The Idolatry of Nostalgia

It’s all around us, though each of us experiences it through different means. For some, it’s an old photo album sprawled across a coffee table, childhood summers by the poolside, or cherished family meals before life got complicated. For others, it’s the way their church used to be, how edifying their small group was before so-and-so moved away, or how passionately they used to witness back in college. And for me, sometimes it’s hearing a certain Switchfoot tune on the radio on a sunny, autumn drive to Pennsylvania visiting family.

True, spiritual remembrance is a godly discipline. It is right that we should look back on our past with rejoicing over God’s blessings. It helps us remember the Lord’s past faithfulness. It stirs thanksgiving in our hearts for all the good God has placed in our lives. It helps prime the engine of faith in our lives, knowing that God will remain by our side as He has before.

Then there’s nostalgia.

Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.” And while pleasure and sadness seem strange to juxtapose, most of us understand firsthand the bittersweet aftertaste of life’s foregone pleasures.

At best it’s a temporary, emotional painkiller, but fully developed, nostalgia is our grasping at a vapor that has already dissipated. That is because nostalgia is characterized by a lust for old satisfactions (which, it would seem, were not very satisfying after all).

The Lie

Nostalgia is a temptress masquerading as fond remembrance. It is the idolatrous lust for old satisfaction. Nostalgia is the empty feeling we get when we believe this lie: that our greatest pleasure lies in past, rather than future, glories.

If this sounds a bit extreme, consider a time you’ve attempted to relive a past experience and it failed miserably. Maybe all the right logistics were in place—or maybe they weren’t—but it seems like you felt more effort into duplicating the experience than enjoying the present. Maybe you’ve expected the same ethereal pleasure out of your vacation, your day off, or your last date night with the wife, only to have your frustration channeled into shortness of temper with friends and family.

It makes sense for people operating in the flesh to cling to past glories. Our inner mourning for the Fall, the loss of true fellowship with God, and man’s expulsion from Eden all echo in our hearts through the Adamic nature we’ve received. It makes sense; from Adam’s perspective, his best days were basically behind him. He had God’s promise of future deliverance from the curse of sin (Genesis 3:15), but it was hardly realized by the time he died hundreds of years later. He could only to chase after the winds in life—wisdom, wealth, warm memories—yet find them to be altogether profitless.

This was the same predicament the author of Ecclesiastes faced as he penned his great Hebrew work, wrestling with the fleetingness of man’s mortal, fallen state. He knew the book of Genesis. He knew the Torah. He knew that the earth was in a cursed state and that the true meaning, or profit, in life (yitron in Hebrew) couldn’t be found anywhere in our physical existence. That is why he lamented: Vanity! Meaninglessness! Vapor! Everything is vapor (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

Something has to give. Right?

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that he wrote that “the end of a thing is better than its beginning” (7:8). No dissipated pleasures of the past can be reconstituted, canned, and served up on a whim. Where, then, is the true joy?

Future Glory

The Gospel-truth which dispels the mystique of nostalgia is this: our greatest joy is in future glory.

Certainly those of us who have grown up in the church are accustomed to think somewhat along these lines. We mentally assent to the idea that eventually Heaven will come and we will suffer no longer. All will be right. But have we ever truly considered that when we meet Christ, our deepest, most radical joys will be utterly satiated?

“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore,” exclaims David in Psalm 16:11. Certainly David experienced the joy and presence of God during his life on earth, but if this was all he had in view, one might accuse this verse of hyperbole. Rather, the promise of this verse is for our eternal state, where we who trust in Jesus Christ will be resurrected like Him. And for what reason? We will be raised and given immortal eyes, ears, noses, mouths, hands, and hearts to contain the far surpassing weight of glorious joy we will experience as forgiven saints in God’s presence.

Each fleeting pleasure of this life, from apple pies at mom’s house to nurturing church community during the college years, is a taste of God’s goodness. Each joy is meant to be savored, but we dare not attempt to glut ourselves on physical highs and lose our appetite for the true joys of the heavenly kingdom. And we reveal our deep ingratitude when we attempt to relive bygone joys rather than set our hopes on the Creator who gave us such blessings in the first place.

It takes no faith to squeeze fleshly pleasure from past memories. The only effort it requires is an incessant, exhausting ringing out of my past, which requires such toil that I am almost embittered by any who would get in between me and my pleasure. This is how so many family holidays turn into shouting matches, or how so many church small groups grow stale and superficial.

Dig into Hebrews 12. Let us, like Jesus, let us run this life’s marathon in tireless pursuit of the solid joy awaiting us on the other side of this fleeting lifetime.

Image credit: Flickr/Phil Roeder

2 thoughts on “The Idolatry of Nostalgia

  1. Ecclesiastes is a book designed to answer only one question “What do we gain from all our hard work?”
    As a working persons book it tells us that the answer to falling prey to always looking back to our past is to enjoy what we have today. Here is what Kohelet says, “If God provides us with wealth and possessions, and also enables us to enjoy them, by accepting our lot and being happy in our work, this is God’s gift to us. If we accept it we will seldom look regretfully on our past because God will keep us occupied with joyful hearts.”
    Its also good to note that the book of Ecclesiastes has nothing whatsoever to do with the concept of “meaningless.”

    1. Hi Vance – I appreciate the feedback.

      I don’t deny anything you say about labor as being a key topic in Ecclesiastes. However I think it would be a mistake to limit the scope of the book to that. Qohelet surveys a broad range of human experiences and concludes that everything is hevel. He does indeed say that there is nothing better than enjoying the fruits of your labor, but – and correct me if I’m wrong – he falls short of identifying this as true yitron, and he is still even in that case speaking from the limited under-the-sun perspective. It would be a mistake to make the fruit of man’s labor the locus of Qohelet’s yitron. Ecclesiastes 3 would imply that, what with eternity being in our hearts, the thing that Qohelet is grasping after is a kind of eternal profit. Enjoyment under the sun is consolation, as is wisdom, but the quest for lasting yitron is only fulfilled in Christ and will only be realized in the resurrection.

      I also agree with you that the NIV’s use of “meaningless” is a poor translation of hevel. But I also think right now in our cultural vernacular, it’s a fair approximation of the philosophical idea behind Quohelet’s use of hevel – fleetingness, futility, vaporousness. I think in the year 2014, “meaningless” conveys those concepts idea to the average listener. Effort with no permanent yield is “meaningless” in an ultimate sense.

      Thanks for the critique.

      In Christ,

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