The Idolatry of the ‘Perfect’ Past

Some of you may be tiring of my incessant Screwtape inspired ramblings, and you are forgiven for those feelings. But allow this one last dalliance through The Screwtape Letters and the creative genius of C.S. Lewis. I’m pulling my thoughts from letter seventeen where the sly demon Screwtape describes an elderly woman who is manipulated by a demon named Glubose. Screwtape mischievously writes:

“The woman is in what may be called the ‘All-I-Want’ state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servants or any friend who can do these things ‘properly’—because her ‘properly’ conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatable pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past; a past described by her as ‘the days when you could get good servants’ but known only to us as the days when her senses were more easily pleased and she had pleasures of other kinds which made her less dependent on those of the table. Meanwhile, the daily disappointment produces daily ill temper: cooks give notice and friendships are cooled.”

Lewis imaginatively strikes upon the demonic tactic of encouraging humans to idolize the past and trivialize the present, which jeopardizes the future. I call it the idolatry of the perfect past. This can be actualized in dozens of little ways. For some, it is manifested as a longing for a better time that actually never existed. We, humans, have a tendency to remember things through the fuzzy lens of what we wish they had been. This often obscures the painful realities of the distant past and ignores the fact that we too have changed. If you don’t believe me, imagine living without heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

Undoubtedly, some things were better in the past, but they certainly were not perfect. Furthermore, different doesn’t always equal bad in the same way that new doesn’t always equal better. In essence, what we call perfection is usually a preference or a philosophical proposition. And there’s nothing wrong with having preferences unless our preferences become an idol.

Lewis speaks of an elderly woman who can’t enjoy food or fellowship because she perceives that nothing is prepared as perfectly as it was in the ‘good old days’. This may or may not have been the case. But her sin had nothing to do with her preferences, she had a right to those opinions up to a point. Rather, her sin was realized in the resulting mistreatment of the people around her due to her displeasure with the present. In other words, her idol made her ‘ill-tempered’. Beyond that, idolatry had blocked her vision so effectively she was incapable of recognizing the good or even—dare I say—the better things of the present.

Nasty temperament is the primary way you can tell that a preference has become an idol. Let’s take this discussion to church for just a moment: If you can’t worship in a service because your favorite song from yesteryear wasn’t featured you’ve probably turned the past into an idol. And, if it makes you mad and ill-tempered check your spiritual temperature because you have a fever. And, if you just threw your computer across the room its time to pray through. Now, having said that, you might be right! The new song you don’t like might not be as good as the old song you do like. We all have preferences, partialities aren’t the problem. However, if we can’t enjoy the good things or —dare I say—the less good things of the present because of the past we are in serious trouble.

I feel compelled to pause and state clearly that I love many things from my past. I even love things that predate my lifespan by hundreds of years. For those of you who might be wondering, I am not a hymn hater. In fact, I’m an old soul. I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. I have all kinds of preferences that go unmet on a regular basis, in and out of church settings. Let’s be honest, my preferences are better than your preferences. I’m just kidding. The point being, I’ve learned not to elevate my preferences above unity and personal relationships. The only exception to this rule is when my preferences are properly aligned with God’s Word and someone else’s preferences violate Scripture.

Let’s stir the pot and complicate the conversation for a moment: there are other similar types of idolatry that are equally dangerous. Brad Titus capably identifies one as The Idolatry of the Future. In this variation, peace can never be found in the present because something better is always in the future.

There is yet another variant, I call it the ‘idolatry of the present’. This mindset idolizes the new, the current, the ‘latest thing’ above all else. It marginalizes the past and robs the future of the depth and richness that can only be found in a healthy reverence for the good things of the past.

Young people who carry this idol exacerbate ‘the idolatry of the past’ within the hearts of elders. Their derision for the ‘old fashioned’ inflames reactionary passions. Meanwhile, those suffering under the miserable weight of ‘future idolatry’ sit around and long for better days that always seem just out of reach.

As you can see, disunity and strife are the real demonic agendas behind these three particular brands of idolatry. When saints elevate petty preferences above maintaining right relationships with people; churches become war zones rather than houses of worship. And, when people idolize what lies ahead nothing of value is accomplished in the present.

We smash these idols by honoring the past, celebrating the present, and embracing the future. This can be done. It must be done for the sake of unity and revival. Thriving churches honor the past without living there, celebrate new things that are good, and intentionally prepare for the future. 

“But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient. In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will (2 Timothy 2:23-26).”

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