The Risk of Living in the PastPosted June 28th, 2011
by Andrew McChesney
The closest I ever got to the Berlin Wall was when I snapped a picture of the Checkpoint Charlie sign in 1994. The wall had disappeared five years earlier. But I wanted to see something linked to this towering symbol of the Cold War.
The remaining sign at the location of the Berlin Wall’s best-known crossing point warned in English, Russian, French, and German: “You are leaving the American sector.” For a moment I felt like I had stepped back in time. A tingle ran down my spine.
I liked the feeling. Nostalgia is one thing that attracted me to Moscow, where I have lived for the past fifteen years. Before moving to Moscow, I had never experienced Soviet life outside of books but I had formed an impression that I wanted to see for myself: spies, military parades, Red Square, the Kremlin, Lenin’s tomb.
I also had never witnessed Berlin divided by the wall. But a desire to experience the past led me to the Checkpoint Charlie sign.
The almost-overnight construction of the mammoth Berlin Wall in August 1961 had stunned the world. Its abrupt collapse in 1989 also made headlines. Sure, President Ronald Reagan had stood near the wall in West Berlin just two years earlier and uttered his much-quoted challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall!” But few thought that the perimeter that had provided such a vivid illustration of the divide between East and West—between communism and democracy— would ever come down. Certainly, no one expected its destruction so quickly.
But now, fifty years after the wall’s construction, few seem to care much. Or do they?
A Thousand Miles Away
In Moscow, where the initiative for The Wall originated in the Kremlin, any discussion of The Wall is largely limited to think tanks. Berlin, after all, is a thousand miles away, and The Wall itself is a relic, receding in time.
But some ordinary Russians seethe over the consequences of The Wall’s destruction—the domino effect it had on the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and, ultimately, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Often forgotten are the negatives of Soviet life. Instead, these people remember the glory of sending the first man into space, the security of guaranteed jobs, and the absence of terrorist suicide bombings.
Russia’s leadership has encouraged the nostalgia, with former president Vladimir Putin reintroducing the Soviet national anthem and even referring to the Soviet collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Longing for “the good old days” is something I can understand. But I nearly fell out of my chair one day when I realized that God says such nostalgia is wrong. I read these words in the Bible: “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this” (Ecclesiastes 7:10, NKJV).
Nostalgia Can Be Tricky
So I started to think, Why would it not be wise to long for the good old days? Then it struck me. Frankly, the good old days were almost never as good as we remember. We have a tendency to remember only good things and forget the bad.
Last November I attended a conference in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. As he drove me around, a taxi driver named Yury spoke at length about how he longed for the Soviet Union. Yury remembered how everyone was guaranteed apartments and jobs, and there was no huge gap between the rich and the poor. What he failed to remember was that store shelves were empty and there was little freedom of movement. Ironically, he also told me how much he likes to travel abroad. Nostalgia is a tricky thing involving rosy glasses.
The problem with nostalgia becomes even more acute when it comes to sin. When I gave my heart to Jesus five years ago, I took a look at my life through the window of the Bible and I groaned. I determined to build a new life with Jesus’ help. And everything seemed to go well—for a while.
But the mind is selective in its memories. I began to forget the guilt and shame that I had experienced when I had violated God’s will. I reflected on the good old days more and more. This was a big mistake. In remembering the old, we open the door to returning to our old habits. This is why the author of Hebrews tells us that the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah never gave a second thought to the city of Ur after God called them to pack their bags and move to the land of Canaan. “And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return” (Heb. 11:15). Ur was the most modern city of the day, and Abraham gave up its comforts for an unknown future as a wanderer in Canaan. If he and his wife had yielded to homesickness, they would have longed to go back—and would ultimately have returned.
Leaping Over a Wall
And so it is with sin. If we dwell on what we have left, we may long to return to it, and chances are high that we will then fall to temptation.
Sin is something like the Berlin Wall. That wall seemed so insurmountable. But it fell almost overnight. Our treasured sins may seem as large. But they also can be overcome by God’s grace. As the psalmist wrote, “For by You I can run against a troop, by my God I can leap over a wall” (Psalm 18:29).
This cautionary message of putting nostalgia behind us also offers hope. In the letter to the Hebrews we read, “But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16).
While we look ahead with expectation, we must remember to live for God today, not yesterday. You know the expression: “It’s no use crying over spilled milk” What’s done is done. We cannot influence the past. We cannot love or share God’s love in the past. That does not mean we should forget the lessons we have learned in life.
Christian author Ellen White has written, “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.”* But it is a poor use of time today to live in yesterday. We can only make a difference in our own lives and the lives of other people today. We must live in the present.
So let us live for today—and with the hope of what tomorrow will bring.
*Ellen G. White, Life Sketches, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1943, p. 196.
Andrew McChesney is an American journalist who lives and works in Moscow, Russia.