At the beginning of a new year, the tendency for many of us is to think back over the past. Both “good” things, as well as those not so good, tend to linger in our minds. The former may make us wish for such events and feelings to recur, while the latter can cause us to be fearful of moving forward in 2014. Either way, we do ourselves injustice.
“The best way to destroy today is to regret yesterday and worry about tomorrow.” 1 That old familiar tool of the devil, worry, drags us down and keeps us from being effective for our Lord. “Sorrow looks back; worry looks around; but faith looks up.” 2 By God’s grace, “As thy days, so shall thy strength be” (Deuteronomy 33:25).
Let us examine three helpful guidelines from God’s Holy Word.
Scripture warns us against looking back.
Jesus admonishes His hearers in Luke 9:62: “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Our Lord had just advised three well-intentioned men regarding the cost of following Him, two of whom requested that they might deal with personal matters prior to doing so. Matthew Henry comments on this passage, “Those who begin with the work of God [i.e. putting one’s hand to the plow] must resolve to go on with it, or they will make nothing of it. Looking back inclines to drawing back.” 3
Another Puritan has written, “All that would follow Christ must renounce their worldly affections and inclinations, or else they can make no work of Christianity.... So we must not look back, or mind anything behind us, which may turn us back, and stop us in our course.... Therefore the world must be renounced, and we must grow dead to the world, that we may be alive to God.” 4
In 2 Timothy 4:10, we read Paul’s note that “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world.” As long as we are entangled with the allurements of this world, we are unfit to serve in God’s kingdom, for “a double minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8).
On one occasion Christ gave a terse warning, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). What a profound warning to believers of all ages! He was referring to Genesis 19:17, where it is recorded that Lot and his family were forbidden by the Lord to look back toward Sodom as they were leaving that sinful city: “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed” (emphasis added). Lot’s wife, however, ignored the warning, and looked back toward the city, with the result that she became a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26).
The context of Luke 17:32 is Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the Kingdom of God. He warns against a false security in the values and attachments of this world in order to be ready for Christ’s return.
In the Old Testament accounts of the wilderness trials of God’s chosen people, we read, “And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick” (Numbers 11:4–5; cf. Exodus 16:3).
Later on, Moses gives the second generation Israelites God’s words regarding any desire to return to Egypt: “Ye shall henceforth return no more that way” (Deuteronomy 17:16). The writer of the book of Hebrews expands on this, referring to the faithful Old Testament believers: “And truly if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out [Egypt], they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:15–16).
In addition, we have this account in Jeremiah 7:21–24: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; ... I spake ... unto your fathers [and] this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you. But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward.”
It has been said, “Looking back will not become those who have set their faces heavenward.” 5 According to our Lord, “such a person is not ‘fit’, i.e. properly disposed, has not his mind properly directed toward the heavenly inheritance.” 6
“Looking back” implies continuous action. A farmer, however, must always be looking forward in order to plow a straight furrow. In the first century Pliny noted that a plowman who does not pay attention to his work produces a crooked row. Such a person has a divided mind concerning the things of God. 7
Those who followed Christ were to leave all things behind. The Scriptures say: “And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him” (Matthew 4:19–20).
It is instructive that the Apostle Paul in describing the whole armor of God in Ephesians 6, and listing all the protective pieces, makes no mention of a piece to cover the back for the Christian soldier. There is a helmet for the head, a metal plate for the breast, protection for the feet, and a shield for the front; but no guard for the back. This seems incomplete — armor for the whole body, yet nothing to cover the back! Surely this teaches us that we are never to retreat, to turn back: we must continue faithful to the end, until we have secured total victory.
When William the Conqueror landed his army in Sussex, England, in the 11th century AD, he immediately commanded his ships to be sunk, that there might be no hopes of running back again. The soldiers must face the enemy without retreat. Certain it is that no one ever learns to drive a car by looking in the rear view mirror! Just so, Scripture warns us against looking back.
Scripture exhorts us to go forward.
In his epistle to the Philippian church, the Apostle Paul emphatically states his committed resolve as a Christian: “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).
In verse 13 of this text, Paul makes his purpose clear in two short phrases: (1) “Forgetting those things which are behind”; and (2) “Reaching forth unto those things which are before.” 8
(1) “Forgetting those things which are behind” (verse 13a):
Is this not good advice for us as well? So, what are we to forget? Our list should surely include the following: our worries, our fears, our failures, even our successes. Sports coaches like to remind their current teams that “Last year means nothing.” Whether it resulted in overall victory or in predominant defeat, the past season must be let go, in light of a new year. Likewise we are to let go of 2013 and go forward in 2014. As long as we are always looking back, we cannot move forward. When the children of Israel found themselves “trapped” at the edge of the Red Sea, with the rapidly approaching Egyptian army behind them, “the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward” (Exodus 14:15). Just so, a runner in a race jeopardizes his position once he looks back at his opponents following him.
(2) “Reaching forth unto those things which are before” (verse 13b):
Paul states that he is “reaching forth,” implying a straining forward or stretching out in order to win the race. We have witnessed runners doing just this as they approach the finish line, leaning their bodies forward in order to be the first to break the tape.
In addition, note that Paul emphasizes that this is the one thing he does — his sole goal in life. It has been said that “a single-minded focus in any endeavor generally wins a great reward. In the spiritual life, direction makes all the difference. True believers aren’t in heaven yet, but they aim their steps in that direction.” 9
The psalmist echoes Paul’s words when he says, “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after...” (Psalm 27:4). For Paul, that meant a consecrated commitment to forgetting what had gone before and a determined effort in striving for what lay ahead. Likewise, our primary goal should be making progress in holiness while in this life. The Christian’s goal should be more than finishing the race; we want to be winners. “We must not only persevere to the end, but we should grow better, and walk more evenly and closely with God.” 10
Truly this is the Lord’s plan for our lives. As He would say to us:
“I always lead you forward. When you are going through hard times, you tend to look back longingly at seasons when your life seemed easier, less complicated. You daydream about those simpler times.... Even your prayers reflect this yearning to go back to earlier, easier circumstances.
“But this is not My way for you! Because of the nature of time, there is only one direction to travel, and that is forward. Your life on earth is a journey—beginning at birth and ending at the gates of Heaven. I am your Guide, and your responsibility is to follow Me wherever I lead.... I am ... your Shepherd. I always lead you along the best possible path.... [And,] I am tenderly present with you each step of your journey.” 11 Clearly, Scripture exhorts us to go forward.
Scripture says to press on (Philippians 3:14).
“Those things which are before” Paul identifies as the goal — “the prize” to be won in a race. In this case it is “the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” The early church father Ignatius wrote in his letter to Polycarp: “Be temperate as God’s athlete. The prize is incorruption and eternal life.” 12
None of us can be certain what the new year holds in store, or if we will even be around to see it end. But, as God’s chosen ones, we should not be alarmed at either of these, for we serve the God of comfort who promises that He will always be with us. He will never forsake us. Such concerns as our health, jobs, finances, and the world’s troubles should not cause us to fear. Instead, we should of all people be confident in 2014, for we serve a great God.
When the missionary David Livingstone returned from Africa to his English homeland, he was asked, “Where are you ready to go next?” Dr. Livingstone replied, “I am ready to go anywhere provided it be forward.” Should this not be the attitude of every child of God all our days?
The future holds for believers great blessings: God, Heaven, and everlasting glory! (See Titus 2:11–14.) “In the Christian life, we never stand still; we go either forward or backward. The challenge to the believer is Hebrews 6:1: Let us go on!” 13
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1–2).
I’m pressing on the upward way,14
New heights I’m gaining ev’ry day —
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Tho some may dwell where these abound,
My pray’r, my aim, is higher ground.
Warren Wiersbe, With the Word (Nashville, TN: Oliver-Nelson Books, 1991), p. 125.
Adrian Rogers, Adrianisms — The Wit and Wisdom of Adrian Rogers (Memphis, TN: Love Worth Finding Ministries, 2006), p. 70.
Matthew Henry on Luke 9:62 (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition, Electronic Database. ©1991 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.)
Thomas Manton, The Works of Thomas Manton, Volume 2 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), p. 133.
Ibid., p. 132.
Adam Clarke on Luke 9:62, (Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Electronic Database, ©1996 by Biblesoft).
A.T. Robertson on Luke 9:62, (Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, Electronic Database, ©1997 by Biblesoft; and Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, ©1985 by Broadman Press)
Much of the following material is from Pastor Ray Pritchard at http://www.keepbelieving.com/sermon/2012-01-05-Press-On.
Matthew Henry on 1 Thessalonians 4:1, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible.
Sarah Young, Jesus Today (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. 74.
Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1974), p. 343.
Wiersbe, p. 135.
Words by Johnson Oatman, Jr.
Mr. Jack Hendricks is a gifted Bible teacher and historian. He served for many years with the Charlotte Museum of History, and is a member of the Bible Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC.