Looking Backward Moves You Forward

Objects in Mirror are Closer than they Appear

It’s a long drive from northern California to San Diego. The radio station that came in strong during one stretch of open road played Christian music with the DJs telling humorous stories or sharing uplifting Bible verses between songs. The station lived up to its motto of being positive and encouraging.

But one of the efforts to encourage – while sincere and enthusiastic – took a wrong turn.

“Do you know why your rearview mirror is so small and your windshield is so large?” asked the radio voice. “It’s because where you’re going is infinitely more important than where you’ve been.”

Wrong on two counts.

First, when it comes to a car’s design the rear view mirror is as big as it needs to be to give you a look out the back window of the car. If it were larger it wouldn’t show you any more of the traffic coming up behind you, but it would get in the way of seeing what is coming up on the road ahead.

Second, from a theological standpoint the analogy breaks down quickly. The radio voice was trying to apply the mirror/windshield set-up to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi where he spoke of his past, listing his credentials in an effort to show that when it came to worldly reputation he had as much a claim to being highly regarded as anyone. Then he looked to his future and said:

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14.)

He essentially said that all his worldly credentials were bunk compared to what is given him in Jesus. Hence his statement that he forgets what is behind and looks forward to the goal Jesus promises him. But he never said not to remember the past because the future is supposedly “infinitely more important.” That would be unbiblical.

In fact, the Bible teaches that remembering where you’ve come from is extremely important.

Understanding the Road You’re On

Paul himself said the past is worth remembering.

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:11-12.)

The past is important, he went on to say, because it provides context for the present reality under the New Covenant:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13.)

Remembering the past helps you understand who you are in Christ right now.

Should you live in the past? No, the Bible doesn’t teach that. Your thoughts of the past should be the proper size: large enough to show you where you’ve come from but not so large as to obscure your view of where you are now and where you’re going.

There’s nothing wrong with a well-positioned rearview mirror. After all, a proper focus on the past, present and future glorifies God because they all reveal your relationship with him – what he has done for you, what he is doing in your life, and what he has in store for you for eternity.


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23 Responses to Looking Backward Moves You Forward

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    “More important” does not necessarily diminish the object of comparison to complete unimportance. Since many of us dwell on the past and its failures, an opposite analogy like this serves as a needed wake up call. Those who understand the FULL application of what Paul wrote need it less.
    – As for me, I would remove the term “infinitely” let the size ratio speak to itself.
    We need to spend more time looking ahead, not focusing on the past.

  2. Looking back helps me encourage widows and caregivers. 2 Cor. 1:4 says that God comforts us “that we might be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” However, beyond this ministry to a select few others, I am enjoying pressing on with what is ahead (Phil. 3:13).

    • Tim says:

      Your ministry is a good example of why remembering is so important, Carol. How else can we comfort and encourage those who are going through what we’ve been through except by remembering where God has been with us in the past as well as be confident in knowing where he is taking us in the future.

  3. Hallelujah! The past is what it is. It makes no difference whether I regret it or not. I’m glad not to have it jumping out at me so much (i.e. PTSD) nowadays, but I fully recognise the gifts God has given me through all the experiences of my life and those I wouldn’t change.

    • Tim says:

      The gifts through the experiences – that’s a good way to remember the importance of the past.

    • Also, we can’t start adorning the future with hopes and dreams because the danger is that the future becomes our focus of worship, as it were, rather than God. One day at a time is the motto I learnt in Celebrate Recovery and I live by it. Can’t recommend it enough for anyone who’s struggling. Excellent post, Tim 🙂

  4. keriwyattkent says:

    Great post, Tim. I’ve found Christian radio DJs do not always make good theologians. I think what is most important is neither the past nor the future, as focusing on these often leads us to feel regret, or worry, respectively. What matters most is the present moment, and attending to that. C.S. Lewis wrote that “the present is the point at which time touches eternity.”
    Here’s the longer quote, from Lewis’s Screwtape Letters (an imagined conversation between two devils, discussing their “Enemy”–God):
    “The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present—either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”

    • Tim says:

      That is a wonderful passage, Keri. One thing I think we miss when we speak of the future is that it is not the same as eternity. Eternity exists right now, in our present reality.

  5. This reminded me of the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If we don’t remember and learn from our past, the successes and the failures, it can certainly hinder us from moving forward.

    Also if we’re really thinking about it we technically have three mirrors that are looking towards the “past” in a car. The rearview mirror and the two side mirrors. They may be smaller mirrors, but we also get to look at the past from a view different angles. Which is pretty important both in cars and in life.

    • Tim says:

      The various mirrors as metaphors for different angles for viewing the past are a great way to look at it, Jeremy. Well done, my friend.

  6. Kevin Mason says:

    Thank you for saying this. There is a bombardment of teachings by New Age gurus and New Age evangelical pastors spewing pithy statements about how we as believers need to focus only on the future and how it is unproductive as a Christian to think about or recall the past. It has been my experience that those who emphasize most on focusing on the present/future have skeletons, abuses, crimes, unrepentant sins, etc, they wish to keep hidden in their past: A pastor who was discovered to have committed a felony responded was that it occurred more than a year ago and we should not dwell on the things of the past. A married pastor caught in a sinful relationship attempted to dismiss the relationship because the physical part of the relationship had already ended before it was discovered. A couple, who had sexually and emotionally abused their only daughter, claims their actions occurred many years ago so it is no longer a relevant issue. (The daughter disagrees)

    Remembering how easy it was for us to sin in the past keeps us humble and watchful of our actions and thoughts in the present. Dealing with the sins of our past (or not so past) should lead us to brokenness and seek forgiveness from God and those we harmed. The saying: those who neglect the past are condemned to repeat it” also applies to Christians. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead…” Is a popular verse (proof text) for those that are superficial, immature, guilty criminals, or sociopaths who wish to run away from the consequences of their sins, avoid making restitution, or ignore the damage they created in the lives of others.

    • Tim says:

      To use Paul’s statement about forgetting the past and pressing ahead as a rule for refusing to deal with what’ has happened is a good example of stripping a verse from its context in order to fulfill an agenda. Paul was talking about not resting on his laurels. He was not saying that past events themselves are unimportant.

      • Kevin Mason says:

        I teach my children that the three most important parts of a proper understanding of a verse is CONTEXT! CONTEXT! CONTEXT! On several occasions, my sixteen year had blurted outed while listening to a sermon, “that’s not what those verses mean!” He has realized the importance of stopping a sermon (when listening via the internet) and go to the bible to read the entire chapter. Those without the luxury of stopping a sermon in mid-sermon are at a disadvantage and must place great trust in the pastor giving the sermon. My son once commented, “If the pastor cannot accurately present what is said in the bible, how are we to trust anything else he says.” He is discovering and learning the process of discernment.

  7. Michelle says:

    Excellent post Tim! For me, remembering my past has translated into teachable moments with my children. I was previously married for several years before I became a Christian. Since no children were produced during that union, it would have been easy to never bring it up again. However, my oldest just turned 13, and I, along with his dad, felt it was important to tell him about my previous marriage. It was a teachable moment and humbling experience for me. I was able to point to Jesus and his saving grace, while also encouraging my son to seek the Lord’s guidance in all his life decisions.

  8. 7stelle says:

    In the life of an abuse victim, looking back serves a good purpose in not believing the lie it “was all in her head” and helps as a reminder to choose more wisely for the present & future.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for providing more insight on the importance of remembering correctly. Remembering the past rightly doesn’t hinder but rather helps move us forward.

  9. Ruth says:

    This is a hard one. I don’t want to live in the past, but use what it taught me to help those who have somewhere dark in their lives, however, when the past is dragged up in every conversation with someone who was partly responsible for the dark places, it seems like a never ending attempt to climb out of the pit and into the light. I don’t want to examine over and over again a place I had in perspective and its proper place, but must try to avoid, it feels like I’m going backwards emotionally, but Jesus is the counter point to the past. I want to continue on emotionally healthy, spiritually growing, and into the light, I am hating the way I’m feeling, there was victory over that time, but it feels like the Devil is slinging mud from the pit of hell to distress me and destroy my future and present. But he won’t win, because, while this is horrible, God is cleaning me up as I read and pray and keep my mind on Him. The person I am dealing with is old and getting frail, so I must have compassion, and wait on God concerning this, in his defence, it was not abuse of an unthinkable sort, he is hardly all bad, and tries to go forward in a broken sort of way, and I simply must help or I am one big hypocrite.

    • Tim says:

      Ruth, it sounds like you are handling that past with grace and compassion. I pray for the Spirit to strengthen you in your relationship with that other person.

      • Ruth says:

        Thankyou Tim, a much valued comfort to know you are praying. If fact, a tear or two may have dropped onto my key board in comforted surprise…..well, yes, they actually did.

  10. Jeannie says:

    This is really interesting, Tim. I think about the Israelites and how they were always being told to remember how God brought them out of Egypt and cared for them etc. They weren’t supposed to wish themselves back in Egypt (though some did) but they were definitely supposed to look back at God’s provision all along the way. Where we have been can be really important. It sounds like the radio guy had good intentions but was a bit too black & white about this whole matter.

    • Tim says:

      I agree about his good intentions, Jeannie. I hope his listeners were being good Bereans and checking his teaching against Scripture. Those passages about the Israelites remembering Egypt correctly are a good example of how should be looking at the past and the future, too.

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