It’s common to hear this sentiment today, almost word for word: 

“Things aren’t like they used to be.”

“Why is the world getting so bad? Violent crime is on the rise.”

“I’m glad I didn’t have to bring up my children in these days.” 

But here’s how I think the preacher in Ecclesiastes would respond to people who say things like this: If you think you’re living in a world where things are getting worse all the time, then cheer up—at least you’ll be dead before things get really bad. 

Maybe the past was better than the present. But when you start asking, “Why was the past better?” you’re denying the reality of God’s presence in the present. If you think things are worse, do you think God is no longer in control? Do you think he hasn’t brought you to the point where you are now and that he no longer loves you or has plans or purposes for you? To ask the question in Ecclesiastes 7:10—“Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this”—is unwise, because it forgets God.

Often when we ask this question, it’s because we’re blind to the good things of the present and ignorant of past evil. 

Nostalgia Misleads

Nostalgia is often a form of escapism, taking a vacation in the past instead of grappling with the present or looking in faith to the future.

Nostalgia affects all of us, not just older folks looking back wistfully at their youth. Perhaps we get nostalgic about buildings or places; most likely, we experience nostalgia for people or an intensity of emotion we felt at a particular time. Have you ever stopped to think about the feeling of nostalgia and what it actually is? 

When you start asking, ‘Why was the past better?’ what you’re doing is denying the reality of God’s presence in the present.

C. S. Lewis said that nostalgia is the special emotion of longing, and it’s always bittersweet. When we feel nostalgia, we experience a feeling of something lost. At the same time it’s a beautiful perception of what has been lost, and so we long for it. Nostalgia is often fleeting, and yet if there is any pain, there’s also a kind of satisfying longing as part of it. Now here’s what Lewis says: only children or the emotionally immature think that what they’re longing for is actually what they’re longing for.

The child thinks his memory of that beautiful hillside gives him a lovely feeling, so if he could go back to that hillside, he would have the lovely feeling all over again and for as long as he stayed there. No, Lewis says, that is simply unwise. When you mature, you realize that nostalgia plays a kind of trick on you. It intensifies your emotions. When you grow up, you realize that if you could go back to the hillside, it might be nice, it might be lovely, but it would also be ordinary in some ways, and simply going back to it would not reproduce that intensity of feeling. In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Lewis observes: 

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; for it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a far country we have not yet visited.

When you experience nostalgia, your heart is longing for a more beautiful person than you’ve ever met or a more beautiful place than you’ve ever known.

When you experience nostalgia, your heart is longing for a more beautiful person than you’ve ever met or a more beautiful place than you’ve ever known.

You think you’re longing for the past, but the past was never as good as your mind is telling you it was. And, Lewis says, God is giving you in that moment one of the most profound glimpses of the intensity of perfection and beauty that you have actually yet to see. What is in fact pulling on your heartstrings is the future: it’s heaven, it’s your sense of belonging and home that has just cracked the surface of your life, for just a moment, and then has gone. 

Eternity in Our Hearts

This perspective fits beautifully with the message of Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes 3, we see that God has placed eternity in our hearts. We’re built for home, for a place we cannot yet see; and so when we get that flashing moment of nostalgia, it’s like tiny pinpricks of that eternal home breaking through into our present life.

Wise people understand God made us to long for him and for heaven. They don’t look backward when they get nostalgic. They allow the feeling to propel them forward. They look up to heaven and to home.

Editors’ note: 

Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year. This is an adapted excerpt from Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End.