Pretty much anyone with experience in American schools of education over the last several decades is thoroughly familiar with Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is legendary and has been wildly influential both in American education and in American culture, often influencing those who do not know Maslow at all.
Maslow did not create the needs-based culture in which we live, but he had a large hand in popularizing it. The effects of this culture can be seen in American Christianity in diverse manners, such as, but not limited to the new focus in evangelical preaching and teaching on the felt needs of the listener, the proliferation of self-help and marriage books that promote meeting people’s needs as a key answer to life’s problems, and the expansion of consumer driven church programming.
According to Maslow, human behavior is motivated by human needs, which he categorized into a hierarchy of five levels: physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs. These needs usually are represented in a pyramid, as in this diagram, the priority the needs take working from the bottom up.
Factoryjoe (Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
For Maslow, the ultimate need, after all other needs are met, is to self-actualize, a term that means that a person has reached her “full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world.” Self-actualization also has been described as the need to be all that you can be.
The brilliance of his hierarchy is that it seems to accord with common sense. For instance, people want to belong and to be loved, but if a person is starving, she probably will leave her family to go scavenge for food. Or a person who wants to make great achievement might give it all up to marry and to create a family. It all seems to make sense, until the hierarchy and its author, Abraham, meets Jesus.
In Matthew 4:1-9, the account of Satan’s temptations of Christ, we read of Jesus’ view of man’s needs.
The truth is that Satan’s temptations walked right up Maslow’s pyramid, and Jesus’ responses walked right up Scripture. Take a look with me.
In the first temptation, Satan attacked Jesus’ physiological need for food. Jesus was very hungry. He had fasted for forty days. Certainly he needed food, even, perhaps, in order to think well to debate the Devil. Satan and Maslow agreed. If Jesus was ever to reach His full potential as a man, he must begin by meeting his physiological needs.
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”
Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’” While Jesus did not deny that man needs to eat, He told Satan that Maslow’s hierarchy is wrong. God’s Word supersedes food as man’s most basic need. Spiritual needs trump physiological needs, according to Jesus.
In the second temptation, Satan attacked Jesus’ safety needs, his love and belonging needs, and his esteem needs by telling Him that if He threw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, the angels would save Him. In this way, Jesus would know experientially that He was safe and protected, that He was loved and belonged to God and to the angels, and that He was highly esteemed.
5 Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning You’; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, So that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, Jesus rejected the validity of seeking to meet these needs for himself, except that this time, he referenced Deuteronomy 6:16 and equated the focus on these things as “needs” with testing God. As a man, Jesus was to live by faith, not by sight, not by experience. To demand sight and experience is to test God and to forego faith. God’s Word affirms His protection, His love, and His attention to man. For man to seek after these things and to call them needs is to reject Matthew 6:25-34 and to embrace the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.
In the third temptation, Satan attacked Jesus’ need for self-actualization. He asserted that Jesus could achieve his full human potential through his grasp on the real world. In the real world, Satan is the Prince, and Jesus did not deny that the kingdoms and their glory were Satan’s to give. Satan’s offer could fulfill Daniel 7:14, after a fashion, and Jesus could receive all authority (Matthew 28:18) in the earth from Satan, quickly and easily, rather than from God who required the cross and death as passage. From a human perspective, this was more than Jesus could hope for and easier than he ever could have dreamed.
8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.
Yet, for Jesus, to self-actualize was to worship Satan rather than God. Jesus, in pointing to Deuteronomy 6:13, rejected self-actualization. Rather, Jesus calls us, both Christians and the lost, to self-denial and to death to ourselves (Matthew 16:24), to take up your cross. He discards self-actualization and calls us to humble worship of God alone.
Observe that in all three of Jesus’ responses to the Devil, He quoted from chapters 6-8 of the Book of Deuteronomy. The heart of that passage is the Great Commandment, found in Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Jesus rejected Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which replaces both our love for God and our faith in His promises of provisions with love for ourselves and our own thinking about our needs. Thus Jesus rejects the needs dogma of our culture that since has been built upon the Heirarchy.
Rather, Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
And Jesus taught us that what we truly need is the Word of God, faith in God, and the denial of ourselves that accompanies fully loving God.