If you’re anything like me, at least once in your life, you’ve wished for time travel. Not in the wow-I-want-to-meet-Abraham-Lincoln sense or the woo-let’s-go-kill-Hitler sense, but the kind where you remember a great time in your life you’d like to relive…especially compared to where you are right now.
I was thinking about this phenomenon recently, and decided it’s not necessarily bad. But never underestimate the capacity of the human race in general and me in particular to take a neutral trait, attitude, or action and make it sinful.
For an example, let’s go back. Way, way back to the post-Exodus Israelites wandering in the wilderness. They’re having a nostalgic moment. Sort of. (Please read the following in the voice of a whiny middle schooler for proper effect.)
“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
This was a bit of a rosy-colored view of the land they’d left behind. Particularly since they were, you know, slaves. Under a Pharaoh who killed their newborn sons and considered them as disposable as the mud bricks he used to build his enormous pyramids and palaces.
Later, the Israelites, never short on drama, take up complaining again: “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”
Answer: No, no it would not be better.
Longing for Egypt is marked by dissatisfaction—comparing now to then and listing off all the things that were better, complaining about how we never should have left, questioning God’s goodness because he brought us where we are now.
It’s grumbling about all you’d do if the kids weren’t holding you back, peeling out of the church parking lot with resentment and comparison of the pastor to your perfect ideal, lingering on the Facebook profile of an old flame to imagine what ifs, numbly flipping through photos when you were younger, prettier, happier and trying to place yourself there, just for a moment.
It’s destructive—all bitter, no sweet—and yet, like anger, discontent can feel good. Listing off our problems makes us feel like we aren’t to blame. We have a right to feel this way. Pointing back to the good old days makes God seem arbitrary and unfair—what did I do to deserve the change? Venting our woes on social media will get us tiny reactions of sympathy that, for a moment, distract us from the real problem, deep in our hearts:
We don’t trust that God is good when he isn’t doing what we want.
Longing for Eden is a little different. We aren’t told that Adam and Eve looked back on their days in the garden and longed for the closeness they had with God, wistfully remembering work that was nothing but joy and life without sin or pain…but they must have.
When we long for times in the past where God was closer and life was easier, that’s not necessarily bad in and of itself. It’s not making our comfort into an idol, and it doesn’t have to be accompanied by complaining.
Sometimes, it’s just recognizing that we’re in a broken world…and mourning.
Last weekend, I got a chance to return to my alma mater to teach at a writing conference. As soon as I could, I snuck away to explore Gerig Hall, one of the places I most associate with being loved and accepted. I wandered the empty lobby, climbed the tree outside, and turned the entryway phone upside-down (long story).
I even opened the trash chute, as if maybe some of the music the guys sang down from the fourth floor during Rubbish Hour might be trapped there, needing to be let out.
Does that sound familiar to you? Do you know what it’s like to open up a trash chute, straining to hear echoes of music…and only smelling garbage?
That’s why longing for Eden is incomplete. We find ourselves missing good things—loved ones who have passed away, innocence that has since been lost, relationships that just aren’t the same, community that felt real and comfortable. And often we can even miss those things without wallowing in despair, self-pity or bitterness, all obvious red flags.
It isn’t wrong to acknowledge the beauty of the past, but here’s where the bitter creeps into bittersweet: if we remember the past without also remembering God’s faithfulness, we will be discouraged.
Because the truth is, we can’t go back. God had a plan for our circumstances in the past…and he has a plan now. Even when those two do not look the same and we wish they did.
You are, in this very moment, right where he wants you to be, from your stage of life to the people you’re surrounded with to the challenges you’re facing. Trusting that God put us here, is what gives us courage to be fully present and faithful where we are.
When faced with the choice to long for Egypt or Eden, I’m trying to learn to long instead for heaven. I want to take the bitter and the sweet—nostalgia and suffering, good memories and loneliness, discontent and the promises of God—and speak over them, “Someday, he will make all things new. Someday soon.”
And, really, all the goodness and beauty and joy of our past and present points forward to that day. All the music we hear right now is only just an echo.