Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Good Old Days

If many modern commentators are to be believed, the world was a model Christian society until liberals ruined everything in the 1960s. The following quote, from Charles Swindoll's book Rise and Shine, is fairly typical: "Times are worse today than they have ever been," wrote the founder of Insight for Living. "Spiritually, morally, ethically, and domestically, times have never been worse. Only the blind optimist would say otherwise."

I'm no blind optimist--one of my most incessant spiritual battles is against worry and fretting--but still, I have doubts. Is today's society really to be unfavorably compared to the ancient ones that practiced child sacrifice? To the decadence and violence of the late Roman Empire? To Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia? Even if Swindoll was thinking only of U. S. history, we still have to deal with the seventeenth-century torture of suspected "witches"; with over a hundred years of slavery; and with numerous forms of institutionalized bigotry. I suspect that nearly everyone who talks about how wonderful things used to be, comes from White Anglo-Saxon Protestant stock. (People whose ancestors never had the privilege of dictating society's norms complain all the time, too, but rarely express the wish to live 150 years ago.)

I don't mean to demean Dr. Swindoll or any of the others working to encourage Christians amid the very real evils of our society. But I do think we need to realize that evil has been, and will remain, firmly entrenched in every society--because it is equally firmly entrenched in the hearts of the people who build those societies. To base one's view of the past on an assumption that things once were nearly perfect, comes dangerously close to idolatry--and badly hurts our ability to learn from the virtues and mistakes of the past.

Paul wrote that "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12, NIV). Not "everyone except those living in societies run by committed Christians." Everyone. Even where government allows prayer in schools and Bible displays on courthouse lawns, ordinary citizens--including many nominal Christians--will hate the person who takes a stand against everyone's favorite sins: self-centeredness, materialism, and the sense of superiority. If anyone thinks that all we need do to build a perfect society is to get everyone going to church weekly and to reinstate universal disapproval of sex outside marriage, a serious reading of history--or of Charles Sheldon's late-nineteenth-century novel In His Steps--can do a lot to disabuse that notion.

Better yet is a serious reading of the Bible, especially the passages on the universality of sin and of how quickly it invaded each society founded on the true principles of God. Then ponder Ecclesiastes 7:10, written perhaps thirty centuries ago: "Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions." Apparently, the habit of looking back to presumed "better times" has been around almost since the earliest civilization.

As Christians, we should instead be looking ahead to better times--to the coming of Christ and the consummation of God's Kingdom. After that, no believer will ever talk about the "good old days" again!

We drink our toasts to the "good old days,"
When we "lived in a Christian land,"
When the world went to church each Sunday twice,
With its morals from God's own hand.

We heave our sighs for the "good old days,"
When "no love was considered free,"
When the right was right and the wrong was wrong,
And a Christian the thing to be.

When the way of the WASP was the way of our world,
No one ever to think had need
If our ways were truly the ways of Christ:
We all knew He approved each deed.

In those times now past, in those "good old days,"
When we followed "in Christ's own lights,"
We could rest in ease as the lords of those
Who now dare to demand their "rights."

A wise man said it's not smart to ask
Why the "old days" were always best,
For it's easy to feel that the old should stay
Without putting it to the test.

Our Lord's way was never the way of the world,
Nor the pious the purest one:
Take your eyes off the past; fix your gaze on Christ
And the best that is yet to come!

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