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Thursday, 26 February 2015

Temptations, needs and fulfilment

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who is best known for creating a hierarchy of needs. ‘This is a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization.’ At the bottom of the hierarchy are the basic needs of human beings; needs for food, water, sleep and sex. Maslow’s model works as a hierarchy because a pressing need must be mostly satisfied before someone will give their attention to the next highest need. The other levels of his hierarchy include: safety; belonging; esteem; exploration; harmony; and self-actualization.

The temptations which Jesus faced in the wilderness (Matthew 4. 1 - 11) can be mapped onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The first temptation is about his basic need for food – ‘command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ Jesus responds by, in effect, saying that his basic needs have already been met. As a result, the final two temptations come higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, being to do with the need for esteem.

The temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple is about the temptation of celebrity; in this case, gaining esteem by undertaking a sensational act. The final temptation is about the gaining of esteem through the exercise of power and wealth – the kingdoms of the world and all they offer in terms of wealth, power and worship are offered with the only price paid being the worship of someone other than God.

Jesus essentially responds to each temptation by saying that God is all he needs. Whatever our human needs may be – basic, safety, belonging, esteem, exploration, harmony or self-actualization - Jesus is clear that God meets and fulfils every need as we make him central to our lives.

Maslow observed normal human behaviour and used his observations to create his hierarchy of needs. The temptation to put the focus on ourselves and our needs as we go through life is strong in each one of us. Maslow sees that and designs his theory accordingly.

George Monbiot, in a recent article, says that we have built our society on our need to have our individual needs met. He writes that individuation – the focus on the meeting of our individual needs - ‘is exploitable’ and therefore social hierarchies have been ‘built around positional goods and conspicuous consumption.’ As a result, ‘we are lost in the 21st century, living in a state of social disaggregation that hardly anyone desired but which is an emergent property of a world reliant on rising consumption to avert economic collapse, saturated with advertising and framed by market fundamentalism.’

Jesus turns this on its head by putting the focus on God. Maslow says that what matters is that our needs are met; making us the central players in our own drama. Jesus says that God has to be central. It is when we put him first that everything else falls into place and we have the sense that all our needs are met in him.

In the wilderness, Jesus was hungry, was living in obscurity and was both poor and lacking in influence. Although his basic needs and his need for esteem were not met in human terms, nevertheless, because God was central to his life and being, he was fulfilled despite his evident lack of food and esteem.

In his second letter to the Church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 1. 3 - 11, 4. 8 - 9), St Paul writes of being so utterly, unbearably crushed that he and his colleagues despaired of life itself, but were consoled in their affliction by God. As a result of this consolation, though afflicted in every way, they were not crushed; though perplexed, they did not despair; though persecuted, they were not forsaken; though struck down, they were not destroyed. In the same way as we have seen with Jesus and his temptations, the testimony of Paul is that despite their needs not being met humanly, the centrality of God to their lives meant that they were fulfilled nevertheless.

So where is our focus in our lives? Do we do what Maslow observed was common to human beings and focus on the meeting of our needs - putting ourselves and our needs first - or are we turning Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on its head and making God central to our lives, our thinking and our actions? Our choice will determine whether we, as consumers, continually chase fulfilment throughout our lives never fully finding what it is we seek or alternatively, as Christians, come to know fulfilment even when the needs which Maslow noted are not met as he envisaged.


Vineyard Worship - Jesus, Be The Centre.

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