Messenger July-August 2017
"Be warm and well-fed": James 2: 16 and Maslow's hierarchy in the context of pastoral care
By Drew Melton
‘Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace. Keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?’[i] This is one of the clearest examples in the New Testament of a recognition of what Abraham Maslow called the hierarchy of human needs. In a simple explanation, Maslow theorised that some human needs, especially the strictly biological needs, are more basic and require satisfying before higher needs (i.e., psychological, spiritual) could be addressed. The author of James seems to recognise this in his instructions on matching faith with deeds. The implication in James 2.16 is that a person who is in need of food or clothes would not be able to achieve peace until those physical needs are met. For this reason and others that will be explored in this essay, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and theory of self-actualisation provide valuable insights for pastoral care and counseling in a church context.
Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow was a 20th century American psychologist whose work sits squarely in the school of humanistic psychology and counseling models. His theories considered human persons holistically, taking into account biological, psychological, and even spiritual motivations within a person. Because of this, ‘Maslow’s theory has the virtue of attempting to capture the importance of both the physiological and the sociological, the intrinsic and the extrinsic, in a single theory.’[ii] His understanding of human psychology is similar to Carl Rogers’ and other humanistic psychologists’, and so actualisation is seen as the primary force in the human personality.[iii] However, Maslow’s difference to Carl Rogers and other humanistic psychologists is his insistence that a hierarchy of needs is satisfied on the path to self-actualisation.[iv] While it will be helpful to explore Maslow’s ideas about self-actualisation briefly, the primary focus of this essay will be on Maslow’s hierarchy.
Ray Colledge posits that it was Maslow’s great contribution to psychology to fit the idea of actualisation into a hierarchy of needs or motivations. These needs fall into five categories, and will be considered beginning with the most basic.[v] The first, and most foundational, set of needs is the strictly biological—the need for food, water, and oxygen. The second set of needs may be called ‘safety’ needs—shelter from dangerous elements, boundaries (especially for children), and physical security. Third are the needs of belonging and love, which includes desires for relationships, the sense of group identity, and the need for community support from other human beings. Fourth are needs for self-esteem, a sense of value, worth, and positive sense of self. Finally, the highest need is for self-actualisation, which refers to ‘a drive or tendency evident within all organic and human life to grow, develop, mature, and thereby actualize or realize the potentialities of the organism and the self.’[vi] This hierarchy first appeared in Maslow’s paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ (1943).[vii] For Maslow, it is necessary that lower (or more foundational) needs be met before higher needs can be addressed. However, there is a fluidity and integration amongst the individual needs. Sometimes more than one need (or level of need) can be met with a single action.
Ministry Examples and Critique of Maslow’s Hierarchy
The basic premise of Maslow’s hierarchy brings into stark reality a difficult ministry issue in Cambridge. The population of homeless and street-life people in Cambridge has steadily grown over the past few years, and it is a city issue that has been in local news and the topic of city council and charity trustee meetings in recent months. For us as a city centre church, there is a particular pastoral care need and outreach opportunity to be addressed. In the spirit of James 2.16, Maslow’s theory of meeting more foundational needs before speaking to higher psychological needs provides a good model for our church addressing this issue. We must find ways to minister to homeless and street-life people in their most foundational needs, such as food, shelter, help with substance abuse, etc. But we also have a mandate and calling to proclaim the gospel to the community around us. These two ministries can be done simultaneously, but we should be mindful that any proclamation of good news will fall on deaf ears if not accompanied by a tangible concern for the basic needs a person has.
The application of Maslow’s hierarchy to our practical outreach to homeless and street-life people in our community illustrates one of the interesting elements of Maslow’s psychological research. Maslow focused his research on people he considered to be psychologically healthy, particularly those he saw as having characteristics such as ‘self-acceptance and acknowledgement of others, openness, autonomy and independence, and compassion with strong moral and ethical convictions.’[viii] This fact prompts the question, Does Maslow’s ‘hierarchy’ theory also imply the inverse? In other words, if the basic physiological needs must be met before a human will address the higher needs such as safety and security, then does it also follow that those who have not yet met the basic physiological needs will ignore the need for safety and security? A person who is at the point of starvation or extreme thirst might completely ignore the danger of drinking from a pool of water from an unknown source. That water might contain bacteria or poisons that would be detrimental to the person’s health in the medium/long-term, but the short-term, more basic need prevails. Similarly, someone who suffers from substance abuse problems might ignore or even negatively impact other needs in search of satisfying their addiction. These considerations, too, must be brought to bear on our models of outreach to people on the streets of our city.
An understanding of who Maslow considers ‘psychologically healthy’ is helpful for making some connections with Christianity, but opens an avenue for critique as well. Maslow emphasises ‘the capacity for goodness, creativity, and freedom within people’ partly because he ‘recognised people as spiritual, purposeful, autonomous beings’.[ix] These are clearly good qualities that ought to be encouraged in people. However, it also must be emphasised that ‘The Christian tradition asserts that we need the community of faith which is empowered by the Holy Spirit and that it is within the body of Christ that potentialities for human wholeness can be realized by the calling forth of each member’s gifts.’[x] This communal aspect of Christian faith is more developed and essential than the need for belonging and love recognised in Maslow’s hierarchy. Roger Hurding levels a cogent critique of Maslow’s theories from a Christian perspective, particularly picking up on the self-directedness, independence, and individuality that Maslow values in his ‘healthy’ subjects.[xi] Such an emphasis certainly has a danger of leading toward narcissism. Howard Clinebell offers a corrective to the tendency toward narcissism by speaking of a ‘wholeness-nurturing spirituality’, which maintains Maslow’s holistic understanding of human personality, but which adds that the satisfaction of self-actualisation needs makes a person ‘aware of their oneness with the whole living universe, including humankind, the biosphere, and the divine Spirit’.[xii]
Another critique of Maslow’s understanding of human needs may be explored. To do so, it is helpful to consider a personal example from my own ministry. For some people, the different levels of need in Maslow’s hierarchy can become inextricably intertwined. This is especially true for ministers and those whose life’s work is connected to the church. For these people, the sense of calling and need to fulfill their purpose—needs we may categorise at the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy—are tied to the need for financial stability and provision for self and family. To be sure, this is true in a way for every Christian because we believe that God is creator, sustainer, and provider, and so every need is met by God. But it is particularly acute for those employed by the church. Maslow recognises a fluidity within the hierarchy and the possibility of meeting more than one need with a single action, but the interconnectedness of needs present in a minister’s life is a significant counterexample to Maslow’s theory that more foundational needs must be met before higher needs. Might it be that fulfilling one’s sense of calling, of ‘self-actualisation’, also puts food on the table?
The idea of finding self-actualisation in connection with God is well-developed by the Christian thinker Thomas Merton. Peter Morea states, ‘Merton regards the search for self as inseparable from the search for God.’[xiii] Merton has a well-developed sense of how ‘putting off the old self and putting on the new’ can be viewed through a psychological lens, and more specifically through the lens of self-actualization. Merton holds that a person’s true self is found only in God, and so true self-actualization is a rejection of whatever false or fraudulent self is in us and a search for our new self, which is within us all along, waiting to be revealed.[xiv] It is at this point that we can critique both the humanistic understanding of self and self-actualisation, and its Christian expression found in Merton. In the New Testament, there is a consistent teaching in which grace, mercy, forgiveness, even faith, are all gifts from God and, therefore, are things that come from outside ourselves. It is a very helpful notion that Merton emphasises—and one I’ve used quite often with young people—that our true identity is found only in Christ. However, the notion that that identity is somehow lying deep within us, waiting to be revealed in some way, is not something we see taught in Scripture. Instead, Christ and his Spirit live in us from the moment God calls us and we respond in faith, and it is from that moment that we begin the process of sanctification—of becoming more and more like Christ. Sanctification seems a better model for translating self-actualisation into a Christian understanding of human development.
If Merton were to talk about the image of God, and the fact that it exists in every human, as the core of the true self, then perhaps this would have some merit. God created us in God’s image, and we may find that we are only ‘fully human’ when that image is fully restored, absent of anything—sin and death—that mars or distorts it. For the Christian, perhaps by looking at life through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and conception of self-actualisation, and by understanding self-actualisation in conjunction with the Scriptural concepts of sanctification and the image of God, we can have hope that self-actualisation will happen for us in the fullness of salvation and restoration that comes with Jesus’ return and the redemption of all creation. It is then that sin and death are fully and forever defeated and we are brought into unmitigated unity and relationship with Christ.
In sum, Maslow’s ideas are insightful in helping us to understand how we might minister to people at every level of human need. We must recognise that everyone, especially those who might be seeking God, needs to be ‘warm and well fed’ before they may be receptive to our message of peace, hope, and satisfaction in God. But Maslow’s theories also fall short of fully explaining human personality,[xv] especially from a Christian perspective. Particularly the tendency toward narcissism inherent in the emphasis on self and a self-directed journey toward actualisation, and the limits of the ‘hierarchy’ portion of Maslow’s theory provide openings for Christianity to offer a more holistic understanding of the human personality.
L. Parrott, ‘Motivation’ in Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling
, Rodney J. Hunter, Gen. Ed. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1990), p. 761.
Ray Colledge, Mastering Counselling Theory (
Macmillan: Houndmills, 2002), p. 128.
D. L. Silver, ‘Self-actualization/self-realization’ in Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling
, Rodney J. Hunter, Gen. Ed. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1990), pp. 1126-27.
The following description of Maslow’s hierarchy is adapted from class notes for the course Pastoral Care and Counseling, delivered by Martin Stokley on 6 March 2017.
B. Houskamp, ’Maslow, Abraham’ in Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling
, Rodney J. Hunter, Gen. Ed. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1990), p. 691.
Roger F. Hurding, Roots & Shoots: A guide to counseling and psychotherapy
. Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1986), p. 154-55.
Howard Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling: Resources for the Ministry of Healing and Growth
(Abingdon: Nashville, 2011), p. 228.
Peter Morea, In Search of Personality: Christianity and Modern Psychology
(SCM Press: London, 1997), p. 66.
Hurding, pp. 148-49, points out that Maslow himself began to show some recognition of the limits of his theories toward the end of his career. Maslow shows some development towards recognising the limits of humanism and towards a more spiritual or transpersonal understanding, and so provides something of a bridge between humanistic psychology and transpersonalism.