As we begin a new year, we have been inundated with countless retrospectives of the year past (in sports, politics, movies, music, deaths), along with various predictions for the year coming (some positive, some ominous). In any case, whenever a new year begins, we all become acutely aware of the passing of time.
Is there a proper Christian way of viewing time? Of course we could explore endless theological questions here, realizing that God is not bound by time, has no beginning, and will have no end, and that we creatures are finite and very much bound by time. But right now I have something a little more plain in mind. In Eccles. 7:10, it says, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”
This is a great temptation for many of us when a new year starts — we begin to get nostalgic, sentimental and mournful about the past. We long for the days when we were a kid, or when we were in college, or when our own kids were younger, or when we thought we were happier. We find ourselves reflecting on our memories and saying to ourselves, “Those were the good old days.”
It would seem that the writer of Ecclesiastes does not approve of this kind of thinking. It is not wise, the writer says, to long for the “good ol’ days.” Why would he say this?
One reason is because the good ol’ days might not have been as good as you remember them. Sometimes we tend to remember the past with rose-colored glasses, as they say — that is, with a myopic emphasis on what we prefer to remember, rather than an exhaustive and unbiased memory of everything that was actually going on.
Thomas Kinkade was a famous painter whose pictures have been available in family bookstores and have been popular with Christians. Kinkade has been criticized because his paintings tend to be idyllic renderings of some long-gone day in the past when everything was ostensibly perfect. Whether that is a fair criticism, I don’t know, but I do know that the world was just as fallen in the past as it is now, and that the “good ol’ days” don’t really exist, unless you’re willing to go all the way back to the Garden of Eden, before sin entered the world. Those indeed were good times.
But another reason the writer of Ecclesiastes exhorts us not to dwell in the past is because the Bible is a very forward-looking book. The promised future for the Christian is not a return to the Garden, but instead, a future new heavens and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1-4), which will be inaugurated not when nostalgic people find a way to recreate the past, but when Jesus comes back again and leads his people forward into a new and glorious future.
Let me clarify a few things — I’m not saying we should forget the past, because the Bible repeatedly commands us to recall the goodness and faithfulness of God over the years (Ex. 13:3; Deut. 7:18, 8:2, 24:9; 1 Chron. 16:12; Ps. 77:11, 105:5). And of course our salvation was something accomplished for us firmly in the past when Jesus died for our sins and was risen from the dead 2,000 years ago. This, above all, deserves our constant and ongoing reflection.
I’m also not saying we can’t learn from the past. God has raised up many theologians and writers over the centuries who have much to offer Christians living in the 21st century. As Presbyterians, we find great benefit in the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document written almost 400 years ago, but which provides rich and abundant theological guidance for us today.
But what I am saying, and what the writer of Ecclesiastes seems to be saying, is that we shouldn’t live in the past; we shouldn’t idolize the past; we shouldn’t even try to recreate the past. Instead, as 2017 dawns upon us, we should follow the example of the Apostle Paul: “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”