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Sister Nelson: When It's (and When It's Not) Okay to "Look Back" in Our Lives

Keep your eye on the ball,” whispers the golf coach, encouraging the player to maintain her focus solely on the goal, which is to hit the ball in precisely the right way to get a hole in one. Well, maybe someday.

In the book of Genesis, Lot’s goal was to escape the sordidness of Sodom and that city’s imminent destruction in order to move forward with his life. The Lord’s injunction to ensure Lot’s success was “look not behind thee” (Genesis 19:17).

If our goal is to move forward in our relationships, we need to follow the wisdom of the Lord’s words and “look not behind [us].” Because the truth is that the direction we’re looking determines where we’re heading. We need to look forward, if we want to go forward.

As in the example of Lot and his family, however, there is a temptation to look back at the enticements of the past. At times there almost seems to be a stronger-than-gravitational pull in that direction. These enticements may be those which we’ve faced personally, or they may be temptations with which friends and family members have struggled. However, when we are serious about moving ahead in our lives and creating healthier, happier relationships, we would be wise to “look not behind [us].” It’s time to quit craning our necks to look back at the sordid past, and it may even be time to throw away the rearview mirror.

“But just a minute,” you may say. “Isn’t it ever useful to look back?” Of course. We honor our pioneer heritage every July 24th and mentally make the trek west with them, perhaps revisiting and reverencing the ruts made by the wheels of their wagons and handcarts. When we talk about getting stuck in the ruts of the past, the ruts over Rocky Ridge are certainly not the ruts of which we speak! Some ruts of the past can give us courage and strength to carry on, move on.

Looking back can be useful, if it gives us a new perspective. The angel who delivered a wake-up call to Alma the Younger urged him to look back, to “remember the captivity of thy fathers . . . ; and remember how great things [the Lord] has done for them; for they were in bondage, and he has delivered them” (Mosiah 27:16). In this case, looking back gave Alma a glimpse into the power of God, being entirely unaware, at that moment, of the blinding view he would soon be shown. With the assistance of a fresh perspective, our response, when looking back on a difficult past may be, “I’ve never thought about it quite that way before.”

Sometimes there is hidden treasure in the past—even in a “sordid” past. While the Lord told Lot not to look back to Sodom, the Lord told the sons of Lehi to go back to Jerusalem—a city that was also awaiting destruction because of the wickedness and unbelief of the people. Sounds like a similar scenario (“sin-ario”?) to Lot’s city, doesn’t it? So why such different commands from the Lord: “Look not behind thee,” to Lot, versus “return to Jerusalem,” to the sons of Lehi?

One difference may be explained by comparing what existed in the two cities. In Sodom there was just more corruption. In Jerusalem, along with the corruption, were the brass plates, rich with Lehi’s family history and the revelations of the Lord. Similarly in our personal lives and relationship, there may be times when looking back on a sordid past allows us to retrieve previously unknown treasured qualities and capabilities about ourselves or our loved ones. For example, a woman with a tortured past of sexual abuse came to realize, by looking back, just how hardy and resilient she was to have survived such horrors (see Feinauer, Callahan, and Hilton, “Hardiness as a Moderator,” 65–78). By retrieving the good qualities from her difficult past, she realized that she wasn’t a “victim”—a label that had held her captive for most of her life. Instead, she realized how courageous and strong she had been and was. The word hero seemed to capture who she really was—a woman who had survived a travesty and was now able to help others. For the first time in her life, she felt ready to build relationships of love and trust with others, and it all started by returning to her tragic past and finding a treasured history of herself that she had never known existed.

However, when the Lord tells us that He is not going to remember our sordid past anymore—in fact, He is going to obliterate it so that there is no tragic past to remember—we need to “look not behind us.” Just as the Lord destroyed all the corruption that was Sodom, with His atoning power He can wipe out all the sin and degradation from our lives and from the lives of our loved ones. The city of Sodom is gone. Our sins, missteps, mistakes, misdeeds, and inadequacies can be gone.

For many of us, the annihilation of a sordid past may seem just too good to be true. Whether influenced by disbelief or utter amazement, we may act as though we are looking straight ahead but we keep peeking in our rearview mirrors from time to time, just to check. “Could it really be true that all my bad choices and shameful behavior are really gone?” we may ask ourselves. And just as the peeking of children into the oven to see if the cookies are finished baking curtails the baking, our peeking into our pasts after we’ve thoroughly repented usually inhibits the very process we’re trying to check on.

Just as every peek into the oven dispels some heat and slows the baking of the dough, every peek into the past—after we have confessed to those we need to, after we have made restitution, after we’ve sincerely started down a new and better path—slows our progress because it shifts our focus, dispels our energy, thoughts, and desires, if only momentarily.

The irony is that we can never find out if our past is gone by looking back into the past. We can only determine its absence by looking straight ahead, moving ahead, and discovering how we are different in our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The scriptures tell us that Lot’s wife disobeyed God’s command and looked back. This act of disobedience, of looking back, was actually a turning back, a turning back to her old life. So it is with us. The phrase “And when thou art converted” (Luke 22:32) comes to mind. If we look back too soon after turning away from the past, our looking back can actually turn us back to our old sins. Similarly, looking back at our loved ones’ sordid pasts can often turn them back to their old sins. In looking back, we risk returning to the very things of which we have repented and from which the Savior has cleansed us with His atoning blood. No wonder those who have repented are encouraged to “look not behind thee,” even to the point of removing former associates from their lives (see Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, 77) and not spending time rehearsing their past sins to others.

Lead image from Shutterstock

Rock Solid RelationshipsFor more about building better relationships and trusting the Lord, check out Rock Solid Relationships by Wendy Watson Nelson, available at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.

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