My Prayer for Eugene Peterson
I don’t know Eugene Peterson, which is to say I’ve never met him personally. I know of him from his many books and his personal paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. I’ll be honest. I’ve never cared much for The Message. I know many who love it, but I’m the odd sort who prefers a more formally equivalent (dare I say “literal”?) translation of God’s Word. But that is not what this article is about.
Like so many of you, I was deeply saddened when news broke that Peterson had told Jonathan Merritt in an interview that he now accepts the moral legitimacy of so-called same-sex marriage and that if asked to officiate at such a ceremony he would say Yes. It only took a day, amid the backlash, for Peterson, supposedly, to reverse himself and insist that he actually holds to a traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman.
So what does Eugene Peterson actually believe? I don’t know. I find it difficult to think that he could have been caught off-guard in the interview or was confused about the question. Either you endorse the moral and biblical legitimacy of same-sex intimacy and “marriage” or you don’t. I trust that Peterson will clarify matters in the days ahead.
My focus here is of a two-fold nature. First, if in fact Peterson’s first response to Merritt’s question was an accurate reflection of what he genuinely believes, we see once again how sentimentality has won out over Scripture. I never heard Peterson provide a biblical defense of the legitimacy of same-sex intimacy. His reason, as I recall, is that he knows several same-sex attracted individuals whose love for each other appears to be sincere and devoted. Some of them, he said, appear to genuinely love Jesus.
His reasoning, like so many others today, is that if someone’s “love” for another person of the same sex is dedicated and sacrificial and life-long and if their profession of faith in Christ is passionate and consistent, we should be willing to concede the moral legitimacy of their sexual conduct. But what if God has said otherwise in Scripture? What if God has said that notwithstanding passion and commitment and “love” that same-sex intimacy is not a legitimate biblical and moral option? Who wins? The Bible does, of course. That’s what we mean when we speak of the functional authority of Scripture. When you and the Bible disagree, the Bible wins.
But isn’t that unloving, unkind, and insensitive to people who are simply trying to be true to themselves and their own desires? And isn’t that what love is, to affirm others, to endorse and welcome them regardless of their sexual activity, and to make them feel good about who they are and their choices in life? Well, no.
True love, authentic love for another human being is to humbly do all we can to help them align their lives and behavior with what God has said is his will for human existence and human flourishing. If, in deference to someone’s “feelings”, and from a desire not to make them “sad”, we affirm and endorse a course of behavior that puts their souls in eternal jeopardy, we have not loved them. No one wants to unnecessarily alienate friends and family members. No one should want to inflict emotional pain on another or to contribute to their sense of exclusion and judgment. Unless, of course, their belief or behavior is something God has prohibited and the consequence of which is eternal damnation.
This is perhaps the greatest struggle and challenge for every human being, the recognition that our personal preferences are not ultimately decisive. What we like or what we believe will bring us the greatest degree of happiness both now and forever, is never the final or definitive word. We are not self-contained, self-determined, autonomous, self-reliant beings. We are creatures of a Creator and are dependent every millisecond on his sustaining power. His will is ultimately decisive. What he says goes. Only he knows what is conducive to human happiness and flourishing both in this life and the next. And when he declares off limits a belief or an action, it simply doesn’t matter that we prefer it be otherwise.
Surely no one would claim to be more powerful than the God who has Genesis 1 on his resume, or kinder or more loving than the God who “did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). So, when this God says that unrepentant homosexual conduct puts one’s soul in eternal jeopardy, we must yield to his revealed will (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21), even when it runs contrary to our own. God never commands or forbids us anything that isn’t motivated by love and an abiding concern for our eternal welfare and joy.
My second concern in this article may be stated more briefly. I would encourage the Christian community to refrain from vilifying Eugene Peterson or questioning his salvation. Our immediate response when news of this sort breaks is to explode in moral outrage. But that will accomplish little in the long run. Instead, our response should be one of profound sadness and brokenhearted concern for anyone struggling with same-sex attraction who may be encouraged by Peterson’s ill-informed counsel. We aren’t talking about winning an argument simply for the sake of an argument. We’re talking about the eternal destiny of people created in the image of God.
So join me in praying for Eugene Peterson. No one should relish the prospect of a beloved pastor and influential author failing to finish well. And as we intercede for Peterson, praying that his commitment to Scripture would triumph over misguided, albeit well-intentioned sentiment, let us guard our hearts and plead with God to hold us fast to the authority of his life-giving, Christ-exalting, sin-killing Word.