I recently attended a visitation for a childhood friend who died in a car accident at only 25. This was not a girl with whom I had stayed close post-childhood, but she was a big part of my early life. A number of families came “out of the woodwork” to mourn and comfort her family as is often (and very beautifully) the case. Families like mine, whose past presence in her family’s life seemed in that moment, locked in time in the way that brings the tender poignancy being “the ones who showed up."
I was struck by God’s common grace in the ways we (believers and non-believers) care for one another as I watched old friends exchange tightly held hugs as if no time had passed. I quietly praised God for the good things he so mercifully allows us; for the persistence of love from past relationships that bridges time and comforts sufferers. There is true God-given familiarity that can soothe in hard moments for which I am incredibly thankful.
But as I stood in line to pay respects, with so much spinning around me I heard the man in front of me remark to her mother, “Those were simpler times.”
I don’t believe the man meant to offer ultimate comfort. But there was something to his words clearly meant to provide a measure of comfort, or else he wouldn't have said them to a mother with tears streaming down her face preparing to continue her life without her child.
The photos of my friend around the room and the old crowd who remembered her just that way—enormous cowlick in bangs just dried by the sun, standing in her one-piece by the pool we grew up swimming in together—seemed to have swirled up the all-too-familiar retreat to nostalgia as a way to find comfort in the midst of pain, confusion and uncertainty. We go to what's familiar immediately. The whole genre of “comfort food” based on “remembered flavors” is a testament to what is at best an inclination, at worst a dogged pursuit.
Why? Why in suffering and uncertainty do we sing the praises and seek the comforts of the past? And more importantly, where is Christ in that?
It shouldn’t be this way.
The mourning man’s words reflect a tendency that signifies our shared attempt to rectify a keen awareness that it wasn’t meant to be this way. What we are really saying when we seek comfort in the past is two-fold:
1. Things used to be better than now.
2. Since things were better then, there is hope they will be again.
Through nostalgia, we're really offering one another hope. If you are unable to bear the present, you can escape your pain in the fantasy of the past until the circumstance changes. Depression ensues because no one can be sure the future holds the “better days” to which we look back and in which we hope.
This hope isn’t real.
I understand this temptation. I miss my grandparents and the remembered ease of many parts of my childhood. Life is hard. Growing up is hard. The present is hard . . . because its reality lived out in a fallen world of roaring tempests, crashing waves and things we cannot control that often don’t seem to make sense. But our comfort should never be in that things used to be “better” and perhaps will be again.
Our true comfort is that we, still breathing, are able to believe in our heart and confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and therefore be saved (Rom 10:9). Our true hope is in the past, present and future of Christ alone; the past reality of what he has done, the present reality of where He is now (alive, seated at the right hand of the Father in eternity pleading for us) and the certain future reality that he is making all things new (Rom 8:34; Rev 21:5). This is the comfort we offer those who suffer, not the remembrance of “a simpler time” that never really was, but at the same time may return.
God is not in that statement. Perfection was not in the past. And comfort will not be found there.
My aim here is not to consider complex, metaphysical arguments on God’s existence relating to our conception of time because frankly, I don’t consider them! I am not smart enough for that. I don’t think anyone is? But when speaking to the believer’s walk with the Lord, Scripture emphasizes the present (Ps 46:1).
God is not hanging out in your past waiting for you to find him there. We don’t accept the gospel in the past. We don’t work out our salvation in the past. We do these things continuously in the present with our (omnipresent, yes but ever-present) God. And no season of your past was perfect or truly simpler. And so what if it was? It’s gone. God invites us to himself now (Mt 11:28; Ps 145:18).
We know how this ends.
Finding comfort in the past is tempting because we know how the past ended. We feel no uncertainty there; it already happened. We like that . . . because we lust after autonomy (Gen 3). But in seeking comfort in the past, we get the luxury of forgetting the parts we prefer, which are (ironically and chiefly) the fear and anxiety we felt in that time over things about which we were uncertain then! When you think about it, that’s really dumb. But when you really think about it, worse than dumb, it’s sinful and like all sin, intensely tragic.
Tragic because seeking comfort from the past is chasing after the wind, exchanging the truth about God for a lie, a pursuit of that which is not true, lovely, admirable or praiseworthy (Eccl 1:14; Rom 1:25; Phil 4:8-9). Like all sin, seeking hope from this false gospel separates us from our loving God and what he offers us—the true gospel that saves and brings his peace we so desperately seek. And more importantly, it does not honor or glorify God, which is our purpose (2 Cor 4:15).
The irony is that in uncertainty and suffering, all we want to know is that the story ends well, that all is not lost and the suffering will not endure forever. Only God offers us exactly that. And not just in eternity, but in present comfort as he invites us to walk in dependence on and communion with him, through what Christ has done by the Holy Spirit’s power.
But to have this, we must hear and accept the true gospel, not comfort one another (or ourselves) with a false one.
Scripture promises that those in Christ are already seated with him in eternity even as they work out their salvation here (Eph 2:6; Phil 2:12). Those who believe the true gospel have certain hope of a presently certain future: united to Christ in paradise where he will wipe every tear from our eyes and all will be as it should be (Rev 21:4). In the midst of suffering and uncertainty, let us hold fast to this hope and offer it to one another. It’s the only certain hope we have.
Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.