Reading Peterson: “Providence”

LongObedience.coverIt’s not often that God’s providence makes the sports front pages. Glover Quin, Detroit Lions safety, is no theologian. But he has a larger platform than most theologians, so more people hear it when he makes unwise statements about God and His providence. It fits well with Peterson’s next chapter, on providence. Talking with reporters about Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson’s knee injury, Quin said:

“I hated Jordy got hurt, but my beliefs and the way that I believe, it was God had meant for Jordy to get hurt. So if he wouldn’t have got hurt today, if he wouldn’t have played in that game, if he wouldn’t have practiced anymore and, the next time he would have walked on the field would have been opening day, I feel like he would have got hurt opening day.”

In fairness to Quin, dealing with divine knowledge and agency is tricky. And it’s especially tricky when we conflate the Triune God of the Bible with the triplet Fates, who weave, measure, and cut the destinies of gods and men alike. It’s also tricky when we confuse other aspects of biblical theology for Greek. In his chapter on providence, Eugene Peterson lays out a popular view of God on these lines, and he does it earnestly enough that it jolts the reader.

“The moment we say no to the world and yes to God, all our problems are solved, all our questions answered, all our troubles over. Nothing can disturb the tranquility of the soul at peace with God.”

At first glance, those words hit hard. I see the ontological truth of the first sentence behind its frustratingly simplistic language. But the second sentence is a lie in my own life; I yearn for it to be true because my journey has been hard. In fact, Peterson’s subsequent list of potential difficulties–“a crushing doubt, a squall of anger, a desperate loneliness”–convinces me that ole Eugene’s purloined my letters. I’ve felt what Peterson says then:

“It is a sign that something is wrong with our relationship with God. We have, consciously or unconsciously, retracted our yes to God; and God, impatient with our fickle faith, has gone off to take care of someone more deserving of his attention.”

Thankfully, he lets go the rug after two paragraphs: “Is that what you believe?…You are wrong.” Psalm 121, Peterson’s focus in this chapter, lays out the dangers of the road to the Celestial City. It acknowledge wrong thinking about God and urges us back on the right path with the right mindset.

This reorientation is particularly important to us, because our society has made eliminating struggle and pain our central focus. Technological advances and behavior hacks are designed to minimize work (Tired of forty hours a week? Try four!). Medical advances stave off the steady march of decay and death (or inflict them). The proliferation of knowledge through the Internet means the end of ignorance (or its flowering). All these things are the “hills” of verse 1, the potential sources of help that the Psalmist sees and rejects in favor of the mountain-making God.

All this meditation of Peterson’s is welcome, important. But the centerpiece of this chapter is a stern warning about providence and faith. Here’s one way to look at it. A serious temptation facing the Christian is to see God as the Greeks saw their deities: exalted, capricious, arrogant, not really concerned with human beings at all. Yet the Greeks approached these gods constantly, wanting, asking, yearning for favor.

The Bible, on the other hand, tells of a God who is concerned with our lives, who weaves justice and mercy in a grace-full tapestry, who condescended in Christ to experience our life, in all its frustrating, painful, joyful wonder. And what do we do? We consign that beautiful God to Sunday morning worship–gathering with the saints to celebrate the beauty, goodness, and truth of our Lord; lifting voices and hearts in gratitude and praise for the good news of the gospel; eating and drinking the Eucharist in a holy participation in divine life. Then we walk out into a gray world, leaving behind that great truth as we face the war of everyday life. That high and holy God should not be bothered if I stub my toe on the way to work. I need not call on Him if the sun gets hot, or if the moon threatens lunacy. I am meant to manage on my own, using up my Sunday strength in my weekday journey, looking forward to the next week’s fill-up.

That. Is. A. Lie. And the Psalmist says so. He says that the same God who shaped heavens and earth, who called existence into existence, is the God who still walks with us, everyday, everywhere, in everything. God goes with me from Sunday to Monday, and so on–or should. As Peterson puts it,

the way to tell the story of the Christian journey…is to name and to describe God who preserves, accompanies and rules us.

This has not been the story I’ve told. Like those rescued Hebrews in the wilderness, crying beside the river over the food they could have eaten if they’d only remained slaves in Egypt, I lament and bitch and moan about trial and struggle to myself and others. Instead, I should lift my laments to God, who hears me and responds, who offers strength in every trial. My faith can be (because it is) “the solid, massive, secure experience of God, who keeps all evil [not from touching us, but] from getting inside us,…who guards us always.”

I began with an athlete’s quote; I’ll end with a comedian’s. Stephen Colbert, interviewed by GQ, tells his interviewer that the secret to joy was to come to “love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” In Colbert’s case, that’s the death of his father and two of his brothers when Colbert was 10. The reporter is understandably flummoxed by such an idea.

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien’s mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

God does not lie in wait, deciding when Jordy Nelson will have his inevitable season-ending injury. God’s plan is not some deterministic laying out of our future, one that may come to us sooner rather than later. Instead, God invites us to walk toward Him Who is our future, offering His steady hand as we encounter struggle and difficulty, and His comfort in pain and sorrow. What we perceive along the way as punishment becomes the indescribable gift of his presence.

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