As a scriptural theme for this discussion, I have chosen the second-shortest verse in all of holy scripture. I am told that the shortest verse—a verse that every missionary memorizes and holds ready in case he is called on spontaneously in a zone conference—is John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” Elders, here is a second option, another shortie that will dazzle your mission president in case you are called on two zone conferences in a row. It is Luke 17:32, where the Savior cautions, “Remember Lot’s wife.”
Hmmm. What did He mean by such an enigmatic little phrase? To find out, I suppose we need to do as He suggested. Let’s recall who Lot’s wife was.
The original story, of course, comes to us out of the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, when the Lord, having had as much as He could stand of the worst that men and women could do, told Lot and his family to flee because those cities were about to be destroyed. “Escape for thy life,” the Lord said, “look not behind thee . . . ; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed” (Genesis 19:17; emphasis added).
With less than immediate obedience and more than a little negotiation, Lot and his family ultimately did leave town, but just in the nick of time. The scriptures tell us what happened at daybreak the morning following their escape:
The Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;
And he overthrew those cities. [Genesis 19:24–25]
Then our theme today comes in the next verse. Surely, surely, with the Lord’s counsel “look not behind thee” ringing clearly in her ears, Lot’s wife, the record says, “looked back,” and she was turned into a pillar of salt.
In the time we have this morning, I am not going to talk to you about the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, nor of the comparison the Lord Himself has made to those days and our own time. I am not even going to talk about obedience and disobedience. I just want to talk to you for a few minutes about looking back and looking ahead.
One of the purposes of history is to teach us the lessons of life. George Santayana, who should be more widely read than he is on a college campus, is best known for saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Reason in Common Sense, vol. 1 of The Life of Reason [1905–1906]).
So, if history is this important—and it surely is—what did Lot’s wife do that was so wrong? As something of a student of history, I have thought about that and offer this as a partial answer. Apparently what was wrong with Lot’s wife was that she wasn’t just lookingback; in her heart she wanted to go back. It would appear that even before they were past the city limits, she was already missing what Sodom and Gomorrah had offered her. As Elder Maxwell once said, such people know they should have their primary residence in Zion, but they still hope to keep a summer cottage in Babylon (see Larry W. Gibbons, “Wherefore, Settle This in Your Hearts,” Ensign,November 2006, 102; also Neal A. Maxwell, A Wonderful Flood of Light [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1990], 47).
It is possible that Lot’s wife looked back with resentment toward the Lord for what He was asking her to leave behind. We certainly know that Laman and Lemuel were resentful when Lehi and his family were commanded to leave Jerusalem. So it isn’t just that she looked back; she looked back longingly. In short, her attachment to the past outweighed her confidence in the future. That, apparently, was at least part of her sin.
So, as a new year starts and we try to benefit from a proper view of what has gone before, I plead with you not to dwell on days now gone, nor to yearn vainly for yesterdays, however good those yesterdays may have been. The past is to be learned from but not lived in. We look back to claim the embers from glowing experiences but not the ashes. And when we have learned what we need to learn and have brought with us the best that we have experienced, then we look ahead, we remember that faith is always pointed toward the future. Faith always has to do with blessings and truths and events that will yet be efficacious in our lives. So a more theological way to talk about Lot’s wife is to say that she did not have faith. She doubted the Lord’s ability to give her something better than she already had. Apparently she thought—fatally, as it turned out—that nothing that lay ahead could possibly be as good as those moments she was leaving behind.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, BYU Devotional January, 2009