This week poised on the precipice of a new year is a favorite. It’s a time of looking back and looking forward. A time to remember what God has done and what may lie ahead.
Sometimes, I confess, I don’t want to just look back. I want to go back.
Sometimes I long for the days when all seven of my children slept under my roof. Times of play dates and play forts. Days that seem both fuller and simpler. And of course, days before Dan died, when I leaned so heavily on his good humor and strong spine to parent and do life together.
Memories are a gift that let us savor the beauty in life.
And yet scripture tells us there’s one thing needed: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” (1 Cor. 3:13-14)
Is it wrong to look back? Will we, like Lot’s wife, feel the sting of stiff consequence if we pause and look back?
The Bible has a lot to say about looking back. Sometimes we’re admonished for looking back and sometimes we’re admonished to look back. How do we sort it out?
Let’s first focus on what God says about not looking back.
5 ways we should not look back
1.Don’t inflame old wounds. When we brood over old offenses or times when someone hurt us, we can sow roots of bitterness. And while we can never completely forget a hurtful past event, we can choose not to dwell there.
When we fully forgive others as God has fully forgiven us, we can move forward well.
“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” (Heb 12:15)
2. Don’t rehearse old sins. The enemy loves to keep us defeated and discouraged and we give him plenty of ammunition when we stew over our past sin. Past sin makes us feel disqualified, keeping us from doing the work God has for us now.
But God isn’t rehearsing our old sin! He’s removed it as far as the east is from the west – an infinite, impossible distance that assures us God forgives us and remembers our sins no more.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1)
3. Don’t fuel old regrets. It’s easy to look back and see things I missed in my parenting and doors I didn’t walk through. And regret is huge struggle after someone you love dies.
But regret lies to us that we could have done it perfectly or that we could have changed an outcome if we’d done something different. Instead of living in the shame of regret, we can trust God’s sovereignty over all things.
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Is 43:18-19)
4. Don’t turn to old paths. Following God is a 100% commitment to go where he calls. Jesus likened it to a farmer plowing a field. To get straight rows, the farmer fixes his eyes on an immoveable object like a tree or gate post as he plows. If he looks back, the rows will be crooked.
The same thing happens when we drive a car. If we look over our shoulder, our hands on the steering wheel naturally follow and we find ourselves drifting out of our lane. Spiritually, we can’t look back at old paths and move forward with God. Instead, we need to fix our eyes on our immoveable God and follow him.
“Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:62)
5. Don’t simmer in what could have been. When life implodes in any kind of loss and we’re walking out a life we didn’t order, our minds drift back to the way life was. That’s the way it should have been, we tell God, replaying the life we had and the life we want.
But we can’t stay parked in what could-have-been. Grieving with hope means letting go of the life we had and trusting God with the life he’s allowed. It’s a process that we do over and over and over as we surrender our expectations to God.
We don’t blot out those memories — the people we loved and the life we had with them are treasures. But we choose to surrender the story we wanted and live fully in the chapter God has written.
“Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Ecc 7:10)
Given what God says about not looking back, is it right to look back? Yes! God tells us things we should remember. The Hebrew word for remember or call to mind is zakar. It means more than mentally checking off that it happened, to actively and intentionally remember.
Let’s look at three times God tells us we should look back.
3 ways God says to look back
1.Look back at God’s goodness. When we’re facing difficulty or a big unknown, looking back at God’s goodness is a huge faith boost. It’s one of the powerful reasons I love keeping a gratitude list.
When we look back and see all the personal, practical details God orchestrated for us as well as the stunning, miraculous things he’s done, we reconfirm that God is good and that he’s good to us.
“I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.” (Psalm 77:11)
2. Look back at who God is. Our present circumstances and hard emotions often lie to us, tempting us to believe God has overlooked us or doesn’t care about us. In those times, scripture tells us to actively remember who God is.
When Dan died and I felt pulled under by sadness, fear and overwhelm, I needed a daily reminder of who God was when my circumstances were screaming different. I was reading through the Bible that year and God met me on every page of scripture. Whether I was in Leviticus or Psalms or Luke, God reminded me who he is and how he cares for us.
If you need a reminder today of who God is for you and in your circumstance, Psalm 103 is a great place to start.
“Bless the Lord oh my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” (Psalm 103:2)
3. Look back at Jesus’ death on the cross. When we take communion, we remember Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf. We affirm again that Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us so that we might spend eternity with God.
The Lord’s Supper lets us actively look back at Jesus’ sacrifice, bringing us to a present place of repentance and worship.
“…and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” (1 Cor 11:24-25)
The problem is not that we’re looking back, but how we look back. The gift of memories lets us savor all God’s past goodness while serving him fully right where he’s planted us.