Books that Merit (Re)Reading: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction Forty Years Later

John R. Muether
Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

When the Presbyterian pastor and popular author Eugene Peterson passed away in 2018, he left a legacy of writings, most notably his five-volume series, Conversations on Spiritual Theology. The first of his nearly three dozen books was published forty years ago, written in the midst of his 29-year pastorate in Maryland, before his tenure on the faculty at Regent College in Vancouver. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction made a quiet entrance into print and only after Peterson had been turned down by more than a dozen publishers.[1] Critics did not recognize it as the classic that it would become. A literature search retrieved only two short reviews. In a brief notice in the Catholic journal, Review for Religious, a Jesuit reviewer noted that its “presentation is enthusiastic.”[2] In the TSF Bulletin a graduate student in theology lauded Peterson’s drawing on the experience of the pilgrim in a way that “point[ed] the reader Godward rather than back toward the author” and for his illustrations that “come across freshly and vividly.”[3]

Peterson feared that his parishioners had grown too comfortable with the world. Modern pilgrims had become tourists. His corrective was to turn to “an old dog-eared songbook” (14) in book five of the Psalter, the songs of ascents, Psalms 120-34. These psalms present fifteen pictures of discipleship set in the context of pilgrimage that remind us of “who we are and where we are going” (14).[4] In his own assessment of the book, Peterson described it as “a manual for discipleship, trying to counter the American lust for easy answers and quick solutions by submitting to these old prayers that were used ‘on the road’ as pilgrims worked their way up through the hills to the great acts of worship in Jerusalem.”[5]

The songs of ascents are short psalms. But there are a disproportionate number of memorable phrases in them, including some of the greatest expressions of comfort and encouragement.  To cite but three: “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (121:4); “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (124:8); “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (133:1). In Peterson’s words, here we find “beautiful lines, piercing insights, dazzling truths, stimulating words” (184). The same can be said for Peterson’s reflections. His reputation as a gifted wordsmith is on early display in his first book, as a sample of quotes to follow will demonstrate.

Two subsequent editions followed the original publication. Beyond a new preface by Peterson, there were few changes in the text when InterVarsity issued a second edition in 2000. But there is one significant alteration of note. The fifteen Psalms surveyed are themselves presented at the beginning of each chapter, and the stateliness of the Revised Standard Version of the original was replaced in the second edition by Peterson’s own paraphrase, The Message. This was an editorial misstep. Often Peterson’s paraphrase obscured his presentation. In Psalm 125, for example, Peterson originally argued that the key word in the psalm was “rest.” But when that word disappeared from his paraphrase, Peterson is forced to identify a very different key word, “violate,” to accommodate his translation (84 in the original edition/82 in the second edition). In Psalm 130, which he describes under the theme of hope, the word itself, where it appeared twice in the RSV is removed in the paraphrase. “Waiting and hoping” is weakened to “waiting and watching,” again by the demands of the new translation. (138/136).[6]  While some reviewers claim that the Message complements the exposition of Long Obedience, its intrusion blunts some of the points he strives to make.

The Message is retained in the attractive, clothbound, “commemorative edition” of Long Obedience that InterVarsity Press published a year after Peterson’s death. There is a preface by his son and a brief postscript by Harold Fickett. It would have been helpful if the publisher had enhanced the book with indexes.

A striking feature that will impress anyone familiar with Peterson’s writings is the way Long Obedience serves as an introduction to his later works. Most of his major themes find themselves here. Throughout the book, a key concern is the superficiality of many contemporary approaches to spirituality, where it is directed to the self and not to God. Peterson points readers back classical understandings of the Christian life and pastoral vocation, and he alerts readers to how they can be hijacked by cultural accommodation and held captive particularly to consumerist trappings. (The word “subversion” does not appear in Long Obedience, but clearly the ambition to subvert does. This becomes more openly his agenda in The Contemplative Pastor and in his collected essays, Subversive Spirituality.[7])

To put it positively, Peterson insists that Scripture must shape our spirituality. A deep reading of Scripture is challenging because worldliness has reduced attention spans (10). In a later book, Peterson laments that we come to Scripture “tired, sluggish, and inattentive.”[8]  Eventually, he explores more fully the importance of cultivating the habit of spiritual reading in Eat this Book.[9]  Only such a reading can direct our vision Godward: “Christian discipleship is a decision to walk in his ways, steadily and firmly, and then finding out that this way integrates all our interests, passions, and gifts, our human needs and our eternal aspirations” (131).

Attentiveness cannot be accomplished by oneself, and so Long Obedience stressed the role of community in discipleship: “Scripture knows nothing of the solitary Christian life. People of faith are always members of a community” (170).  As community has become a Christian buzzword in our age, Peterson is quick to caution about counterfeit expressions of life together. It is easy to avoid community even when we claim to pursue it. He cites two particular avoidance strategies when looking at Psalm 133:

Every community of Christians is imperiled when either [of two] routes are pursued: the route of defining people as problems to be solved, the way one might repair an automobile, or the route of lumping people together in terms of economic ability or institutional effectiveness, the way one might run a bank. … Somewhere else lies community—a place where each person is taken seriously, learns to trust others, depend on others, be compassionate with others, rejoices with others (174).

Fuller development of the importance of community is found in a lengthy chapter (pages 225-329 in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. There he writes:

I didn’t come to the conviction easily, but finally there was no getting around it.  There can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life apart from an immersion in, and embrace of, community. I am not myself by myself. Community, not the highly vaunted individualism of our culture, is the setting in which Christ is at play.[10]

Community, in turn, entails consequences for worship. Peterson challenges the contemporary preference for private devotional life over the public means of grace. It is preeminently in worship where the gathered people of God have their attention centered on the Word of God. Worship then becomes the main instrument in Christian formation: “If we stay at home by ourselves and read the Bible, we are going to miss a lot, for our reading will be unconsciously conditioned by our culture, limited by our ignorance, distorted by unnoticed prejudices. … We want to hear what God says and what he says to us: worship is the place where our attention is centered on these personal and decisive words of God.” (51). In short, “The pilgrim is not at the center; the Lord is at the center” (106).

In a later work Peterson asserts that Scripture can center the disciple only when one devotes attention to its form: “[T]he way the Bible is written is every bit as important as what is written in it.”[11]  For this reason Peterson advocates, in many places, the importance of praying the Psalms: “Praying the Psalms keeps us in a school of prayer that maintains wakefulness and an open ear, alertness and an articulate tongue, both to the word of God and to the voices of praise and pain of God’s people.” [12]

And yet we must go even beyond praying the Psalms. Throughout Long Obedience, Peterson directs the reader to focus on the form of the songs of ascents: these are songs for the way (55), and in almost every chapter there is a reference to song.  “Singing the fifteen psalms is a way both to express the amazing grace and to quiet the anxious fears,” he writes (15). “Psalm 121, learned early and sung repeatedly in the walk with Christ, clearly defines the conditions under which we live out our discipleship – which, in a word, is God” (41); In Psalm 124, song is at the heart of our subversion of the world: “We speak our words of praise in a world that is hellish; we sing our songs of victory in a world where things get messy; we live our joy among people who neither understand nor encourage us” (73). Finally song is our expression of joy: “God is not our salvation if he is not our song” (94).

And so the songs of ascents are a communal songbook. As he later expresses it:

Song brings our prayers into rhythm and harmony with the other members of the community. … How can we pray accurately for and harmoniously with the other members of God’s people? Through song: song establishes all the members of the congregation in organic relationship. The Christian recovers a sense of community and experiences the dynamics of community … through the music of liturgy.[13]

The popularity of Peterson’s books presents a challenge in assessing his legacy. Where does he fit in the Reformed and evangelical landscape? Nathan A. Finn describes “three broad streams of spirituality” among contemporary writers. The first is “evangelical holiness traditions,” by which Finn refers to voices in the Wesleyan-higher life movement. He includes Peterson in the second camp, an eclectic and ecumenical group concerned with “spiritual formation,” the chief voices of which are Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. The third category, “gospel-centered spirituality,” is more theologically oriented and (at least implicitly) Reformed, and features J.I. Packer, Jerry Bridges, John Piper, and Donald Whitney.[14]

This classification has some value. Certainly, Peterson has engaged in the work of spiritual direction (his preferred term). But he has been critical of the shallowness and narcissism in much of the growing field of spirituality, not least for its theological incoherence. Long Obedience was, in his own later assessment, a protest “against the fad-chasing, self-centered individualism of American spirituality.”[15] For all the talk about spiritual formation, “the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim” (10), Peterson regrets. He explains: “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness” (10). Although he did not “name names,” at least some of these criticisms were directed to those whom Finn associates with him.

Peterson eschewed gospel-hyphenated formulas, and his engagement with a variety of publishers expanded his reach to a wider readership. Still, a careful read finds a spirituality that is grounded in the gospel. “Two convictions undergirded my pastoral work,” he wrote in the epilogue to the commemorative edition:

The first conviction was that everything in the gospel is livable and that my pastoral task was to get it lived. It was not enough that I announce the gospel, explain it or whip up enthusiasm for it. I wanted it lived—lived in detail, lived on the streets and on the job, lived in the bedrooms and kitchens, lived through cancer and divorce, lived with children and in marriage. (commemorative edition, 197).

One striking picture of the gospel emerges from Peterson’s reflections on posture. In his chapter on Psalm 123, Peterson notes that the believer can approach God for mercy only from a posture of servitude. An approach that does not lift up the eyes of a servant will turn God into a servant at our beck and call. The results are calamitous for discipleship: “we would very soon become contemptuous of a god whom we could figure out like a puzzle or learn to use like a tool” (59). At the end of the book, in Peterson’s chapter on Psalm 134, we discover the posture of the God who provides mercy: he is a covenant God who “stands and stoops and stays.” (185-86).

The elusiveness in classifying Peterson only adds to the pleasure of reading him. Forty years later, Long Obedience in particular endures as an edifying read for three reasons. First, it excels as a primer on Christian discipleship, distinguishing true discipleship from its counterfeits. Second, it is a sampler that will introduce major themes in Peterson’s writings. But most importantly, it will model and encourage followers of Christ to listen more carefully to Scripture, “slowly, imaginatively, prayerfully, and obediently” (commemorative edition, 198).



[1] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980). As Peterson would later recount, the title proved to be a hard sell. The problem was not that it owed to a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche; publishers stumbled over the word “obedience.” It “was a dull word – dead in the water” and “it didn’t fit the ambience of contemporary American religion.” Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 248-49.

[2] Francis N. Korth, Review of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Review for Religious 41 (Jan-Feb. 1982), p. 157.

[3] Gregory A. Youngchild, review of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Theological Students Fellowship Bulletin (4:5, April 1981, pp 21-22).

[4] In these psalms, the pictures are: repentance (where pilgrimage begins), providence, worship, service, help, security, joy, work, happiness, perseverance, hope, humility, obedience, community, and blessing (as the pilgrim arrives in Zion).

[5] Eugene H. Peterson, Take and Read: Spiritual Reading, an Annotated List. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 108.

[6] Curiously, in a later meditation on Psalm 130 Peterson stresses the importance of the couplet, wait and hope: “the wait is not an indolent ‘waiting around.’ We wait ’for the morning,’ which is to say that we wait in hope.” The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 97.

[7] Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Carol Stream, IL: Word Publishing, 1989; and Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

[8] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. ix.

[9] Eugene H. Peterson, Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[10] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 226

[11] Peterson, Eat this Book, p. 48.

[12] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 157.

[13] Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as a Tool of Prayer. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 88-89.

[14] Nathan A. Finn. “Christian Spiritualities in the Christian Tradition,” pp. 215-38 in Biblical Spirituality, ed. Christopher Morgan (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019).

[15] Peterson, The Pastor, 248-49.