurdles of persecution, imprisonment, and abandonment in his past (2 Corinthians 4:8–9; Acts 16:22–40; 23:10; 25:1–12; 28:17–31; 2 Timothy 1:15). Instead, he stretched toward what was ahead of him. He looked forward to heaven, the resurrection of his body, and meeting his Savior face-to-face: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20–21).
How do things which are behind us hinder our progress in spiritual growth?
Holding onto emotions like bitterness and unforgiveness can slow us down and even keep us locked in the past. Rehearsing conflicts and rehashing hurtful episodes will only open old wounds. Peter urged us to be done with these things: “So get rid of all evil behavior. Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech. Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment” (1 Peter 2:1–2, NLT). Guilt and despair over past sins may also keep us chained to the past. But God does not hold our past sins against us, and neither should we (1 John 1:7–9).
After God delivered Israel from the oppression of slavery, the people looked back longingly to Egypt, but it got them nowhere (Numbers 11:18). “Forgetting those things which are behind” means throwing aside “every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up” and running “with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith” (Hebrews 12:1–2, NLT).
The Christian life is lived with our eyes facing forward on Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate priority that makes our lives worth living. Our highest goal is to know Him better, as Paul said: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).