May 2, 2020

​“Burn the Ships”

Yes, sometimes we have to announce: “We’re not going back.”

Gordon Bietz

With the arrival of COVID-19, and the resulting disruption it has caused in our families, careers, and plans for the future, we hope this article will provide inspiration as we put the pandemic behind us and walk the path that God has set before us.—Editors

In 1519, Hernán Cortés arrived in the New World with 600 men and, upon arrival, made history by destroying his ships. This sent a clear message to his men: There is no turning back.1

There are other phrases for the same idea, such as “crossing the Rubicon,” “the die is cast,” or “burning one’s bridges.” The message of all these idioms is that we must forget the past and move into the future. “Burn the Ships,” performed by Australian duo For King & Country, is a song about moving into the future. The lyrics ask,

“How did we get here?”

“All castaway on a lonely shore?”

And then draws on sentiment made famous by Hernán Cortés: “Burn the ships. . . . Step into a new day.”2

Getting the Best Start

Often enough, the best start to a new venture, a new school year, a new marriage, a new career, a new journey of any kind, requires burning the ships. The apostle Paul knew the importance of burning the ships and forgetting the past. I’m sure he had a lot of things he was happy to forget. Paul has three things in Philippians 3 to remember as we “step into a new day.”

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” (Phil. 3:13, 14).

Bitterness and unhappiness are often the result of an unwillingness to forget and forgive. People who don’t “burn the ships” carry the wound of bitterness that will destroy their joy of living. British statesman John Morley said, “The proper memory . . . is one that knows what to remember and what to forget.”3

A soldier captured at Wake Island during World War II was confined for years in a prison in China. He was left partially paralyzed when an enemy soldier struck him with a rifle butt. I met him 13 years after the war, living in San Francisco. He told one story after another about how barbarically he had been treated. With vile language and intense emotion, he spoke of the tortures he endured and of his utter hatred for the Japanese.

He had been horribly wronged, no question about it. His misery and pain could hardly be measured. But the greatest tragedy was that he was a bitter man. He had been released from the prison camp. But he was still bound in the prison camp of bitterness, fighting a battle that should have ended years before.

There is no torment like inner torment. There is no life as miserable as one that is miserable from the inside. The New Testament has this counsel: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Heb. 12:15).

We don’t always have a choice about all that we will experience, but we can choose which memories we will put on the mantelpieces of our minds to be looked at every day and which memories will be placed on a high shelf in the bookcase to collect the dust of time.

The greatest victims of the bitter memories we carry in our hearts are not those who receive our ire, but we ourselves. When we don’t experience the grace of God in our own lives, we are not able to extend God’s grace to others; we are not able to truly forgive others. The antidote for this poison of bitterness is forgiveness, not just for those who ask, not just for those who are sorry, but for everyone all the time. We give grace even when it’s not sought. We must be forgiving, not just for the benefit of the other person—it is a requirement for our own peace of mind.

Paul was not forgetful, but he intentionally put some things out of his mind. Some memories he chose to neglect. God’s grace enables us to heal some of those wounding experiences in our past.

Getting the Best Future

“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” (verses 13, 14).

When Cortés arrived in the New World, major problems confronted him. He was committed to the goal of visiting what is now Mexico City, and he made his commitment clear by destroying “all of his ships but one, which he sent back to Spain for King Charles. The fear of his men returning to Cuba, rather than embarking on the journey to the Aztec Empire, made him decide to demolish his ships. They no longer had any option but to accompany him on this journey.”4

There is work to do; lives to live; people to serve; God to worship. There is a new journey for all of us. Look to tomorrow, not to yesterday. Have you ever noticed how small children look ahead? They are eager to be older. If you say to a child, “I’m guessing you are 4 years old,” they would likely respond indignantly, “No! I’m 4½.” They can’t wait to be older, old enough to go to school, then old enough to drive, then old enough to go to college, then old enough to get married. The young are excited for the future. Christians should be ever young.

We don’t always have a choice about all that we will experience, but we can choose the memories we put on the coffee tables of our minds.

Ask an older person how old they are, and you might get the response “None of your business!” More than likely they are looking back, back to the “good old days,” and thinking about the past rather than being excited about what lies ahead. We don’t lose our excitement for tomorrow because we grow old. We grow old because we are no longer excited about tomorrow.

“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” (Phil. 3:13, 14).

Nothing can compare with the prize we seek. Our little injuries of the past pale into insignificance as we look at the Lord. Our injuries look like nothing when compared with the injuries that the Lord incurred. There is much we can forget for the sake of the prize.

In the poem “The Land of Beginning Again,” Louisa Fletcher longs for

“some wonderful place . . .

Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches

And all of our poor selfish grief

Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,

And never be put on again.”5

In Christ we have a land of beginning again. Every day is a new day; every moment is the first moment of the rest of our lives. When we live in the grace of Jesus our past is past and our future is new with opportunities and possibilities.

We are on a journey, and our journey is to our heavenly home. The prize we seek is not to conquer a new land but to receive a new land prepared for us (see John 14:1-3). Heaven is our home; we are just passing through; anything that is an obstacle should be burned, freeing us to “[s]tep into a new day,” inspiring us to “rise up from the dust and walk away.”6

Blooming Where You’re Planted

Once upon a time deep in Fenton Forest, so deep in the dark part of the woods that Freddy the Fox rarely went, and Lightfoot the Deer never darkened the forest floor, deep in the forest past Ivy Lane and Pine Nut Street, there were no forest paths and no homes of any Fenton Forest folk. Deep in the dark part of the forest by some moss-covered stones was a seed.

It was a flower seed buried in the dirt and forest refuse at the foot of the old gnarled oak. It decided that it was no use to bloom there in the dark part of Fenton Forest, for no one would see it there, no one would notice, and it was no use to waste its energy by blooming. Who cared about it? So it withdrew into its shell.

But one day a big drop of dew fell from the limb of the old oak, and water tickled the shell of the flower seed, causing a stirring deep within the seed. A beam of sunlight broke through the forest canopy, warming the soil all around the little seed. Try as it might, the little seed couldn’t resist the call of life hidden deep within its hard-shell exterior. The shell broke open, and the little seed burst from its hard shell and broke through the forest floor.

The green shoot shot upward, and a flower opened. It was a pretty flower, with waxy yellow pedals and a pale-green stem. It lifted its head above the dark, dank forest floor and opened wide its pedals to the scarce light that filtered down through the trees to its place at the base of the old oak tree.

There it stood, a solitary spot of yellow, like a splash of paint, on the dark landscape of the primeval forest floor. It sent out its perfumed flower fragrance on light breezes, hoping for some bee that might have strayed from its flight path and followed the scent to its side.

There it grew, droplets of dew glistening from its canary-colored pedals. Day after day it was there in the deepest, darkest part of Fenton Forest. Week after week it was there in the obscure recesses of the forest. During the entire season of its life it was there—blooming.

But no errant bee found its delightful nectar there by the big oak; no passing bird saw its splash of yellow; and no meandering forest inhabitant observed the glory it brought to its little dark glen.

The season of its life came to an end as its golden saffron petals faded onto the colorless mat of the forest floor to provide nutrients for a future flower generation.

The old oak said to it as it faded its last, “It was hardly worth it, was it? Such color wasted in the deep darkness of the forest.”

Its reply as it died there by the roots of the ancient oak was, “I just bloom where I am planted, and God sees.”

Or as Paul would say, “I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back” (Phil. 3;13, 14, Message).7

  1. For historical accuracy: the ships were not actually burned but scuttled. But the point is important: there was no turning back.
  2. “Burn the Ships,” written by Matt Hales, Seth Mosley, Joel Smallbone, and Luke Smallbone, Curb/Word © 2018.
  3. John Morley, first viscount of Morley of Blackburn,,_1st_Viscount_Morley_of_Blackburn.
  5. Louisa Fletcher, “The Land of Beginning Again,” from The Land of Beginning Again © Nabu Press, 2011.
  6. “Burn the Ships.”
  7. Texts credited to Message are from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Gordon Bietz, former president of Southern Adventist University, is associate director for higher education for the North American Division.