There’s a great scene — it may be the only good scene — in the 1976 comedy “The Gumball Rally,” about an illegal coast-to-coast car race.
Italian race car driver Franco, played by Raul Julia, tells his racing partner (in a horribly exaggerated Italian accent): “And now my friend, the first-a rule of Italian driving.” He then rips off his rear-view mirror, throws it out of the car, and proclaims: “What’s-a behind me is not important.”
Franco’s advice may be bad for driving, but it is spot-on for faith. If we spend too much time worrying about what we’ve done and where we’ve been in the past, we risk missing the service to which we’re called in the present, and the plans God has for us in the future.
Nineteenth century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow expressed this slightly more eloquently than Franco: “Look not mournfully into the past, it comes not back again. Wisely improve the present, it is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy future without fear and with a manly heart.”
Longfellow’s contemporary — and supposedly sixth cousin — Henry David Thoreau sums it up more bluntly: “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.”
Thoreau expresses another aspect of the risks we face in looking too much toward our past. We can waste time and emotional energy on our sins or mistakes of the past — denying God’s grace in a vain sort of way — and wish we could go back in the past to correct those mistakes. But, we also often pine for the past, and for our sins of the past, wishing to go back and repeat them all over again.
In this way, lusting after our old sins and bad habits, we risk the spiritual equivalent of becoming like Lot’s wife — who “looked back, and … became a pillar of salt.”
Too often, when we undergo the hard work of repentance, and turn away from our sins, it takes us very little time to look back, and end up back in the same ruts.
God seems to bemoan this tendency of His children (that’s us) to the prophet Jeremiah in our reading from Jeremiah 7:23–28:
This command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.” Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but, in the stubbornness of their evil will, they walked in their own counsels, and looked backward rather than forward. From the day that your ancestors came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day; yet they did not listen to me, or pay attention, but they stiffened their necks.
On the surface, it seems God is upset because the humans have done the wrong things. But, the real message here is God is distraught that we insist on hurting ourselves.
God, like any loving parent would, has shown us the paths to walk “so that it may be well with” us — so that we don’t get hurt.
But, we refuse to listen. We look back, rather than forward. We waste our time in past regrets and pining over past sins. We are stiff-necked, looking down at our feeble feet for worldly gain, instead of looking up for the guidance, love and instruction of our Creator.
In essence, God’s lament to Jeremiah in this passage isn’t that we’ve messed up. God made us. God knows we’re going to screw up. Our part is to pick ourselves back up when we’ve fallen, to reach out for the loving arms of God, and acknowledge we can’t do it on our own. We need to surrender, and die to our own stubborn pride.
In the words of the psalmist:
“Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker. For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice! (Psalm 95:6-7)
As we continue our journey in Lent, let us examine how we relate to our past. Everyone has a part of their past we know would best be left in the past. Do we waste time fretting over past mistakes, denying the power of God’s grace to overcome those mistakes? Do we, like Lot’s wife, cast glances over our shoulder, pining after our past sins and bad habits? Are we focusing on the present, and how we can serve God in this moment He’s given us? Or are we frittering away our present, looking to the past or worrying over the future? Are we entrusting our future to God’s beneficence?
Oh God, who created us in your image to live in the present moment with you, secure in your grace to forgive our past, and in your loving provision for our future, give us the strength to surrender both to your grace and your providence, and to focus our talents, our energy and hearts in serving and loving you and our neighbor, in your kingdom, here and now. Amen.