Now we come to chapter 6, “Help,” in Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.
“The proper work for the Christian is witness, not apology” (p. 72). Assertions about the faithfulness of God and the presence of his help can evoke in folks bitter memories of disappointment or present struggles. Peterson relates his own temptation as a pastor to defend God in the face of these. And he points to the peculiar approach, in his view, of Psalm 124: “It does not argue God’s help; it does not explain God’s help; it is a testimony of God’s help in the form of a song.” Further pressing the point–helpfully, I think–he says that, if the people expressing disappointment are offering evidence against the reality of God’s help that demands to be reckoned with, this psalm represents evidence for God’s help that demands reckoning with as well: “We ask, ‘How does it happen that there are people who sing with such confidence, ‘God’s strong name is our help’?’ The psalm is data that must be accounted for” (p. 73).
“There is no literature in all the world that is more true to life and more honest than Psalms, for here we have warts-and-all religion” (p. 75). This psalmist does not write about God’s help from the perspective of a charmed life. He has been through tough times: “The people were in danger of being swallowed up alive; and they were in danger of being drowned by a flood” (p. 73). The images bespeak encounters with powerful evil and sudden disaster. Peterson points out our propensity to respond to such a witness to God’s help and deliverance with cynicism and encourages us to “bring it out in the open and deal with it. If it is left to work behind the scenes in our hearts, it is a parasite on faith, enervates hope and leaves us anemic in love” (pp. 74-5).
“Christian discipleship is hazardous work” (p. 75). “Everyday I put faith on the line. …hope on the line. …love on the line” (p. 76). Believing in a God never seen, trusting him for an unknown future, choosing love–made tangible in thinking of others–over pride. This is not easy if we think about it. At one level, we are dumbstruck at the “problem of evil” when confronted with testimony about it–unjust tragedy, natural disaster, etc. But we choose to give credance to the problem of evil’s–the “problem of good,” that is, of God’s help (this is parallel with point #1). What Peterson says of the choice concerning love, I think we can adapt to faith and hope as well: opening himself to love, “daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride” (p. 77, emphasis mine).
“Psalm 124 is an instance of a person who digs deeply into the trouble and find there the presence of the God who is on our side” (p. 79). Upon taking the hazards seriously, Peterson says the psalm “is not about hazards but about help. The hazardous work of discipleship is not the subject of the psalm but only its setting” (p. 77). The subject is the help of the God who created the entire universe getting involved in the details of a ordinary person. “The person of faith is not a person who has been born, luckily, with a good digestion and sunny disposition” (p. 79). To the contrary, “Christians know more about the deep struggles of life than others, more about the ugliness of sin.” Sometimes we look to the austere heavens and feel inspired to praise the Creator; this psalm looks to the valleys of trouble and “it sees there the God who is on our side, God our help.” This points, of course, to the centrality of the cross as the demonstration of God’s loving character–even above his creative power in Genesis 1.