Holiday seasons are times to contemplate future plans while looking back on past experiences. In fact, the Advent itself serves to help us maintain a spirit of reflection. As healthy as that may be, there comes a point when we need to think ahead, not look back. God's Word recounts an angel instructing Lot and his family to scamper out of Sodom and to resist looking back (Genesis 19). Lot's sons-in-law stonewalled part one of the directive and perished in the condemned city.
Although Lot's wife and daughters fled with Lot, his wife disobeyed the second part of the command. She, along with the others, was explicitly told to hurry onward and look forward - toward a new home and a new day. The family was to "cut bait" with the raunchy Sodomites.
Lot's wife was checking out what she was leaving behind. She was savoring a sight that was to be forgotten, a chapter that was to be closed. How often our eyes, like hers, become transfixed on what's behind, especially near the end of a year.
We are stuck in the past reabsorbing its pain or replaying its pleasures, diverted from moving ahead.
Many reasons lie behind our indulging in what psychologists refer to as "museum tours," or what country singer Randy Travis calls "digging up bones." Sometimes we can't seem to move beyond the past because we desire to relive (or correct) it. Perhaps we see the uncertain present and future as less desirable by comparison. How should we respond to the beckoning fingers that implore us to dwell on former days? Is a prolonged gaze, or even a quick glance, in the rearview mirror ever justified?
At times, looking back can be inspiring and rewarding. The Israelites were told to often recall the Exodus, and the Passover was instituted to help them do this. Similarly, the Sabbath was declared a holy day - to recount God's resting after His week of creation. When Jesus offered the cup He said, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). He invites us to repeatedly take thorough, reflective looks at His work on the cross. Biblical rituals help us to look back at the right things, such as miraculous events that provide us with a sense of continuity, security, and guidance.
This very season is ripe with comforting and renewing rituals. We also have our own stories that testify to God's special touch. We remember times of overwhelming inspiration or we recall dramatic answers to prayer. Who can forget prayers of relinquishing everything to God? We do well to recall such moments"but not to the neglect of the present.
The Primacy of "Now"
To employ computer lingo, our "cursors" must "drag" victories and lessons of yesteryear into the file labeled "today""giving them a needed dimension of meaning and direction. Our primary focus must be on current opportunities and Divine assignments. We should selectively respect the past, and arduously prepare for the future. But we should live now, maximizing immediate opportunities as God guides and provides.
The Bible declares this truth in many ways. "Work . . . while it is day" (John 9:4, KJV). "Now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2). "Whatever your hand finds to do [in the present], do it with all your might" (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
These and more admonitions appeal for a constant "holy alertness."
One of my university students bragged about driving at a speed that an Indy driver would covet. I asked if he had been concerned about getting a ticket. His reply: "No sweat. I've learned to 'live in my rearview mirror.'" He shouldn't. Hopefully, having learned a valuable lesson from Lot's wife, we won't, at least not incessantly. This Advent, may anticipation of spiritual newness fill our hearts with joyful hope.
Jon Johnston is professor of sociology and anthropology at Pepperdine University.
Holiness Today, November/December 2004
Please note: This article was originally published in 2004. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.