By Ken Gurley
I Timothy 1:12-15; Philippians 3:13-15
Comments: A chief role of the Old Testament priest was the absolution of individual and corporate guilt by the means of animal sacrifices. While Christ in His once-and-for-all sacrifice at Calvary remedied this, people still live in guilt and condemnation. It is the role of today’s preacher to help people apply Calvary’s remedy to their daily lives. We teach people to forgive and to be forgiven.
In this message, I don’t take the normal tack of “take it to Calvary and forget about it.” I explore one of the chief motivating factors of the apostle Paul — what he chose to remember. The sermon centers on the seeming contradiction between two of Paul’s statements found in our texts. Apparently, Paul learned how to let his remorse work for him rather than against him. Perhaps, it is worthy of our emulation.
- Introduction: A Tale of Two Ships
I bring you a true story, a story of two ships. Each was named after one of the fifty states. Each was a battleship. Each saw action during the Second World War. Yet, for our purposes, the similarities end there. One saw action on the first day of the war, while the other saw action on the last day of the war. The fates of each were very different. One lies in defeat at the bottom of a harbor, the other floats a few hundred yards away, a victorious monument to the massive effort put forth by the United States to win the war.
If you haven’t guessed already, the name of the first battleship is the USS Arizona. On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941 —a day that lives in infamy — Navy crewmen prepared for worship services. Waves of Japanese bombers flew across the Hawaiian Island of Oahu towards Pearl Harbor, home to the United States Pacific Fleet. The bomber pilots ignored lesser targets and focused their attention on the kings of the seven seas, the battleships parked on battleship row. Like the roll call of states: the Oklahoma, the California, the Nevada, the West Virginia — each was attacked. Yet, they fade in comparison to the sinking of the Arizona. The average age of the nearly 1200 crewmen was 23 years; they all sank on this ship. The ship remains where it sank.
Floating a few hundred yards away is the second ship: the USS Missouri, the Mighty Mo. It joined the Pacific Fleet close to the end of World War II. It would later do battle in the conflicts of Vietnam, Korea, and the Persian Gulf. But, its supreme moment was on this very day, September 2, some fifty-six years ago. While anchored in Tokyo Bay, delegations from the Allied and Axis powers met on Mighty Mo’s decks. Here, the Japanese surrendered and the Second World War became history.
Not long ago, our two ships came very close to each other. The Missouri now floats close to the Arizona. Her guns drop in salute to her sunken comrades on the Arizona.
It’s an odd feeling, one that I experienced last month. Standing on the decks of the ship where the war ended while gazing beneath the oil-covered waters toward the ship where the war started. The USS Missouri represents the place of victory. The USS Arizona represents the place of defeat.
Within our lives are two similar ships: one is loaded with our victories and successes — our Mighty Mo; the other is filled with our defeat, our failures, our mistakes, and our shortcomings. As at Pearl Harbor, we normally choose to float our victories, but our defeats are out of sight.
It reminds me of two statements made by the Apostle Paul. At first glance, they seem to suggest a contradiction:
I Timothy 1:12-15
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
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. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and f in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.
A war raged within the Apostle Paul. The war centered upon what he chose to remember and what he chose to forget. Have you ever felt that way?
Lord, you are the One who both remembers and forgets. God, we are made in your image. We too remember and forget. Lord, we’re not good at remembering both our victories and defeats. So, God— one of us has to forget.
- The Contradiction: Paul’s Selective Memory
What do we normally choose to remember? Each of us has a trophy room in our lives. We want people to gaze into it. We want them to see our successes and our accomplishments. Look at the trophy room, but please don’t look at our room for failure. We float our victories, but sink our failures. In a seeming contradiction in Scripture, Paul argued for the exact opposite.
- Paul Forgot His Victories.
Paul said to the Philippians, “this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind.” How often have we used this verse to justify forgetting our mistakes? I would suggest that more times than not when I’ve used it from behind the pulpit, I’ve used it in that context. But, is this what Paul had in mind? What did Paul choose to forget?
The setting for this verse is found in Paul’s weariness with the Judaizers — those Hebrew Christians who attempted to drag Gentile Christians back under the Jewish ceremonial laws. These men bragged of their heritage, their bloodline, and their primacy. Paul’s pen, anointed by the Spirit, took issue with these braggarts:
Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.
Paul listed his seven superiorities in the flesh. Had Paul so desired he could have sailed the seven seas of Jewish faith on these accomplishments. But, Paul in effect said, “No, I will not rest upon these successes. I will forget these things.” Whatever was a success to Paul, he forgot it and set about to win Christ. Everything but Christ in Paul’s trophy case was forgotten and treated as nothing but garbage.
In the light of what Christ had accomplished for him, Paul sank his successes. He forgot his victories.
- Paul Remembered His Defeats.
Contrary to most of us, Paul not only forgot his victories, he chose to remember his defeats. His success stories were deep-sixed, but his failures were floated before him.
To Timothy, his son in the faith, Paul said, “I was a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious. Timothy, don’t ever forget that of all the sinners, Jesus came to save, I am the chief of the lot.”
He didn’t put it in the past tense — “I was the chief sinner.” He put it in the present tense, “I am the chief sinner.” Paul didn’t get far in his mind from his past. He knew how far God had brought him from.
There is no contradiction at all. In Philippians, Paul forgets his successes. In I Timothy, Paul remembers his failures.
III. Two Grand Exchanges
- God Will Remember What I Choose To Forget.
Like the Judaizers that Paul faced throughout his ministry, we too tend to measure our righteousness and worth by our victories. We notch our gun belts with our accomplishments and then attempt to tower over every one around us. God wants us to forget our accomplishments.
Our victories are nothing but traps in disguises. That’s what Gideon learned. His army of 32,000 went out to fight the Midianite force of 135,000. The enemy stacked up against him with 5:1 odds. God wasn’t satisfied with these odds. He told Gideon to tell all the fearful to leave. They did. Only 10,000 remained — 13:1 odds against God’s people. God still wasn’t satisfied. It still wasn’t fair. Finally, with only 300 left — with odds of 450:1 — the Lord allowed Gideon to lead His people into battle. That night, 300 pitchers were broken, 300 lamps were lifted, and 300 voices were heard shouting, “The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon” (Judges 7:18-20). Victory came.
Time passed and soon Gideon forgot about the sword of the Lord. He seized upon the gold, silver, and precious stones captured in the victory over the Midianites and fashioned them into a shrine. The Bible says “the thing became a snare to Gideon and to his house” (Judges 8:27).
We are a lot like Gideon. We too soon forget about the sword of the Lord and we focus on our prowess, our intellect, and our abilities. We engage in a little rewriting of history where we minimize God’s involvement and maximize our efforts. God knows that the enemy would love to use our victories as snares.
A snare tempts, and then immobilizes us. A fowler places grain beneath a nearly invisible loop of rope, wire, or hair. An unsuspecting bird stoops for the grain and the snare falls about its neck. Satan ensnares us in a similar way. He encourages us to think of our victories, our accomplishments, and our abilities. We factor God out of the equation and we find ourselves trapped.
More people lose out with God during times of prosperity than in times of poverty. More people walk away from God when things are good than when things are bad. We usually make shipwrecks of our lives when we’re sailing on the seas of self-confidence.
Here’s the first grand exchange offered by God: God will remember what I choose to forget. If I forget my victories, He will remember them.
Perhaps that is why Paul boasted of his weakness. He gloried in his inabilities because the more Paul forgot his strengths, the stronger God became in his life (II Corinthians 12:5-9). What we forget, God remembers.
Listen to John the Baptist proclaim, “He must increase. I must decrease” (John 3:30). We magnify God’s abilities, not our own. The smaller I get, the bigger He grows.
Why did God allow David to defeat a lion, a bear, and a giant with nothing but a slingshot? Because God didn’t want David thinking that these feats had been done in his own strength.
1 Samuel 17:37
David said moreover, The LORD that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the LORD be with thee.
David was a man after God’s own heart. He knew that any victory won in life is a result of a mighty God, not a Mighty Mo. The battle, the victory, and the glory belong only to God. Yet—
Yet, if we forget our victories, God chooses to remember them. Heaven has crowns waiting for those who forget their victories down here – soul winner’s crowns, martyr’s crowns, crowns of rejoicing, faithfulness, and eternal life. God is keeping the score, not us.
For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.
We should forget our victories, knowing that God won’t.
A cup of cold water given.
A second mile walked.
A visit to the incarcerated.
A cloak and a shirt given away.
The least may forget, but Jesus said, “I won’t.”
I Corinthians 15:58
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
That’s a grand exchange! No sacrifice goes unnoticed by God. Nothing is in vain. We can forget our victories, because God won’t!
- God Will Forget What I Choose To Remember.
We learn this lesson early in our Christian walk. God forgives us when we confess our shortcomings to Him. As we remember our failures, God forgets them.
Why shouldn’t it be that way throughout our Christian life? If we continued to remember our failures, we might not come to church with our pious, game faces on. We might come to church vulnerable and transparent, as needy and hungry as we really are. There may be fewer Pharisees and more publicans in church. We might hear more, “God, you are so good,” than “God, I am so good.” We might hear people confessing their complete inability and ultimate reliance upon God. This is the place where we should hear, “Woe is me!” not “Wonderful is me!”
We point out others’ mistakes, but not our own. But if we place our ears to the twin rails of Scripture and history we would hear great saints remembering their failures. Listen to them fall on the rock of self-judgment rather than having the Rock of divine judgment fall on them.
David said, “My sin is ever before me.” I can’t run from it. It’s always before me. I know I’m forgiven. Yet, I won’t forget how weak I really am and how much I need God.
Scripture won’t let us forget that Mary Magdalene was a woman from whom Jesus cast seven devils. I just wonder if the reason it’s found in Scripture is that Mary wanted it there. She didn’t want anyone to forget how far God had brought her.
Listen to Paul give his dubious resume. Gone are the seven superiorities. Those have sunk to the bottom of the sea. No, Paul floats his failures before us. He allows us to see his defeats. He knew that he persecuted, blasphemed, and tormented God and His church. He knew that he was the chief of sinners and he told people that. The more Paul described his failures, the greater and more abundant God’s loving grace came to him.
Why should I remember my failures? Simply because — God’s mercy can only be measured by my failures.
Here’s the second grand exchange: God forgets what I remember. The more I remember my failures, the more He forgets them.
I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.
When I remember my sins, God forgets them. As I keep my failures on the surface, never internalizing them with a self-righteous spirit, God allows them to disappear from His memory.
Micah 7: 18- 19
Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.
God, one of us has to forget my sins. I’ll remember them. You forget them. God one of us has to forget my victories. I’ll forget them. You remember them.
What an exchange! On the sea of this life, I float my failures. On the crystal sea, God floats my victories.
- Close: A Major Warning from a Major Prophet
Something bothered me about Pearl Harbor. Oh, it has a nice sense of justice to it — the Missouri, a ship of victory moored close to Arizona, the ship of defeat. Yet, they seemed too close. Way too close. Defeat lay too close to victory. Gone were the thousands of miles filled with rivers of blood that purchased the victory.
Churches across America preach that we should love ourselves, be kind to ourselves, and value ourselves. Our flesh wants to quickly forget our mistakes and say, “Yes, I made a mistake. But, look there’s my victory.” Cheap grace. Sloppy Agape. We fail to recognize the great gulf of sin between our mistakes and Christ’s victory at Calvary.
A major prophet warns us.
Thus saith the LORD unto this people, Thus have they loved to wander, they have not refrained their feet, therefore the LORD doth not accept them; he will now remember their iniquity, and visit their sins.
Three times Jeremiah warned his hearers. If we won’t remember our failures, God will remember them for us.
So, I pray. Lord, one of us has to forget my victories. Let that be me! Let me realize that within me dwells no good thing. Any victory, any talent, any strength I have comes only from you.
Lord, one of us has to forget my sins. God, let that be you. Blot out my transgressions. Invite me to come and reason together with you. Allow my sins to be washed white as snow.
This article “God, One of Us Has To Forget” was excerpted from the book Preaching for a New Millennium written by Ken Gurley. It may be used for study & research purposes only.