For the last two months I have been serving as a college minister at UNC-Greensboro. During this time I have often heard the university referred to as a “suitcase school.” Four thousand students live right on campus during the week, but each weekend a large portion of these students pack their bags and go home. As a result, the campus is all but dead on the weekends, hence the label “suitcase school.”
Now even if you didn’t attend a university like UNCG, most of us knew at least one person in college who couldn’t seem to leave their hometown behind. Maybe they had a boyfriend or girlfriend back there, or maybe they simply struggled to adjust to college life, but whatever the reason these suitcase students were frequently absent Friday through Sunday, and their life at school whithered as a result.
And this is what happens when you live your life looking back–you are so busy living in the past, that your present life essentially dies. God calls you forward, but you cannot forget what is behind, so you miss out on the blessing God has for you in the present.
We see this principle all throughout Scripture, but there is no example that is more memorable than that of Lot’s wife. The story begins with Lot and his wife being warned to get out of Sodom and Gomorrah as quickly as possible because God is about to destroy the two cities. In addition to these instructions, God warns them not to look back. So Lot and his family flee the city just in time to escape its violent destruction, but what does Lot’s wife do just as they reach safety? She looks back. And as a result, she is turned into a pillar or salt.
Now I don’t know about you, but this punishment seems a little harsh. After all, if God was destroying an entire city, I would probably want to look, if for no other reason than morbid curiosity. Fire raining down from the sky would probably be quite a sight to behold! Yet God considers her action so grave that he turns her into salt. What is going on here?
Ultimately, the sin of Lot’s wife was not in her action, but in her motive. Though she did disobey God by looking back, the real problem was the state of her heart–she was unwilling to let go of the city she had left behind. And while anyone who has ever left home can relate to this sentiment, Sodom and Gomorrah was no ordinary place. It was a region in which sin ran rampant–the people were all about excess and immorality, and they completely neglected their poor. The people who lived there were intensely wicked, which means that Lot’s wife was not experiencing your average homesickness for girl friends left behind. Instead, she was probably missing the sinful pleasures she had enjoyed there. God wanted to make her new, but she liked her old life better.
And Lot’s wife was not the last to make this mistake. Luke 9:62 tells us, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Even though Christ delivers us from sin and death, we will oftentimes look back at the life we left behind. I sometimes find myself missing some of my old vices, thinking how fun it would be to enjoy them one last time. Yet in the same way that looking back led to Lot’s wife’s demise, turning back to our old sins can lead to spiritual death as well.
In fact, looking back can lead to all kinds of death. For example, women are terrible about holding grudges. Guys will get in a fight, duke it out, and be done with it, but women will hold onto their bitterness for years. And as a result, they sabotage their relationships. You may have told your friend that you’ve forgiven her, but in reality you can’t forget what she’s done, so the friendship slowly dies.
And then there’s the kind of looking back that leaves us bound by guilt. God wants us to walk in the freedom of forgiveness, yet we cannot forgive ourselves, and so we remain in a self-imposed cage of self-doubt and shame even though the prison doors have been flung open.
In this way, the fate of Lot’s wife serves as a warning to us all: Living in the past means almost certain death in the present. Yes, we should learn from the past, but we should not be bound by it. If we believe that God is a redeemer, then we can trust that whatever happened behind us will be redeemed for good in the future, so rather than cling to that which we cannot change, we must put our full energy into what we can do today–namely, learning to serve, honor and love God better and better with every passing day.