Pastor John, today’s question is a compilation of a number of email questions we have received, and it’s this: What counsel would you have for listeners who are overly nostalgic, and who almost live in the past? What are the dangers?
It is possible to sin against God and hurt your own soul by failing to remember the past, and by remembering it in the wrong way. In other words, you could blow it both ways: you can wreck your life by neglecting the past, and you neglect your life by an excessive living in the past.
The word nostalgia may point, I think, to something innocent and healthy, or something excessive and unhealthy. I don’t think it is a bad thing — I hope not — to have a fond, wistful memory of college days. For me to walk around on Wheaton campus is a pretty emotional thing. I, frankly, find it a kind of painful pleasure. It would be unhealthy, however — this thing called nostalgia — if you thought about those past experiences continually and felt burdened by the fact that they are never going to come again: a kind of paralyzing regret that it is all over and the best days are in the past. There is no future like it. That starts to be unhealthy. So what we need, I think, is a biblical vision. Or you might even call it a theology of the past.
The past is not for fueling and paralyzing regret and disappointment. The past is not meant for fueling anger and grudges. A lot of people use the past for regret, and use the past for disappointment, and use the past for grudges, and use the past for anger. Those are all misuses of the past. That is not what the past is for. God didn’t give us the past to make us regretful and to paralyze us with disappointment or rage or grudge. There are positive uses of the past that he did ordain, and let me just mention four: gratitude, repentance, faith, and knowledge or wisdom.
Gratitude for God’s Past Grace
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man! (Psalm 107:8)
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old. (Psalm 77:11)
Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
his miracles and the judgments he uttered. (1 Chronicles 16:12)
In other words, history is an ever-growing reservoir of past grace where the thankfulness of our hearts can drink and drink with continual pleasure. That is what it is for: the drinking of thankfulness. And when I say past, I mean anywhere from five seconds ago to five thousand years ago; it is all past.
Remember for Repentance
The past is a source of healthy repentance.
Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12)
Isn’t it amazing that he told us to remember that? I just think that is amazing. Don’t we want to forget that? No, we don’t want to forget that because, if we forget from what we were saved, our sense of repentance will be shallow, and our enjoyment of grace will be thin.
So it was a healthy remembering that Paul was calling the Ephesians to do for the sake of a healthy repenting. He said in 2 Corinthians 7:10:
Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
In other words, there is way to think about your past that leads to repentance, leads to salvation, leads to life, leads to joy, through and beyond regret, and there is a worldly way to think about the past that paralyzes you and brings death.
Faith for the Future
Third, the past is a source of faith for the future. My favorite verse, perhaps, in all the Bible is Romans 8:32:
He who did not [past tense] spare his own Son but gave [past tense] him up for us all, how will [future tense] he not also with him graciously give us all things?
Oh, I love the logic of that verse. Because of our focus on the past — namely, God’s willingness in history to give his Son — therefore, faith is undaunted for the reception of all these promises in the future. The past serves the future by feeding faith because of all the faithful works of God to make a future for us in the past.
Israel failed precisely to do this, and that is why they were undone in the wilderness. Psalm 106:7:
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
Why did they rebel? They didn’t remember. They didn’t remember, so they didn’t have faith to walk with Moses through the sea the way they should have. And they grumbled on the other side. All of it was rooted in forgetting past grace. So they didn’t trust him for future grace because they didn’t remember past grace.
Wisdom from Before
This is kind of a theology of past. That is my understanding of what I am doing here. It is giving a little mini theology of the past. The past is a great reservoir of knowledge and wisdom. Where else can we learn anything except from the past? The future has not happened yet. We can’t learn anything from what hasn’t happened yet.
The present is ephemeral; I mean, try to learn something from the present; try to focus on the present. As soon as you have got the present focused, it is the past. Every millisecond is flowing over the waterfall of the present and turning into a past reservoir just as soon as you see it go over the waterfall. As soon as you focus on a moment, it has become a past moment. The only thing we can focus on that has any stability at all are the products of the past. All books are from the past. All videos are from the past. All recordings are from the past. And this sentence that I just quoted — all recordings are from the past — is now past. All the means of stored knowledge and wisdom are from the past. It is the only place we have to go to learn anything or to grow in knowledge or in wisdom.
So for the Christian, that means mainly the Bible, which was, like all other books, written in the past. So for the Christian, let it be said: the best is always yet to come. And I really mean it. I mean: for eternity, starting right now, the best is always yet to come for the Christian. So the future is massively important. We are people of hope, and therefore we do not live in the past. We draw thankfulness from the past. We draw life giving repentance from the past. We feed our faith and hope on the faithfulness of God in the past, and we learn everything we know and get all the wisdom we have from the past. But all of it is for the sake of this afternoon’s joy and this afternoon’s faith and this afternoon’s obedience and the joy of all eternity.