Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Sowing Abraham's Seed (Part 3): Maslow & Marriage

In the initial post in this series I said that many popular Christian authors, particularly those who write on the subject of marriage, presuppose a view of personality and motivation bearing a strong resemblance to that of Abraham Maslow's. I also claimed that Maslow's thinking has so saturated American culture that it often serves as the silent and invisible framework through which we read the Bible and understand ourselves as Christians. Instead of helping believers cultivate sorely needed discernment by critically assessing Maslow's philosophy of life from the perspective of a biblical worldview, many Christian authors assume his diagnosis of what ails us and then force Scripture to conform to it. The gospel, if it is mentioned at all, is then offered as the solution to a problem that someone other than Jesus has defined while the problem that from God's perspective is most critical is viewed as being of little practical value to the issues with which we struggle. 

In this and following posts I wish to illustrate the phenomenon, citing examples from popular Christian books on marriage. Before I proceed, however, I want to plainly state that my criticisms are not intended in any way to call into question the faith of any of the authors I'll mention. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of their commitment to Christ or to the institution of marriage. I think all of them are devoted to doing all they can to aid couples in strengthening and protecting their marriages and for this I am grateful. Unquestionably, zeal for marriage is a good thing. Zeal not tempered with biblical truth, is not.

Traces of Abraham's seed can be detected in a book recently recommended to me - For Women Only: What You Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men by Shaunti Feldhahn. As the title indicates, the book is intended to help women better understand the men in their lives. But this is not an end in itself but a means to a greater end. Feldhahn tells her readers, "The more we understand the men in our lives, the better we can support and love them in the way they need to be loved. In other words, this revelation is supposed to change and improve us" (emphasis in the original, p. 20). The book is based on the results of a survey of hundreds of men who were asked about their desires, fears, aspirations, dislikes, etc. I've heard from a few women that it has been an eye-opener for them and from my own reading I can understand why. On more than a few pages, I recognized myself in the descriptions of men's inner lives. Despite the following criticism, I think this small volume has much merit and can be instrumental in fostering greater understanding.

The reservation I have about the book, however, is that the author concludes from the fact that many men deeply desire the respect of their wives that this desire constitutes a need; a need that if unfulfilled, results in undesirable behavior. According to Feldhahn, "A man deeply needs the woman in his life to respect his knowledge, opinions, and decisions - what I would call his judgment" (p. 29). This male "need" for respect and affirmation is "so hardwired and so critical that most men would rather feel unloved than disrespected or inadequate" (p. 22). From her use of the word "hardwired" I take Feldhahn to mean that this need is a given of creation in which case we cannot but conclude that it is good.

As far as I can tell, Feldhahn nowhere considers the possibility that the desire to be esteemed may at times be so domineering that it is perceived as a need when in actuality it is better described by the biblical concept of lust or ruling desire. Is it not possible to want a good thing so much such that I experience frustration, discomfort, and anger if I can't have it? It shouldn't take much reflection on any of our parts to think of a time when that was so for us. Another question. Does the fact that I act badly when I don't get what I want prove beyond question that I need what I long for? Amnon, desirous of his beautiful half-sister, Tamar, "was so tormented that he made himself ill" (2 Samuel 13:2). But would anyone conclude from his adverse reaction that his craving for Tamar constituted an actual need?

The answer to that question is obvious, of course. Amnon was driven by sexual lust, something clearly proscribed by Scripture. But what of good desires -- wanting my wife to respect me? Is it really possible to lust after something with which God is pleased? I don't know of a better treatment of the New Testament concept of lust than that offered by David Powlison in a book titled The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel (Moody, 1996). In a chapter called "How Shall We Cure Troubled Souls?" Powlison states that we have drastically thinned the New Testament's thick teaching about lust so much so that:

...."lust" has become almost useless to modern readers of the Bible. It is reduced to sexual desire. Take a poll of the people in your church, asking them the meaning of "lusts of the flesh." You will find that sex appears on every list. Greed, pride, or gluttonous craving might appear in the answers of a few of the more thoughtful believers. The marquee sins of the heart appear, but the subtleties and details are washed out. And a crucial biblical term for explaining human life languishes (p. 211).

In response to the question of what makes a desire sinful, Powlison writes:
This question becomes particularly perplexing to people when the object of their desire is a good thing. Notice some of the adjectives that get appended to our cravings: evil, polluted lusts (Col. 3:5; 2 Peter 2:10). Sometimes the object of desire itself is evil: e.g., to kill someone, to steal, to control the cocaine trade on the Eastern seaboard. But often the object of desire is good, and the evil lies in the lordship of the desire. Our will replaces God's as that which determines how we live. John Calvin put it this way: "We teach that all human desires are evil, and charge them with sin -- not in that they are natural, but because they are inordinate." In other words, the evil in our desires often lies not in what we want [e.g., respect from my wife] but that we want it too much. Natural affections (for any good thing) become inordinate, ruling cravings. We are meant to be ruled by godly passions and desires. Natural desires for good things are meant to exist subordinate to our desire to please the Giver of gifts. The fact that the evil lies in the ruling status of the desire, not the object, is frequently a turning point in counseling (p. 212).
Isn't it odd that such a prevalent biblical theme as lust or sinful desire plays only a supporting role (if it gets any stage time at all) in some of the most popular Christian books while the concept of emotional needs (which at least at first glance don't seem to be prominent in the Bible) gets top billing? Like other authors on the topic, Feldhahn seeks to ground biblical support for the "women need love and men need respect" model in Ephesians 5:33: "However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband." But this doesn't seem to me to be what the verse, considered in its context, is getting at. I suspect that this commonly held interpretation of the verse is due to our adopting Maslow's hermeneutic for interpreting people.

Next, drawing from Feldhahn and others, I want to discuss the implications of this view for our understanding of the nature and cause of sinful behavior. 

Oh, in case anyone's wondering, I haven't overlooked the question someone asked in response to Part 2. It's an important one that I intend to address in a future post. Your patience is greatly appreciated.

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