A Pepper Grinder Post

No Regrets

I used to think being a parent was tough, but rewarding.  I expected that as my children got older, the difficult parts of being a father would gradually fade away, and I would be left enjoying the fruits of a job well done.  However, as my kids got older, it got harder rather than easier.  Not that I’m saying my grown children have made bad choices—I think they’ve done quite well and I’m proud of them.  They are all striving to follow Jesus where he’s leading them and are persevering in circumstances that aren’t always the easiest.

What makes it hard for me is the second guessing.  I see a character flaw in one of my children, and I think, “If only I had …”  I torture myself with doubts about the choices I made or didn’t make when I was raising my older kids.  “If only I had shown her more love.  If only I had dealt with that weakness in him.”

I know that not all these doubts and regrets are rational.  I am probably falling prey to the fallacy that if parents do everything right, their children will be perfect.  I certainly didn’t do everything right, but I believe the human race is fallen, and we have faults written into our very DNA.  Even if I had been a perfect father, I am not convinced I would have had perfect kids.  And yet, it is very hard to escape the feeling that if I had done better, my children’s lives would be better now.

This was my personal reason for wanting to study the passage I’m going to look at today.  Since I don’t have the option of traveling back in a time machine and doing things better than I did, I want to face forward and do the best job I can with the life I have now, rather than being paralyzed by regret. 

Here is my translation of Philippians 3:12-14:

It isn’t as though I’ve already gotten it, or have already been made perfect, but I chase after it to get hold of it, just as Christ has gotten hold of me.  Brothers, it’s not that I think I’ve already gotten hold of it, but I do this one thing: forgetting what’s behind, I reach out to grab what’s in front of me.  I strain toward the finish line to get the prize for which God has called me to heaven through Christ Jesus.

Ready to RunOne of the first questions I have when reading the passage above is what the “it” is that Paul does not yet have.  If we read the section just before our passage, it becomes clear that Paul is referring to the resurrection from the dead.  The goal for which he is striving is to be brought to life and united with Christ after he dies.

Another thing which comes out if we read the early part of this chapter is what has prompted Paul to talk about this.  He is battling with a certain segment of the early church, which believed that if Gentile converts followed the Law of Moses, they would be perfect.  Like the Pharisees who battled Jesus, these people believed that perfection by human effort was an attainable goal.  Paul counters this by saying that he (the ultimate example of a righteous Pharisee) has still not reached perfection, but is straining toward that goal.

Paul uses active, athletic imagery to paint a vivid picture of the Christian life.  Picture one of the running races in the Olympics.  Think of those runners straining forward and putting every ounce of energy into getting more speed.  Imagine them reaching the point of exhaustion, but still struggling on by sheer force of will.  A runner has to focus completely on the race, to the exclusion of everything else.  This is what Paul says he is doing.  The “finish line” Paul speaks of was actually a post at the side of the track in Greek and Roman times, marking the end of the race.  It was a clearly visible object which tired runners could focus on to keep themselves going.

There is one word that is used three times in the first two verses.  It is the Greek work katalabo which I’ve translated as get hold of.  Paul hasn’t yet gotten hold of perfection, but he chases after it to get hold of it, in the same way that Christ has gotten hold of him.  This word can be violent, as when Mark’s gospel speaks of an evil spirit seizing a boy and throwing him to the ground (Mark 9:18), but it also has a range of other meanings, such as overtaking someone, understanding something, or surprising someone.  The most similar passage that uses this word is 1 Corinthians 9:24 which, in the NIV, says:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

This fits right in with the athletic imagery in the verses in Philippians, but it doesn’t lend a particularly exciting meaning to the word.  Run so you can get the prize.  Ho hum.  In actuality, I think just plain get falls a little short.  Here is a runner, pushing himself to the point of total exhaustion so he can get that prize.  It is obvious that the prize or the victory it signifies is something the athlete wants intensely, or why would he struggle so hard to get it?  This is why I chose get hold of in my translation.  It sounds more desperate or forceful to me, and I like that.

The thing I thought was most interesting in Paul’s repeated use of the Greek word katalabo was the combination of present, future, and past tenses.  Paul starts out saying that he has not, in the present, already gotten hold of the resurrection, but he chases after it so that he will get hold of it in the future.  But why does he do this?  What is it in response to?  It is in response to Christ, in the past, having gotten hold of Paul.

I think we often give ourselves too much credit.  There is this little part of us that thinks, “I chose to follow Christ. That makes me better than the people who have not chosen to follow him.”  But Paul doesn’t present it that way.  To hear Paul tell it, God was more like a person picking out a puppy.  He looked down into a box filled with fairly helpless, squirming, hairy little bodies.  For some reason, one caught his attention.  He chose that one.  And so he reached down, grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, and hoisted it into the air.  He loved that puppy.  He chose that puppy.  But now imagine that the puppy later on started thinking that he had chosen his master, instead of the other way around.  Imagine that the puppy started feeling proud of his intelligent choice!

Runners by the SeaIn the drama of our relationship with Christ, the first act was that God got hold of us.  It is only later in the play that we strive toward the incredible prize God has set out for us.  This also makes a huge difference in how we see our striving for the prize.  It would be easy to think, especially with the image Paul uses of winning a race and getting a prize, that we, by our own efforts, win our salvation and resurrection.  And yet this is an idea that is out of step with other teaching clearly presented by Paul.  The apparent contradiction goes away if we understand the timeline.  The first step in the drama is God sovereignly choosing us to run in his race.  He equips us with the best training and equipment, and then puts us on the track.  The race is long and grueling, but we long to live up to the trust God has shown in us.  As long as we continue to strive and don’t give up, we WILL finish the race successfully; we WILL get the prize.  The striving is our response to God’s kindness, but the reason we will win is that God chose us and helps us.

Now we come to the part of the passage that made me want to study it—the forgetting part.  In my mind, I pictured this as a kind of act of will on our part, where we would deliberately put out of our minds the things which caused us pain and held us back from Christ.  And yet, when I studied the word which I’ve translated as “forgetting,” it didn’t seem quite the way I’d expected. 

For example, when Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee, Matthew 16:5 and Mark 8:14 mention that the disciples had forgotten to bring bread.  Basically, this word does not have some special connotation of deliberately putting something out of your mind.  It just means forget.  This kind of forgetting is not something someone does on purpose; it just means that something has accidentally slipped his or her mind.
But how could this be?  How can someone just stop thinking about past mistakes and the shame that went with them?  How can intense pain suffered in the past just slip someone’s mind?  How could we forget being betrayed by someone we trusted?

It is clear that Paul is not referring to completely forgetting things.  He still remembers the self-righteousness and fanatical persecution of Christians that were part of his pre-Christian life.  I think he has to be saying that these things are not weighing him down or holding him back.  In Paul’s image of a race, I picture a runner shrugging off a heavy backpack and leaving it on the track without a backward glance.

Finish LineThe thing that most strikes me about this kind of forgetting is that it is not done because the person is trying to forget but because he or she is straining toward what is ahead.  If we are trying to forget, our focus is on the thing that we are trying to forget.  This is a hopeless exercise, like trying NOT to think about something.  The kind of forgetting Paul is talking about involves being so focused on something more important that the thing to be forgotten just fades into relative unimportance.

To be honest, I do feel that I am weighed down and held back by some of my hurts and regrets.  I want to focus on where God is leading me NOW and on the ultimate perfect union with God that is the finish line of the Christian’s life, but I don’t always feel that I do it very well.

Lord, let me be so caught up with you that past hurts become fuzzy memories.  Let your calling for me in this life be so vivid that regrets become like vaguely-remembered dreams.  Let my eyes be fixed on the finish line, so I run the race with joy and abandon.


*Photo Credits: girl getting ready to run by , runners by the sea from