A colleague from a denominational program I’m involved in sent me a quote from Eugene Peterson’s book Run with the Horses. The title of Peterson’s book is a reference to Jeremiah 12:5, in which God asks the prophet: “If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?” The implication is that our own strength is limited, and we fall short in the best of times. So how do we face the overwhelming circumstances we encounter?
Here’s the quote: "Long before we ever got around to asking questions about God, God had been questioning us. Long before we got interested in the subject of God, God subjected us to the most intensive and searching knowledge. 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.”
The program I’m working with offers support to part-time and multi-vocational pastors, and we are currently in a study that helps pastors establish and maintain boundaries that allow them to fulfill their calling more faithfully. What is unspoken is the reality that Peterson points out above—that we enter a story that is already in the process of being realized, that there are things happening before we come on the scene, and things will happen after we leave, and that the author and perfecter of this whole grand narrative is God. It’s all well and good to talk about the various techniques we might use to be more effective ministers—or even Christians—but if we lose sight of the centrality of God, we can end up stumbling on level ground.
Our lives are often filled with crisis. To borrow from Jeremiah, we find ourselves in the thickets and brambles, when all we want is to be walking on safe land. And we often try to face the crisis-filled circumstances we encounter with whatever somewhat therapeutic technique we have at hand—in the crisis we fall back on whatever thrashing or bashing around we’ve employed in the past, regardless of its effectiveness. We lash out, we get angry; we hide away, running from the crisis; we freeze up and pretend there’s no problem.
God has given us a pretty good brain, with the capacity to reason through some of the problems we encounter. And God wants us to use that gift. So there are reasonable approaches to the crises we face, techniques that offer us a way through the thicket. But we cannot depend on these techniques alone. And some of the reactions we have to crises are just flat out wrong—they do more harm than good, even though they feel right when we engage them. As the Lord says to Jeremiah, even in the best of times, we can become weary of running; and so when the real crisis hits, and we have to run with the horses, we just don’t have it in us. It’s then that we must turn to God.
We need to consider carefully Peterson’s observation: to realize that we are known before we know, that God has searched us out before we were even formed, is a realization that should inspire us to turn to God when we struggle. Peterson says it better than I could: “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.” What a comforting thought! To realize that we are part of an infinitely grander story than the petty, mean, and painful existence that so often seems to be our lot in life. To realize that behind and beyond the vapid and shallow pursuit of power and pleasure, there’s an infinitely greater reality. And permeating that reality, at its very core and infusing its farthest reaches, is the eternally loving and compassionate God!
It’s far too easy to be caught up in the day-to-day complexity and crisis of our human existence. It comes at us from all angles. And, when it threatens to overwhelm us, we wonder—how can I face this, when just existing seems to be more than I can handle? How can I run with the horses, when just keeping up with people is beyond me? Well, use your head when you can, and try not to lose it. But it’s better to start at the center, and let our responses come from the awareness that we are “living in the middle of a story that was begun and will be concluded by another. And this other is God.” Remember God loves you, and God doesn’t want you to fall. He wants you to run.