Competing with Horses

We live in a society that tries to diminish us to the level of the ant heap so that we scurry mindlessly, getting and consuming. It is essential to take counteraction.

Jeremiah is counteraction: a well-developed human being, mature and robust, living by faith. More is known of the life of Jeremiah than of any other prophet, and his life is far more significant than his teaching. It is noteworthy, I think, that when people were trying to account for Jesus, Jeremiah was one of the names put forward (Mt 16:14).

Every one of us needs to be stretched to live at our best, awakened out of dull moral habits, shaken out of petty and trivial busywork. Jeremiah does that for me. And not only for me. Millions upon millions of Christians and Jews have been goaded and guided toward excellence as they have attended to God’s Word spoken to and by Jeremiah.

THE HORROR OF A PREMATURE DEATH

Vitezslav Gardavsky, the Czech philosopher and martyr who died in 1978, took Jeremiah as his “image of man” in his campaign against a society that carefully planned every detail of material existence but eliminated mystery and miracle, and squeezed all freedom from life.

The terrible threat against life, he said in his book God Is Not Yet Dead, is not death, nor pain, nor any variation on the disasters that we so obsessively try to protect ourselves against with our social systems and personal stratagems. The terrible threat is “that we might die earlier than we really do die, before death has become a natural necessity. The real horror lies in just such a premature death, a death after which we go on living for many years.”

There is a memorable passage concerning Jeremiah’s life when, worn down by the opposition and absorbed in self-pity, he was about to capitulate to just such a premature death. He was ready to abandon his unique calling in God and settle for being a Jerusalem statistic.

At that critical moment he heard the reprimand: “So, Jeremiah, if you’re worn out in this footrace with men, what makes you think you can race against horses? And if you can’t keep your wits during times of calm, what’s going to happen when troubles break loose like the Jordan in flood?” (Jer 12:5).

Biochemist Erwin Chargaff updates the questions: “What do you want to achieve? Greater riches? Cheaper chicken? A happier life, a longer life? Is it power over your neighbors that you are after? Are you only running away from your death? Or are you seeking greater wisdom, deeper piety?”

SETTLING FOR AVERAGE

Life is difficult, Jeremiah. Are you going to quit at the first wave of opposition? Are you going to retreat when you find that there is more to life than finding three meals a day and a dry place to sleep at night? Are you going to run home the minute you find that the mass of men and women are more interested in keeping their feet warm than in living at risk to the glory of God? Are you going to live cautiously or courageously?

I called you to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence. It is easier, I know, to be neurotic. It is easier to be parasitic. It is easier to relax in the embracing arms of The Average. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not more significant. Easier, but not more fulfilling.

Do you want to shuffle along with this crowd, or run with the horses?

I called you to a life of purpose far beyond what you think yourself capable of living and promised you adequate strength to fulfill your destiny. Now at the first sign of difficulty you are ready to quit.

If you are fatigued by this run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities, what will you do when the real race starts, the race with the swift and determined horses of excellence? What is it you really want, Jeremiah? Do you want to shuffle along with this crowd, or run with the horses?

RUNNING WITH THE HORSES

It is understandable that there are retreats from excellence, veerings away from risk, withdrawals from faith. It is easier to define oneself minimally (“a featherless biped”) and live securely within that definition than to be defined maximally (“little less than God”) and live adventurously in that reality.

It is unlikely, I think, that Jeremiah was spontaneous or quick in his reply to God’s question. The ecstatic ideals for a new life had been splattered with the world’s cynicism. The euphoric impetus of youthful enthusiasm no longer carried him. He weighed the options. He counted the cost. He tossed and turned in hesitation.

The response when it came was not verbal but biographical. His life became his answer, “I’ll run with the horses.”


Adapted from Run With the Horses by Eugene Peterson. Copyright second edition (c) 2009 by Eugene Peterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.

In a series of profound reflections on the life of Jeremiah the prophet, Eugene Peterson explores the heart of what it means to be fully and genuinely human. This special commemorative edition includes a new preface from Peterson's son and a six-session Bible study guide.

Eugene H. Peterson (1932–2018) was a pastor, scholar, author, and poet. He wrote more than thirty books, including his widely acclaimed paraphrase of the Bible, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, his memoir, The Pastor, and numerous works of biblical spiritual formation, including Run with the Horses, also available in a commemorative edition. Peterson was founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, where he served for twenty-nine years before retiring in 1991. With degrees from Seattle Pacific, New York Theological Seminary, and Johns Hopkins University, he served as professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, until retiring in Lakeside, Montana, in 2006.