Theme: A Pilgrim Obedience
In this week’s lessons we look at what it means to be a pilgrim, whose true home is not in this world, but in heaven.
Scripture: Psalm 120:1-7
A number of years ago I was in a Christian bookstore, and I saw a book I knew absolutely nothing about but purchased anyway. I do not normally do that. Books cost too much money today to buy without knowing something about them. But I bought this book because of its title. It was called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. That sounded like an apt description of the Christian life to me, and I thought there must be something good in it.
When I got it home I made two discoveries. First, I learned that the title came from the atheistic German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche had written, “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.”1 I never thought that I would be attracted by the words of a pagan philosopher, but I had been. I had been snared by them.
Second, I learned that the book was about the “Songs of Assents,” that fifteen-psalm “Psalter within the Psalter”2 to which we have now come in our exposition of these ancient Hebrew poems. It was by Eugene H. Peterson, who is now professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, in Vancouver, B.C.
The subtitle of Peterson’s book is “Discipleship in an Instant Society,” and it is a clue to what he sees as the importance of these songs for today. They are discipleship songs—I will explain more about that in a minute—and the reason they are important today is that Christians in our time know very little about discipleship.
We live in an “instant society,” and one way that has impacted the way we think is the nearly universal assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired quickly. Peterson wrote,
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.3
I do not think Peterson is exaggerating this judgment in the slightest. And I also think he is right when he challenges us to look at these psalms for their teaching about discipleship or a pilgrim mentality. Christianity is a “long obedience” religion, and if we do not know that about it, we know very little about Christianity. In fact, if we are not in it for “the long haul,” we are not even Christians.
1Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), p. 13. The quotation is from Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Helen Zimmern (London: 1907), section 188, pp. 106-109.
2This is a title given to them by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 3b, Psalms 120-150 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966, p. 2; and by Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 3, Psalms 90-150 (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1894), p. 290.
3Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 12.
What does Eugene Peterson mean by the term “instant society”?
Where do you see examples of this way of thinking? How has this idea affected the church?
Reflection: Think of technologies that have improved the speed of communication. Has this created an addiction to an instant response that carries over to your spiritual life?
Application: Do you understand Christianity as a long obedience religion? How do you prepare for the long haul?
Key Point: We live in an “instant society,” and one way that has impacted the way we think is the nearly universal assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired quickly.