There’s a sign at a business in a town near mine that asks the question: When will we get back to the good old days?
This is a question of nostalgia that doesn’t simply appreciate something old but sees an inferiority in the present and perhaps even a fear of the future. But the question always persists when we talk about the “good old days”: Good from what perspective? It never fails that when news comes out of something bad involving a school or children, the memes show up on Facebook with a student at a desk and her head bowed and eyes closed. We didn’t have this problem when prayer was allowed in school. Maybe, maybe not, but one thing is certain: Prayer and Bible reading in school in the “good ol’ days” didn’t keep us from having schools and a country that systemically oppressed racial minorities. So, to whom did these good ol’ days belong?
This might come as a surprise to some, but in the Bible we are actually told specifically to not long for the good ol’ days. In a string of proverbs in Ecclesiastes 7, Solomon wrote, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (7:10 ESV).
Why would Solomon write such? Because when we look at the past through a quasi-utopian lens, we unwisely fail to consider the evils of those days and gloss over the stain of Genesis 3. We don’t consider, such as in my example above, that though our experience may be positive in our memory it may be negative in the memory of our neighbors due to such evils.
In addition to this, we shouldn’t long for the good ol’ days because ours is a forward-looking faith.
Yes, Christianity is rooted in past events: Creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross, and on; but we stand on these foundations to peer forward. This is what we find in Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 3:2-16. Paul did begin with a consideration of his past and all the highlights he achieved. In a way 3:4-6 reads as a good ol’ days reflection in which Paul waxes about his zeal, prestige, education, and piety.
But then what did Paul conclude about all those “good things”–at least good from a particular perspective? It’s rubbish! It wasn’t as good as it sounds, because nothing is compared to knowing Jesus. In fact, Paul gladly disowned it all for the sake of Jesus. Instead, what mattered to Paul was to know Jesus and the power of resurrection, even if that meant experiencing the misery of sufferings.
In Paul’s perspective, the sufferings of his present were better and more to be desired than the good old days of his past. And all because he was looking forward to what was coming. In 3:11, he wrote that his desire was to “attain resurrection from the dead” by “any means possible.”
The way Paul saw to do that was to press on and keep his eyes forward. He wrote of his own life:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But 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. (3:12-14 ESV)
As a follower of Jesus, he saw the future as better than the past. One reason is that the resurrection is future. On that day of Jesus’ return, the dead rising, and the present heavens and earth melting away, all things will be made new. Sin and the corruption of the fall will be a thing of the distant past. Perfection and perfect joy for those in Christ will have at last come.
Another reason came from Paul’s own self reflection: I have not already obtained this…but I press on to make it my own. Even after coming to faith in Jesus, Paul knew that the past was not better than the present or the future because he was further away from perfection in the past than he was in his present or would be in his future.
Let’s apply this to our lives. As followers of Jesus, we should avoid longing for the good ol’ days for these same reasons: 1) Even our best memories and experiences have nothing on what will come with the joys of eternity. Be thankful for the good in your past, but then press on with your eyes forward. Even if your cultural experience of the present seems more dark and dank than your cultural memories of the past, the best will come. That’s a cultural reason not to fear the future or disdain the present but to rejoice in it. Jesus is coming back. So our aim, today, should not be to make things great again, as if the past were actually that great, but to make things brighter today in a darkened-since-Genesis-3-world by loving our neighbors through serving their needs and shining the light of Jesus.
2) Your sanctification is not complete and it is a work in progress. That’s the promise of Philippians 1:6–God began a good work in you and he will see it through. Our spiritual maturity is often a bumpy path with its ups and downs, our surging forward and our sliding back. But measured across a Christian’s life, it is a progression to something greater, better, and higher. Just like Paul, 5 days ago, 5 months ago, 5 years ago, 25 years ago, whatever, you were further away from your perfection in Christ than you are at this moment. Then 5 days, 5 months, and 5 years from now you will be closer to it than you are right now. That’s a personal reason not to cling to the past but to celebrate what is and what is to come.
Good ol’ days are relative. The forward-looking faith of the Christian is sure and firm. So let’s not make a quasi-utopia out of our memories of the past but rather look forward and press on in hope and joy because our present and our future with Jesus is far better.