Introductory Note:

“Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset,” writes Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. What we need instead is the mindset of a pilgrim. The word pilgrim “tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God.”

With the help of psalms recited by ancient Hebrew people making the pilgrimage ascent to Jerusalem, Peterson explores the contours of discipleship’s “long obedience.” In this excerpt, he examines what Psalm 121 has to say about our experience of hardship: “At no time is there the faintest suggestion that the life of faith exempts us from difficulties. What it promises is preservation from all the evil in them.”

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Not What We Had Expected

The moment we say no to the world and yes to God, all our prob­lems are solved, all our ques­tions answered, all our trou­bles over. Noth­ing can dis­turb the tran­quil­i­ty of the soul at peace with God. Noth­ing can inter­fere with the blessed assur­ance that all is well between me and my Sav­ior. Noth­ing and no one can upset the enjoy­able rela­tion­ship that has been estab­lished by faith in Jesus Christ. We Chris­tians are among that priv­i­leged com­pa­ny of per­sons who don’t have acci­dents, who don’t have argu­ments with our spous­es, who aren’t mis­un­der­stood by our peers, whose chil­dren do not dis­obey us. 

If any of those things should hap­pen — a crush­ing doubt, a squall of anger, a des­per­ate lone­li­ness, an acci­dent that puts us in the hos­pi­tal, an argu­ment that puts us in the dog­house, a rebel­lion that puts us on the defen­sive, a mis­un­der­stand­ing that puts us in the wrong — it is a sign that some­thing is wrong with our rela­tion­ship with God. We have, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, retract­ed our yes to God; and God, impa­tient with our fick­le faith, has gone off to take care of some­one more deserv­ing of his attention. 

Is that what you believe? If it is, I have some incred­i­bly good news for you. You are wrong. 

To be told we are wrong is some­times an embar­rass­ment, even a humil­i­a­tion. We want to run and hide our heads in shame. But there are times when find­ing out we are wrong is sud­den and imme­di­ate relief, and we can lift up our heads in hope. No longer do we have to keep dogged­ly try­ing to do some­thing that isn’t working. 

A few years ago I was in my back­yard with my lawn­mow­er tipped on its side. I was try­ing to get the blade off so I could sharp­en it. I had my biggest wrench attached to the nut but couldn’t budge it. I got a four-foot length of pipe and slipped it over the wrench han­dle to give me lever­age, and I leaned on that — still unsuc­cess­ful­ly. Next I took a large rock and banged on the pipe. By this time I was begin­ning to get emo­tion­al­ly involved with my lawnmower. 

Then my neigh­bor walked over and said that he had a lawn­mow­er like mine once and that, if he remem­bered cor­rect­ly, the threads on the bolt went the oth­er way. I reversed my exer­tions and, sure enough, the nut turned eas­i­ly. I was glad to find out I was wrong. I was saved from frus­tra­tion and fail­ure. I would nev­er have got­ten the job done, no mat­ter how hard I tried, doing it my way. 

Psalm 121 is a qui­et voice gen­tly and kind­ly telling us that we are, per­haps, wrong in the way we are going about the Chris­t­ian life, and then, very sim­ply, show­ing us the right way. 

But no soon­er have we plunged, expec­tant­ly and enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly, into the riv­er of Chris­t­ian faith than we get our noses full of water and come up cough­ing and chok­ing. No soon­er do we con­fi­dent­ly stride out onto the road of faith than we trip on an obstruc­tion and fall to the hard sur­face, bruis­ing our knees and elbows. For many, the first great sur­prise of the Chris­t­ian life is in the form of trou­bles we meet. Some­how it is not what we had sup­posed: we had expect­ed some­thing quite dif­fer­ent; we had our minds set on Eden or on New Jerusalem. We are rude­ly awak­ened to some­thing very dif­fer­ent, and we look around for help, scan­ning the hori­zon for some­one who will give us aid: I look up to the moun­tains; does my strength come from mountains?”

Psalm 121 is the neigh­bor com­ing over and telling us that we are doing it the wrong way, look­ing in the wrong place for help. Psalm 121 is addressed to those of us who, dis­re­gard­ing God, gaze to a dis­tance all around them, and make long and devi­ous cir­cuits in quest of reme­dies to their trou­bles.”1

Help from the Hills? 

A psalm that has enjoyed high regard among Chris­tians so long must have truth in it that is ver­i­fied in Chris­t­ian liv­ing. Let’s return to the psalm: The per­son set on the way of faith gets into trou­ble, looks around for help (“I look up to the moun­tains”) and asks a ques­tion: Does my strength come from moun­tains?” As this per­son of faith looks around at the hills for help, what is he, what is she, going to see? 

Some mag­nif­i­cent scenery, for one thing. Is there any­thing more inspir­ing than a ridge of moun­tains sil­hou­et­ted against the sky? Does any part of this earth promise more in terms of majesty and strength, of firm­ness and solid­i­ty, than the moun­tains? But a Hebrew would see some­thing else. 

Dur­ing the time this psalm was writ­ten and sung, Pales­tine was over­run with pop­u­lar pagan wor­ship. Much of this reli­gion was prac­ticed on hill­tops. Shrines were set up, groves of trees were plant­ed, sacred pros­ti­tutes both male and female were pro­vid­ed; per­sons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of wor­ship that would enhance the fer­til­i­ty of the land, would make you feel good, would pro­tect you from evil. There were nos­trums, pro­tec­tions, spells and enchant­ments against all the per­ils of the road. Do you fear the sun’s heat? Go to the sun priest and pay for pro­tec­tion against the sun god. Are you fear­ful of the malign influ­ence of moon­light? Go to the moon priest­ess and buy an amulet. Are you haunt­ed by the demons that can use any peb­ble under your foot to trip you? Go to the shrine and learn the mag­ic for­mu­la to ward off the mis­chief. Whence shall my help come? from Baal? from Asher­ah? from the sun priest? from the moon priest­ess?2

That is the kind of thing a Hebrew, set out on the way of faith twen­ty-five hun­dred years ago, would have seen on the hills. It is what dis­ci­ples still see. A per­son of faith encoun­ters tri­al or tribu­la­tion and cries out Help!” We lift our eyes to the moun­tains, and offers of help, instant and numer­ous, appear. Does my strength come from moun­tains?” No. My strength comes from GOD, who made heav­en, and earth, and mountains.”

A look to the hills for help ends in dis­ap­point­ment. For all their majesty and beau­ty, for all their qui­et strength and firm­ness, they are final­ly just hills. And for all their promis­es of safe­ty against the per­ils of the road, for all the allure­ments of their priests and priest­esses, they are all, final­ly, lies. 

And so Psalm 121 says no. It rejects a wor­ship of nature, a reli­gion of stars and flow­ers, a reli­gion that makes the best of what it finds on the hills; instead it looks to the Lord who made heav­en and earth. Help comes from the Cre­ator, not from the creation.

The Cre­ator is Lord over time: he guards you when you leave and when you return,” your begin­nings and your end­ings. He is with you when you set out on your way; he is still with you when you arrive at your des­ti­na­tion. You don’t need to, in the mean­time, get sup­ple­men­tary help from the sun or the moon. The Cre­ator is Lord over all nat­ur­al and super­nat­ur­al forces: he made them. Sun, moon and rocks have no spir­i­tu­al power. 

They are not able to inflict evil upon us: we need not fear any super­nat­ur­al assault from any of them. GOD guards you from every evil.” The promise of the psalm — and both Hebrews and Chris­tians have always read it this way — is not that we shall nev­er stub our toes but that no injury, no ill­ness, no acci­dent, no dis­tress will have evil pow­er over us, that is, will be able to sep­a­rate us from God’s pur­pos­es in us.

No lit­er­a­ture is more real­is­tic and hon­est in fac­ing the harsh facts of life than the Bible. At no time is there the faintest sug­ges­tion that the life of faith exempts us from dif­fi­cul­ties. What it promis­es is preser­va­tion from all the evil in them. On every page of the Bible there is recog­ni­tion that faith encoun­ters troubles. 

The sixth peti­tion in the Lord’s Prayer is Lead us not into temp­ta­tion, but deliv­er us from evil.” That prayer is answered every day, some­times many times a day, in the lives of those who walk in the way of faith. St. Paul wrote, No test or temp­ta­tion that comes your way is beyond the course of what oth­ers have had to face. All you need to remem­ber is that God will nev­er let you down; he’ll nev­er let you be pushed past your lim­it; he’ll always be there to help you come through it” (1 Cor 10:13).

One God, One Gospel

The great dan­ger of Chris­t­ian dis­ci­ple­ship is that we should have two reli­gions: a glo­ri­ous, bib­li­cal Sun­day gospel that sets us free from the world, that in the cross and res­ur­rec­tion of Christ makes eter­ni­ty alive in us, a mag­nif­i­cent gospel of Gen­e­sis and Romans and Rev­e­la­tion; and, then, an every­day reli­gion that we make do with dur­ing the week between the time of leav­ing the world and arriv­ing in heaven. 

We save the Sun­day gospel for the big crises of exis­tence. For the mun­dane triv­i­al­i­ties — the times when our foot slips on a loose stone, or the heat of the sun gets too much for us, or the influ­ence of the moon gets us down — we use the every­day reli­gion of the Reader’s Digest reprint, advice from a friend, an Ann Lan­ders col­umn, the huck­stered wis­dom of a talk-show celebri­ty. We prac­tice patent-med­i­cine religion. 

We know that God cre­at­ed the uni­verse and has accom­plished our eter­nal sal­va­tion. But we can’t believe that he con­de­scends to watch the soap opera of our dai­ly tri­als and tribu­la­tions; so we pur­chase our own reme­dies for that. To ask him to deal with what trou­bles us each day is like ask­ing a famous sur­geon to put iodine on a scratch. 

But Psalm 121 says that the same faith that works in the big things works in the lit­tle things. The God of Gen­e­sis 1 who brought light out of dark­ness is also the God of this day who guards you from every evil.

  1. John Calvin, Com­men­tary on the Psalms (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerd­mans, 1949), 5:63. ↩︎
  2. Johannes Ped­er­sen describes the sit­u­a­tion thus: The sun and the moon, which meant so much for the main­te­nance of order in life, often became inde­pen­dent gods among the neigh­bor­ing peo­ples or became part of the nature of oth­er gods. Job express­ly denies hav­ing kissed his hand to these mighty beings (‘ … if I have looked at the sun when it shone, or the moon mov­ing in splen­dor, and my heart has been secret­ly enticed, and my mouth has kissed my hand; this also would be an iniq­ui­ty to be pun­ished by the judg­ment, for I should have been false to God above’). And in a judg­ment prophe­cy it is said that Yah­weh will vis­it all the host of heav­en on high, and the kings on earth, and the sun and the moon shall be put to shame, when Yah­weh shall reign in Zion (‘Then the moon shall be con­found­ed and the sun ashamed; for the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem.’ Isa­iah 24:33).” Israel: Its Life and Cul­ture (Lon­don: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1926), p. 635. ↩︎

Tak­en from A Long Obe­di­ence in the Same Direc­tion by Eugene Peter­son. Copy­right © 2000 by Eugene Peter­son. Pub­lished by Inter­Var­si­ty Press, Down­ers Grove, IL. www​.ivpress​.com

Art: Land­scape of the Moon’s First Quar­ter, 1943 by Paul Nash (d. 1946), shared via Birm­ing­ham Muse­ums Trust on Unsplash

Text First Published June 1980 · Last Featured on January 2022

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