Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Peterson on repentance

A while back I quoted pastor and author Eugene Peterson on the "tourist mindset" that poses a unique challenge to Christian discipleship. Each age poses its own challenges to the life of faith, and when Peterson wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction in 1980 he prophetically diagnosed the obstacles to following Jesus in a society obsessed with instant everything. The challenge has only gotten more acute in the intervening decades.

This book is pure gold, full of life-giving wisdom and encouragement for pilgrims tempted to quit the journey. It's written as a series of meditations on the Psalms of Ascent (120 - 134) which tradition says were sung by worshipers on the way up to Jerusalem to observe the annual feasts. Peterson aptly calls them "songs for the road." They begin with Psalm 120, a lament of distress and woe. This is the song of someone that's -- in Peterson's words -- "thoroughly disgusted with the way things are." It's an acknowledgment that one is living in a world twisted by sin and dominated by lies. This realization leads to the essential first step back to God -- repentance. I love how Peterson describes this loaded word.

The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world. It is a renunciation of the lies we have been told about ourselves and our neighbors and our universe. . . . The usual biblical word describing the no we say to the world's lies and the yes we say to God's truth is repentance. It is always and everywhere the first word in the Christian life. John the Baptist's preaching was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 3:2). Jesus' first preaching was the same: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 4:17). Peter concluded his first sermon with "Repent, and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). In the last book of the Bible the message to the seventh church is "be zealous and repent" (Rev. 3:19).

Repentance is not an emotion. It is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is a decision. It is deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own god; it is deciding that you were wrong in thinking that you had, or could get, the strength, education and training to make it on your own; it is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbors and your world. And it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling you the truth. Repentance is a realization that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts. Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.

What are the pack of lies that the world tells me today? No doubt they're different than the ones the Psalmist had in mind. Earlier in the book Peterson helpfully points out that the form the world takes is different for each generation. Using the old prayer book language the enemies of faith without -- the devil -- and within -- the flesh -- are pretty easy to recognize, but the world is more difficult to detect because it's an "atmosphere" and "mood" that tends to lull me to sleep. Repentance is waking up and realizing that I've exchanged truth for lies (Rom. 1:25). As it was for those ancient pilgrims of faith it's the first step on the journey up to Jerusalem.

By the way, I've always thought this book had one of the best titles ever. It turns out Peterson borrowed it from Nietzche: "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."

Quote from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, pp. 25-6

1 comment:

Randy said...

Great stuff, Stephen -- always enjoy taking a moment to read what you have to say. I. too, have enjoyed this book and loved the title. I've thought of the late Dr. Robert Whitaker, former HSBC President, as one who lived out a long obedience in the same direction.
Glad you brought this book to mind and I want to get into it again. I love Peterson's mix of scholarship, literature, godliness and long-and-real pastoral experience. It gives his work a quality that is rare.