Not too long ago, I was sitting with some of my staff in what feels like an altogether different universe from today. We were talking about the calling of the church and what it means to really do ministry. I shared with them this introduction from Eugene Peterson’s masterful book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Reading it again today, I felt like the words were just as pertinent about the long obedience of discipleship that moves beyond spiritual tourism and into lifelong pilgrimage. I hope you enjoy his bracing words as well.
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 nor 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. 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 an historical continuity. That doesn’t make them an 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. It is nearly as hard for a sinner to recognize the world’ 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.
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 a 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 specials 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, para-psychology, 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 in the latter part of the twentieth 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.” Everyone is in a hurry. The persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, visit, pray, preach, and teach, want short cuts. 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.” It is this “long obedience in the same direction’ which the mood of the world does so much to discourage.
In going against 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’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” gives us directions: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:5-6). The letter to the Hebrews defines our program: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).
[From Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 15-16.