The Calling/Episode 3 |48min

Peter Leithart's Theology of Defeat

How the prolific theologian learned to face down failure.
Peter Leithart's Theology of Defeat

If you’ve ever spent much time over at First Things, you’ve probably come across the blog of writer, pastor, and theologian Peter Leithart, the journal’s resident Renaissance man. With an omnivorous mind and an eye for the unusual, Leithart seems to have written about almost everything, from Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen’s novels to the meaning of baptism and the legacy of Athanasius. Whatever he’s working on, though, he always aims to connect the mind to the soul—especially when it means helping ministers to minister better.

Before his present successes, however, Leithart encountered his fair share of ministerial tribulation. Coming out of seminary, he intended to move straight into a career writing and teaching theology. Instead, he found himself stepping into a head pastor position with little experience and a host of demands, including helping a couple whose failing marriage was tearing his church apart. The experience taught him a lot about failure—especially how God redeems it:

I think the general flaws in my pastoral care have had to do with basic vices—sins—and I think the two main ones are fear and sloth. . . I had this really intense family situation, and I’d not encountered anything like that before. And it frightened me. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to handle it. I had a conviction that I was supposed to fix it somehow, because I was a pastor, but I didn’t really have much of a sense of how to do it. I was just frightened by it. And the fear and the sloth kind of go together: I’m frightened by it, and I just want it to go away. I don’t want to do the hard work that it takes to confront bad behavior and confront it in a way that would actually address it.

The other basic flaw was a form of unbelief. I had the sense that if there was going to be a solution, I had to provide it. I was the one who had to be the savior of this marriage. I had the sense of failure if it didn’t survive, and I had that sense of personal failure that I was supposed to do something if it fell apart.

I think the unbelief in that is that I’ve come to realize that Jesus is the head of his church. Jesus is the shepherd of his people. And a minister, a pastor, has to do things and say things, and sometimes say things that are very difficult to do and say, and say them in very tense, contested settings. But it’s not really his job to solve anything. He can’t. He’s just another needy sinner like the people he’s trying to serve. I think I was doing a lot of what I was trying to do out of anxiety more than out of confidence that the Lord was going to do something through me to resolve it one way or the other. I felt a burden that I shouldn’t have felt—because it’s not my church.

Thankfully, though, that wasn’t the end of the story. On this week’s episode of The Calling, Leithart chats with CT managing editor Richard Clark about his calling past and present, from his early desire to be a professional comedian to the theology that drives his current voracious intellectual appetite.

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The Calling is produced by Richard Clark and Cray Allred.

Theme music by Lee Rosevere, used under Creative Commons 4.0.

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