The Bible makes a really big deal about the role our minds play in life and discipleship. Our every thought is to be taken captive to Christ and His Kingdom rule (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
Not surprisingly, then, the Bible has a lot to say about the place memory has to play in a disciple’s life. God’s people are exhorted repeatedly to “Remember” (e.g, Ex. 32:13; Joshua 1:13; 1 Chron. 16:12; Neh. 1:8; Isa. 44:21; Eph. 2:11; 2 Tim. 2:8; Heb. 13:7; Rev. 3:3)!
But even when we “remember,” we may do so in a way that becomes spiritually or emotionally unhealthy. There is a particular way we are to remember.
I was recently helped, in this regard, by something Mark Buchanan has written about memory run amuck. It has to do with the role of nostalgia. And the older we are the more vulnerable we are to these kinds of memories-gone-to-seed.
Buchanan says, “I think nostalgia is really misplaced anticipation.” That is to say, “nostalgia is expectancy in reverse. It’s our instinct for heaven rummaging around in the storage closet, hoping that our heart’s true desire is in there somewhere, hidden amid a clutter of keepsakes and accumulated debris.”
We all have somewhere in our memory banks a treasure trove of “golden days” when things were, in our estimation, a good as they would ever get. Buchanan says, “If we don’t fathom that [the] beauty [of those days] is a rumor of heaven, we’ll make a fetish of the rumor and miss what it’s pointing to. We’ll try to cling to [the] beauty [of those days], and resent its fading.”
In other words, “We’ll become nostalgic.”
He goes on, “We all know the past was never as clean and bright as we remember it. Nostalgia pains history with gold, just as unforgiveness paints it black. Actually, nostalgia, besides being misplaced expectancy, is also second cousin to unforgiveness. Both unforgiveness and nostalgia share the trait of an unreconciled past. Nostalgia is a vain attempt to reconcile the past through wistfulness, whereas unforgiveness is a doomed attempt to reconcile it through vengeance. The past is actually only ever reconciled through four things: thankfulness, forgiveness, acceptance, and repentance. Most of us have a season or two when we try to reconcile the past in these other ways, through wistfulness or vengeance. But all we find (if we’re noticing) is it makes the past accumulate not resolve. It makes history’s hand on us heavy, not light, confining, not liberating. The past ends up claiming us in ways God never intended it to; rather than imparting clear identity that shapes destiny, it twists and thwarts destiny. Nostalgia and unforgiveness both do this.”
“In fact,” says Buchanan, “one easily becomes the other. He who waxes nostalgic will usually, in time, turn bitter about how the past won’t return to him; she who nurses unforgiveness will usually, in time, pin for some pristine beginning, some imagined prehistory before all the trouble began.”
When our remembrances make us less able to engage the present and move hopefully into the future, it’s a sign that nostalgia has held up our memory banks and robbed us of the divinely intended use of our God-given capacity for remembering. When we can remember and be moved with simple, profound gratitude and then freed to trust that same God to offer us more good (but different) experiences in the present and on into the future, it’s a sign that His Spirit is filling and using that memory-space He’s created in each one of us.
Father, thank you for all you’ve been to us and done for us in the years that lie behind. Thank you that you’ll be nothing less in this present hour and as the days ahead unfold. We gladly trust you to show your goodness again, in whatever wise and wonderful ways you choose fit to do so. In Jesus’ Name, amen.
 Mark Buchanan, Spiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of Your Soul (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 2010), 118-120.