Just over a decade ago, there was a top women’s tennis player whose serve was out of control. Early in her professional career, Elena Dementieva suffered a shoulder injury that prevented her from serving properly. After she recovered from the injury, she couldn’t get her service motion back. It seemed to be psychological as much as physical. She double-faulted frequently and struggled to win her service games. Yet, somehow she won matches and even tournaments. She was able to maintain a ranking in the top ten of women’s tennis for much of her professional career, reaching a high of number three in the world. Her greatest strength seemed to be her ability to forget. No matter how many points she lost to double-faults, or how poorly she was serving, she never seemed to hang her head. She fought hard on each and every point of every game. Whatever happened on her serve, she just kept fighting to win. Elena Dementieva’s tennis matches could be both painful to watch and inspiring.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Last Sunday, my pastor was explaining that we all have room to grow, so we shouldn’t get down on ourselves or beat ourselves up when we don’t get it right. I kept thinking, “But how?” When our sins and shortcomings seem to pile up, how can we not be mad at ourselves? Two days later, God brought the answer to my mind: “. . .forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. . .” I am sure that Elena Dementieva doesn’t like being known as the woman who couldn’t serve. Yet it occurred to me that the way she played tennis was a picture of the kind of forgetfulness that Paul wrote about. The world often focuses more on our failures than our successes, and it is bound to affect how we think about ourselves. Even the people we love will throw our past sins in our face, but we can still do our best to be forgetful. Not that God wants us to forget what we’ve learned or to repeat our sins. But if we wallow in guilt, we can’t move forward and God can’t use us. Repentance is necessary, but we don’t want to get stuck there.
Peter is my favorite Biblical example of moving forward after stumbling in sin because Peter and I share the same problem of speaking without thinking. While it isn’t explicitly called out in Scripture, it is clear that Peter was able to move on from his mistakes. He continued to zealously seek the Savior, and God used him in big ways. I am sure there were people who reminded him of stupid things he had done and said, and I can imagine the pangs he felt inside. But at some point he probably became too busy with ministry for the reminders to distract him. The more occupied we become with straining forward, the more focused we become on the goal. When we are focused on the goal, we don’t get mired in the past.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. . .
When people pick at the faults and sins that my personality seems particularly prone to, I have a tendency to rehash my lifetime of sins and mistakes, not to mention the resulting reprimands. It leads to discouragement and self-loathing. All of us struggle with different sins, though some sins are more noticeable and some have a greater effect on others. As believers, we need to learn to show grace to one another and not pile on reproof when a brother or sister is already contrite. I am trying to learn to encourage others instead of laying on shame or guilt over their errors. This isn’t easy for someone who so often sins and hurts others by speaking without thinking. When I sin with my words it is particularly discouraging because I feel like I have to change my whole personality. Yet, when I realize my sin and ask for forgiveness, God gives me a clean slate, even if other people don’t. I try to remember that the next time I open my mouth is an opportunity to do better, to press on toward the goal of godliness. Of course, before I forget what lies behind, I must honor God by apologizing and trying to reconcile with anyone I have injured. After that, it is time to strain forward, even if others do not.
I wonder if one of the reasons that I am happier, and have my depression under better control, is because I have become more focused on seeking God. Am I straining forward in the manner Paul describes? Do I have the zeal of Peter? I can’t make those claims. But surely I am learning to fix my eyes on the goal instead of the past. Deeper fellowship with God makes the conviction of the Holy Spirit over my sin more palpable. But at the same time, my focus is turning forward, to grow in faith and Christlike character. As a result, I am less preoccupied with the past I cannot change. I see more and more that the prize I am reaching for is of greater value than any tennis trophy. I know that pressing on is eminently worth my while.