The ache comes unexpected. The random sight of a yellow door turns a handle in your memory. A restaurant song plays a tune that returns you to former times. The passing smell of a backyard meal takes you to a table long ago. For a few moments, you grow quiet and thoughtful — remembering, reliving, perhaps reaching for something once loved, now lost.
We name it nostalgia. The wistful backward glance. The photo album of the mind. The string that tugs the heart from years gone by. The yearning to find a bridge across the gap of canyon time.
For many, nostalgia comes as infrequently as a stranger at the door, and leaves just as quickly. But others know the ache more intimately. Perhaps because they have lost more than most, perhaps because they have a sentimental bent, perhaps because their present life holds little pleasure, the past lives vividly before them. Nostalgia is no stranger.
Backward glances, even backward longings, have their good purposes in the lives of God’s children. If we allow it, nostalgia itself can become a prophet of the Lord. But nostalgia can also take a darker turn, can tell a sadder tale. As the winds of memory blow from yesterday to today, they can carry a whisper barely heard but deeply felt: “Your best days are behind you.”
Best Days Behind
The Greeks of old spoke of a Golden Age, a lost time of peace and prosperity, happiness and wholeness. Many of us, without pretending the past was perfect, likewise discern a golden glow in former days. The walls of our heart, if not of our home, hold pictures of better times, of youthful laughter and young romance, of beginning ambitions and a body less broken. Once, we lived in a land without shadow, or at least without these shadows.
We walk today in the Age of Bronze, it seems, or Iron. The pages of the present lie rough and plain; the golden days are gone. Even for those with happy lives, today may seem more sorrowful than yesterday. Amid present joys, many can still hear the soft sounds of children grown, of loves lost, of dreams that never took flight. Autumn comes to every life. The leaves fall from our happiest days.
And the future? We recite by creed “the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting,” but for many the light of such days shines dimly. The eye of memory often sees clearer than the eye of faith. Heaven will be a happy place, no doubt, and Jesus’s face a sight to cure all sorrow. But today, what was weighs more heavily than what will be.
So speaks nostalgia’s bleaker voice. But in the midst of such remembrances, we may hear another speak: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). The pangs of nostalgia can lead us into folly if we let them. They can force past, present, and future into a familiar story often told but largely untrue. “Your best days are behind you,” we may hear nostalgia say. But wisdom says otherwise.
Ungild the Past
When the wise look backward, they do indeed see good days — even glorious days. To David, the past held the “wondrous deeds” of God, far “more than can be told” (Psalm 40:5). Past years are chapters in God’s own book (Psalm 139:16), and God knows how to write good stories. And yet, for all the wonders of yesterday, the past is not always what we remember.
Human memory does not tell objective history, though we often assume otherwise. Like even the best historians, it selects and emphasizes — and like even of the worst, it distorts and embellishes. Consider, for example, what the wilderness-wandering Israelites remembered of their stay in Egypt:
Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. (Numbers 11:4–6)
O dear and dangerous memory: faithful reporter and seditious scribe, beloved witness and bold perjurer! Egypt, the house of slavery; Egypt, the furnace of Pharaoh; Egypt, the land of forced labor — now Egypt, the oasis of the Lord? The mind, when distressed, can remember the melons and forget the misery.
Our own distortions may be less extreme. But the Preacher’s warning not to glorify the past (Ecclesiastes 7:10) suggests that we too can gild the pages of former days. Especially when the present feels unpleasant, we can fail to remember the more painful parts of the past. Then, as now, we dealt with apathy and discontent. Yesterday, as today, we carried wounds. The past indeed holds a Golden Age, but that garden was lost long before our lifetime.
Remember, dear saint, that even the happiest past grew not only flowers but thorns. If we could travel backward, we would indeed find many good gifts — perhaps even more than we now have — but we would not find all that we are looking for. Nostalgia’s longing leads us elsewhere.
Undim the Present
If the past is not always what we remember, we may then ask whether the present is more than we perceive. Might the backward glance, indulged too often, make us blind to present blessings?
However dim our days may seem when compared to the past, we still live beneath “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Every past glory was a gift from his own hand, and though many years have perhaps rolled on, that hand remains open and unchanged. His gifts may differ between then and now, but he has not stopped giving.
Look around. Pause and consider. Stand like Elisha’s servant and ask for eyes to see (2 Kings 6:16–17). However bitter your cup, does it not hold some sweetness as well? Has God not surrounded your sorrows with comforts, or filled ordinary days with lawful pleasures, or given you some sphere of usefulness for Christ, however small? Has he not given you his words and his church — a song in the night and a choir of voices?
But more than that, more than all of God’s gifts combined and multiplied, has he not given you himself? If you find yourself in a wilderness, has not the pillar of fire and cloud gone with you? “Behold, I am with you always,” says our Lord (Matthew 28:20). Does not his always include today as well as yesterday?
The pastor John Newton once wrote to a woman recently widowed, “Though every stream must fail, the fountain is still full and still flowing. All the comfort you ever received in your dear friend was from the Lord, who is abundantly able to comfort you still” (Letters of John Newton, 225). In Christ, our comfort comes not mainly from a where or a when, but from a who. And though time has changed life, has changed us, it has not changed him. The eternal God is still our dwelling place, and underneath remain the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27).
Unveil the Future
So then, a golden thread connects our past and our present. And if we continue to follow this thread, we will find ourselves facing not backward, but forward — looking now not for a lost Eden, but for the New Jerusalem.
Here lies the secret of holy nostalgia. If we heed the whisper that our best days lie behind us, if we allow a gilded past to dim the present and abolish the future, then nostalgia will prove a persecutor, imprisoning our joy. But if we follow the longing to the land that lies not behind but beyond, nostalgia will turn prophet and apostle, a preacher of the coming glory.
David Gibson writes, “Wise people who understand how God has made us to long for him and for heaven don’t look backward when they get nostalgic. They allow the feeling to point forward. They look up to heaven and to home” (Living Life Backward, 103). We traced nostalgia’s faded letters and thought they read here, but all the while they were telling us of heaven.
Past gifts, however wonderful, were only a taste, a whisper, a window, a trail — “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” as C.S. Lewis puts it (The Weight of Glory, 31). They were firstfruits promising a harvest, olive branches heralding a new earth, the grapes of Canaan bidding us to look beyond the Jordan of death to the land of our inheritance.
As God once said to his backward-looking people, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old” (Isaiah 43:18). Behold, the God of wonders does a new thing, dawns a new day. From the grave he has “brought life and immortality to light” (2 Timothy 1:10), and now he waits to receive us. Soon and very soon, we will dwell in a world where sadness cannot live (Revelation 21:4). Soon and very soon, we will see the Person behind all our past joys (Revelation 22:4).
Our past may hold the happiest life this world has ever seen. But compared to the future God holds for his people, even that past becomes shadow and mist, broken tune and burnt image. So, when nostalgia visits, by all means ache and long, crave and thirst, pine and yearn — but not for the past. Rather, hunger for heaven and for home.
In Christ, our best days always and forever lie ahead.