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.
—Philippians 3:13–14 NLT
State of the Union address last night. As I listened to the president discuss the various issues our country is facing, I was struck by something.
Before I go on, let me clarify: I’m not taking issue with the president’s policies in this blog. So whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, independent, or something in-between, you can exhale now and keep reading. (Though if you’d like to read a more detailed response to the SOTU, you can read my husband’s post.)
What struck me most about the president’s address last night was how often he referred to the previous administration. Regardless of whether you side with former president or with the current one, there’s an important principle of leadership (and life) to notice here.
After one full year in office, President Obama is still looking backward.
Now, I’m not saying that he doesn’t have plans for the present or for the future. And I’m not saying that this president didn’t inherit some complicated matters from the previous one. But consider this: after one year of leading the free world, our president is still looking over his shoulder, thumbing backward, and saying, “Look at what a mess the previous guy made. Look at how bad things were when I got here.”
Some of you are starting to bristle, thinking I’m getting political. Not at all. Though I do research the issues and vote, I’ve never been actively involved in politics, other than being elected to my high school student council (“Don’t be zany; vote for Haney!”) and being thrust into church politics (which, sad to say, are every bit as vicious and brutal—if not more so—than Capitol Hill).
So to avoid misunderstanding, let’s take this same principle into another arena. One I know a little better.
Now, imagine that you are that new pastor. You’ve come to lead a hurting congregation. Their trust has been shattered. They are skeptical of you and your leadership. Some of them are just waiting for you to prove yourself to be as much a scoundrel as the previous guy.
So what would you do? Would you spend the first year of your pastorate pointing back at the former pastor and reminding your people of how bad things were when you got there? Would you continually use the former pastor as a sermon illustration of how not to do things? Would you keep bringing up past hurts and past problems?
Or would you stand behind the pulpit that first Sunday and say to those precious people, “I’m sorry you’ve been hurt, but our God is good. Let’s stay focused on our vision and ask God to give us wisdom and strength as we move forward.” And then from that Sunday on, would you put aside the past (because you know that only breeds negativity and resentment) and focus on moving forward, doing what God has called you to do?
It's the same principle for both the president and the preacher. Do you see it yet?
Okay, let me give you another example, one a little closer to home.
But my three-year-old son is still learning the mechanics of how a bike works. He doesn’t yet know how to turn his head and look at something without also turning his handlebars. So when he’s zipping along the walking trail on his trike and hears a neighbor’s dog barking, he’ll turn his head (and handlebars) to say hello—and veer off the pavement and into the grass. And when he’s pedaling down the sidewalk and hears his sisters coming up behind him, he’ll turn around to look at them—and subsequently tip over and fall off.
“You have to keep looking forward,” I’ll remind him, over and over. “Look straight ahead, buddy. Keep your handlebars straight, like this, and you’ll stay on the path.”
Because the principle is the same, whether you’re riding a bike, pastoring a church, or leading the free world.
You’ll never move forward if you're busy looking behind you.
Yes, we can—and must—learn from the past. And we must accept the reality that past circumstances have shaped our present ones. But as playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”
Or as the apostle Paul wrote, “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. (Philippians 3:13–14 NLT; emphasis added).
I want my life to move forward. I don’t want to get sidelined by looking back and blaming others (or myself) for the past. I want to press on to reach the end of the race and live a life that is pleasing to God.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the mishaps and zigzags of life, it’s this:
The best way to keep moving forward isn’t to look behind you. Nor is it to turn and look beside you.
It’s not even to look straight ahead.
It’s to look up.