"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