When is Nostalgia Sinful?
Alexander Nisbet (1623-69) was a Covenanting minister and Bible expositor in and around Irvine in Ayrshire. He was ordained in 1646 and was removed from his church in 1662 for refusing to comply with the re-establishment of Episcopacy.
25 Nov, 2021

Perhaps especially when there is so much unsettling change it’s easy to feel nostalgic-even for 2019. A recent scientific study identified higher happiness levels “during the early days of the pandemic” arising from feelings of nostalgia. For some, reaching out to simpler and less complex times has been a coping mechanism. This sentimental longing for our own past or some period in history can be beneficial if it draws us towards things that are of value. Yet nostalgia often paints a rosy picture of how it used to be compared to now. No doubt at some point we will be nostalgic for lockdowns. Dwelling on the past obsessively can be unhelpful and unhealthy but can it be sinful? It was for Israel of course as they looked back to Egypt with mournful regret. Nostalgia makes it hard to look ahead with the right attitude of hope and expectation since we are always harking back (Philippians 3:13). Surely we need hope more than ever in the current context rather than a wistful longing to be comfortable? Ecclesiastes 7:10 warns us in relation to nostalgia. It doesn’t say that it is wrong and sinful in itself. Rather it says that there is a subtle and dangerous temptation that can accompany it. We can be drawn into a distorted perspective inclining us to question God’s providence and purpose. In our discontent we begin to dispute the way things are. Why are we left in such a situation? Can any good come out of it? Such an attitude is neither wise nor right.

Alexander Nisbet shows how Ecclesiastes 7:10 guards us against quarrelling with the Lord’s dealings in this way. We are not to question why He should do this and complain at His appointing a hard lot to any of us. Neither are we to be so swallowed up by lament for the times that we fail to highlight what is positive and what may be the purpose behind it all. There is a danger of making such an absolute comparison between our times and the past that we feel the present is hopeless. This is a verse that needs to be understood and applied carefully and Nisbet helps us to do that in the following updated extract.

1. It is not sinful to recognise that times have become worse

This is not to be understood, as if the present times were not often worse than the former in many respects, seeing that is foretold (Matthew 24:12; 2 Timothy 3:1).

2. It is not sinful to ask why the times have become worse

It is not that the Lord’s people must not search into what sins people have committed to cause the change of times to the worse. Nor are they forbidden from lamenting the defections or miseries of their times. Both of these are duties for them (Lamentations 3:40). It is the duty of the Lord’s people to search out the sinful causes which provoke the Lord to change times to the worse. We are to enquire into the wise reasons He has for doing so and to bewail that later times have degenerated so far from the purity and holiness of former periods.

3. It is sinful to be discontented that the times have become worse

It is, however, a great sin to quarrel with Providence, or to enquire concerning this matter with a fretting discontentment of spirit. It is as if we were saying that things are not well ordered by Divine Providence, if we do not have as much peace and prosperity and as great freedom from outward trouble as those who were before us have had. For this is the evil here dissuaded from: to ask the cause why the former times were better than these.

We should not quarrel with God’s providence for appointing our lot in more troublesome times, and under more grievous oppressions than have been formerly. We should avoid speaking as if there were no cause why we should submit to a change of times from better to worse. The Spirit of the Lord does not give particular reasons of such changes here. There are many obvious reasons given in Scripture which are sufficient to satisfy us in relation to this. Rather, He prohibits and rebukes such boldness and gives a general reason of the dissuasive, that these inquiries flow from men’s ignorance of the Lord’s sovereignty and wisdom, who works all for His own glory, and the good of His people.

4. It is sinful not to submit to God’s purpose that the times have become worse

To fret and repine that the present times are worse than the former shows us to be void of heavenly wisdom. This teaches those who have it to adore the righteousness of God in all His dealings. They do this even though they do not see the particular reasons for them (Jeremiah 12:1).

5. It is sinful to ignore good things, even though the times have become worse

Such submission often leads them to satisfying reasons clearly held forth in Scripture, namely that God in wisdom uses certain times to reveal men’s perversity which at other times He sees fit to restrain. At times He chooses to advance by sore trials the faith, patience, and other graces of His people, which at other times He advances without such trials (Daniel 12:10).

This quarrelling with the Lord is evidence of great presumptuousness arising from an ignorance of the true condition of both the present and former times. This makes them fail to consider the good of the present times, which often exceeds that of the former as far as the evils and troubles of the present exceeds those of the former. Solomon says that in such a spirit we do not enquire wisely (or as it is literally in the Hebrew original “by wisdom”) concerning this matter. The expression intends more than is expressed.


Nostalgia may have its benefits as well as its pitfalls, but it cannot really transform. It can bind us to the past in ways that debilitate us in the present. It recalls a past that cannot be recovered. Hope on the other hand, is always transformative. In some ways we could think of hope as nostalgia in reverse, a longing for our future home (2 Corinthians 5:1-4). Hope does not unsettle us, it anchors us (Hebrews 6:19). This kind of nostalgia in reverse is not sinful, rather it purifies us (1 John 3:3; 2 Peter 3:14). It strengthens us with patience (Romans 8:25). Surely we need to cultivate it more?


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