Chapter three, entitled “Providence,” comments and expands on second of the Psalms of Ascent, Psalm 121:
Psalm 121 The Message (MSG)
A Pilgrim Song
121 1-2 I look up to the mountains;
does my strength come from mountains?
No, my strength comes from God,
who made heaven, and earth, and mountains.
3-4 He won’t let you stumble,
your Guardian God won’t fall asleep.
Not on your life! Israel’s
Guardian will never doze or sleep.
5-6 God’s your Guardian,
right at your side to protect you—
Shielding you from sunstroke,
sheltering you from moonstroke.
7-8 God guards you from every evil,
he guards your very life.
He guards you when you leave and when you return,
he guards you now, he guards you always.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
This chapter disabuses the reader of two notions: first, that the Christian life is all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns (as if!); and second, that looking unto the hills is likely to yield anything helpful. The first notion is one that anyone who has lived long at all on this earth as a Christian is unlikely to fall prey to (or at least if he is honest, he will not fall prey to it). The second notion is one that, as nice as it is for popular culture and even popular Christian culture to co-opt Biblical references, damage has been done to our understanding of it for that very reason.
The first notion is easy enough to disprove, though harder to actually admit. I blame some strains of the prosperity Gospel for this. (I can criticize those with whom I share a common historical heritage, right?) In my real life of real, lived experiences, I never once thought that Christianity would make life easier. I knew plenty of devoted Christians growing up whose lives disproved that right in front of me. For example, I have watched family members live very difficult experiences with alcoholic relatives, loving and caring for those family members, all the while never once (to my knowledge) suffering needlessly over why God had allowed such a thing OR (worse, perhaps) thinking that she could somehow make exactly the right confession and change things over night. However, I can remember hearing from the pulpit about “commanding God’s hand” and accomplishing great things for God. Obviously, it made an impression on me–I still remember it some thirty years later. Even as a young person, I stored it up in my memory bank to take out and evaluate periodically–do I really believe this? The only feeling or emotion I ever remember associating with such a claim is guilt–guilt that my own personal experience as a Christian did not match up to this, which (I thought) must mean I’m doing something wrong. Now I know better. Through growth, maturity, experience, and more spiritual wisdom, I know that the Christian life just doesn’t usually work this way in reality. (And important to note: reality is what God is about, not some impossible ideal.)
While I’m not interested in (and am not capable of) debating points of theology, I do want to share my own experience of understanding and misunderstanding things I learned as a child. One of them is the idea of backsliding. Having been raised in a church that taught sanctification and holiness and rejected the teaching of eternal security, I lived my teenage years in particular in fear of sinning my way out of God’s grace. While this is a pretty good way of keeping a tight rein on teenagers who might rebel, it’s not a good way to live one’s life, rebellious teenager or not. (For the record, I was as outwardly conformist as was possible to be. Inwardly I was a mess of anxiety, which would probably have been true regardless of my own particular theological beliefs, but it certainly wasn’t helped by this particular one.) I’ll spare the details, but I remember one week one summer spent at my beloved youth camp as a teen. The preacher for the week spent a lot of time expounding on this very theme: that we must be very careful about how we live our lives because we can fall out of favor with God. This teaching made a huge impact on me and my friends in particular. We were under the impression, as Peterson writes in this chapter, that it was possible for us to retract “our yes to God; and God, impatient with our fickle faith,” [. . . will go] “off to take care of someone more deserving of his attention.”
Not so, says Peterson. (And, I might add, says the Bible.)
Peterson cites this Psalm as “the neighbor coming over and telling us that we are doing it the wrong way, looking in the wrong place for help.” He goes on to explain that the Psalm mentions three dangers to travelers: stumbling, sunstroke, and moonstroke. The first is obvious: injury as a result of some misstep. The second, sunstroke, has to do with traveling under physically demanding circumstances. The third, moonstroke, was something of a revelation to me, at least in this context. Peterson writes that “a person traveling for a long distance on foot, under the pressures of fatigue and anxiety, can become emotionally ill, which was described by ancient writers as moonstroke (or by us as lunacy).” Peterson then expands this to include an updated list of dangers, which might fall into the ancient categories, ending with this: “But we cannot guarantee security.” However, the Psalm does go on to say that “He [God] won’t let you stumble, [. . .] God’s your guardian [. . .] shielding you from sunstroke, sheltering you from moonstroke.” So is the Psalm wrong–inaccurate–pie in the sky? In Peterson’s words, “either I’m wrong (these people I thought were Christians really weren’t and therefore the psalm doesn’t apply to them) or the psalm is wrong (God doesn’t do what the psalm claims).” He goes on to offer a third possibility. (Thank God!)
The third possibility in this “who’s right?” scenario is that this Psalm’s promises are far deeper than the “momentary sufferings” of this life. He concludes his discussion by explaining that “looking unto the hills” for our help is fruitless (despite the nun’s advice to the von Trapps in The Sound of Music.) The historical context of this admonition relates to the pagan worship taking place in Palestine at the time. This worship usually occurred in the mountains of Palestine and involved all sorts of incantations and unspeakable acts with shrine prostitutes. In other words, nothing Baal or Mother Nature can offer us will bring about our ultimate safety. This is only found in the Lord God. But this safety is NOT about what will or won’t happen to us in this temporal world; instead, it is “no injury, no illness, no accident, no distress will have evil power over us, that is, will be able to separate us from God’s purposes in us.” This Psalm, then, and our lives as Christians, is not about what happens to us externally; it is instead about what happens to us in the Inner Man. God is with us, no matter what comes our way. I love how Peterson ends this chapter:
Once we get this psalm in our hearts it will be impossible for us to gloomily suppose that being a Christian is an unending battle against ominous forces that at any moment may break through and overpower us. Faith is not a precarious affair of chance escape from satanic assaults. It is the solid, massive, secure experience of God, who keeps all evil from getting inside us, who guards our life, who guards us when we leave and when we return, who guards us now, who guards us always.A Long Obedience in the Same Directions, chapter 3
- Thoughts on A Long Obedience: Chapter One: “Discipleship”
- Thoughts on a Long Obedience: Chapter Two: “Repentance”