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.

Scars of Loss and Waves of Grief

Every now and then, you find something truly great on the internet in the comment section. One such comment was found on Reddit in a thread about grieving and grief from user u/GSnow. If you’ve just lost someone, a loved one has and you’re helping them through it, or you never have and want to understand what the grief of loss is like, this comment will help you. You can read it in full below.


Alright, here goes. I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived (so far) and a lot of people I’ve known and loved did not. I’ve lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here’s my two cents.

I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don’t want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don’t want it to “not matter”. I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.

As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.

In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.

In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float.

Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.

Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too. If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.


I have never read such an accurate description of grief. It perfectly captures my own experience of losing my mother in 2008. Even now, I can remember the feeling of those waves rolling over me. More could be said about the consolation for grief, but I will leave that for another time, except for this: Christian, you are not alone. Christ is with you in the shipwreck. He will be with you until the end.