One of America’s favorite pastor/theologians died last week. As is their wont, Christianity Today provided excellent coverage, none better than this collection of thoughts from several whom Peterson influenced greatly over the years. To this chorus, let me raise a personal, three-part appreciation:
Three of Eugene Peterson’s Books You Probably Haven’t Read (but Should):
- Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places — the first in a five-volume series, what one reviewer called “the pivotal work on spiritual theology”
- Subversive Spirituality — a series of short essays and articles, including a revelatory interview done by those wiseacres at The Door in the early 90’s
- The Wisdom of Each Other — What Lewis did for understanding the demonic (serious subject, humorous tone) in The Screwtape Letters, Peterson does for extolling the benefits of friendship (serious subject, winsome tone)
Two of Peterson’s I Haven’t Read (but Everyone Else Has–and I Will Soon):
- Leap over a Wall — subtitled Reflections on the Life of David
- A Long Obedience in the Same Direction — subtitled Discipleship in an Instant Society (and, good gracious, if we were “instant” in 1980, when this was written, what are we now?)
One Lengthy Quote from Peterson (the Best Succinct Thoughts on Suffering I Have Ever Encountered):
These excerpts come from Peterson’s introduction to the book of Job from his wildly popular paraphrase, The Message. Read and be blessed.
The moment we find ourselves in trouble of any kind–sick in the hospital, bereaved by a friend’s death, dismissed from a job or relationship, depressed or bewildered–people start showing up telling us exactly what is wrong with us and what we must do to get better. Sufferers attract fixers the way road-kills attract vultures. . . .
The book of Job is not only a witness to the dignity of suffering and God’s presence in our suffering but is also our primary biblical protest against religion that has been reduced to explanations or “answers.” May of the answers Job’s so-called friends give him are technically true. But it is the “technical” part that ruins them. They are answers without personal relationshp, intellect without intimacy. . . .
On behalf of all of us who have been misled by the platitudes of the nice people who show up to tell us everything is going to be just all right if we simply think such-and-such and do such-and-such, Job issues an anguished rejoinder. He rejects the kind of advice and teaching that has God all figured out, that provides glib explanations for every circumstance. Job’s honest defiance continues to be the best defense against the clichés of positive thinkers and the prattle of religious small talk. . . .
The book of Job does not reject answers as such. There is content to biblical religion. It is the secularization of answers that is rejected–answers severed from their Source, the living God, the Word that both batters us and heals us. We cannot have truth about God divorced from the mind and heart of God.
In our compassion, we don’t like to see people suffer. And so our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering. No doubt that is a good impulse. But if we really want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to be like Job’s friends, not to do our “helping” with the presumption we can fix things, get rid of them, or make them “better.” We may look at our suffering friends and imagine how they could have better marriages, better behaved children, better mental and emotional health. But when we rush in to fix suffering, we need to keep several things in mind.
First, no matter how insightful we may be, we don’t really understand the full nature of our friends’ problems. Second, our friends may not want our advice. Third, the ironic fact of the matter is that more often than not, people do no suffer less when they are committed to following God, but more. When these people go through suffering, their lives are often transformed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before the suffering.
So, instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering–which we simply won’t be very successful at anyway–perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able–entering the mystery and looking around for God. In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and–if they will let us–join them in protest and prayer. Pity can be nearsighted and condescending; shared suffering can be dignifying and life-changing. As we look at Job’s suffering and praying and worshiping, we see that he has already blazed a trail of courage and integrity for us to follow.
And One Provocative P.S. on the Subject of Sin, on which Peterson was never easy, but with which he was always gracious:
This comes from Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.
Most of the sins that we do not commit are not because of our virtue, but because we lack either energy or opportunity. We would sin a great deal more than we do if we were only energetic enough and were provided more generous opportunities. It is well to stay in touch with those sins that we would have committed if we had had the chance.
Coming next week (Lord willing): More Reflections on Worship in the Contemporary American Church