Thursday, July 14, 2005

Sowing Abraham's Seed (Part 2)

In the first in this series of posts I offered a brief sketch of Abraham Maslow's theory of human nature and motivation. Maslow's assumption of the inherent goodness of human nature led him to trace the source of what, from a Christian perspective, would be called evil or sinful behavior, to unsatisfied psychological needs. Evil is, therefore, a response to psychological malnutrition. Quoting again from the second edition of Toward a Psychology of Being:

"Evil" behavior has mostly referred to unwarranted hostility, cruelty, destructiveness, "mean" aggressiveness. This we do not know enough about. To the degree that this quality of hostility is instinctoid, mankind has one kind of future. To the degree that it is reactive (a response to bad treatment), mankind has a very different kind of future. My opinion is that the weight of the evidence so far indicates that indiscriminately destructive hostility is reactive, because uncovering therapy reduces it, and changes its quality into "healthy" self-affirmation, forcefulness, selective hostility, self-defense, righteous indignation, etc.
Contrary to the Bible, which attributes the corruption that is in the world to sinful desire (2 Peter 1:4), Maslow contended that cruelty and inhumanity owe their existence to deficiencies of love, acceptance, security, and respect. According to Maslow, deprivation, not depravity, is humankind's root problem. Stated that way, it's apparent how opposed his anthropology is to that of Scritpure. Nevertheless, as I said in my previous post, a lot of Christian counseling, teaching, and writing bears more than a vague resemblance to the humanist psychologist's model. Today I'll cite one example.

A recent World Magazine article called "The Secret Sin," focused on infidelity among Christian women. The article reported George Ohlschlager, director of policy and public affairs with the Association of Christian Counselors as saying that such affairs stem from numerous issues including marital or childhood emotional deficits and in some cases, a lack of spiritual maturity. According to Ohlschlager, many Christian women, "are not practicing spiritual disciplines, and are not really pursuing an intimacy with Christ that would go a long way toward filling up some of those emotional needs."

Notice the crucial role the concept of deficiency needs plays in this interpretation. Marital infidelity is not primarily the outward expression of powerful, misguided desires or lusts. It is, rather, a response to "emotional deficits." What is most fundamentally responsible for the sinful behavior is an inadequate meeting of psychological requirements. A major problem with this kind of diagnosis is that it is operating with concepts and categories at odds with those of Scripture. Does the Bible ever account for sinful acts in terms of unsatisfied needs? Jesus identifies adultery as one of the various forms of evil that spring from the heart (Mark 7: 21-23) and doesn't even remotely suggest that this is due to some psychic lack. Sexual immorality is a manifestation of the desires of the flesh that war against the desires of the Spirit (Gal. 5:17-21). Maslow pictures the heart as a fragile plant in need of nourishment. I think the Bible pictures my heart more like the insatiable, carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors, demanding that it be fed and growing hungrier with every meal. If I commit adultery, or any other sin, the Bible doesn't lead me to ask what needs have gone or are going unmet. Instead, it shines its probing light upon my heart and asks, "What is it that you love, trust in, hope for, desire, or crave more than your Creator and Redeemer?"

Take note, too, of how when unmet emotional needs take center stage in our thinking about what motivates us, it transforms how we understand the purpose of spiritual disciplines, not to mention how we conceive of Christ's role in our lives. Without question, Jesus' followers should devote themselves to prayer and meditation on the Word in order to know Christ better. But is this really to "fill up" emotional needs? This is, in my estimation, a superimposition of an alien anthropology over the inspired texts. The beautiful, costly antique furniture of Scripture has been rearranged and pushed to the periphery to make room for a modern piece that doesn't match the decor.

Despite the pervasive assumption that destructive behavior is caused by unmet psychological needs, relatively few Christians consider what a need is and how it differs from an overwhelming want or what the Bible calls lust. Unfortunately, not many Christian self-help books raise those questions or help readers answer them. This is especially so with volumes on marriage. That will be the topic of my next post in this series.

In the meantime I urge you to read an in-depth article by Edward T. Welch called "Who Are We?: Needs, Longings, and the Image of God in Man." Welch surveys the history of need-based theory and critiques its adoption by Christian counseling.


Stephen (aka Q) said...

This is an interesting analysis of Maslow's psychological theory, and I've learned something from you today.

You write:

Without question, Jesus' followers should devote themselves to prayer and meditation on the Word in order to know Christ better. But is this really to "fill up" emotional needs?

Let's consider a hypothetical, concrete example. Imagine a girl whose parents have divorced at an early age. Her mother remarries some years later, but the stepfather doesn't make her children much of a priority, so he doesn't invest much in the girl emotionally.

I assume this is the kind of situation that might result in "unmet needs". The girl needs paternal care, affection, protection, affirmation, etc., and she hasn't gotten it. Her mom loves her, but she has been "set up" (if I may put it that way) to crave love from someone of the male sex.

Destructively, it could result in promiscuity, or committing to a relationship where she is treated badly, or demeaning herself in an attempt to procure male affection.

At least, that's a common psychological evaluation. So here's my first question: would you dismiss these "unmet needs" as imaginary or overblown, and attribute her self-destructive behaviour to the "sinful nature" she shares in common with all human beings?

If so, aren't you suggesting that there's no advantage to being raised in an intact, loving home?

Many pastors would counsel this young woman to seek her need for paternal love in God the Father. This might include reflection on his word and prayerful meditation on his presence and agape for her.

Which brings me to my second question. Is that pastoral counselling misguided and even evil? For that seems to be the thrust of your question, quoted above: that it is inappropriate to utilize prayer and meditation on the word to fill up the void resulting from the father figure who was AWOL during this woman's childhood.

To be transparent about my presuppositions, I am a liberal Christian, with more than a little theological knowledge. It's probably fair to say that I'm a rationalist in many respects (though true rationalists are atheists).

In my view, the pastoral advice I've summarized seems perfectly reasonable and constructive.

jc said...

I'm glad to have found this article that you linked to. Thanks, KP. I love finding Journal of Biblical Counseling articles.

jc said...

KP, How did you find that pdf article on the JoBC? Do people send you links? How do you hunt them down? In my bookmarks, I'm keeping all the journal articles that I find.

KP said...

jc, in this case I had read a hard copy of the article and Googled the title to see if it was available online. Fortunately, it was.

I own the JBC CD and encourage anyone interested in biblical counseling to purchase it. It's an invaluable resource. Another way you might try to locate JBC articles on the web is by creating a Google Alert for "biblical counseling" and/or "Journal of Biblical Counseling." You can create settings for regular searches of blogs and/or the entire web.

Nishantha said...
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