The Psychology of Sacrifice


These past few days, I was listening to a professor of psychology by the name of Jordan B. Peterson. Dr. Peterson has recently started giving lectures on the psychological significance of the Bible; these lectures are now readily available on YouTube. In his lectures, Dr. Peterson continually stresses on the mammoth implication of the sacrificial stories, namely the stories of Cain and Abel and, particularly, Abraham and Isaac. To the mind that’s untouched by the archaic concept of sacrifice, these stories appear to be barbaric and cruel. ‘Why does God so arbitrarily demand that Abraham sacrifice his own son?’ one might ask. While it is true that understanding God’s intention behind the command for sacrifice is, at best, a guessing game open to all, it is also true that our ability to sacrifice helps us prepare for a better future.

One of life’s fundamental questions is meaning. ‘Does life have any meaning?’ we often ask. Not only is this question a rude awakening for us all, but the fact that we have to answer this question while submerged beneath an ocean of pain is sometimes too burdensome for mankind. The fact, despite what the postmodernists say, is that life indeed has meaning. And most often, this meaning is locked hand-in-hand with responsibility, and once you have responsibility, that’s where sacrifice comes in.

Throughout centuries, mankind has been acting out this concept of sacrifice through the lens of religion. In the Old Testament, we see God commanding the Israelites to sacrifice animals and present burnt offerings to him. A point can be made here that there is a difference between the pagan concept of sacrifice and the Biblical narrative of it. In Pagan religions, the sacrifice was an appeasement to the gods for the forestalling of their wrath, but in the Biblical stories the sacrifice was an expression of thanks to God; it was also the symbol of the reestablishment of sacred covenants. The Bible thoroughly deconstructs the notion that God needed to be appeased by the shedding of the blood of animals. In fact, the Bible shows a careful development of sacrifice from the context of the tribe/nation to the individual. We can, in a sense, learn a lot from why God commanded sacrifice, and why he was pleased or even displeased by it.

Professor Peterson tells us an interesting way of how we can discern humans from animals through the phenomenology of sacrifice. A chimpanzee would rather be caught in a trap than let go of its grasp on the obvious bait. Animals simply do not have the ability to forego gratification in order to avert themselves from future catastrophes. Humans, on the other hand, are very different. We constantly delay pleasure or the feeling of satisfaction so that we can bargain for a better future–a future not only for ourselves but also for our near and dear ones. We do this keeping in mind that the world is a place full of suffering. We certainly can’t get rid of the suffering altogether, but we can lessen the suffering by making sacrifices. This is true of a man who seeks to forego the comfort of home so that he can work for his family. And this is especially true of western values which has been largely shaped by the Judeo-Christian principles.

Throughout the Biblical stories, we learn that the greater the sacrifice the greater the future. This is immensely true of the story of Abraham and Isaac, and especially true of the crucifixion of Christ. It is astonishing how mankind has been acting this out throughout centuries. Mankind has been through a lot to have figured out this invaluable truth of life. So often, we take everything for granted today. The post-modern secular society of our times glorify the opposite of the truth of sacrifice. Today’s society say that it is not necessary to give up anything; one can enjoy rights and entitlements for the cost of nothing. ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ or in other words, ‘You only live once,’ that is the motto of the day. The Bible says otherwise.

I am my brother’s keeper, says the gospel of Christ. Christ sacrificed his own life on the cross for the salvation of the whole world. His selflessness stands in stark contrast to the pleasure-obsessed world of today. His is the ultimate example of how we can live the crucified life of Christ. Think of an elder brother who sacrifices his own playtime to watch over his kid sister. Think of a hardworking wife who sacrifices her own ambitions for the sake of her family. Think of the husband who risks his safety by going out into the unknown to bring food for his wife and children. This is the dance of sacrifice provided not by the world, but by the great example of Christ who died for humanity.

This mindset of Christ-like sacrifice paves the way for a better future. This awareness of suffering gives birth to responsibility. Nature is harsh and cruel. It may attack us constantly with tragedy upon tragedy, but our salvation lies not in our independence, but in our interdependence. We are responsible for each other. The moment we break from this responsibility, our life has no meaning. This is the mind of Christ, that each and every one of us are a living sacrifice to God, and, thus, to our loved ones.

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