Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) was a humanistic American psychologist. Many are familiar with his name due to his “hierarchy of human needs.” Maslow studied generally healthy humans and observed that there are certain needs humans have, and he arranged these needs in a hierarchical structure.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is most often presented in a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom. Once needs on the more basic level are met, a person can move up the pyramid to focus on higher needs. Maslow referred to the first four levels of needs as deficiency needs—people’s behavior is motivated by lack of these things. The bottom level contains physical needs (e.g., food and water and, according to Maslow, sexual fulfillment). The next level is security needs (e.g., safety and stability in one’s environment). Next come love and belonging needs (e.g., relationships with family and friends) followed by esteem needs (e.g., self-esteem and respect from others). At the top of the pyramid are growth needs, which Maslow termed as “self-actualization.” The idea here is that, when the basic needs are met, people have the desire and ability to grow and realize their full potential.
Maslow’s hierarchy has been criticized, refined, and expanded upon since he first put forth the theory in 1943. The most common critique is against Maslow’s methodology—observation of individuals, mostly male, whom he deemed to be self-actualized. The method he used is inherently biased, and, with a limited sample size, findings may not be applicable cross-culturally or for all ages and genders. Maslow admitted that not all the lower-level needs must be met for higher-order needs to come into view. He also said that some needs are more pressing than others given the individual and the circumstances. For example, one person might be more motivated by esteem needs than by belonging needs. Maslow also said that behavior is multi-motivated and often determined by a combination of needs rather than just one.
Despite the criticisms, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs remains popular in psychological education, the business world, and other fields that attempt to understand human motivations and development. The concept makes intuitive sense—after all, a person who is starving is likely to care more about finding a meal than about developing a friendship.
Biblically, we know our deepest need is for relationship with God, which comes only through salvation in Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Of course, our spiritual needs for forgiveness and a relationship with our Creator are missing from Maslow’s pyramid.
The Bible would certainly not refute our needs for physical provision, a sense of safety, a sense of love and belonging, or a sense of worth and respect from others. However, the “growth need,” as interpreted in secular psychology, is based on a denial of man’s depravity and the false notion that mankind is basically good.
So, most of the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are valid, although most people have a hard time distinguishing “needs” from “wants.” From a biblical perspective, our most pressing need is for Jesus and the Truth of God. While being tempted in the desert, “Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”’” (Matthew 4:4). This statement from our Lord seems to explode the base of Maslow’s pyramid: our basic needs are not physiological, but spiritual.
Paul talked about being content in need and in abundance (Philippians 4:12–13)—he did not require his basic needs to be met before he ministered to others. Believers should also question the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: is our goal “self-actualization,” or is it Christlikeness? Also, must we really have our physical/social/emotional needs met in order to be godly/Christlike? Agape love chooses self-sacrifice and seeks to fulfill the needs of others first. Agape love puts one’s own needs last, not first (1 Corinthians 13:5). “Value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3–4). The whole pyramid of Maslow seems to crumble when placed next to Scripture.
The true human needs found in Maslow’s hierarchy can be met in God. We see in Exodus that God amply provided for the physical needs of His children. We see in the Psalms and in the life of Elijah times when God’s people felt alone, yet God sustained them. We also see times when God’s people have been disrespected or humiliated, yet they found their hope in Christ. Maslow saw human needs as being met in earthly ways, but we know that, even if those needs are met, life can still be “vanity” (see the book of Ecclesiastes). And we can be bereft of earthly fulfillment yet still find satisfaction in Christ.
Again, Scripture acknowledges that humans have certain needs, many of which are found in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Christians should compassionately seek to meet the needs of others. Our attempts to speak spiritual truth may go unheard without a physical component that matches that truth. Meeting people’s earthly needs while withholding the gospel will do little of eternal value. Conversely, presenting the gospel while neglecting people’s earthly needs will also do little of eternal value. James speaks to this in his passage about faith without works being dead (James 2:14–26).
In the Gospels we see Jesus meet people’s physical needs by providing things like food and healing. He also spoke to their fears and gave them a sense of security. He recognized the outcasts of society, which speaks to their need for love and belonging. Jesus, as our Creator, is aware of our every need. He is able to meet our every need, including our need for forgiveness and wholeness. Jesus put things in perspective and set the priority: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [the basic necessities of life] will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:33–34).