Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:13-14 (KJV)
Anyone who knows my story certainly understands why I’m not against the process of deconstructing one’s faith—especially if it’s to remove false and harmful ideas. And that’s also why I love this quote by Addie Zierman:
"Sometimes, wholeness requires a re-breaking and re-setting
of those places that healed crooked inside of me."
One of the harmful ideas that’s dogged me for years related to forgiveness and healing is a surface interpretation of the bolded section of the verse above. Growing up in an unhealthy church, I’ve leaned too hard on a false understanding of forgetting as it relates to forgiveness.
What I was taught went something like this: “As a Christian, you are to forgive and forget. Don’t worry about hurts from your past—we’re to ‘forget what is behind.’” And because in that culture, you really didn’t need any other resources besides the Bible to follow God well, a lot of weight was put on the “forgetting those things that are behind” phrase. Over time, because the phrase was repeated so often, it formed a rigid mantra in my mind that tended to silence or shove down any sad thoughts or wounds that occasionally surfaced.
Here’s why this surface, literalistic use of “forgetting those things that are behind” is deeply flawed:
It misses Paul’s point. New Testament scholar Frank Thielman helps us unpack Paul’s meaning: “Some interpreters have taken Paul’s claim that he forgets what is behind as a reference to his pre-Christian past (cf. vv. 5-6), but two considerations point away from this interpretation: (1) The point under discussion here is Paul’s progress as a believer, not his progress beyond his days of persecuting the church. (2) When Paul uses athletic imagery elsewhere, the subject is his apostolic labors (cf. 2:16; 1 Cor. 9:24-26). These labors are his focus here too. Paul’s point, then is that he refuses to rest on his past successes but presses toward the day when he will present the Philippians and his other congregations blameless to Christ (1:10, 2:14-18; 1 Cor. 1:8, 1 Thess. 3:13, 5:23).”1 In other words, what Paul is saying has nothing to do with forgetting as it relates to hurts in our past. His simple meaning is “I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” (The Message)
It’s a form of denial that actually stands in the way of healing. The “forget those things that are behind” mentality teaches us to feel guilty or less spiritual for struggling with wounds that are the result of wrongs done by or against us. Instead of encouraging us to consider and honestly acknowledge these hurts (again, whether done to us or by us), we’re urged to dismiss and shove them back down in our souls. But as Lewis Smedes has said, “We cannot forgive a wrong unless we first blame the person who wronged us.”2 This also applies to wrongs we’ve done to others.
It ignores reality. As my colleague Jill Marquis, Care Net’s Director of Abortion Recovery and Care, pointed out in a recent conversation: “Our past shapes us, it informs every decision we make. We either learn from it or we repeat it.” Yes, it’s not good to dwell on our hurts indefinitely. And it’s extremely difficult to drive through life with a shattered windshield, or looking through our rearview mirror. Both of these last statements are true, but what’s left out of the narrative rooted in the “forgetting those things that are behind” exegetical fallacy is that in order to repair our windshields or heal at deeper levels, we must first remember, feel, and fully acknowledge the pain. Again, from my colleague Jill: “I always use Rev. 12:11 in my talks about abortion recovery -- ‘by the blood of the Lamb and the word or our testimony, evil is overcome.’ We have to be able to talk about where we’ve come from and how the Lord reached us in our moments of greatest darkness in order to share His grace and mercy with others.”
It evidences a lack of knowledge of how trauma affects us. As trustworthy counselors like Diane Langberg have observed: “Healing is always some combination of talking, tears, and time.” And as Psalm 137 poetically illustrates, the language of trauma must be expressed and the path to healing is not about forgetting but remembering and leaving vengeance in God’s hands: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion… Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!” (Psa. 137:1,7-8, ESV)
It promotes coverups and injustice. The scandals associated with the church have been bad enough, but some of the coverups have made them all the more repulsive. I think of the coverups of recent scandals involving sexual misconduct at RZIM and Willow Creek. In all these ugly stories, we can hear some version of the “forgetting those things that are behind” mantra playing out in the rooms where it happened: “Let’s just forgive and forget… move on… bury it… we don’t want to hurt our image, God’s name, or more people by letting any of this go public.” Meanwhile, victims suffer in secrecy as the crimes against them cry out for justice.
Actions have consequences and some wrongs should never be forgotten. Again, Smedes is helpful: “Forgiving someone who breaks a trust does not mean that we give him his job back.” And, “forgiving does not require us to reunite with the person who broke our trust.”3 These statements are true not only in how they pertain to individuals, but also in how they apply to our collective healing as communities and nations. Regarding the latter, it’s a good thing that we have a Holocaust Museum, a Civil Rights Museum, and a 9/11 Memorial.
Friend, there is no grander memorial, no more glorious monument to God’s love than the Cross. And when it comes to forgiving (yourself or others) or deconstructing from harmful beliefs, there is no greater foundation to rebuild upon than your identity in Christ– the fact that you belong to him. Maybe it’s time for some re-breaking and re-setting in your life. Maybe it’s time to replace a false mantra with a more trustworthy one. If so, I don’t know of any better than this:
“So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus… Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”4
1. Frank Thielman, The NIV Application Commentary: Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995) 196. Words in bold, mine.
2. Lewis Smedes, The Art of Forgiveness (New York: Moorings, 1996), 177-178.
4. Romans 8:1,34-35,38-39, NLT.
This post was adapted with permission from carpentertheologian.com