Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 16

The Jesus Way

What is it and Why Should I Care?

Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson lives a life of unlikely juxtapositions. He is an introvert’s introvert, yet he planted a church and served as its senior pastor for twenty-nine years. He is a scholar of biblical languages who searches through dusty volumes for the precise meaning of a word and then, as a poet, paints meaning with colorful and imprecise strokes. He has rejected the formulaic patterns of success in the Christian publishing world, but has become an industry superstar. He eschews information technology—only his wife and children have his e-mail address (dang it!)—But he reaches out to hundreds of thousands each day through the message and more than thirty other books he has written.

Retired from the pastorate of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, and from Regent College, where he served as professor of spiritual theology, Eugene lives with his wife, Jan (much more the extrovert) in the home where he grew up, on the shores of Flathead Lake in Lakeside, Montana. It was there he wrote one of his latest books, The Jesus Way: Conversations on the Ways That Jesus Is The Way. That important volume inspired RENOVARÉ to build its third international conference around the theme, “The Jesus Way.”

Before giving the opening address, Eugene and his wife, Jan, were gracious to meet with my wife, Regina, and me for dinner at the oldest Mexican restaurant on the river walk in San Antonio. You are invited to listen in on portions of that address and then to parts of our conversation.

A few years ago my wife started reading Winnie the Pooh to me. She had read it to our children forty years ago, and I had overheard parts of it. But she thought it would be good if I got it whole and firsthand before it was too late.

One evening while she was reading, I was watching the autumn light leak out of the mountain lake that is our front yard and letting the words of the story drift through my consciousness. And then, I was fully awake: the blurred world in which I teach and write on Christian spiritual theology came into crisp focus. I saw the people I was working with in a fresh way.

Jan had just completed chapter 8:

Christopher Robin had assembled the childlike animals for an adventure—they were off to discover the North Pole. It is a meandering tale in which everyone takes everything with complete seriousness although no one understands much of what is going on. Each character contributes something essential to the quest. The world is large with meaning, and no one is left out. But neither is anyone sure what the North Pole is, not even Christopher Robin, who proposed the expedition.

Along the way little Roo falls into a stream and needs rescuing. Everyone pitches in. Pooh picks up a pole and fishes him out. The emergency over, the animals talk it over while Pooh stands there with the pole in his hands.

Christopher Robin then says, “Pooh . . . where did you find that pole?”

Pooh looked at the pole in his hands.

“I just found it,” he said. “I thought it ought to be useful. I just picked it up.”

“Pooh,” said Christopher Robin solemnly, “the expedition is over. You have found the North Pole!”

“Oh!” said Pooh.

The animals go on with their desultory, haphazard conversation for a while until Christopher Robin tied a message onto it:

North Pole Discovered by Pooh. Pooh found it.

Then they all went home again.

What I “saw” as I was listening to Jan read was the culture in which I live: people with engaging characters out looking for a vaguely defined spirituality (the North Pole). Every once in a while, one of them picks up something, and someone says, “That’s it!” And sure enough, it does look like “it.” Someone, usually a spiritual authority, some Christopher Robin or other who is a respected leader, hangs a sign on it: “Spirituality.” And then everyone goes home again until the next expedition is proposed.

A lot of people, tired of secularism and a celebrity culture and consumer religion are attracted to “spirituality” in increasing numbers in our part of the world. Fresh expeditions for the “North Pole” set out almost daily from most places in the country. (The East Pole and the West Pole are also options). As I listened to Jan reading the story that late autumn evening, I recognized many of the characters whom I love and admire so much, but am not content to leave as they are: I want to honor every detail of their winsome charm, but I also want to show them both what and where the North Pole is. I want to lead them to Jesus.

The Jesus Way is not the only way to live. There are innumerable other ways. The other ways attract many, many persons—far more than the way of Jesus ever did or will do. These other ways compete with the Jesus Way and, more often than not, replace the Jesus Way.

Why is the Jesus Way so easy? And why is the Jesus Way so hard?

01.  One: The Jesus Way

The Jesus Way is to be human. That is the easy part: Jesus is human, like me, like you, like us. Isn’t this quite wonderful? No one has seen God at any time, but the only Son—Jesus—has made him known.See John 1:17–18. God in human form, Jesus: a human form that I can verify simply by touching my nose, my elbow. A historical person who walked the paths and roads on the ground in Palestine in the first century just as I walk on sidewalks and trails in Montana and Texas in twenty-first-century America. Jesus spent nine months in the womb just as I did. He was born of a woman just as I was. We know not only his name but also the name of his mother. There was a family. There are named friends. There was work to do, carpentry and masonry and fishing. Meals were eaten. Prayers were prayed. He walked in and out of houses and synagogues and the temple. He died and was buried, just as we will die and be buried.

This takes a great deal of the guesswork out of knowing God. Do you want to know what God is like, the form in which God reveals himself? Look in the mirror; look at your friend; look at your spouse. Start here: a human being with eyes and ears, hands and feet, an appetite and curiosity, eating meals with your friends, walking to the store for a bottle of milk, hiking in the hills, picking wildflowers, catching fish and cooking them on a beach for a breakfast with friends.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, this thoroughly human Jesus is affirmed, but with one exception: he was “without sin.”Hebrews 4:15, KJV. Otherwise, he lived and experienced it all, everything that goes into the human condition: weakness, limitations, temptations, suffering and celebration, birth and death—the works.

Do you see what this means? Jesus is not a principle or an idea or a truth—nothing abstract, nothing in general. When God revealed himself to us, he did it in a human body, an incarnation.
Can you think of any other way that God could have made it easier for us to know him, to meet him, to follow in his ways? Jesus.

But now comes the hard part. When it comes right down to it, I would rather be like God than that God be like me. It turns out that a lot of us, more times than we like to admit, aren’t all that excited that a very human Jesus is revealing God to us. We have our own ideas of what we want God to be like. We keep looking around for a style of spirituality that gives some promise that we can be godlike, be in control of our lives and the lives of others, exercise godlike authority or at least be authorities on God.

When the know-it-all Serpent promised our first parents that they could be “like God,”See Genesis 3:1–4. you can be sure they were not thinking of anything human, with all the limitations of being human. They were thinking of something far grander—knowing everything there is to know and getting an edge on the rest of the creation. When they heard those words from the Serpent—“like God”—can’t you just imagine what went on in their heads? Power, control, being in charge of everything, knowing everything, getting their own way, indulging every whim, able to do anything they desired without restriction. . . .

The usual way in which we try to become like God is first to sideline the God who reveals himself in human form and reimagine God as the god I want to be, invest this reimagined god with my own god-fantasies and then take charge of the god business.

We have learned to name this reimagined replacement god as idolatry. It is without question the most popular religion in town—any town—and it always has been. Some of these idolatry-gods are made of wood and stone, gold and silver, steel and aluminum. More often these days, they are made of words and ideas, abstractions and principles. But the common element that defines them as idols is that they are nonhuman, nonpersonal, and nonrelational.

But idolatry always backfires. In the attempt to become more than human, godlike, we become less human, nonhuman: those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. You’d think we would learn. I care about this. As I cultivate an interest in God, in myself and my neighbors, I don’t want to cultivate god-fantasies and end up less human, less personal, less relational, less who I was created to be, less than what I can be. I want to grow up fully human. I want to be human as Jesus was human. I want to live the Jesus Way, robustly human.

02.  Two: The Jesus Way Is Conversational

The Jesus Way is conversational. This is the easy part. Jesus uses words, as I do, as you do, as we do. Isn’t this quite wonderful? A common language. I already know this language. This is the same language I use to talk with my children, my friends, my fellow workers. Jesus is the Word made flesh—God’s word is now spoken by Jesus, ordinary words, in everyday human speech. But note this: these words are not words posted on a billboard and bulletin boards. These words are always, whether explicitly or implicitly, conversational, drawing us into the conversation. The same words that brought creation into being, the same words that God used to call Abraham into a life of obedience and faith, the same words that God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. Jesus speaks, and I hear God speaking.

At least ninety percent of the words Jesus used that we have preserved for us can be understood by any ten-year-old, whether he or she knows how to read or not. I can understand this language without having to take an advanced course in God Grammar, or Spiritual Philology, or Bible as a Second Language. This is not a highfalutin language in the philosophy seminars by scholars at Harvard and Oxford or in the physics labs at MIT or Cambridge. Two things characterize the Jesus Way words: Jesus and Way—a personal name, Jesus, and a metaphor, Way. A personal name is the most personal word in the language. If we know the name of the person speaking to us, we anticipate; we listen not just for information but also as a participant in a conversation. Unlike a number or a title or a job description that depersonalizes us into a rank or a function or a statistic, name is a relational word—it signals person, this person, person to person. A relational connection is being formed.

The name doesn’t have to be elegant or famous or distinguished. The name Jesus was a common name in biblical times, as frequent as John is in our times.

The second thing that distinguishes the Jesus Way language is metaphor. Metaphor is one of the more interesting items in our dictionaries. Think about it. A metaphor both is and is not what it says. When we say, “God is a rock,” what happens? We can see a rock; we cannot see God. Jesus said, “You are salt.” I can taste salt, but I cannot sprinkle you on my eggs. Jesus said, “I am the door.” You can knock on a door. You cannot knock on Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the way.” You can walk on a way, a road, a path to get to work or home.

You cannot walk on Jesus. What’s going on here?

The wonderful thing about a metaphor is that it refers to something that everybody has knowledge of and access to—a common object or action. But it then connects us without explanation with something to which we have no access through our senses—something not seen or heard or touched—but just as real as the rock you stub your toe on, the salt that seasons your salad, the door you open to enter your bedroom, and the road you drive on to get to work. But we can’t look up the meaning of a metaphor in a dictionary; we have to participate in making the meaning. You make the connection between what you see and what you can’t see. A metaphor is our primary verbal link with God and the things of God. And a metaphor works only by personal participation. Another term for participation here is faith.

Now here’s the thing: we cannot see or hear or taste or touch most of what is going on in the world. Virtually everything that goes on in the world of creation and redemption—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for a start—is inaccessible to our immediate senses. Metaphors are words that connect us with these vast and comprehensive Trinitarian realities. Metaphor works only when we enter the conversation and complete the meaning with our participation in the conversation.

The Jesus Way uses language in a way that we all can understand without special training or even using a dictionary: names and metaphors keep it personal and participatory. The Bible as a whole and the Jesus Way most particularly is jam-packed with names and metaphors. That makes it easy for us.

Now comes the hard part. We have no access to the language apart from being personal and participatory, entering the conversation. Language in the Jesus Way is inherently conversational, dialogic, speaking and listening, words and silence, questions and response, command and assent. There is no way we can be part of this conversation as spectators or bystanders, detached and impersonal. God is speaking to you: enter the conversation.

I care about using language in such a way that it is personal and relational, words that reveal who we are and receive what others and our God reveal to us, listening to the words of Scripture believingly and responding to the words of Scripture in prayer. It is an enormous sacrilege when words are flattened into one-dimensional clichés, like a flattened tin can empty of content.

03.  Three: The Jesus Way Is Ordinary

The Jesus Way is ordinary. That’s the easy part. The Jesus Way is an ordinary way: a well-worn path that millions of people have walked, a road that is so well marked you can find your way easily. It is a public way, not private. There are no “Trespassers Keep Out” signs. Anyone is welcome to walk on it, and many do—there is no problem in finding companions on the way.

It is not a dangerous mountain path requiring special equipment—sturdy boots, ropes and carabiners, trekking poles, and a compass. You don’t have to have an athletic body and lots of stamina. It’s a feet-on-the-ground way. Levitation is not a spiritual discipline.

That’s the easy part. I can do it. You can do it. No preconditions, no special abilities. Children can do it. The elderly can do it.

But here’s the hard part. There is a great attraction in these matters to finding access to an “inner ring,” an inside track—being an insider in a group of specially sensitive and motivated men and women regarding the things of God. But the Jesus way has no inside track. It might be hard to give this up, but “insider” stuff in matters of spirituality is an illusion of the devil. But I can assure you, once you give up this illusion, you are soon compensated by admission into a much larger community of men and women who are experiencing the ways of love and forgiveness and grace, people you would have otherwise never known in personal detail . . . to say nothing of the relief of escaping the claustrophobic confines of spiritual elitism.

One more thing: if anybody can do it, then I can do it. The hard part here is that I no longer have any excuse for sitting it out. If the Jesus Way is an ordinary way, the obvious reality that I am not particularly gifted, or was abused by a brutal parent, or was “born without a religious bone in my body,” or have had my fill of religious hypocrites—any and all excuses—are up against the relentless insistence that the Jesus Way is unembarrassed and unapologetic in keeping company with all such people. Nothing in my temperament or experience disqualified me from following this way. “Whosoever will may come.”

I have one more thing to say to you: you can’t hurry the mature life in Christ. Stamina is required, but a rhetoric of desperation does not develop stamina. There are no shortcuts on the Jesus Way. And while steroids may assist you if you want to hit a lot of home runs, there are no steroids in matters of holiness. Urgency is required, but urgency is dissipated, not developed, in a state of panic. Spiritual formation cannot be accomplished by means of mass marketing.

The Jesus Way involves becoming pregnant with new life, and you can’t hurry a pregnancy—you nurture it and then attend to the born-again life, practicing a way of life that is content with nothing less than arriving at the full stature of Jesus Christ. We are directed to watch, to be alert, to be attentive, to stay awake.

It is good to remember that Jesus did not take the world by storm. Spirituality was in the air in that first-century world. The religious marketplace was crowded and noisy. There were options galore. Most people—despite the presence of God in their midst in Jesus, the Word made flesh, actually walking through their neighborhoods—followed other ways. And they still do. We, too, are saturated with well-advertised and well-lighted ways for living that have little or no connection with Jesus.

John of Patmos has long been a sturdy companion to those of us who have set out on the Jesus Way. In inviting us into his company, he uses the words “patient endurance.” He introduces himself to us as “your brother . . . in patient endurance.” Don’t miss the significance of those words. Living in this American culture, which conditions us to be impressed by size and numbers and speed and efficiency, it is absolutely necessary that we deliberately cultivate John’s patient endurance—a passionate patience on the Jesus Way.


04.  A Conversation with Eugene Peterson on The Jesus Way

Gary W. Moon: Eugene, you are a serious student of biblical languages. You didn’t write The Message by taking out a Living Bible and making it even more alive. You went to the Hebrew and the Greek texts and carefully attempted to get those languages into the vernacular of folks like those in your congregation. But you combined exegetical skills with poetic genius; some might say poetic license. I love the result. Millions love the result. But how would you explain to someone with a very conservative view of Scripture that it’s “okay” both to focus on the precise meaning of words and then interpret with—sometimes—imprecise metaphor?

Eugene Peterson: The first thing is to realize there are no literal translations. None. Ask any translator of any language. Every language has its own distinctive way of making sentences and using words. The heart of translation is taking with absolute seriousness the original language, knowing [it] firsthand and in precise detail, and then expressing the meaning as accurately as you can in your own language. It is a demanding task.

GWM: Well, I am with the throngs who are glad you took on the Herculean task of translating The Message and that you used both exegetical precision and poetic creativity. Eugene, and I am thinking about your talk this evening, why do you suppose Jesus did not use more precision in defining the “North Pole”?

EP: Jesus did not define the “North Pole” and its location because he has called us to follow him. William Stafford has a poem in which he talks of people who want “wilderness with a map.” There are no “maps” to God or salvation. We follow Jesus. It is not a self-help project. It consists in a life of obedient faith, a personal act of trusting participation in the Jesus Way. If we had a precise map, we—most of us—would use the map instead of following Jesus.

GWM: I think you are exactly right, but what do you say to folks who hear this, experience great anxiety at the open-endedness of what you are saying, and ask for their four spiritual laws back?

EP: I think you gently talk to them about personal relationships in life. None of us likes to be defined by being given a certain psychological profile, status, or function.

GWM: I know, that really makes the “ENFP’s” mad. Sorry, please go on.

EP: Of course this is more difficult, not having categories and a map. But it’s being human, relational. The maps we are given are just ways of avoiding being relational. We all have that problem. It’s the problem in marriage, in working relationships. We just have to face that there is no shortcut. We have to ask ourselves the question: Do we really believe we have a living Christ, or just a map of Christ?

GWM: Thank you. Would you mind giving an example or two of how you will live your life in a “robustly human” way this week?

EP: I’m not sure I can, but the “robustness” I was referring to in the talk is not conspicuous; it is hidden, absorbed in very ordinary acts of making meals, greeting neighbors, reading Scripture, driving to an appointment, writing letters, praying and reflecting, listening to conversations—and, to be quite honest, enduring stretches of boredom.

GWM: In RENOVARÉ terms, are you talking about learning to live more and more of the moments of your life “with God”?

EP: Yes, that’s right.

GWM: You made prominent use of the word conversation in the title of your book and made it your second descriptor in your talk. The Jesus Way is human, conversational, and ordinary. We editors of this journal are sort of partial to the word conversation ourselves. You go on to say, “Now here’s the thing: we cannot see or hear or taste or touch most of what is going on in the world. Virtually everything that goes on in the world of creation and redemption—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for a start—is inaccessible to our immediate senses.”

I have a two-part question. Do you believe that conversation—laced with metaphor—is so important on the Jesus Way because it is what draws us into the invisible world of the Trinity? And if your answer is anything close to yes, how would you relate this to the only Scripture where Jesus defines eternal life, in John 17:3—to be in a deep, intimate, and transforming friendship with members of the Trinity?

EP: Yes, exactly, but maybe with some clarification, especially at two points. One, “Trinity” is our theological symbol for insisting that nothing of God—who God is or what he says and does—can be understood in an impersonal way. Everything God does and says is personal and can be received only in a personal way. And two, nothing of God can be accounted for by reducing it to something that I can explain or define. There is always mystery far more than we can understand or explain or define. Reverence must be seriously cultivated.

GWM: Yes, I wish that when thinking of God, we could be less categorical and more simply in awe. How do you confine Someone who created a universe that may well be over twenty-billion light years wide? But there you go again with the unlikely pairings. You talk about both a mysterious and an “ordinary” Jesus. So if the Jesus Way is so ordinary and easy—and available to everyone, regardless of personality and life circumstances—why is nontransformation the elephant in the sanctuary?

EP: I’m not sure that nontransformation is the elephant that should preoccupy us. Most transformation takes place in hidden ways, in slow, incremental ways, nurtured by a cultivated reverence. There is a lot more going on than many people, maybe especially pastors, notice. It is when sanctuaries, impatient with the hiddenness and slowness, become places of entertainment and promotional propaganda that the conditions congenial to transformation are decreased.

GWM: So if you were having lunch with a young pastor who began the conversation by saying, “I’m just too busy,” what would you recommend that he or she do to live an unhurried life?

EP: The change from a hurried life to an unhurried life can’t be accomplished solo. Gather a group of your leaders and ask them to meet with you for a year (maybe several years) to develop a congregation that would support you in becoming an “unbusy” pastor. It takes a lot of time, changing perceptions and expectations. And you need a lot of help.

GWM: You may have more faith than I do that most congregations would support a pastor’s attempt to become unhurried, but I’m going to take that one by faith—and I appreciate the wisdom of not trying to make that change alone.

Eugene, from your book, what do you mean when you write, “Only when the Jesus way is organically joined with the Jesus truth do we get the Jesus life”?

EP: Means (the way) and ends (the truth) must be congruent. The American church, by indiscriminately using secular, cultural, programmatic means, aborts the life.

GWM: Do you mind giving an example—something you’ve seen that really tilts your halo—but without naming names?

EP: Simply put, I think that anytime a consumer mentality is applied to the church, it is a sacrilege. Any way of thinking about the faith in a consumerist—in a “getting my needs met”—way is what aborts the life, gets people off the way of Jesus.

GWM: Thank you. If you were planning a seminary, what would be some ideas for building a curriculum that helps future pastors learn how to live organically connected to Jesus?

EP: A lot of seminaries are becoming much more attentive in their curricula to spiritual theology. And that is good. But I don’t think a renovated curriculum is the answer. An academic environment with its classrooms by its very nature is not a friendly place for spiritual growth, but the church with its sanctuary is—or can be.

GWM: That seems a little pessimistic.

EP: Well, it may be, but the only place I can think of where a seminary can provide curriculum and sanctuary might be in a monastery. But they don’t have ATS [the Association of Theological Schools] to satisfy, just the Pope.

GWM: Hmm. As long as we are being so honest, I’ve read where you said, “Evangelicals need to learn how to do evangelism from Jesus, not just from a handbook,” and that “Jesus did not give explicit lectures and seminars on how to live in the kingdom of God. He simply said, ‘Follow Me.’” What is your best advice to Evangelicals on how to evangelize the Jesus way?

EP: I’m not sure that advice is what I’m comfortable giving. Evangelicalism in our culture has become so sloganized and programmatized and in the process depersonalized that I sometimes think we should give the word evangelism a rest and develop a sense of simply “church.” I am hesitant to say anything. The overuse of the term evangelism develops a perception that it is a specialist activity. It is not.

GWM: Are you getting at the notion—and I forget the desert father or mother to whom this is attributed—that if just one person truly found peace or abundant life, you could say, that ten thousand would find their salvation?

EP: Yes, that’s right.

GWM: I know that you don’t make use of e-mail—except within your immediate family—I assume that is not because Jesus didn’t use e-mail. But what are the top three reasons you are glad you stay unplugged?

EP: Unplugged? One, I’m glad to have such an easily accomplished safeguard against using words carelessly, superficially, casually. Two, I’m glad to have this quietly polite protection against the casual superficiality and careless intrusions of other people’s words. Three, I’m glad to be able to effortlessly provide margins of silence in my day.

GWM: Thank you, and I’m almost persuaded. What are the first three books you would recommend to someone who wants to learn more about the Jesus Way?

EP: George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest; Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.

GWM: Eugene, thank you for your talk, for your book, The Jesus Way, and for taking the time for these questions. Your life and your keen insights are deeply inspirational.



A local pastor for twenty-nine years and professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regent college, Eugene Peterson is the author of more than thirty books, including The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible, and The Jesus Way: Conversations on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way.