Nostalgia is an acute sentimental longing for the past, either one’s own past or a past time in history. Usually, the feeling of nostalgia is accompanied by (or brought on by) the belief that the world was better in a bygone era or that a previous time in one’s life was superior to one’s current situation. A yearning for “the good old days” is a nostalgic feeling, and it’s a normal feeling to have sometimes. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon addresses the comparing of past with present: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). Is Solomon saying that nostalgia is unwise or that being nostalgic is wrong? If so, why?
What Solomon seems to be addressing in Ecclesiastes 7:10 is not the feeling of nostalgia per se but the foolish attitude it can sometimes foster. Sometimes we all feel that the past was better in some way than the present. Especially during times of trial, it’s easy for us to remember ourselves as happier or more fulfilled than we are currently. But we tend to have selective memories. Every day has its trouble (Matthew 6:34). Things weren’t quite as rosy as we paint them to be in retrospect.
When a person allows a feeling of nostalgia to consume him, it can lead to all kinds of unhelpful and unfruitful behavior. Living in the past is a form of losing touch with reality. We are called to “make the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16) and to be waiting for the good future God has promised, diligently doing good and seeking peace (2 Peter 3:11–14; Romans 2:7). To dwell on the past or obsess over former days is to yearn for something we can never attain, and that can only end in heartbreak. Better than dwelling in a nostalgic, half-true picture of the past is focusing on God’s work in the present and His rock-solid promises for the future. We have a home in heaven, where, as David puts it, there is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” in the presence of God (Psalm 16:5–6, 11).
Nostalgia, the longing emotion, is not sinful—no emotion on its own is sinful. But nostalgia can tempt us to dwell in the past and make us ineffective in the present. Soldiers for Christ do not get “entangled in civilian pursuits,” and this is exactly what happens when we get too wrapped up in asking “why can’t things just be as they used to be?” (see 2 Timothy 2:4). Paul did not waste time reliving “the good old days”; rather, he said, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal” (Philippians 3:13–14). We, too, should engage the present and look forward to the future. We have “a living hope” and “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade . . . kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3–4).