Nostalgia never seems to go out of style.
- Twenty- and thirty-somethings relive their carefree days of high school and college.
- Forty- and fifty-somethings yearn for their years of young adulthood, before their shoulders were weighed down with heavy burdens of responsibility.
- Sixty- and seventy-somethings pine for the decades when the adventures and achievements of life lay ahead of them instead of behind them.
- Old war buddies mourn the era when the men were brave, the women were strong, and the issues were clear.
It’s a terrible way to live.
Yes, it is good to remember the past. But we were never meant to live there.
Yes, our past brought us to the present. But the present is moving toward the future, not toward the past.
Our eyes are placed in the front of our head, not in the back. We humans are designed to look forwards, not backwards.
Within the ancient pages of the Bible there are many stories and metaphors illustrating the damage that is done when we look back and live in the past. Let’s take a deeper look at a few of them, and see what wisdom they hold for our life today . . . and for our future.
Oh, for the luxuries of slavery!
In the celebrated story of the Exodus, Moses led the Israelites triumphantly out of Egypt and slavery as God sent death and destruction on their Egyptian masters.
What was the first thing the people did once they were safely out of Egypt?
No, I mean after Moses and his sister Miriam led them in joyous songs of celebration and triumph.
They complained! Or to use the Yiddish term, they kvetched!
First they complained about water. So God gave them plenty of good, clean water. (Exodus 15:22–27).
Then they complained about food:
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:2–3)
So God gave them plenty of good food: flocks of quail in the evening, and in the morning, the light, sweet “bread from heaven” called “manna” (Exodus 16). God fed them day in and day out for months and years with this bread from heaven, which covered the ground like dew each morning.
Were the Israelites happy?
Not for long:
The foreigners who were with them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also turned back and wept, and said, “Who will give us meat? We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our soul is fainting, and there is nothing but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4–6)
This time God sent them enough meat to last a month . . . and a plague to go with it because of all their grumbling.
And yet they kept right on complaining, and wishing they were back in Egypt (see Numbers 14:1–4; 20:2–5; 21:4–5).
What’s with all the kvetching? Were things really better in Egypt?
Here are the conditions under which they had suffered when they were slaves in Egypt:
The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. (Exodus 1:13–14)
Ultimately, that whole generation of former slaves who complained about their present freedom while painting a rosy picture of their past had to die off in the desert before their children could enter the Promised Land (see Numbers 14:20–35; 26:63–65; 32:8–13; Deuteronomy 2:14–16; Joshua 5:4–7).
Slavery is easy . . . and hard. So is freedom.
Why all the nostalgia for times when they were miserable slaves in Egypt?
Well . . . being free and responsible for ourselves is risky . . . and scary. When things go wrong, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves. When times are tough, and we don’t have enough to eat or drink, nobody will come and rescue us. We have to hustle and struggle for ourselves, and work hard to satisfy our wants and needs.
It’s so much easier to let others take care of us.
However, in abdicating our freedom and self-responsibility, we lose our humanity. We become someone else’s property, to be used or abused at their whim.
Psychologically and spiritually, the story of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt is the story of our leaving behind the childhood of dependence on others and entering into the adulthood of ruling our own lives and being responsible for our own actions. This Exodus can take many forms:
- It may be a developmental transition from the dependence of our teenage years to the independence of our young adult years.
- It may be a financial transition from working for others in the corporate world to setting up our own business and becoming an independent entrepreneur.
- It may be a personal transition from the slavery of addiction to freedom from addiction.
- It may be a spiritual transition from a sense of hopelessness and futility to a newfound faith, hope, and purpose in life.
No matter what transition we may be facing from dependence and slavery to independence and freedom, it will not be easy. We will face new challenges and new struggles every day. Like the ancient Israelites, we may long to return to our old “easy” way of life. Just as all of the adults who had lived as slaves had to die off before the Israelites could enter their Promised Land, so, too, all of our slavish, self-defeating attitudes must die off before we can move into the freedom and responsibility of spiritual adulthood.
The path of life leads forward to the Promised Land, not backward to slavery in Egypt.
Curiosity killed the . . . umm . . . killed Lot’s wife
A fatal case of looking back occurred when Abraham’s nephew Lot was fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with his wife and their two daughters.
There’s no need to recount the whole sordid tale here. Suffice it to say that the inhabitants of Sodom, where Lot was living, were so evil that God decided to destroy that city, along with its equally wicked sister cities of Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim (Genesis 18:16–19:29, Deuteronomy 29:23; Hosea 11:8). And incidentally, according to the Bible (see Ezekiel 16:49–50) the sin for which Sodom was destroyed was not homosexuality as is claimed in so many fundamentalist polemics, but arrogance, self-indulgence, lack of concern for the poor, and other detestable things. (For more on this, see “What is the Sin of Sodom?”)
Unlike the other inhabitants of Sodom, Lot and his family were humble, hospitable to visiting travelers, and generally righteous in their actions. For that reason, and in consideration of his uncle Abraham, God sent angels to escort Lot and his family out of Sodom before the city was destroyed.
The angels who led Lot and his reluctant family out of the city instructed them, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back!” (Genesis 19:17).
But for Lot’s wife, the temptation was too great. Here’s the scene:
By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land. But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. (Genesis 19:23–26)
Why did Lot’s wife look back? The story doesn’t say. Perhaps her two daughters were behind her, and she wanted to make sure they were coming. Perhaps it was morbid curiosity about the destruction going on behind them as they fled. Or perhaps she was looking back with longing for her old life.
A salty death
And what about that pillar of salt? Such pillars were a familiar sight for people who spent time on the shores of the Dead Sea—which is so salty that nothing but a few hardy strains of bacteria can live in it. Everything gets encrusted with salt there! It would have been easy to imagine one of them as Lot’s wife, frozen in place and encrusted in salt as a punishment from God for disobeying the order not to look back.
But there are deeper meanings involved. The Bible is a spiritual book. It is not concerned with natural formations or with what happens to people’s bodies. It is concerned with what happens to people’s souls.
Food seasoned with just the right amount of salt tastes better and is more appetizing than unsalted food. So in a good sense, salt symbolizes a healthy love and curiosity to learn new things, to try out new things, to experience with zest and enjoyment what life has to offer!
However, not all food is good for us. When salt is used to mask the poor flavors of food that we shouldn’t be eating in the first place, or to preserve indefinitely food that should be eaten fresh, it takes on a negative symbolism of morbid curiosity and a desire to experience evil, destructive, and unhealthy things.
It’s significant that Lot’s wife was looking back at the destruction behind her when she turned into a pillar of salt.
The clear message is that when we are leaving behind destructive situations or evil ways of living, we must leave behind what is now becoming our past; we must keep our focus on moving forward. If we look back to our old life with curiosity or longing or any desire that keeps our mind focused on the life and the people we are leaving, it’s much too easy to slip right back into the old patterns, the old addictions, the old associations with people who drag us down.
It may or may not kill us physically. But it will bring us to a paralyzed, salt-encrusted spiritual death. Once we’ve looked back, it becomes even harder to move forward than it was before.
Empty, clean, and fixed up for a big relapse
That’s the message of one of Jesus’ pithy parables:
When an evil spirit leaves a person, it travels through the desert, looking for a place to rest. But when the demon doesn’t find a place, it says, “I will go back to the home I left.” When it gets there and finds the place empty, swept, and decorated, it goes off and finds seven other evil spirits even worse than itself. They all come and make their home there, and the person ends up in worse shape than before. That’s how it will be with you evil people of today. (Matthew 12:43–45; see also Luke 11:24–26)
Jesus is drawing a picture of someone who has cleaned up his or her life. The evil spirit formerly inhabiting the “house” of this person’s character is gone.
Unfortunately, nothing new has taken its place. The house is empty, swept, and decorated, all ready for someone to move in. But nobody has moved in. So the evil spirit goes and gets seven friends, and they all move in and make the house of that person’s mind and life a true hell.
Why seven spirits instead of just one? Because when we’ve started toward a new life but then fall back into the old one, it becomes seven times harder to break free from that old life. We’ve been defeated, and we expect to be defeated again, so it seems useless even to try.
Press onward and upward!
It’s not enough just to move away from our old, destructive life and associations. We must move forward in life, filling the hole left by our old habits with new patterns of living, new and more spiritually healthy friends, new and more constructive activities.
- Instead of always going to the bar or hanging out with friends smoking pot, join a fitness club, volunteer at a hospital, or get involved in a local church or service club.
- Quit the old, dead-end job and find work doing something more meaningful.
- Leave behind materialistic, bigoted, or generally negative friends and family members and make new, more positive and spiritually oriented friends and “family.”
- Instead of wasting away in front of the TV, get out for some exercise! Start reading spiritual and self-help books! Follow great blogs like this one! 🙂
Whatever the old life and lifestyle was, the important thing is to start something new and different to take its place. If our life is empty, our old habits will come roaring back, and we’ll be worse off than when we started.
If you’re making a change for the better in your life, don’t look back! Keep moving forward! God is ready and waiting to lift you up to a better life than you have ever experienced before.
This is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”