My father used to coach track and field, specifically running. For many years he coached a girls’ cross country team. Unlike the 100 metre dash where participants finish milliseconds apart from each other, long distance and cross country runners usually don’t have someone running right beside them. So the only way to see if someone is closing in on you is to turn your head and look behind you. This will cost you precious time, may cost you a personal best and may cost you victory. Any good coach will tell you to run your own race and don’t look back.
The Apostle Paul gave that same advice to the people of Philippi, (Philippians 3:12-14) and it applies to us as well. Paul had been regarded as a Christian leader for about 30 years when he wrote this letter, and he encouraged people to follow his example. (Philippians 3:17) But he also wanted to make it clear that he did not believe that he had reached the top level of spiritual maturity. He was still running the race too. He was still striving toward the goal that he outlined in Philippians 3:10-11. The word translated goal (Philippians 3:14) is actually a goal mark, the finish line. The analogy of running a race was a common metaphor in Paul’s writings, (I Corinthians 9:24-27, II Timothy 2:5, II Timothy 4:7) and he uses it again here. His audience would have been very familiar with the Greek games which we now know as the Olympics, and so they would have understood his imagery.
When Paul says that he is forgetting the things that are behind, (Philippians 3:13) he does not mean that he literally cannot remember. Unless some health reason affects our cognitive function, we cannot force ourselves to not remember, though sometimes that ability would be highly desirable. What Paul means is that he won’t let his past failures or successes influence him. Sometimes we dwell on our failures and replay in our minds what we should have done differently, even though the damage has already been done. Sometimes we think about our successes and believe that we have already attained our goal. That reminds me of a different race, the one between the tortoise and the hare. The hare was so confident of his ability to outrun the tortoise that he stopped and took a nap. The tortoise toddled right past him. We should not assume that the last success we had is enough. Instead, like Paul, we should focus on the future and continue striving to be more like Christ.
Serious runners are devoted to their sport; they train, they follow a healthy diet, and they focus on what it takes to do their best. Paul encourages us to have the same devotion, discipline and determination. We will face obstacles. Like the cross country runner we will encounter hills and valleys and a few potholes along the way. We must do our best to get through them with God’s grace. Keep running the race. Don’t compare yourself with others. Set your standards based on what God desires from you, and don’t look back.