Reading Peterson: “Repentance”

Eugene Peterson began his Long Obedience with the call to discipleship. In chapter 2, Peterson sees in Psalm 120 (the first of the Psalms of Ascent) a call to the repentance that will put us on the disciples’ path. LongObedience.coverHe says, rightly, that discipleship–the journey toward God–begins with our acceptance that we are in trouble and our decision to pursue the only real Help. He writes, “A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. … A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he acquires an appetite for the world of grace.” (25).

Psalm 120 is a cry from the heart, one that recognizes the darkness of the fallen world. It gets the interminable wickedness that God saw in pre-Flood humanity, and exposes the myth of progress that we keep on believing. Things are not getting better all the time, despite the march of technological advances, despite the assurance of advertisers. (Matthew B. Crawford, in The World Beyond Your Head, calls them “choice architects,” because far from simply offering choices, they are shaping the choices of an increasingly “pliable” public.) The most important person in the life of the world–God–is omitted from all these discussions, as is our place with regard to him.

But God appears at the crux of Psalm 120, and Peterson calls it “a lightning flash.” And God’s appearance is a call not only to admit that we’re in trouble but to exchange our version of truth for the Truth. This is metanoia, a change of mind, which is the biblical word for repentance. Peterson discerns in the Psalm a call to reject the world’s promises of progress, since they offer advance through science or strength or intelligence that is “divorced from God, put to the wrong ends and producing all the wrong results.” Saying no to this puts us, like Israel, on the “pilgrim path,” on a journey to God.

But repentance is not simply an apophatic way–a negative way, the saying no. It’s also a positive way, a cataphatic way, one that accepts that God alone can offer satisfaction and hope, and that he does so eschatologically in the Resurrection of Jesus.

Martin Luther called repentance a way of life, and it’s that in both senses. It’s the way to life; without repentance, we never get started on the Christian way. It’s also a way to live, or more appropriately, the way to life. In adopting repentance as a lifestyle, we are able to continually direct  (and redirect) our attention to God in the face of life’s uncertainty and fear. Whether we live among the warlike Kedar or in an increasingly combative global community, we can turn to God for peace.


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