Run With the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best by Eugene Peterson

Reposting my 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale this week.

Summary: An Exploration of the life of Jeremiah as a model for excellence in the Christian life.

I have long appreciated Eugene Peterson’s writing and model of ministry.  But it has been a couple years since I last picked up one of his books.

Run With the Horses was on sale a couple weeks ago but wasn’t one of his books that was really on my radar.  My tendency is to resist books that are about finding a better life or excellence or leadership.  Not because I think those ideas are not biblical, but because that type of language rarely speaks to me.  I am not a leader; I am strongly anticompetitive.  Some of this is my own sin and weakness coming out.

I believe that excellence is over blown in our culture and in our churches.  Eugene Peterson is not someone that I think of when I think of calls toward excellence.  He is more of a mundane Christian. So when Peterson speaks of excellence, he is mostly redefining the terms.

As a pastor I encourage others to live at their best and provide guidance in doing it. But how do I do this without inadvertently inciting pride and arrogance? How do I stimulate an appetite for excellence without feeding at the same time a selfish determination to elbow anyone aside who gets in the way? Insistent encouragement is given by many voices today for living a better life. I welcome the encouragement. But the counsel that accompanies the encouragement has introduced no end of mischief into our society, and I am in strenuous opposition to it. The counsel is that we can arrive at our full humanness by gratifying our desires. It has been a recipe for misery for millions.[4] The biblical counsel in these matters is clear: “not my will but thine be done.” But how do I guide people to deny self without having that misunderstood as encouraging them to be doormats on which others wipe their feet? The difficult pastoral art is to encourage people to grow in excellence and to live selflessly, at one and the same time to lose the self and find the self. It is paradoxical, but it is not impossible.

As with most of Peterson’s teaching, Run with the Horses is extremely biblical, although Peterson is not taking out verses and looking at original language and hidden meanings, as much as skipping across the book of Jeremiah to give us the overall picture of Jeremiah’s life as the model for the new vision of excellence that he wants to show us.

The root of excellence and the good life for Peterson is found in our creation by God and our identity in God.

Before it ever crossed our minds that God might be important, God singled us out as important. Before we were formed in the womb, God knew us. We are known before we know. This realization has a practical result: no longer do we run here and there, panicked and anxious, searching for the answers to life. Our lives are not puzzles to be figured out. Rather, we come to God, who knows us and reveals to us the truth of our lives. The fundamental mistake is to begin with ourselves and not God. God is the center from which all life develops. If we use our ego as the center from which to plot the geometry of our lives, we will live eccentrically. All wise reflection corroborates Scripture here. We enter a world we didn’t create. We grow into a life already provided for us. We arrive in a complex of relationships with other wills and destinies that are already in full operation before we are introduced. If we are going to live appropriately, we must be aware that we are living in the middle of a story that was begun and will be concluded by another. And this other is God.

Where in the hands of other Christians I have read, this type of discussion of election (he doesn’t use that term anywhere that I remember) can feel limiting, in Peterson’s hands it is freeing.

My identity does not begin when I begin to understand myself. There is something previous to what I think about myself, and it is what God thinks of me. That means that everything I think and feel is by nature a response, and the one to whom I respond is God. I never speak the first word. I never make the first move. Jeremiah’s life didn’t start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s salvation didn’t start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s truth didn’t start with Jeremiah. He entered the world in which the essential parts of his existence were already ancient history. So do we.

The problem I have with a lot of reformed theology is that it seems to stop at this point. God is God, we are not, God has a plan and we are not in charge.  That is all true, but it limits the Christian life to right behavior because of God’s prior plan.  A thicker understanding of reformed theology (that a lot of reformed Baptists and the newer younger reformed seem to have missed) is that the focus of understanding God’s election and sovereignty should free us to seek God and find him in a new way, not out of striving but out of gratitude.

So Peterson uses the illustration of a restaurant to show us how we often think of God:

…the person across the table is Self and the waiter is God. This waiter-God is essential but peripheral. You can’t have the dinner without him, but he is not an intimate participant in it. He is someone to whom you give orders, make complaints, and maybe, at the end, give thanks. The person you are absorbed in is Self—your moods, your ideas, your interests, your satisfactions or lack of them. When you leave the restaurant you forget about the waiter until the next time. If it is a place to which you go regularly, you might even remember his name

He goes on to suggest that the goal of the Christian life (the excellence that we should be striving after) is relationship with God.

No one becomes human the way Jeremiah was human by posing in a posture of victory. It was his prayers, hidden but persistent, that brought him to the human wholeness and spiritual sensitivity that we want. What we do in secret determines the soundness of who we are in public. Prayer is the secret work that develops a life that is thoroughly authentic and deeply human.

And like Jamie Smith, Peterson suggests that we need commitment, not to follow tradition for the sake of pleasing God or doing the right thing, but for the purpose of building character.

Zedekiah shows that good intentions are worthless if they are not coupled with character development. We don’t become whole persons by merely wanting to become whole, by consulting the right prophets, by reading the right book. Intentions must mature into commitments if we are to become persons with definition, with character, with substance.

The end result is that this is a book that I deeply agree with and appreciate (it was heavily highlighted).  But at the same time the overall message seemed to skip right past me as read it.  It was only going back and reading all of my highlights that I realized that I missed the larger point of the book because I kept reacting against the language of excellence and ‘being the best’.  I think Peterson was trying to use a langauge that is broadly understood in modern American culture (and certainly in the Evangelical megachurch world). But I have become so allergic to the language that I missed the whole point of the book.

I am glad I was able to go back and re-read my highlights or else I would have walked away thinking of this book as the weakest of Peterson’s books that I have read.  I don’t think it was him, I think it was me.  That being said, I think that a more positive (and corporate) version of this idea is in his book Practice Resurrection.

Run With the Horses Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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