December 2, 2020

Peterson on Jesus as the Way

By Chaplain Mike

Yesterday, in the light of our “Disney-ization” post, a friend reminded me of an interview Eugene Peterson did with Christianity Today’s Mark Galli back in 2005 called, “Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons.”

This discussion between two of my favorite writers examines the “Jesus way” of living the spiritual life vs. various ways we try to manufacture out of our own (often unrecognized) cultural understandings and expectations. I thought his words might give us the chance to do more thinking together about this today.

These are Peterson’s words:

. . . Do we do it in Jesus’ way or do we do it the Wal-Mart way? Spirituality is not about ends or benefits or things; it’s about means. It’s about how you do this. How do you live in reality?

So, how do you help all these people? The needs are huge. Well, you do it the way Jesus did it. You do it one at a time. You can’t do gospel work, kingdom work in an impersonal way.

We live in the Trinity. Everything we do has to be in the context of the Trinity, which means personally, relationally. The minute you start doing things impersonally, functionally, mass oriented, you deny the gospel. Yet that’s all we do.

Jesus is the Truth and the Life, but first he’s the Way. We can’t do Jesus’ work in the Devil’s way.

I get exercised about this because many pastors are getting castrated by these methodologies, which are impersonal. There’s no relationship to them. And so they become performance oriented and successful. It’s pretty easy in our culture, at least if you’re tall and have a big smile. And they lose their soul. There’s nothing to them after 20 years. Or they crash. They try all this stuff and it doesn’t work, and they quit, or quit and start doing something else. Probably 90 percent of the affairs that pastors have are not due to lust, but boredom with not having this romantic kind of life they thought they’d get.

. . . One test I think is this: Am I working out of the Jesus story, the Jesus methods, the Jesus way? Am I sacrificing relationship, personal attention, personal relationship for a shortcut, a program so I can get stuff done? You can’t do Jesus’ work in a non-Jesus way and get by with it—although you can be very “successful.”

One thing that I think is characteristic of me is I stay local. I’m rooted in a pastoral life, which is an ordinary life. So while all this glitter and image of spirituality is going around, I feel quite indifferent to it, to tell you the truth. And I’m somewhat suspicious of it because it seems to be uprooted, not grounded in local conditions, which are the only conditions in which you can live a Christian life.

NOTE: Click on the link in the first paragraph to read the entire interview.


  1. Thanks Chaplain Mike for this post. Eugene Peterson is one of my favourite authors. I am pastor for four very small villages in Switzerland. Nothing glittery or glamorous about it. Eugene Peterson helped me to appreciate my call and the people I am serving. The longer I live here the more I love the people.
    It may be similar to a shepherd who know his sheep. The more he knows them the more he likes them. Over time he knows when they need him (at births, when one is sick, when one is dying, when one needs some other kind of help) and when to leave them in peace because they are more than able to live on their own. So being a pastor for me has more to do with faithfulness and care than with with me having some kind of success. Though I some times did pine for it – to which Eugene Peterson’s books put an end.

  2. The Jesus Way is summed up in Matthew 5-7. Also, if you don’t consistently live the Jesus Way as described in those chapters there are dire eternal consequences.

    • Point missed again. We’re talking about the Jesus way of doing ministry here, Mark.

    • Mark, could you please define “consistently”? I’m afraid that I may be in for those “dire eternal consequences.”

      Oh, wait, there’s hope. It’s in Jesus! Even if I’m not perfect! (1John2:1-2)

      But seriously: “Consistently”. Your def, please.

      • Ted,

        First John is a good place to start about how we must consistently avoid sin if we are to be considered among the redeemed. It also balances this message out by stating that no Christian is perfectly righteous in this life (1 John 1:8-10). Though we may have our struggles, doubts, and sins, a truly saved person lives a life of righteousness than disobedience. Again, you’re using your own personal experience as the hermeneutical lens to explain various NT passages on this issue.

        • Mark, you may be assuming a great deal about my personal experience.

          And I still don’t know what you mean by “consistently”. Does that mean “perfectly”? If so, we are all doomed, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

          • Ted,

            Did you read my above response to you? I did not equate consistently with perfectly. You’re right, if anyone has to be morally perfect in this life to be considered regenerate than we would all be in trouble. However, that doesn’t mean that the truly regenerate life is substantially and significantly different (as a whole) from the life of an unredeemed.

          • Sorry, I meant to say that that doesn’t mean that the truly regenerate life is subtantially and significantly NOT different (as a whole) from the life of the unredeemed.

          • Thanks, Mark. It’s too late at night to de-code double negatives, but I get your point.

            But, that brings us back to the old iMonk question about regeneration, au Michael Spencer: “How much is enough?” and “Who gets to make the call?”

            If you answer “God” to the second question I’ll have a retort, but it’ll probably be tomorrow…

    • Mark, based on the way you consistently come across in your comments (with an almost complete lack of humility), it seems to me that you make a habit of missing the Jesus Way as you define it.

      • I am not being arrogant or haughty in my posts. I am just stating things as a responsible reader of Scripture.

        I was once confronted with such vicious hostility once by someone who didn’t like what I had to say about the nature of the genuine Christian life (and I was not being rude or jerkish at all). I later found out that this person was not only actively supporting the gay lifestyle but was actually living it without repentance. Go figure.

        • Hey Mark,

          I’m not trying to be vicious or hostile to you. I’m just saying that your comments often come across that way. I understand the limitations of internet communication and how easy it is to misunderstand someone. I can’t make the judgment that you are full of the bad kind of pride, but I can say that you often come across that way, and it looks like other people feel the same way. Again, I’m not saying you’re that kind of person–just that you might want to work at coming across a little less harsh in your comments.

          As for the guy living an actively gay lifestyle, that doesn’t apply to me. I’m pretty much living a consistently perfect life…jk. But seriously, what’s in your closet?

          • We all have things in the closet we are not proud of (and will bring God’s displeasure). However, there is a whole lot of difference between a true believer who struggles with his or her sins and senses the need for daily repentance and renewal and a false believer/hypocrite/self-deceived that continue to sin without any holy notion in the heart of how disgusting sin is before God.

    • Grace????????

    • I thought only liberals read that Sermon on the Mount stuff. Dare you suggest that God takes into account actions and not merely faith? There are watchbloggers who are constantly vigilant for such heresy.

  3. It’s just too early for this.

  4. (Should have been a reply to Mark, sorry. It really *is* too early!)

  5. I love Eugene Peterson. I don’t think he has written anything (that I have read so far) that I disagree with. Long may he continue to live on this side of existence!

  6. Eugene Peterson is a voice ignored far too often. Great post, CM. We as Christians pay a lot of attention to orthodoxy (right worship), and don’t give nearly enough thought to orthopraxy (right practice).

    I would have loved to sit in the room while Galli interviewed Peterson….

  7. The other Graham says

    I want to find that church! (Although Mr. Petersen’s explanation of why the congregation isn’t seeking out a church with a nursery,etc. made me wonder if
    it’s in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon! Norwegian Lutherans!?)

    The scenes with the mom and the bratty kids after church and the welcoming of the unwed mom who wanted her kids baptized reminded me of something I read in “The Celtic Way of Evangelization” (George Hunter): “helping people belong so they can believe.”

  8. Wow. I am shocked. I’ve never read Eugene Peterson before, and everyone I’ve known who uses the Message uses it for precisely the sort of reasons that Peterson rejects in that interview–the churchy-stuff-is-boring-so-let’s-do-it-in-a-more-“relevant”-way mindset. So I just assumed that the author felt the same way. That just got blown out of the water.

    • I think The Message is very useful as an “everyman” Bible, for those who would not be inclined to read at all if not in accessible language. It is also useful as a supplemental version for those of us who wish to study in multiple versions. I keep an audio version of The Message on my MP3 player as it is a good “listening” version

      • Yeah, I actually really like The Message; I find it refreshing. Often it’s caused me to see a particular passage of Scripture in a way I’d never seen before, or revealed more of the richness in it.

        I certainly wouldn’t rely on it alone (some of the paraphrases make me scratch my head), but I do think Eugene’s taken a lot of care to try and accurately communicate the essence of the original text in an up-to-date way. It’s often beautifully worded, too.

        On another note, I’m really enjoying the site, Chaplain Mike. Very thoughtful, balanced posts.

  9. Wise, as usual. Peterson is marvelous. A friend gave me his advance copy of Peterson’s memoir. It will be out next year. Simply wonderful.

    • @ Clay:

      Thanks for the update about Peterson’s memoir. I’ll be all over that when it comes out in 2011.

      I thoroughly enjoy his writings.

  10. I had read that interview before, but just re-read it. Peterson is so honest, so wise, he makes me cry. Same as Michael Spencer used to do.

  11. David Cornwell says

    Peterson says “So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.”

    In the end I think this is why I’ve never been tempted to leave the old line denominations. Underneath the bark the essentials of the faith are preserved. The articles of religion, the creeds, the liturgy and tradition hold the corpus of faith that are passed to us generation to generation.

    I believe this to be true regardless of whether one is speaking of Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy or the Protestant denominations.

    • Just a clarification, Peterson refers to the “intistution” of the church being dead, not the church itself which is living and organic as it draws its life from Christ.

      • David Cornwell says

        He does not in any way devalue the institution of the church. He says:

        “What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church.”

      • This issue of whether or not being a church body requires institutional structure is one I’ve been wrangling with for several years. Being a part of a non-institutional home church fellowship has definitely opened my eyes and mind to a new, deeply relational dimension of what church can be — as well as a way of being a church body that is amazingly low maintenance and cost effective.
        Then again, simple/home church definitely has its own share of problems: a lack of structure and direction, a lack of clear leadership and a resulting lack of discipline, the danger of devolving into a mere discussion group, the way a single relational breakdown or failure can threaten the existence of the whole body, and the question of what the heck to do with the carpet crawlers (just to name a few).
        But whenever I re-visit institutional church, I’m quickly reminded of why I left it in the first place — the main reason being that the Sunday Morning Show and the emphasis on programs has all but completely eclipsed the person-to-person relational aspect on which the writers of the NT placed most of their focus. I’m fine with sitting through a good sermon (or even a bad one), and I really love corporate worship through music. But what institutional church really makes time, places emphasis, and puts forth practical effort when it comes to things like bearing one another’s burdens, strengthening and encouraging each other, engaging in intimate prayer with each other, coming clean and confessing sins to each other, verbally sharing our struggles and experiences in Christ, and investing the time and effort it requires for believers to form true and lasting bonds of love in Christ? The plain and simple truth is that’s just not possible for a church to truly explore and develop a healthy relational life exclusively within the context of formal services and tightly-managed programs.
        It’s almost like you have to choose between one or the other — institutional structure or family-like relationships — when it comes to church. And it’s almost like you have to choose between freedom and stability. I really don’t know whether or not these are true dualisms or just issues the Body of Christ hasn’t worked out yet. I know I haven’t managed to get a handle on it.

        • David Cornwell says

          You said, “emphasis on programs has all but completely eclipsed the person-to-person relational aspect on which the writers of the NT placed most of their focus.

          You have a point and I’ve been in churches like the one you describe. But I’ve also been in “institutional” churches that are excellent examples of the person-to-person relational aspect also.

          Programming can either be good or bad. A lot of churches today are over-programmed. Early Methodists had small groups (sometimes described as class meetings), which were relational, and depending on the group, confessional. These lasted well into the 20th century. Some were very much like a house church. Yet Methodism has always been highly structured. (I’m no longer a Methodist by membership. But my pastor says I’ll always be one!)

          I know the institutional church has difficulties with many things. I have major arguments
          with some decisions. But for me, I can’t imagine being in anything else.

          But– don’t all churches become institutionalized over time?

          These are just some thoughts, not disagreements.

  12. The full article linked in the top paragraph is worth reading.

    >> One of my favorite stories is of Teresa of Avila. She’s sitting in the kitchen with a roasted chicken. And she’s got it with both hands, and she’s gnawing on it, just devouring this chicken. One of the nuns comes in shocked that she’s doing this, behaving this way. She said, “When I eat chicken, I eat chicken; when I pray, I pray.” <<

    • Andy, I liked that Teresa of Avila story too. Hey, it’s crazy to try to each chicken on the bone daintily anyway. Gnaw that thing!

  13. Excellent, thought-provoking post from Peterson. I honestly, expect nothing less from his writings.

    His book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” has been one I have gone to again and again in my Christian walk for encouragement along this pilgrimage from earth to heaven.

  14. Beautiful and insightful post and linked interview. Thank you for this.