Continuing our weekly walk through Eugene Peterson’s modern classic A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (though a week late–was sick last week and just now getting it up), we come to chapter 5, “Service.”
First, “service begins with an upward look to God” (p. 61). Service is built on the foundation of proper relationships, not skills and abilities for particular tasks. Our posture before God is key. “God presents himself to us in the history of Jesus Christ as a servant” (p. 62). But we must not assume the role of master–that is a mistake too commonly practiced, even if not held mentally. “God did not become a servant so that we could order him around but so that we could join him in a redemptive life.”
“A second element in service has to do with our expectation” (p. 63). Because the life of Christian service is founded on a proper posture of looking upward to God, it is likewise founded on the basic truth of that relationship: God’s mercy. “The word mercy means that the upward look to God in the heavens does not expect God to stay in the heavens but to come down, to enter our condition, to accomplish the vast enterprise of redemption, to fashion in us his eternal salvation.” And with that in mind, the prayer “‘Mercy, GOD, mercy!’…is not an attempt to get God to do what he is unwilling otherwise to do, but a reaching out to what we know that he does do, an expressed longing to receive what God is doing in and for us in Jesus Christ” (p. 64).
“A third element in the servant life is urgency” (p. 65). Servitude is a universal experience, whether institutionalized or not in a particular era of history. Even today in a society in which freedom is most highly esteemed, we live with “complainers and addicts,” sometimes realizing that we are those complainers and addicts. “The Christian is a person who recognizes that our real problem is not in achieving freedom but in learning service under a better master… Recognizing and realizing that, we urgently want to live under the mastery of God… For such reasons all Christian service involves urgency.” Christian service takes initiative, both in rejecting the things that oppress and enslave us in order to live under God’s mastery, and in actively discerning where we are called to serve God and others according to the kingdom.
Service to others follows naturally from learning to be a servant to God. Peterson says the best NT commentary on this psalm is from Paul in Romans 12-16. Romans 12:1 in the TNIV states: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship.” In The Message: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” He reminds us that the Greek word for service is the same root word for “liturgy.” Therefore, “The service we offer to God (in worship) is extended into specific acts that serve others. We learn a relationship–an attitude toward life, a stance–of servitude before God, and then we are available to be of use to others in acts of service” (p. 66).
“A servant Christian is the freest person on earth” (p. 68). All of the points above lead to this one. “For freedom is the freedom to live as persons in love for the sake of God and neighbor, not a license to grab and push. It is the opportunity to live at our best, ‘little less than God’ (Ps 8:5 RSV)” (p. 67). In Peterson’s view, this psalm “puts us in the way of learning how to use our freedom most appropriately, under the lordship of a merciful God.”