Over the years, I have become familiar with many Bible stories. From the Garden of Eden through Noah and his Ark, into the New Testament and the parables of Jesus, there are many fascinating accounts. The lessons to be learned from many of them seem obvious, while others require study to gain understanding.
One story that long baffled me is the incident of Lot’s wife. I struggled to fit the punishment to the transgression. A talk by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led me to a deeper understanding.
The title of Elder Holland’s talk comes from Christ’s admonition in Luke 17:32: “Remember Lot’s Wife.”
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot (the nephew of Abraham) and his family lived, is found in Genesis. After unsuccessful efforts to reform the residents of the cities, whose behavior was truly appalling, the Lord told Lot and his family to flee because the cities were going to be destroyed.
“Escape for thy life; look not behind thee. . ; escape to the mountain lest thou be consumed,” said the Lord in Genesis 19:17.
After much complaining, equivocating and dragging of feet, Lot and his family reluctantly left Sodom — which was destroyed at daybreak by fire and brimstone raining from heaven. As they fled, and despite having been told “look not behind thee,” Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt.
What did she do wrong? She looked back. Why did she look back? We can come up with lots of reasons — a last look at the city which had been her home for many years, remembering what she had enjoyed there in the face of going into the mountains and beginning over again with new challenges.
Elder Holland suggested that it wasn’t just looking back; in her heart, it was wanting to go back. Missing what had been. Possibly, said Elder Holland, Lot’s wife looked back with resentment against the Lord for what she was having to leave behind.
“So it isn’t just that she looked back; she looked back longingly," he said. "In short, her attachment to the past outweighed her confidence in the future.”
In one way or another, many of us do the same thing. Every day we face change in our life. Large or small, every transition involves leaving something behind as we move forward. We may be breaking a bad habit, or leaving a beautiful home and a boat on the lake. It may be a broken relationship or secure employment.
While we can learn from experience — especially our mistakes or trials — holding on to the past at the expense of opportunities to grow and improve is not wise. Sometimes we need to take risks to improve or open the door to greater rewards, even though they may not be within our grasp at this time.
“The past is to be learned from but not lived in,” said Elder Holland. “Faith is always pointed toward the future.”
Perhaps a better way to look at Lot’s wife is to say she did not have faith. She wanted what she had left behind and doubted that the Lord was going to provide anything better. A pillar of salt is stuck in one place, without the hope of anything better.
Contrast that with the apostle Paul, who spoke to the Philippians, telling them of the favorable circumstances he came from, his family, education and accomplishments. Then he dismissed it all as “dung,” saying:
“This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14.
“God doesn’t care nearly as much about where you have been,” said Elder Holland, ”as he does about where you are and, with his help, where you are willing to go. . . . Faith is for the future. Faith builds on the past but never longs to stay there. Faith trusts that God has great things in store for each of us and that Christ truly is the ‘high priest of good things to come.’”
We all have fond memories and valuable experiences that have helped mold us, but we cannot live in the past if we want to accomplish anything. We must change and move forward with faith as we seek to obtain the blessings Christ has promised us. When you find yourself spending time wishing for the past rather than focusing on opportunities in front of you, remember Lot’s wife.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.