Maslow’s Mistake

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What do we think about in our free moments? What delights us? And what worries us? I’m not asking about the immediate thoughts and concerns stirred by our latest circumstances but the deeper, persistent currents that stay with us over the years. What, in other words, is the main motor of our soul? Our deepest reflections reveal what we’re really about underneath it all.

Abraham Maslow, a noted psychologist of the last century, studied human motivation and concluded that humanity has a hierarchy of needs that shape all human behaviors. The ultimate concern within a web of related concerns is self-actualization—greater even than our physical needs, our drive for security, our need for caring relations, and our need for social esteem. We are, Maslow suggested, ultimately in search of fulfillment in life. And with that longing comes thoughts of personal advancement and fears of personal failure. An appetite for personal meaning is the navigational north star of life for most of us.

Our experience, I’m sure, affirms Maslow’s scheme for the most part. But some Christians will insist that he missed a counterpoint displayed in Jesus of Nazareth and some of his kin. Jesus was wholly other-centered: always moved by his Father’s love. His interests were bound up in his bond with the Father—in a responsive love—so that the purposes of his Father defined his own purposes. And his responsiveness, in turn, elicited his Father’s pleasure: “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” The eternal glory of the Triune God was and is his mutual love. And so it was that in his coming into humanity the Son brought with him this divine impulse.

In other words there is at least one human whose life offers a counterpoint to Maslow’s thesis. And with that there are, in fact, two options, not one, in explaining human motivations. The two motivations, in turn, extend to produce very different ways of life.

This isn’t a small matter. We realize, too, that Maslow’s view is well affirmed in Scriptures. From Adam onward we find an ambition for self-fulfillment: in Cain, in Laban, in the early Abraham, the early Jacob, in Reuben, in Samson, in King Saul, in Pontius Pilate and in myriads more. But there are also Bible counterpoints: Enoch, the later Abraham, the later Jacob, the converted Paul, and many other followers of Christ. The very point of the Bible, then, is to display the contrast of two possible motivations in life: the self-concerned life and the God-concerned life. Ultimately there are just two masters and we, in turn, serve either one or the other.

My point in noting Maslow is not to engage Maslow specialists, nor to use his assessment to target non-Christians, but to probe what it means to Christians. Here’s the question: does a person who claims to know Christ really know Jesus if he or she isn’t bonded to him in the way he was bonded to his Father. Jesus made that point in John 8:42, “If God were your Father you would love me . . .”

Maslow’s singular point, we should note, precludes any middle ground: a “neither self nor God” as an ultimate motivation. His only mistake was that he was too narrow and too human when he ignored the second option: a delighted-response-to-God’s-love.

Too many Christians, I fear, think Maslow was right: believing that we can treat benefits of the Triune God as great assets in our quest for self-fulfillment. And in that quest we make God a mere servant to our personal ambitions.

Jesus knew better. His earthly ministry really served to polarize religious people while he hardly addressed the truly irreligious. The religious leaders in John 5, for instance, were cut off at their spiritual knees when Jesus charged them with faithlessness because, “I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (v.42). The number of books published, papers presented, and titles achieved only served to bond these Jewish Bible college professors to their quest for personal success—a quest aimed wholly in the wrong direction.

So now, here’s a challenge for any readers who consider themselves Christians but who also want to reach Maslow’s pinnacle of self-actualization. Read the entire Bible through in a month or so and pay special attention to the simple polarity that beats like a heart throughout the whole: there are those who “know that I am the LORD” and love him; and those who don’t.

Just two options. Please, go see for yourself if you don’t believe me. And then see if that won’t change what you find yourself thinking about.


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