A Theology of Looking Over Your Shoulder

Have you ever been in a season of looking over your shoulder? For some, this is a season of pining over the things left behind or the things we wish were not drifting away. For others, it’s tremendous regret at things past. On occasion, it is the impulse of shame and guilt of what came before. It is the inability to look ahead because of the attachment to where you have come from.

The Bible is full of these moments. Lot’s wife is unnamed in Genesis. She is known only for her looking back, pining over a worldly city she was attached to as God destroyed it. This look was her last, and God cursed her for it as he said he would. The Israelites looked back at Pharaoh as he pursued them at the beginning of the Exodus and were filled with fear. Later, they would love back on their enslavement with the angst that only bitter nostalgia can produce: “We sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full (Exod. 16:3)!” Peter denies the Lord for the third time and hears the rooster crow. He looks back—Matthew 26:75 says he “remembered”—and he wept bitterly.

In Christian circles, looking back can often be met with scorn! The faithful don’t look back! We keep our eyes on the Heaven ahead! There’s something to that. Hebrews 11:10 tells us that Abraham looked forward to the city that had foundations, designed and built by God.

Not every look over the shoulder is like Lot’s wife. As Christians, we need to develop a theology of looking over our shoulder. We need to learn to see who was at work when all of our own works failed us.

We need to develop a theology of looking over our shoulder. We need to learn to see who was at work when all of our own works failed us.

What Jacob Saw

Genesis 46 is the one where your eyes glaze over. In the middle of one of the grandest narratives in Scripture—God’s salvation of Israel through the faithful suffering of Joseph—we stumble upon a genealogy. Nothing causes Bible readers to skip ahead like a genealogy. But if you skip this one, you’re going to miss something important.

The passage walks through all of Jacob’s descendants: 70 in all, plus his son’s wives. Like a good baseball game, the stats tell the story: Four women who bore him children. Two wives. Eleven children. Ten sons.

Not learning from Abraham’s mistake, Jacob has taken multiple wives. More than that, he has also had children by their female children. Jacob’s life is one of struggle with God. We do not have the space in this post to retell his story, full of failures, unfaithfulness, and grief. Now Jacob is leaving his home to take his people to another nation for salvation from a famine.

When Jacob looks over his shoulder, what does he see? The children born from his lust, his lack of self-control, and his lack of wisdom. Two of his sons are killers. All of them, with one exception, contributing to the “death” of Joseph. His past is full of blood, deception, and sin.

It would be easy to stop there—easy to stop in this moment where Jacob is fleeing to Egypt in desperation, hoping this man whom his sons met will save them. It would be easy to see Jacob looking over his shoulder and only seeing failure. But there’s more to the story.

When Jacob looks over his shoulder, what does he see? He sees 70 offspring. God’s promise to Abraham so many years before was to give him a land, to multiply his offspring, and to bless him. He told Abraham he would make his descendants like the sand on the shore.

When Jacob looks over his shoulder, it is difficult to miss his own unfaithfulness. At the same time, when Jacob looks over his shoulder, he cannot miss God’s faithfulness.

In the midst of Jacob’s failures, the starvation of his family, and the uncertainty ahead in Egypt, God inserts a genealogy to remind the readers that God is fulfilling his promises, just as he said he would.

What Do You See?

I find myself in a season of introspection. I’ve been doing a lot of looking over my shoulder. What mistakes have I made? Where could I have taken a different turn? What if _________ hadn’t happened? What if I had handled this or that differently? Where have I done well? What do I need to remember next time?

It is easy, in a season of looking back, to look at the past like a mirror. Mirror, mirror on the wall, have I really blown it all?

This is not how Christians are called to look back. In the middle of famines, God builds families. In the middle of pain, he keeps his promises. In the middle of tragedies: a genealogy.

For believers, a look over the shoulder is as far away as we can possibly look from our own navel. Robert Murray McCheyne says it best: “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”

Yes, our look over the shoulder will come with reminders of our sins, our failures, and our faults. Christians don’t do evasive autobiography. We are sinners. But Christians also life their eyes. Christians don’t find the good news within. Jesus Christ came to the world to save sinners.

Our look over the shoulder means seeing God’s faithfulness. It does not mean the alleviation of pain or grief or necessarily even regret.

Those who put their faith in Christ can look over their shoulder and see the most true thing: God kept his promises.

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