Chapter 7 of Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society deals with the reality of God’s security for his people, exemplified in Psalm 125 and illustrated in Jerusalem’s geography–cradled among mountains and secure from attack.
“The emphasis of Psalm 125 is not on the precariousness of the Christian life but on its solidity” (p. 84). Growing up, Peterson lived under what seems to have been a culture of fear concerning “backsliding”: “I got the feeling that backsliding was not something you did, it happened to you.” But when he grew in faith and investigated for himself, he “found a background of confidence, a leisured security, among persons of faith.” The Christian life is not one in which we are left alone to perform a high-wire balancing act. Christians “have the same needs for protection and security as anyone else” (p. 85), only “we find that we don’t have to build our own: ‘God is a safe place to hide, ready to help when we need him’ (Ps 46:1).”
“One threat to our security comes from feelings of depression and doubt” (p. 86). Noting his experience of being “full of faith one day and empty with doubt the next,” Peterson relates a friend’s helpful phrase: “the saw-toothed history of Israel.” His experience (like ours) resembles the biblical story of Israel, sometimes thankful and praising, other times grumbling and doubtful. But in the midst of this, “we realize something solid and steady: they are always God’s people” (p. 87). God is steadfast when we are not and “we learn to live not by our feelings about God but by the facts of God.” In this talk of feelings, we are talking about the bigger picture rather than the day to day ups and downs.
“Another source of uncertainty is our pain and suffering” (p. 87). From our experiences of pain and suffering, or our observing those of persons close to us, we can fall into the habit of continually looking over our shoulder worrying about the evil that can happen, sensing its inevitability. The psalmist is helpful because he is aware of the reality of the “fist of the wicked” but his perspective is such that he knows that fist can never “violate what is due the righteous,” that is, “cancel God’s purposes that are being worked out” (p. 88). “Evil is always temporary… Nothing counter to God’s justice has any eternity to it” (pp. 88-89). Here is the secret–putting our pain and suffering, and the threat of it, into an appropriate larger context, one that says that evil cannot thwart God’s justice and will and that acts of evil may be co-opted and used for good, like developing our character and witnessing to God’s faithfulness in the midst of trial.
“The third threat to the confidence promised to the Christian is the known possibility of defection” (p. 89). Wesleyans do not agree that the Bible teaches “once saved always saved,” as Peterson’s Calvinist background does. Nevertheless, Peterson acknowledges, “if God will not force us to faith in the first place, he will not keep us against our will finally. Falling away is possible.” This points to the issue of backsliding that he begins the chapter talking about. And Peterson makes the excellent point that, contrary to his childhood impression, persons do not fall away “willy nilly”–“It is not the kind of thing you fall into by chance or slip into by ignorance. Defection requires a deliberate, sustained and determined act of rejection” (p. 90).
This notion of God’s security is a point of mystery for us. Wesleyan Methodists tend to emphasize the importance of feelings and experience and admit that since our relationship with God is freely chosen, we are able to fall away from faith. Such declarative statements about God’s unwavering security for us in relationship to him from a Calvinist Presbyterian might make us uncomfortable and suspicious. Here embracing mystery is helpful: Can we at the same time witness to God’s great security for us that is beyond us and acknowledge that it is possible for us to defect from the faith?