Jordan Peterson and the Unbearable Task

Jordan Peterson and the Unbearable Task May 25, 2019
Source: 123RF

It’s not every day that a man confesses his sins on Twitter, but I saw it happen the other day. “If we are going to be damned for eternity for all of the terrible things we’ve done, here is my proactive list,” wrote Chad Felix Greene. Then he launched into his litany.

Confession #1: Lying to his grandfather about using his credit card for a porn site.

Confession #2: Being a sex worker, including sex with multiple married men that exposed their wives to risk.

Confession #3: Unfairly shutting his blameless mother out of his life after being molested as a child.

The list went on. In a fight with his needy suicidal father, he told him everyone would be better off without him. When his father killed himself several years later, he abandoned the rest of his family to grieve without his comfort and support, including his little brother.

In high school, he embraced dark obsessions as a coping mechanism for his insecurities, actively trying to disturb his classmates and writing them into twisted horror stories. In his 20s, he wrote fake Satanic lit and porn to strew around the steps of churches for kicks.

Then the confession that perhaps haunts him most of all: “When I found out my sister was pregnant and her child tested for a missing chromosome I advised her to have an abortion.”

There was surely more he was forgetting, Greene said when the list was finally done. “But what matters more?” he asked. “Who I was or who I am now?”

“I am not a good person,” he continued in a fresh tweet. “I am a flawed man with dirty hands and dirty fingernails.” But for him, hope and redemption came by his own choice to dig his way out of the grave he’d made for himself, together with the undeserved love of other people who helped him.

“Did you make amends?” someone asked. Answer: “I tried very hard.”

While I’m not privy to what this process looked like in Greene’s personal life, I’ve seen some of it unfolding in his journalism. I’ve cited his work on the grim, predatory realities of the homosexual lifestyle, often calling out hypocrisy from people in “his” community. I’ve also cited his clear articulation of the pro-life position, including personal stories about young pregnant women he knew. Knowing now that he carries the guilt of advising his sister to abort lends the latter special poignancy. It’s uncomfortable to admit that a still openly gay (and gay married!) secular Jew is more forceful and consistently outspoken about this issue than some Christian pastors. But it’s the truth.

It’s easy to point out that from a Christian perspective, Chad’s confession is still incomplete by standards other than his own. Easy—but not very interesting.

By chance, on the same day Chad made his confession, I watched a new video of Jordan Peterson being interviewed by Dennis Prager. Prager took his time with his introduction. Channeling Harvey, he extolled the virtue of a good character over mere intelligence, then closed by saying that in Peterson, he believed he could detect both. “Everybody knows you’re bright. But I know you’re good.” The audience applauds, and Peterson interjects, “I have something to say about that.” He pauses before choosing his next words carefully: “See, I don’t think it’s true.”

It’s a rare man who can reject a high compliment to his character with not even a trace of false modesty. Peterson pulls it off by virtue of his commitment to sparing nobody the unvarnished truth of things, especially himself. He talks about how as a young man he came to understand people’s capacity for evil—and not just other people’s. “I would never claim to be good. I think it’s dangerous. But I did become terrified of how terrible I could be.” The best he could think to do in response was to “avoid the pathways that lead people to the dark places that they go.” And perhaps, he hopes, there’s something in that which might “approximate good.”

In the same interview, Peterson also explains his oft-given answer to the oft-asked question of whether he believes in God, “I act as if God exists.” He echoes what he also said in his forthcoming conversation with Bishop Barron: The reason he answers the question that way is that he is existentially terrified of what it would mean to say “Yes.” He becomes emotional as he asks rhetorically, “Who would have the audacity to claim that they believed in God if they examined the way they lived? Who would dare say that? … To have the audacity to claim that means that you live it out fully. And that’s an unbearable task, in some sense.”

But what if you truly believed? “God only knows what you’d be.” He repeats it a second time: “God only knows what you’d be if you believed.” And so, he concludes, “I try to act like I believe.” “But,” he adds forcefully, by now very emotional, “I’d never claim that I manage it. Because it’s too… it’s a lot to manage properly. And you have to be careful about claiming to manage things that you can’t manage.”

Has Peterson made amends for those times when he did not manage, when the terrible potential of evil inside of him was actualized? His litany may not be as lurid as Greene’s, but like Greene, no doubt he has one. And like Greene, no doubt he would say, “I tried very hard.”

What is the unbearable burden of being—the unbearable burden? Is it the pain we carry, or is it the pain we force others to carry? Is it our suffering, or our malevolence? And if it is our malevolence, how then shall this burden be lifted? How shall the damned spot be wiped out? How if we try very hard, as hard as we can, to tear off the dragon skin, and find more dragon skin beneath?

“I will pay,” you say. “I have paid, I am paying, and I will pay.”

Except you can’t. Because someone else already paid.

Your sorrowing parents and grandparents already paid.

Your wife already paid.

Your brother and sister already paid.

The unborn child who is not here already paid.

Our hand has rent the fabric of reality. A hand not ours must mend it. Our hand has stained the foundations of the earth. A hand not ours must wash it clean.

Here is the great good news: Not that we can pretend we can undo the deed. Not that we can pretend we can forget, even as we are forgiven. But still, we are forgiven.

Beneath this cross, how can we dare to stand? Before this throne, how can we dare to come? Shall we tarry til we’re better? Shall we ever come at all?

I believe. I believe I cannot manage. I cannot manage the unbearable task. I cannot bear the unbearable burden. I can only bear the burden that is left when the hand not mine has lifted it. And I believe that is enough.

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  • Richard Elliott II

    Yes, yes 🙂 that is right, that is good.

  • BernankeIsGlutenFree

    I guess I just don’t understand why you would want or value forgiveness by someone other than the person who you actually wronged.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Jesus is the person you have wronged.

  • BernankeIsGlutenFree

    Then I guess I just don’t understand why hurting someone who isn’t Jesus somehow means I’ve wronged Jesus rather than that person. If I punched someone in the face and then Jesus forgave me but the person I punched didn’t, I absolutely would not consider myself redeemed, forgiven in any meaningful sense, or absolved.

  • @EstherOReilly

    It’s both/and. But Jesus uniquely has the right and the authority to forgive and redeem even if others choose not to forgive. Your ongoing recognition of what you’ve done and what it cost him to forgive you is enough.

  • BernankeIsGlutenFree

    That sounds like a convenient way for me to feel good about myself without putting in the work to actually correct the wrongs I’ve done, or without recognizing that there are some things I’ve done that cannot be fixed. If the person I’ve wronged doesn’t forgive me, what is it to my relationship with that person if Jesus does?

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    It’s refreshing to find a Christian who believes in the doctrine of sin. That’s not something you see everyday. Good on Mr. Greene.

    Peterson makes a powerful, powerful point. If we take the notion of belief-as-action (belief as an existential disposition), the person who “believes” is rendered a liar by their bank transactions, and their internet search history, and the testimony of their neighbors. But to “believe” in this context isn’t simply to SAY something that’s a lie, it’s to hitch yourself to God, and call God a lie. It’s a statement about the nature of God and the divine order

    …and what a vicious, arrogant statement at that.

    If you want to wear the cloak of a believer, you have to spend your life desperately hunting for the cloak. You don’t put on a bathrobe, call it a cloak, and then put hunting for the real one on your to do list.

  • @EstherOReilly

    If this sounds like “a convenient way for you to feel good about yourself,” then I must have failed pretty spectacularly to explain what true belief and true repentance mean.

    Also, there’s plenty of work for you still to do. The point is not to absolve you of doing what you can.

  • BernankeIsGlutenFree

    Don’t feel bad. You’re not doing any worse a job trying to explain this to me than the best of them.

    > Also, there’s plenty of work for you still to do. The point is not to absolve you of doing what you can.

    Then in what sense am I forgiven? What does the idea of forgiveness actually mean in this framework?

  • swbarnes2

    So once a man in power says a rapist is right with Jesus, problem solved. As Paige Patterson taught, a woman’s welfare is garbage compared to the value of a man’s soul. We can’t risk the soul of a nice rapist by expecting him to lower himself to the level of caring about the female thing he misused.

  • Laurel Linc Dunstan

    I’m just pleased I am not embarrassing myself by this comment being on video…I don’t have a handkerchief in my pocket!

  • Andrew Vinstra

    I have heard two of your conversations with Paul Van derKlay now and read several of your blogs and thought it all just seemed like pretty standard Conservative Christian boilerplate to me but I can see now that I was wrong. This is an extremely well-written and thoughtful article. I would put it up there with the best of anything that I’ve heard from Paul vanderklay. In a sense it doesn’t even matter if I agree with what you’re saying or not as the best thoughtful response I could give if I was trying to refute you as an unbeliever would just be silence as there is no real way to refute what you just wrote.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Thanks! I do try not to be boiler-platey in general (also am pretty sure most conservative Christians aren’t prone to launching into extended geek-outs over Joseph Conrad and weird Catholic sci-fi), but in any case I’m glad this was the one that did it for you. 🙂

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Sorry for my delayed response. These are good questions and I didn’t want to dash something off. Do feel free to follow up via e-mail as well if you want to.

    >Then in what sense am I forgiven? What does the idea of forgiveness actually mean in this framework?

    You’re forgiven in the sense that even though you still have a responsibility to make amends to the best of your ability, and even though it’s still necessary and right and good that you should seek to become a better person, these things no longer carry the burden of having to be “enough” to pay off an unpayable debt. The fact that the debt is actually unpayable by you is the key thing that has to be realized here—in other words, that the bad news is actually worse than you think. You have to acknowledge that Christ is literally the only person worthy and capable of picking up that tab, because he is simultaneously the one who suffers humanly and the one who judges divinely. Once that is acknowledged, the cross you still have to carry is to honor the sacrifice with a life as worthy as you can imperfectly make it.

  • BernankeIsGlutenFree

    Don’t worry about how long it takes to respond, we’ve all got stuff going on, it’s fine.

    What I’m really not getting is exactly how or why someone else needs to pay off my moral debt. If I do everything I can to be a better person and make amends to those I’ve wronged, then that’s all there is to it. Regardless of whether that’s enough or whether I’ve actually paid my dues, there’s nothing else to be done and I have to live with that. To say that my insurmountable moral failure can be overcome just because I’ve hoisted it onto Jesus seems similar to saying that I can get a free pass on crimes I’ve committed so long as the judge arbitrarily says I can have one if I apologize, since he’s willing to pay the legal cost in my place. The idea that someone else can bear my moral responsibilities for me doesn’t sit very well.

  • Annemarie

    I’m following this with interest because I feel the same way, and have for years. Perhaps the moral debt is more of an existential one (if that’s the word I want)…not the harms we do on earth necessarily, but the tendency in us to create those harms is what’s forgiven. Is that original sin? I don’t know. And I think it’s a Catholic concept, so maybe Protestants don’t accept it. I wasn’t brought up in a religion so get confused.

    Personally I think you’re right in that we have to own up to our sins, confess our faults, face the people we’ve hurt and do what we can to fix it. Maybe that can fit side-by-side with Jesus as Redeemer.

    The sins that really trouble me are the ones we don’t realize we’ve committed. The people we’ve hurt without thinking, and those hurts stay with the sufferer for years. How can I make it up to people when I don’t realize I’ve damaged them?

    A wise friend told me not to carry around other people’s pain. But that’s something else I haven’t figured out.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “It’s not every day that a man confesses his sins on Twitter, but I saw it happen the other day.”

    Sin: An immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.

    Until someone proves a deity actually exists ( then proves what that deity’s laws are), the word sin is meaningless.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    Naw, I never met him.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Even when we own up, confess, and do what we can, as we certainly should, I think all of us have still felt the lingering sense that it really isn’t enough. Sometimes “doing what we can” adds up to not much. Sometimes damage is irreparable and choices are irrevocable. So… what then? Or, as you say, the careless hurts that we never even pause to realize or take stock of. This is where Jesus as Redeemer is really needed. He is, to quote T. S. Eliot, the “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.”

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I think the answer comes in exactly where the judge analogy breaks down, namely that if we are picturing a human judge, his job is not to write law but to enforce it. But God is the law-giver. He has the right and the authority to volunteer himself in the person of Jesus as a perfect sacrifice.

    “If I do everything I can to be a better person and make amends to those I’ve wronged, then that’s all there is to it.” The problem is that justice for the wronged person still has to be done somehow. Punishment still has to be served for it. In the normal course of justice you would receive that punishment.

    I like a line from Peterson in one of his biblical lectures where he says people can be glib about deathbed conversions, but he’s not so sure it’s something to be taken lightly, because if you truly woke up and realized what you’d done, “it just might actually kill you.” I think that’s worth pondering deeply. To describe it as a “free pass” is definitely to misconstrue what it means to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf. It’s a terrible realization, but it’s also a liberating one if you’re willing to embrace it. And it doesn’t free you of the moral responsibility of taking up your own cross in response to the gift. Following Jesus is costly. It involves laying down your own life in imitation of his sacrifice.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Full definition from the same source (please see 1.1):
    1 An immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.
    1.1 An act regarded as a serious or regrettable fault, offence, or omission.”
    Since you linked to the same definition you must have seen the whole thing, so you really are being a dishonest and rather silly little man, aren’t you?

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Jesus explicitly said that we should freely forgive sins, and that God does also, and expressly and freely forgave even those crucifying him of their sin even while they were doing it.
    I would say don’t let go of your unease at this idea that the infliction of suffering on an innocent person somehow “forgives” and makes OK somebody else’s sins, rather than being in itself another sin to add to the rest, because the idea is indeed stupid, monstrous and wrong. It’s also a relatively recent (i.e. only about 500 years or so!) innovation innovation in Christian thought.
    The whole mess seems to me to come from one principle mistake, which Esther O’Reilly encapsulates when she says our sins are “against Jesus”: that is the idea that when the Bible talks about saving us from our sins, it is really talking about saving us from God, and any punishment he might mete out for them.
    This is not the original “Good News” at all. The Bible is express that God forgives our sins freely without us having to ask. But even that is not the fundamental “Good News”: the really good news is that God will save us from the sins themselves, and the suffering, destruction and ultimately death that results from them (and that’s expressly death and not a euphemism for hell).
    Trust in God, and love of God, and taking up the cross with Christ (so at least the Bible asserts) will enable us to grow in love of God and, crucially, neighbour, and we will cease to be subject to the sin inside of us and in our nature and be transformed into better images of God.
    You can’t fix all the wrong you personally have done, let alone all the wrong in the world. The resurrection, though, is proof that sin and death don’t have the last word, that even death itself is temporary and redeemable, and will be redeemed.
    We fix whatvwe can but your friend is a wise friend: you can’t carry around the burden of all the sins and sufferings of the world. Jesus said, however, that we can trust him to do so, and redeem what we cannot.
    That’s the “Good News”.

  • HamburgerHelperAgain

    Jordan Peterson? Oh! That guy.

  • Robert Strickland

    Wow. Just wow. Thank you for this.

  • Thingamabob


  • Ryan Christensen

    I don’t quite think Esther has it right in saying Jesus is the person you have wronged. Christ would have us repent. To truly repent is to seek forgiveness and to try to make amends to the best of your ability to the person you have harmed. What Christ offers is absolution if you have repented properly because of his capacity to restore all that you broke when you damaged the person. Because much of the time, our sins set in motion consequences that we cannot fix. Christ’s sacrifice heals all the wounds of the victim, resurrects all the broken or imperfect bodies and minds to perfection and immortality. He will restore all to perfect form. He only requires that you repent and follow him. This is why if your heart is right and you’ve done all you can to seek forgiveness of the person you hurt, if that person chooses not to forgive you, you are not subject to that person’s demand of justice. You are subject to Christ’s mercy, if you truly have repented properly, in Christ’s way, and the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost will be a metaphysical experience to testify to you of the reality of forgiveness. And Christ will in his own way and due time, help your victim find access to his healing so that they too can eventually find capacity to forgive you. That’s the beauty of the Mediator. He finds a way to heal fix and restore for us all as we choose to repent, forgive, and seek forgiveness properly. Damage results when we don’t. I’ve known a soul or two that uses Christ as a scapegoat for the feeling of freedom from consequence when true repentance had not actually occurred. This is not good and will have greater negative consequences down the road.

  • Bryan Crompton

    Someone needs to ask Peterson what he thinks of people who say they believe in God with confidence and conviction.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    Full quote from the article we are discussing:

    “It’s not every day that a man confesses his sins on Twitter, but I saw it happen the other day. “If we are going to be damned for eternity for all of the terrible things we’ve done, here is my proactive list,””

    Since the person making that statement also refers to ” going to be damned for eternity ” , he was OBVIOUSLY talking about sin as it applies in definition # 1.

    “Since you linked to the same definition you must have seen the whole thing, so you really are being a dishonest and rather silly little man, aren’t you?”

    Since I read all the definitions, I chose the definition that would apply to the person being quoted in the article.

    I’ll remind you: ““If we are going to be damned for eternity for all of the terrible things we’ve done, here is my proactive list,

    Obviously he is referring to a transgression against a divine law… who but a deity could damn someone for all eternity?

    You really are displaying a lack of comprehension for the reason a dictionary numbers the different definitions for words, aren’t you, you silly little man?

  • Johnny Armstrong

    “Our hand has rent the fabric of reality. A hand not ours must mend it. Our hand has stained the foundations of the earth. A hand not ours must wash it clean.” This is perhaps one of the most beautiful expressions of the metaphysical commitments attached to Christian belief I have ever encountered. Of course, that alone may not move one toward acceptance of the worldview as a rational framework but for believers such as myself it resonates deeply.

  • Ken Churchill

    One could argue that the word sin has intrinsic meaning outside any religious belief system; that we could refer to the darkest impulses of inflicting pain and suffering on others as a sin. Or the self righteous pride you demonstrate by using your atheism as a weapon to discredit the moral foundation of whole societies.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “One could argue that the word sin has intrinsic meaning outside any religious belief system”

    The word sin has more than one definition,but the person quoted in the article stated ““If we are going to be damned for eternity for all of the terrible things we’ve done, here is my proactive list,”. This means the definition of sin he is referring to is the definition as it applies to religion: An immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.

    “Or the self righteous pride you demonstrate by using your atheism as a weapon to discredit the moral foundation of whole societies.”

    Which societies have their moral foundations based upon religious beliefs?

  • Kyllein MacKellerann “

    This is one of my main complaints regarding Christianity. It is not a religion of love as is claimed, but a religion of fear. We FEAR God. We FEAR damnation. We FEAR breaking Divine laws (which oddly are made by mortal men). That is why I left the Cult of Christ. it’s nothing but a power scheme run by the few to frighten the many into obedience.
    Which seems to be the exact opposite of what Jeshua (Jesus) intended to teach, but then power-hunger was happening then, too. Once he died, the power-brokers started their system of control, and it’s still working today. I actually feel sorry for the historical Jesus, the most betrayed person in history.

  • Kyllein MacKellerann “

    From the Aramaic: Sin = “You missed the mark”. Used in archery and spear throwing, also descriptive of social gaffes.

  • a Nagual in Arizona

    Why do people do this public confession thing? Makes it look like a contest for who gets bragging rights for being the worst human.

  • jenandlaw

    Esther, you were born to write the last four paragraphs. That is not an exaggeration. It was your divine destiny, and may be the finest thing I’ve ever read.

  • Elke

    Ya know you had me until “you silly little man”. Unnecessary, unkind and likely on most day, untrue. Bzzzzzt.

  • Elke


  • Elke

    I believe I just read that Esther said “both/and” to which I agree. We need to make amends when we can. Absolutely. But, as Christ is the Source, the enlivener, the true Presence within and without everything in this Universe, when we offend someone, we offend Him. He cannot be “damaged” but he can be sorrowful on behalf of his beloveds. We are all His beloveds.

  • Elke


  • Elke

    Beautifully put. Thank you.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    I was responding in kind to the person who used that same phrase in their reply to me. I agree,it was unnecessary and unkind,so why did they use it?

  • Lets Do It Ourselves

    How would you define the Holocaust?

  • Joel Sprenger

    As far as I know and I would be happy to be corrected every religion involves a bar that if you can get over it your in. Sometimes the bar is very low as in just say these words. Sometimes the bar is very high as in meditate until you reach enlightenment. What I like about Christianity is that the bar is infinitely high. What I don’t like about Christianity is that since there is always some way that Christians fall short there is always someone happy to point it out. Maybe that is one reason Jordan Peterson doesn’t identify as a Christian; he doesn’t want to hear the B.S. ‘if you were a real Christian you would …”