a long obedience 13

This week we look at chapter 13 in Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, which deals with Psalm 131 on the subject of Humility.

“Christian faith needs continuous maintenance” (p. 149).  Like a plant that needs to be pruned in order to grow and flourish, our spiritual lives need to be pruned as well. What “psalm 131 prunes away are unruly ambition and infantile dependency.”


“One temptation that has received…some special flourishes in America, is ambition” (p. 151). While I tend to think of ambition as having good or bad expressions, Peterson seems to be making the same distinction I am by using two words to convey the difference. “Unruly ambition” is one helpful way that he describes it. So, ambition is contrasted with aspiration. Whereas aspiration is “the channeled, creative energy that moves us to growth in Christ” (p. 153), ambition is pictured as the basic sin of Scripture and is sometimes hard to pick out: “It is additionally difficult to recognize unruly ambition as a sin because it has a kind of superficial relationship to the virtue of aspiration–an impatience with mediocrity and a dissatisfaction with all things created until we are at home with the Creator” (p. 152). In differentiating the terms further, Peterson writes, “Ambition is aspiration gone crazy. Aspiration is the channeled, creative energy that moves us to growth in Christ” (p. 153).


“Christian faith is not neurotic dependency but childlike faith” (p. 154). Peterson writes: “Having realized the dangers of pride, the sin of thinking too much of ourselves, we are suddenly in danger of another mistake, thinking too little of ourselves.” Some persons adopt a simplistic “dependency on God” to the exclusion of active participation in working out God’s desire for our lives. Peterson notes that we were given the model of Christian faith “not because of the child’s helplessness but because of the child’s willingness to be led, to be taught, to be blessed” (p. 155). Radical dependence is biblical, I think, but neurotic, immature dependency is not: “There are some who conclude that since the great Christian temptation is to try to be everything, the perfect Christian solution is to be nothing” (p. 154).

The image of the weaned child as a picture of maturing faith became more clear and relevant on my second reading of this sentence, a quotation that Peterson employs from another:

“And just as the child gradually breaks off the habit of regarding his mother only as a means of satisfying his own desires and learns to love her for her own sake, so the worshipper after a struggle has reached an attitude of mind in which he desires God for himself and not as a means of fulfillment of his own wishes.” (p. 155)


“Another way, the plain way of quiet Christian humility” (p. 157). Instead of continually alternating from the extremes of going it alone without God on the one hand and running back in a panic on the other, we can choose “the plain way of quiet Christian humility.”


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