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During a remarkable convocation service at Liberty University on March 29, psychologist and best-selling author Jordan Peterson unexpectedly encountered the desperation of someone who wanted to change his life, but who seemed lost to know how to begin.
As Peterson talked with Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. and spiritual director David Nasser about his book 12 Rules for Life, a man attending as a visitor rushed the stage with a pleading cry: “I need help! I just wanted to meet you. I’m unwell. I want to be well.”
Security escorted the man offstage—and, one hopes, to some form of help—but his plea seemed to hang in the air after his cries faded away: “I want to be well.”
Those words should pierce the heart of any Christian who understands Jesus is the only one who can make broken people well.
But those words seemed to pierce Peterson too. The Jungian psychologist doesn’t embrace saving faith in Christ, but he does squarely face the brutal reality of suffering in the world.
The no-nonsense, fatherly admonitions he offers for facing suffering and taking responsibility have captivated throngs of readers and followers on YouTube.
Many have become interested in Christianity because of Peterson’s secular wrestling with spiritual truths.
But in this moment at Liberty in Lynchburg, Va., Peterson seemed to feel the weight of those who have come to look to him as a kind of savior, perhaps because he offers wisdom that resonates but doesn’t always satisfy. When Nasser later asked Peterson how he could pray for him, Peterson teared up. He said he doesn’t want to pay “an undue price” for the mistakes he knows he will make as he continues to try to go good in the world.
It’s impossible to read someone’s mind or heart, but Peterson almost seemed to be saying: “I want to be well.”
The encounter caused me to think about a visit that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., made to Liberty during the 2016 presidential campaign. Sanders was respectful to the students, and the students respectfully received him. But after the student body sang a version of the Apostles’ Creed that proclaimed the school’s Christian beliefs, Sanders answered during his opening remarks: “I believe …” in abortion and gay marriage.
Sanders was respectful, but defiant. Peterson was respectful, but distressed.
Nasser, the spiritual director, applied the only balm suitable for Peterson’s wound: As he prayed for him, he asked God to reveal Christ to Peterson—not just as a great and noble man, but as a Savior for his soul.
(And Nasser earlier told the students that Peterson’s 12 rules have great wisdom, but “they all stop short without the Ruler.”)
The man who rushed the stage reminds us of a blind man in the New Testament who cried out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Peterson reminds us of the rich young ruler who seemed to be genuinely interested in Christ—even moved by Him—but unwilling just yet to give up what he thought made him rich. In the young ruler’s case it was money, but in Peterson’s case it might be his own wisdom.
The New Testament reminds us of Christ’s posture toward the rich young ruler, who was seeking Him but not fully ready to follow Him: “Looking at him, Jesus loved him.”
It’s a love most worthy of imitation by Christians living in a world full of broken people not yet yielding to the only one who can atone for their sin. We bear the good news of the gospel: Christ can make you well.