December 5, 2020

He Goes Ahead of Us

Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla

By Chaplain Mike

“When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:4, NASB)

This morning’s poem was a meditation on the idea (the reality!) that the Shepherd goes before us into each day and prepares the way. He leads us out into our daily life and work, and it is ours to hear his voice and follow.

The passage below is one of the seminal texts that made me aware of this as a minister. Its words are specifically directed to those in pastoral work, but its concepts apply to us all. Especially in the work I do now, where I enter people’s homes and hospital rooms several times a day, never quite knowing what I will face or what ministry will be needed, I find myself falling back on these truths time and time again.

I hope it encourages you as we prepare to walk into the week ahead.

In running the church, I seize the initiative. I take charge. I take responsibility for motivation and recruitment, for showing the way, for getting things started. If I don’t things drift. I am aware of the tendency to apathy, the human susceptibility to indolence, and I use my leadership position to counter it.

By contrast, the cure of souls is a cultivated awareness that God has already seized the initiative. The traditional doctrine defining this truth is prevenience: God everywhere and always seizing the initiative. He gets things going. He had and continues to have the first word. Prevenience is the conviction that God has been working diligently, redemptively, and strategically before I appeared on the scene, before I was aware there was something here for me to do.

The cure of souls is not indifferent to the realities of human lethargy, naive about congregational recalcitrance, or inattentive to neurotic cussedness. But there is a disciplined, determined conviction that everything (and I mean, precisely, everything) we do is a response to God’s first work, his initiating act. We learn to be attentive to the divine action already in process so that the previously unheard word of God is heard, the previously unattended act of God is noticed.

Running-the-church questions are: What do we do? How can we get things going again?

Cure-of-souls questions are: What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on?

We misunderstand and distort reality when we take ourselves as the starting point and our present situation as the basic datum. Instead of confronting the bogged-down human condition and taking charge of changing it with no time wasted, we look at divine prevenience and discern how we can get in on it at the right time, in the right way.

The cure of souls takes time to read the minutes of the previous meeting, a meeting more likely than not at which I was not present. When I engage in conversation, meet with a committee, or visit a home, I am coming in on something that has already been in process for a long time. God has been and is the central reality in that process. The biblical conviction is that God is “long beforehand with my soul.” God has already taken the initiative. Like one who walks in late to a meeting, I am entering a complex situation in which God has already said decisive words and acted in decisive ways. My work is not necessarily to announce that but to discover what he is doing and live appropriately with it.

• Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p. 69f


  1. I hear and concur. God’s always busy, cookin’ up all kinds of interesting & good stuff. Yet at the same time I can’t help but think that God is also interested in what I think. I have a brain, the ability to reason, to have creative thoughts, perhaps even BRILLIANT thoughts (!) & solutions. My mind is already going down some tortuous enigmatic rabbit trails here (like, is it my thought or did God give it to me? am i using my creative abilities or am I merely an instrument that he is playing?)…

    I’ve always really like this:
    19 “Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them;” (Genesis 2)

    I simply read it for what it says. God brought the animals to Adam to see what he would name them. I see it as God sort of stepping back and letting Adam make some decisions, not without some delight and curiousity in observing what his “child” will do in this situation. And God says, “Alright, I can work with that. Now let’s get busy together.”

    I know there are some theological so-n-so’s who will poo poo my simplistic perspective here, believing I’ve completely missed the deeper theological significance. But I’ve only missed it to the degree that they’ve missed something more basic. That God is interested in what we think. In how we use the brain he’s given us. That just as there will be times when we do, in fact, enter the current of what he’s been doing and is in the middle of doing and sort of become “one” with him, being his hands & feet & voice,… there will be also be times where we are meant to step out and use our reasoning powers, our hard-won empathy, wisdom & good sense, our decision-making ability, our creative ability to do something. And God is somehow waiting and watching to see what we’ll do, and (if not totally foolish so as to thwart his bigger plans) he says “Alright, I can work with that. Let’s get busy together.”

    I take seriously the words “co-laborers together with God”.

    • Charles Fines says

      “co-laborers together with God”

      Apparently from here on to the end of time when the last little recalcitrant element in the whole shebang chooses to be redeemed. Apparently we can do this as servants of the Most High but also apparently we can accept the invitation to do it as sons and daughters. How cool is that?

      My mind stays busy too, probably too busy at times. I keep saying, “Shush! Let’s let heart catch up.”

  2. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    Y’know… I realized I missed a week of the easter season some how. Last week I was using the Collect for the 2nd Sunday after Easter, and today we switched to the 4th. Maybe I had used the 2nd Collect for two weeks.

  3. The cure of souls takes time ……

    Often I have tripped after these six words, and with no more than these. The air we breathe is “git er done”, both within and without the church. This is a great post, and all the more hungry to read anything Peterson has written on ministry and the cure of souls.

    LORD JESUS, slow………..down.

  4. I liked the Peterson book for this very reason – it reminded me to slow down and listen with humility to all that’s going on in my church, and in myself.

  5. Wow! Great stuff.