Years ago, when I first went into ministry, I worked as a college minister at a nearby “suitcase school.” Perhaps you have heard this term before, but the university earned this label because so few students remained on campus during the weekend. Every Friday, a large percentage of students packed up their bags and went home until Sunday, leaving a ghost town of a campus behind.
It took time getting used to this weekly rhythm, because my own undergraduate years were so unlike it. Back then, I had known only a handful of students who did the same—classmates who couldn’t seem to leave their hometown, or their boyfriend, or their girlfriend, behind—but the end result was the same for them as it was for this “suitcase school”: because they struggled to leave their past behind, their life at school withered as a result.
This is the inevitable consequence of getting stuck in the past. Whether we are looking back at a previous stage of life, or simply looking back at the year before, looking back has repercussions for our lives in the present, and no story captures this peril better than that of Lot’s wife.
Her story takes place in Genesis 19, when Lot and his wife have just fled Sodom and Gomorrah. God is about to destroy the two cities, but in His grace, He allows them to escape with specific instructions: “Run for your lives! Don’t look behind you or stop anywhere in the valley” (v. 17).
Lot and his family heed this advice and leave the city, which could have been the end of the story. Unfortunately, the sounds of destruction behind them proved too tempting to resist, and Lot’s wife eventually turned to catch a glimpse:
Lot’s wife looked back longingly and was turned into a pillar of salt. (v. 26)
In all my years of reading this story, the punishment has always seemed rather harsh. After all, if God was destroying an entire city, I would probably want to look! Fire raining down from the sky is not an everyday occurrence. Yet God considers her action so grave that she turns into salt.
Because the sin of Lot’s wife was not in her actions, but in her heart. Though she did disobey God by looking back, the word “longingly” indicates that the real problem was the orientation of her soul. She longed for 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 indulged in excess and blatant 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 her friends back home. Instead, she was longing for her previously dark and depraved lifestyle.
God wanted to make her new, but she liked her old life better.
It’s a temptation we all face: longing for something God has asked us to leave behind. Which is why Jesus himself warns about the fallout of our misplaced focus: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Once again, this response seems harsh, but only because Jesus wants us to understand the lesson that Lot’s wife learned the hard way: living in the past leads to death in the present. When we hold onto a grudge from the past, it kills a friendship in the present. When we hold onto our guilt from the past, it destroys our freedom in the present. When we hold onto our sins from the past, it corrupts our integrity in the present.
Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, not because God is overly judgmental, but because that is what fixating on the past does to us all. Living in the past means almost certain death in the present.
It’s a good but chastening reminder as we head into a new year. Yes, make time to reflect and remember and learn from the year behind you, but then, put your hand to the plow, and fix your eyes on Him.