An imagined dialogue between Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard based on their written works.
If you were to name the greatest threat to human civilization, what would you say? A long list of global catastrophes comes to my mind: nuclear apocalypse, bacterial pandemic, malevolent artificial intelligence, techno-fascist states or an asteroid—say, the size of Rhode Island. But Richard Fisher, a journalist and editor for the British Broadcasting Company, recently made a case for a threat we all embody on nearly a daily basis, what he calls “The Perils of Short-Termism.”
The Lazy Danger of Short-Termism
Put bluntly, short-termism is the endless procrastination of the important. It is that feeling I get when I remember that an oil change is overdue for my little pickup truck, and think (as I floor it), Oh, we can make it another thousand miles. This is true. We probably can. But in the big scheme of things, I’ve said that a few times already, the unseen fluid that keeps the motor purring is getting darker and grittier, and ultimately, I am sacrificing the health of the engine for … what? I have the ability and money to change the oil. I can make the time. In the course of my “busy day,” I simply do not want to think about it. And I keep driving.
When this principle is scaled up—to the size of churches, institutions, generations, nations and our common globe—the stakes grow. So also grows our disconnection from the future impacts of present choices. When recently presented with the about-a-decade-away crisis of untenable national debt, the current U.S. president dismissed the conversation, saying, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.” Similarly, when the prophet Isaiah foretold national doom to King Hezekiah, instead of acting in repentant response to help prepare the next generation, the king’s reply was a short-termism classic: “‘The word of the LORD you have spoken is good,’ Hezekiah replied. For he thought, ‘Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?’” (2 Kings 20:19).
Short-termism represents a profound internal threat—the threat of unmade choices—to all of us. We see it in the engines of our lives. What opportunities do we miss from a loss of lifetime perspective? What legacies have we chosen against, not in a grand gesture, but in a hundred “small” passivities? What sins of omission do we make—today—because we simply lack strong and wise intention to be and do in accordance with our deepest and most Christlike desires? It is so human to spend more time debating this summer’s vacation destination than it is to articulate purpose for the trajectory of a well-lived life, from college to coffin. We are experts at ignoring the important.
Often, Christian leaders find they are majoring in the minutiae, and get stuck, not from a misguided purpose, but from an absence of purpose. The clarity and intention that inspired them to seek a pastoral role has chilled. Energy is low. Exhaustion is high. And short-termism has become life. The quiet, foundational things can be put off. Good but ultimately dispensable activities shape imaginations, demanding increasing attention, often with decreasing levels of real return on what matters most.
No one is exempt. It is not an indictment of commitment or the inner life to be swamped by what Charles Hummel once called “the tyranny of the urgent.” But passivity is the foundation of the threat. When we feel least like directing intention toward the postponable important is exactly when we most need to do so. What’s needed is a return to habits of life that encourage vision and intention. This is not daydreaming. It is intensely pragmatic.
There is no quick fix or easy answer for the threat of short-termism, but we can draw energy from the example of others. Most of us need frequent and somewhat uncomfortable reminders to prick us back awake, to help re-center ourselves on the essentials. We will know such reminders are timely for us if they feel somewhat painful.
Most of us need to simply ask, Who do I want to become in Jesus, and how can I choose that today? Decades are made of days. But without the vision of decades our days become unmoored. Many of us have been fortunate enough to find several such reminding voices through reading or conversation. But it is always worth it to “compare notes” with others, sharing experiences and thoughts to sharpen and strengthen our growth in Christlike life and work.
In the interest of helping us all remember the quiet intention that combats short-termism’s poison, I have compiled a collection of timely-yet-timeless thoughts from two of the great “reminders” of recent American Christianity: Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson. I’ve themed and summarized them in a loose imagined “conversation.” I read or revisited 11 of this pair’s best books in the course of compiling this piece, besides reading shorter essays and interviews and listening to their recorded teachings. My bibliographies, accompanying their biographical sidebars, is recommended reading. (My personal standout from this list is Where Your Treasure Is by Peterson. Its first chapter should be discussed by every church staff in America.)
Whether they are old friends to you or new acquaintances, I hope that you find some rich treasure to remind and spur you to a renewed commitment to the vital life that forms your deepest calling, your greatest challenge and your richest source of communion with the One who calls us faithfully to grow into his image.
On Cultural Distractions
In many ways, both Peterson and Willard were American to the core. Both country boys (Peterson a Montana butcher’s son, Willard a farm kid, complete with an education from a one-room schoolhouse in the Ozarks), they were familiar with the North American continent, her people, institutions, culture and profound unity in diversity. While a love for America permeates both their writing, there is no question that, in all, they saw 20th-century America as surprisingly hostile soil for the seeds of the gospel.
For Peterson, discernment of what is true is foundational to Christian life—and it requires a rejection of enculturated thinking. “The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world,” he wrote in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Willard wrote of the absurdity of trying to keep a foot in both that world and the kingdom (ruled by Christ) hidden inside it. “It is not uncommon for people to think that they can treasure this world and the invisible kingdom as well, that they can serve both. Perhaps we can make this work for a while. But there will come a time when one must be subordinate to the other” (The Divine Conspiracy).
Peterson often lamented the corner that modern pastors were painted into by the exploitative pressures of an out-of-control consumer culture: “I buy merchandise from the department store, health from the physician, legal power from the lawyer. Does it not follow that in this kind of society my parishioner will have commercialized expectations of me?” (Working the Angles).
That culture sets Christians up poorly for the lifetime journey of loyalty to Jesus by setting our expectations for a false ease and pleasure in pursuing a worthwhile character and mode of living.
“Instant wisdom is just another expression of our modern, hedonistic ideology fueled by our constitutional right to pursue happiness,” Willard writes. “Somehow, we think that virtue should come easily. Experience teaches, to the contrary, that almost everything worth doing in human life is very difficult in its early stages and the good we are aiming at is never available at first, to strengthen us when we need it most” (The Spirit of the Disciplines).
Perhaps worst of all was the American impulse to enshrine as good—or even “Christian”—values that contradict the Christian path of growth. As Peterson expresses it, “When an ancient temptation or trial becomes an approved feature in the culture, a way of life that is expected and encouraged, Christians have a stumbling block put before them that is hard to recognize for what it is, for it has been made into a monument, gilded with bronze and bathed in decorative lights. It has become an object of veneration” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction).
Such a society would result in an inner twisting of the pastor’s soul if it were not constantly resisted by a commitment to countercultural attentiveness and a gritty perseverance in true calling.
“The culture conditions us to approach people and situations as journalists,” Peterson says. “See the big, exploit the crisis, edit and abridge the commonplace, interview the glamorous. But the Scriptures and our best pastoral traditions train us in a different approach: Notice the small, persevere in the commonplace, appreciate the obscure” (Working the Angles).
But even such perseverance has dangers. While becoming complicit clergy for an exploitative culture was terrifying, of equal danger was calcifying in one’s resistance and falling prey to the temptations of arrogance. Willard warns us strongly that “spiritual life in Jesus’ kingdom … cannot be used to get a monopoly on God and prove that we, after all, are the ones who have ‘got it right.’ The spirit cannot be merchandised, even ever so subtly” (The Divine Conspiracy).
Still, both men’s voices were ultimately ones of hope—hope earned by its honesty.
“We speak our words of praise in a world that is hellish,” Peterson writes. “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. But the content of our lives is God, not man. We are not scavenging in the dark alleys of the world, poking in its garbage cans for bare subsistence. We are traveling in the light, toward God who is rich in mercy and strong to save” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction).
Peterson found the dynamo that drove pastoral work in that hope for redeemed peoples, cultures, neighborhoods and nations.
“I believe that the kingdoms of this world, American, and Venezuelan, and Chinese, will become the kingdom of our God and Christ, and I believe this new kingdom is already among us,” he writes. “That is why I’m a pastor, to introduce people to the real world and train them to live in it” (The Contemplative Pastor).
Eugene Peterson’s work represents some of the most careful, thoughtful and sacred articulations of the pastoral calling ever written in Christian history. Responding both to the consumer pressures of mid-20th-century America and to the more perennial inner identity struggles of the pastoral vocation, his vision of the pastorate was nuanced, honest but deeply dignified.
Dallas Willard gave similar honor to the overall growth of Christian believers being formed into the image of Christ. Where Peterson selected servant-leaders for much of his attention, Willard’s work demonstrated a clearly articulated assumption that each member of Christ’s body was destined for glorious things, to become someone glorious—as lived out in the quiet realities of daily life. Formation was not merely pragmatic—to be used to undergird the mission or vision of any particular congregation or leader. It was for the sake of Jesus and the world. It was profoundly individual. Completely personal. And yet growing persons contributed their inner virtues to the world-changing mission of seeking the lost, serving the culture and creating real spaces for the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Willard noted that this implied a posture shift to accept. “I’m not here to defend the Christian faith; the Christian faith defends me. I’m here to help people wherever I am” (The Allure of Gentleness).
Peterson stressed that there was no recipe for pastoral ministry—“no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor” (The Pastor).
But with that said, all pastors shared a basic practical calling, one that (countering expectations) was invisible. “Three pastoral acts are so basic, so critical, that they determine everything else,” Peterson writes. “The acts are praying, reading Scripture and giving spiritual direction. … None of these acts is public, which means that no one knows for sure whether or not we are doing any of them” (Working the Angles).
While not a formal pastor, Willard’s shepherding instincts demanded that those seeking to lead others to the way of Christ could only do so through showing, not merely telling. “Insight on how to live can be provided effectively only by those who are prepared to lead the way by example. Only by showing how to live can we teach how to live” (Hearing God).
This holds special weight when a leader’s calling conflicts with their life, raising fearful questions, implying the centrality of character.
“The sad thing when a leader (or any individual) ‘fails’ is not just what he or she did, but the heart and life and whole person who is revealed by the act,” Willard writes. “What is sad is who these leaders have been all along, what their inner life has been like, and no doubt also how they have suffered during all the years before they ‘did it,’ or were found out. What kind of persons have they been, and what, really, has been their relation to God?” (Renovation of the Heart).
The lived example—how a growing Christlike character works itself out for a leader—is by no means always clear in the day-to-day. As Peterson expresses it: “It amazes me still how much of the time I simply don’t know what I am doing, don’t know what to say, don’t know what the next move is. The temptation in that state of being is to determine to be competent at something or other” (The Pastor).
That temptation to “be competent” is tied to the expectations of those in the local church, but it could easily distract from the power of the original reason a spiritual leader chooses to work for others.
“Being the kind of pastor that satisfies a congregation is one of the easiest jobs on the face of the earth—if we are satisfied with satisfying congregations,” Peterson writes. “Why aren’t we content with it? Because we set out to do something quite different. We set out to risk our lives on a venture of faith. We committed ourselves to a life of holiness. At some point we realized the immensity of God and of the great invisibles that socket into our arms and legs, into bread and wine, into our brains and our tools, into mountains and rivers giving them meaning, destiny, value, joy, beauty, salvation. We responded to a call to convey these realities in word and sacrament and give leadership to a community of faith” (Working the Angles).
As a result, there is a needed element of invisibility that a good pastor learns to accept and even cultivate. Getting out of the way is one hallmark of an expert minister.
Peterson explains it like this: “You are at your pastoral best when you are not noticed. To keep this vocation healthy requires constant self-negation, getting out of the way. A certain blessed anonymity is inherent in pastoral work. For pastors, being noticed easily develops into wanting to be noticed. … [A] pastor friend told me that the pastoral ego ‘has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self.’ I’ve never forgotten that” (The Pastor).
And that self-diminishing encouraged true attentiveness to God. For Peterson, personal brilliance paled when presented with the pastoral call to simply encourage constant all-life worship.
“Our stories may be interesting, but they are not the point. Our achievements may be marvelous, but they are not germane. Our curiosity may be understandable, but it is not relevant. Bless the Lord” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction).
On the Paradoxes of the Spiritual Life
Ultimately, Peterson (from the position of a poet/pastor) and Willard (from that of philosopher/professor) agree with passion that Christian life is only livable as an exercise in the healthy paradoxes of life and faith.
Peterson found that the fully lived human life was central to calling; it did not pull against it:
“I saw myself assigned to give witness to the sheer livability of the Christian life, that everything in Scripture and Jesus was here to be lived. In the mess of work and sin, of families and neighborhoods, my task was to pray and give direction and encourage the lived quality of that gospel” (The Pastor).
And Willard noted that our relationship with the world is more powerful than we liked to admit, and involved a kind of homespun, priestly intercession wherever we have influence:
“In praying,” he says, “we are not just addressing God and asking him to dump something over here or over there; we are involved in a relationship with the thing we are praying about. We are willing that God’s will be done upon earth, and we are speaking to God about it” (The Allure of Gentleness).
Further, Willard warns that even valid spiritual “insights” may hold us back from growth. He explains it like this: “It was not easy for me to see … that our most sacred experiences often blind us. The very light that makes it possible for us to see may also dazzle our eyes to the clearest of realities and make it impossible for us to see what lies in a shadow” (Hearing God).
He reminds us that our desire for “abundance,” is, like most good things, found more slowly and sacrificially than we’d prefer. “Kingdom obedience is kingdom abundance” (The Divine Conspiracy).
Peterson’s poet’s eye was ever-attentive to the forgotten wonders of the world. In common people, places, stories, routines, and, yes, even objects, he found deeply valuable markers of the inner life:
“A friend showed me a series of pictures that he had taken … of household items found in an ordinary kitchen: a match stick, a pin, the edge of a knife. Household utensils are not ordinarily thought of as possessing much beauty, but all of these photographs of very ordinary objects were quite astonishingly beautiful. … Small, ugly, insignificant objects were blown into great size and we could see what we had overlooked in our everyday routine. And it turned out that what we had overlooked was careful, planned details which produced exquisite beauty” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction).
We can become our own worst obstacles to our own spiritual formation. But similarly, our desires and intentions to grow will be honored by the God who has called us to grow into the image of his Son.
“A mind cluttered by excuses may make a mystery of discipleship, or it may see it as something to be dreaded,” Willard writes. “But there is no mystery about desiring and intending to be like someone—that is a very common thing. And if we intend to be like Christ, that will be obvious to every thoughtful person around us, as well as to ourselves” (The Spirit of the Disciplines).
And similarly, he observes that there is a distinctly unglamorous choice at the heart of the Christian journey: “The highest aim of a student of Jesus Christ is to learn to live like him in his kingdom. This involves planning to be like Jesus” (The Allure of Gentleness).
The slow, incremental process of choosing life in Christ leads us to a reminder that our daily dependence is part of our very salvation. Willard asks: “Why is it that we look upon our salvation as a moment that began our religious life instead of the daily life that we receive from God?” (The Spirit of the Disciplines).
And perhaps most biting and breathtaking of all is Willard’s forceful assertion that we may not even understand our own shortcomings in truly knowing and living our faith.
He writes: “Perhaps the hardest thing for sincere Christians to come to grips with is the level of real unbelief in their own life: the unformulated skepticism about Jesus that permeates all dimensions of their being and undermines what efforts they do make toward Christlikeness” (Renovation of the Heart).
Here’s to Tomorrow
If we are living from a place of inner exhaustion, even such a small thing as choosing to change our oil can feel overwhelming. However, the practice of intention and vision for our future—partnering with the Spirit of God for the choices that lead to maturity and usefulness—gets easier the more the habit is built.
It is the vision of where we would like to go, who we would like to become that can exert power upon us today, overcoming the “sins that so easily beset us,” as Hebrews puts it, and the short-termism that presents an existential danger to our characters, churches and communities.
Of course the best laid plans of mice and men often go amiss. But that is no reason to leave them unmade. Of course we must heed James, who advises us to caveat our intentions by saying,
“If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15).
But it’s in seeking to envision the “this or that” that the quiet legacy of each life finds a key expression for loyalty to Christ.
In the end, while short-term thinking may threaten civilization and our own lifetime potential, there is good news implied by the threat. Today offers each of us the option to claim and carve a piece of real legacy, of high calling, of work that is eternal and good for this generation and generations to come.
After all, if the greatest thing we have to fear is our own unlived potential, what may be done with a life that is quietly and daily surrendered to the work of Jesus?
Today is the leash by which we lead the future.
I raise a glass as I write this (if one’s handy, raise one too?): Here’s to today’s faithfulness and tomorrow’s health!
Eugene Hoiland Peterson (1932–2018) was a minister, theologian, prolific author and a deep believer in the sacred role of pastoral ministry in community life. While best known for his paraphrased translation of the Bible, The Message (NavPress), which he began to serve the congregation of the church he planted (Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland), Peterson was also the author of 35 books, a highly competent Semitic languages scholar and a professor at Regent College in British Columbia, Canada.
Peterson’s simple background as a butcher’s son from a small Montana town colored his work with a rich gift for seeing the eternal in the everyday. His discontent with what he considered to be showmanship and consumerism in church life led him to produce multiple books specifically for other pastors, in addition to popular works for lay Christians. Attentive, relational, self-effacing and joyful, Peterson’s writings and recorded teachings show a loving breadth of reading—poetry, fiction, philosophy, natural history—that revealed his belief that a pastor must become a person of rich “biblical imagination,” discovering a world saturated with the meaning of life through the love of Christ.
THE SHORT LIST FOR FURTHER READING
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (IVP)
As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God (WaterBrook)
The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Eerdmans)
Conversations: The Message Bible With its Translator (NavPress)
The Pastor: A Memoir (HarperOne)
Where Your Treasure Is Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community (Eerdmans—previously published as Earth & Altar: The Community of Prayer in a Self-Bound Society)
Working the Angles The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Eerdmans)
Dallas Albert Willard (1935–2013) served the global church as a philosopher, professor and advocate for spiritual formation through the Christian disciplines. His academic depth as an expert on phenomenology and the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl undergirded a rich understanding of how human experience and consciousness is formed in the Christian tradition, bringing modern energy to centuries-old Christian disciplines that he helped popularize for a broad Protestant audience. Among other teaching outlets, Willard taught for 48 years at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, including serving a term as director of the school of philosophy.
Willard’s work is an accessible, whole-picture view of the Christian life, avoiding sensationalism or consumer feeling while still rigorously promoting the rich experience of individual Christian life. His recurring language of Christians being called to be “apprentices” of Jesus Christ is a foundational image for his work.
THE SHORT LIST FOR FURTHER READING
The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus (HarperOne)
The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins)
Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (IVP—previously published as In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God).
Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God (IVP)
Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (NavPress)
The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (HarperCollins)