Let me begin with the confession that I am deeply nostalgic. Merriam-Webster defines nostalgic as “longing for or thinking fondly of a past time of condition.” Smells, songs, sceneries, places, people—they all have a way of taking me “way back” (and I’m only 29). The most random and insignificant things do it for me—the smell of diesel fuel reminds me of my dad, flower gardens remind me of my mom. It might be bad for you, but cigarette smoke rarely fails to bring back memories of my grandma’s single-wide trailer, and how as a transplanted English-Canadian, she always called us “love.”
It’s probably the little things that spark such memories for you, too. Such memories bring about feelings of warmth and glow like an old neon sign. We look back with a fondness and longing, maybe a bit of sadness. We ache to go back, even to bring back, the ones we miss so dearly, even just for a moment.
Some of us are not only nostalgic for the individual people and places, but for a way of life, a cultural moment. We remember “the way things were” and we long for it deeply. This corporate nostalgia remembers when you could ride your bike all day, be back for supper, and no one worried where you were. As Merle Haggard sang, we long for a time when “even squares can have a ball.” During such a time drug use, divorce, and violent crime rates were all likely lower. Who wouldn’t want to go back to such a time? Even better, church attendance was also higher. It’s easy to feel like even God’s business is slow these days.
I certainly don’t bring up such examples of nostalgia to belittle them. As I mentioned, I’m quite sympathetic, and some of my favorite conversations with folks are to hear about “the good ol’ days.” I want to talk about nostalgia, however, because I’ve had to wrestle with my own nostalgic bent. As I’ve wrestled, I’ve come to believe there are two great truths that, as Christians, we need to remember with this powerful emotion.
The Limits of Nostalgia
Like a good landscape photo, nostalgia might take us back to the original scenery, but it only shows us what can fit in the frame. What do I mean? Nostalgia might take us back to a time that was truly pleasant, but it has a way of blurring out the inconvenient details of the story. You might look back fondly on your upbringing, only to find out later that your younger sister was bullied and suffering from depression. We think, “If only I could move back home” only to realize all of your old friends have moved on. We might long for a culture far gone, only to learn of the true depths of sin that hid behind the manicured lawns: abuse, alcoholism, red-lining. When we see the whole picture, we are confronted with the mixed bag. Both the sin and goodness, of our past, and—most troubling—of us.
The Bible has a better way of telling our history than through the “rose-colored glasses” of nostalgia. Through his providential care and word, the Lord teaches us to avoid both extremes of an overly optimistic and overly pessimistic view of our past. We have been sinned against, and sinned against others in a myriad of ways, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23). A history that cannot account for this reality is not only incomplete, it is a disservice to us and the ones we love. How can we receive healing for the hurts we will not admit?
At the same time however, we have all been given various gifts out of God’s providential care, for “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17), and “he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
How then should we regard our past? Simply, with honesty—being honest about the sin and brokenness, of who we’ve been, where we’ve been, and how that has shaped us. At the same time, we can be filled with gratitude for the good gifts we’ve received. A good childhood, good parents, an old favorite Mexican restaurant with $1 tacos on Friday nights—all of these things, especially for believers, come from God’s fatherly and gracious care “for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).
The Promise of Hope
The biggest problem with nostalgia indeed, is the problem we like to hear the least but we already know is true: We’re going in the wrong direction and we cannot go back. Like a train moving away from the station, life is a one-way ticket away from our past. Trying to preserve what once was is like trying to stop the sand in an hourglass from the inevitable drain of time.
Thankfully, the place we are called to take our bygone delights and disappointments, our past sorrows and joys is the same fountain of healing, the good news that Jesus is coming again to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). When Jesus returns, we who believe in him will not “suffer wrath” but “obtain salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52).
The hope of the resurrection is good news for the sorrows we often forget in our almost zealous nostalgia. They will be destroyed. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). While it is easy for us to be ignorant or dismissive to pain and suffering, even our own, “the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy” (Psalm 140:12). Indeed, in his good design, “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
The hope of the resurrection is good news for our joys because they, and the rest of creation will be perfected and glorified and “set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom and the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). This means that we no longer need to hold onto the past with a vehement fear that time is running out, but a confident joy and expectation that God will make “everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He will crown us and his creation with the “splendor and majesty” (Psalm 96:6) that Jesus has won for us in his life, death and resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:20–28). We can take our joys to his resurrection, confident that as Sinatra sang, “the best is yet to come.” Even better than nostalgia, “we have this [hope] as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19).