The Dangers of Nostalgia

Directed by GOD, the whole company of Israel moved on by stages from the Wilderness of Sin. They set camp at Rephidim. And there wasn’t a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: “Give us water to drink.” But Moses said, “Why pester me? Why are you testing GOD?” But the people were thirsty for water there. They complained to Moses, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?” Moses cried out in prayer to GOD, “What can I do with these people? Any minute now they’ll kill me!” GOD said to Moses, “Go on out ahead of the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel. Take the staff you used to strike the Nile. And go. I’m going to be present before you there on the rock at Horeb. You are to strike the rock. Water will gush out of it and the people will drink.” Moses did what he said, with the elders of Israel right there watching. He named the place Massah (which means Testing-Place) and Meribah (which means Quarreling) because of the quarreling of the Israelites and because of their testing of GOD when they said, “Is GOD here with us, or not?”

– Exodus 17:1-7 (The Message)

In Exodus 14, we read the story of God doing the incredible – answering the Israelites’ prayer and pushing aside the water to give them a path to freedom. In Exodus 15 the Israelites are dancing in celebration. But within just a few verses, the miracle has worn off. The Israelites are parched; they go looking for water only to find none.   They want to return to slavery.  “Back in the good ol’ days, when we spent all day making bricks and building pyramids, when we had no rights, and the Pharaoh occasionally killed all our male children, those were the days.”

But in slavery, every day is the same. There is something comfortable about suffering…it is predictable. Freedom can be much more trying. Out here in the wilderness, when they have to depend on God, when they are in uncharted territory, there is no predictability. They wake up every day having to trust that God is going to lead them somewhere. They are numbed to the now, trapped in the spiritual lands of Massah (“test”) and Meribah (“find fault”). They wander in their grumbling, and it should be no surprise that they go in circles for forty years.

Nostalgia never leads you forward, because nostalgia casts an impossible standard— it is a much-improved rendering of what once was. Nostalgia is never real. The present can never match an idealized past. Whether it is holding on to the church of our youth (which ceased to exist many years ago) or clinging to a season of our own lives in which things were better than they are now, nostalgia quietly steals our joy and makes us indifferent to the flowing streams of living water God has provided here in the wilderness. It is telling that this generation of exodus wanderers never makes it to the promised land, perhaps because their nostalgia won’t let them get there.

Liberation and hope lie in wait for those who can stop pretending that the past was perfect and who can walk in faith toward God’s future.

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