What Jordan Peterson Gets Right – And Wrong – About Sacrifice And Economics

Posted: Dec 30, 2019 11:45 AM

In his book, “Twelve Rules for Life,” Jordan Peterson ties in the ancient practice of ritual sacrifice to the basic economic practice of delayed gratification.

“When engaging in sacrifice, our forefathers began to act out what would be considered a proposition, if it were stated in words: that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present. […] Prosaically, such sacrifice—work—is delay of gratification, but that’s a very mundane phrase to describe something of such profound significance. The discovery that gratification could be delayed was simultaneously the discovery of time and, with it, causality (at least the causal force of voluntary human action)” [p. 164].

While I’m not convinced by Peterson’s secular evolutionary narrative explanation, he is right to see a relationship between the religious ritual of sacrifice and basic economic thinking. In Exodus and Leviticus, sacrifice to God, tribute to God, redemption, and repayment with money all go together. See, for example, Exodus 30:11-16, where silver coins were given to God as a “ransom” and “atonement” for the lives of the men of Israel. Or Deuteronomy 14:22-27, where it is acknowledged that one can sell the items that one owes God, bring the money to God’s sanctuary, and buy the things to offer to God. Sacrifice is a kind of investing in the future.

Consider the kind of “practical guidance” we find in Proverbs:

  • "One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered. The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it" (Proverbs 11:24-26 ESV).
  • "Better to be lowly and have a servant than to play the great man and lack bread" (Proverbs 12:9 ESV).
  • "One pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth" (Proverbs 13:7 ESV).
  • "Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it" (Proverbs 13:11 ESV).
  • "Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich" (Proverbs 21:17 ESV).

There are a lot more statements like this in Proverbs. I selected these as a sample because they have something in common, although a few seem to contradict each other. Some emphasize the importance of saving over consuming or over visible spending for the sake of gaining a reputation as a “great man.” Others question the value of saving compared selling, reminding you that one can profit more than monetarily in the future by gaining goodwill in the community. But they are all about giving up something you want in the present for the sake of a greater blessing in the future.

We have just passed through the Christmas season where we remind one another of the story of the birth of a king. And while the angels and the guiding star obviously point out Jesus’ royal status, he does not otherwise seem like much of a king. This king’s family is ordered about by an emperor’s decree and the newborn infant is laid to rest in an animal trough. But "an inheritance gained hastily in the beginning will not be blessed in the end" (Proverbs 20:21 ESV), and Jesus planned to inherit a world of blessing.

The Apostle Paul invokes the example of Jesus when appealing to Christians to help others through their generosity:

"I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." (2 Corinthians 8:8–9 ESV)

Paul also writes,

"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." (Philippians 2:3–7 ESV)

Jesus did more than present an example for humanity to follow but he wasn’t less than an example. As he told his disciples,

"You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42–45 ESV)

Investing in the future takes many forms, some seemingly small and others grand. But ultimately, such sacrifice requires faith and a willingness to relinquish what you could enjoy now to gain that and more.

There are many ways Christmas changed the world, but we should not rule out the formation of new culture of giving and investing in people and prosperity where the value of a better future for many outweighed the present pleasures of the few. As Jesus commanded and promised,

"Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you." (Luke 6:37–38 ESV)