"What Makes You Think You Can Race Against Horses?Ē
By Eugene H. Peterson
If you're worn out in this footrace with men,
what makes you think you can race against horses?
The essential thing "in heaven and earth" is . . . that there should be long
obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always
resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.Friedrich Nietzsche
Beyond Good and Evil
THIS WORLD IS NO FRIEND TO GRACE. A person who makes a commitment to
Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior does not find a crowd immediately forming to
applaud the decision or old friends spontaneously gathering around to offer
congratulations and counsel. Ordinarily there is nothing directly hostile, but an
accumulation of puzzled disapproval and agnostic indifference constitutes,
nevertheless, surprisingly formidable opposition.
An old tradition sorts the difficulties we face in the life of faith into the categories of
world, flesh and devil.1 We are, for the most part, well warned of the perils of the
flesh and the wiles of the devil. Their temptations have a definable shape and
maintain a historical continuity. That doesn't make them any easier to resist; it
does make them easier to recognize.
The world, though, is protean: each generation has the world to deal with in a new
form. World is an atmosphere, a mood.2 It is nearly as hard for a sinner to
recognize the world's temptations as it is for a fish to discover impurities in the
water. There is a sense, a feeling, that things aren't right, that the environment is
not whole, but just what it is eludes analysis. We know that the spiritual
atmosphere in which we live erodes faith, dissipates hope and corrupts love, but it
is hard to put our finger on what is wrong.
TOURISTS AND PILGRIMS
One aspect of world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the
assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if
something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention
spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality
has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.†
It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the
gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our
culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim
to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim.
In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged
freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great
market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the
patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in
what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.
Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is
understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate
leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church; for others, occasional visits to
special services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred
diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and
conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new
experience and so somehow expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious
life is defined as the latest and the newest: Zen, faith healing, human potential,
parapsychology, successful living, choreography in the chancel, Armageddon. We'll
try anything--until something else comes along.
I don't know what it has been like for pastors in other cultures and previous
centuries, but I am quite sure that for a pastor in Western culture at the dawn of
the twenty-first century, the aspect of world that makes the work of leading
Christians in the way of faith most difficult is what Gore Vidal has analyzed as
"today's passion for the immediate and the casual."3 Everyone is in a hurry. The
persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, visit, pray, preach and
teach, want shortcuts. They want me to help them fill out the form that will get
them instant credit (in eternity). They are impatient for results. They have adopted
the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But a pastor is not a tour
guide. I have no interest in telling apocryphal religious stories at and around
dubiously identified sacred sites. The Christian life cannot mature under such
conditions and in such ways.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw this area of spiritual truth at least with great clarity,
wrote, "The essential thing 'in heaven and earth' is . . . that there should be long
obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in
the long run, something which has made life worth living."4 It is this "long
obedience in the same direction" which the mood of the world does so much to
For recognizing and resisting the stream of the world's ways there are two biblical
designations for people of faith that are extremely useful: disciple and pilgrim.
Disciple (mathetes) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our
master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning relationship, always. A disciple is
a learner, but not in the academic setting of a schoolroom, rather at the work site
of a craftsman. We do not acquire information about God but skills in faith.
Pilgrim (parepidemos) tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace,
going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize
that "this world is not my home" and set out for "the Father's house." Abraham,
who "went out," is our archetype. Jesus, answering Thomas's question "Master,
we have no idea where you're going. How do you expect us to know the road?"
gives us directions: "I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to
the Father apart from me" (Jn 14:5-6). The letter to the Hebrews defines our
program: "Do you see what this means--all these pioneers who blazed the way, all
these veterans cheering us on? It means we'd better get on with it. Strip down,
start running--and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your
eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we're in" (Heb 12:1-2).
A DOG-EARED SONGBOOK
In the pastoral work of training people in discipleship and accompanying them in
pilgrimage, I have found, tucked away in the Hebrew Psalter, an old dog-eared
songbook. I have used it to provide continuity in guiding others in the Christian way
and directing people of faith in the conscious and continuous effort that develops
into maturity in Christ. The old songbook is called, in Hebrew, shiray hammaloth--Songs of Ascents. The songs are the psalms numbered 120 through 134 in
the book of Psalms. These fifteen psalms were likely sung, possibly in
sequence, by Hebrew pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem to the great
worship festivals. Topographically Jerusalem was the highest city in
Palestine, and so all who traveled there spent much of their time
ascending.5 But the ascent was not only literal, it was also a metaphor:
the trip to Jerusalem acted out a life lived upward toward God, an
existence that advanced from one level to another in developing maturity--what Paul described as "the goal, where God is beckoning us onward--to
Jesus" (Phil 3:14).
Three times a year faithful Hebrews made that trip (Ex 23:14-17; 34:22-24). The Hebrews were a people whose salvation had been accomplished
in the exodus, whose identity had been defined at Sinai and whose
preservation had been assured in the forty years of wilderness wandering.
As such a people, they regularly climbed the road to Jerusalem to worship.
They refreshed their memories of God's saving ways at the Feast of
Passover in the spring; they renewed their commitments as God's
covenanted people at the Feast of Pentecost in early summer; they
responded as a blessed community to the best that God had for them at
the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn. They were a redeemed people, a
commanded people, a blessed people. These foundational realities were
preached and taught and praised at the annual feasts. Between feasts the
people lived these realities in daily discipleship until the time came to go
up to the mountain city again as pilgrims to renew the covenant.
This picture of the Hebrews singing these fifteen psalms as they left their
routines of discipleship and made their way from towns and villages, farms
and cities, as pilgrims up to Jerusalem has become embedded in the
Christian devotional imagination. It is our best background for
understanding life as a faith-journey.
We know that our Lord from a very early age traveled to Jerusalem for the
annual feasts (Lk 2:41-42). We continue to identify with the first disciples,
who "set out for Jerusalem. Jesus had a head start on them, and they
were following, puzzled and not just a little afraid" (Mk 10:32). We also
are puzzled and a little afraid, for there is wonder upon unexpected
wonder on this road, and there are fearful specters to be met. Singing the
fifteen psalms is a way both to express the amazing grace and to quiet
the anxious fears.
There are no better "songs for the road" for those who travel the way of
faith in Christ, a way that has so many continuities with the way of Israel.
Since many (not all) essential items in Christian discipleship are
incorporated in these songs, they provide a way to remember who we are
and where we are going. I have not sought to produce scholarly
expositions of these psalms but to offer practical meditations that use
these tunes for stimulus, encouragement and guidance. If we learn to sing
them well, they can be a kind of vade mecum for a Christian's daily walk.
BETWEEN THE TIMES
Paul Tournier, in A Place for You, describes the experience of being in between--between the time we leave home and arrive at our destination; between the time
we leave adolescence and arrive at adulthood; between the time we leave doubt
and arrive at faith.6 It is like the time when a trapeze artist lets go the bar and
hangs in midair, ready to catch another support: it is a time of danger, of
expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, of extraordinary aliveness.
Christians will recognize how appropriately these psalms may be sung between the
times: between the time we leave the world's environment and arrive at the
Spirit's assembly; between the time we leave sin and arrive at holiness; between
the time we leave home on Sunday morning and arrive in church with the company
of God's people; between the time we leave the works of the law and arrive at
justification by faith. They are songs of transition, brief hymns that provide
courage, support and inner direction for getting us to where God is leading us in
Meanwhile the world whispers, "Why bother? There is plenty to enjoy without
involving yourself in all that. The past is a graveyard--ignore it; the future is a
holocaust--avoid it. There is no payoff for discipleship, there is no destination for
pilgrimage. Get God the quick way; buy instant charisma." But other voices speak--if not more attractively, at least more truly. Thomas Szasz, in his therapy and
writing, has attempted to revive respect for what he calls the "simplest and most
ancient of human truths: namely, that life is an arduous and tragic struggle; that
what we call 'sanity,' what we mean by 'not being schizophrenic,' has a great deal
to do with competence, earned by struggling for excellence; with compassion, hard
won by confronting conflict; and with modesty and patience, acquired through
silence and suffering."7 His testimony validates the decision of those who commit
themselves to explore the world of the Songs of Ascents, who mine them for
wisdom and sing them for cheerfulness.
These psalms were no doubt used in such ways by the multitudes Isaiah described
as saying, "Come, let's climb God's mountain, go to the House of the God of
Jacob. He'll show us the way he works so we can live the way we're made" (Is
2:3). They are also evidence of what Isaiah promised when he said, "You will sing!
sing through an all-night holy feast; your hearts will burst with song, make music
like the sounds of flutes on parade, en route to the mountain of God, on their way
to the Rock of Israel" (Is 30:29).
Everyone who travels the road of faith requires assistance from time to time. We
need cheering up when spirits flag; we need direction when the way is unclear. One
of Paul Goodman's "little prayers" expresses our needs:
On the highroad to death
trudging, not eager to get
to that city, yet the way is,
still too long for my patience
--teach me a travel song,
Master, to march along
as we boys used to shout
when I was a young scout.8
For those who choose to live no longer as tourists but as pilgrims, the Songs of
Ascents combine all the cheerfulness of a travel song with the practicality of a
guidebook and map. Their unpretentious brevity is excellently described by William
Faulkner. "They are not monuments, but footprints. A monument only says, 'At
least I got this far,' while a footprint says, 'This is where I was when I moved
1 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Pension Fund, 1945), p. 276.
2 Amos T. Wilder writes, "World means more than 'mankind fallen away from God.' . . . The world is
created and loved by God, and Christ has come to save it. But it is ephemeral, subject to decay and
death; moreover, it has fallen under the control of the evil one, and therefore into darkness." In The
Interpreter's Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952), 12:238.
3 Gore Vidal, Matters of Fact and Fiction (New York: Random House, 1977), p. 86.
4 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Helen Zimmern (London: 1907), sec. 188.
5 There is no independent documentation that the Psalms of Ascents were used thus, and therefore no
consensus among scholars that they were associated with the pilgrimage journeys to Jerusalem. The
connection is conjectural but not at all fanciful. Commentators both Jewish and Christian have
interpreted these psalms in this framework.
6 Paul Tournier, A Place for You (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 163.
7 Thomas Szasz, Schizophrenia, the Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry (Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday,
1978), p. 72.
8 Paul Goodman, Little Prayers and Finite Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 16.
9 William Faulkner, quoted in Sam di Bonaventura's program notes to Elie Siegmeister's Symphony no.
5, Baltimore Symphony Concert, May 5, 1977.
Taken from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson. Copyright 2002 by
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Permission kindly granted to Faith & Reason Forum by
Eugene Peterson, now retired, was for many years James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual
Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He also served as founding pastor of
Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. In addition to his widely acclaimed
translation of the New Testament, The Message (NavPress), he has written many other books.