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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – a Christian Perspective

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I first came across the term Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when, at the age of twenty-four, I studied at the Damelin Management School. I encountered it again at the WITS Graduate School of Business eight years later. By then I had incorporated it into my approach to management and leadership, but I had begun to realise its limitations for a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I will set out briefly what Maslow meant by his hierarchy of needs, but I want to spend much of your reading time on its Christian implications.

The Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Harold Maslow (1908 – 1970) was a psychology professor at Brandeis University and Colombia University and a prolific writer and speaker. He did not present his theories of human motivation graphically, let alone as a pyramid, but today his theory is usually set out in the form of a layered pyramid.

Maslows hierarchy of needsSelf-actualization needs cover personal potential, self-fulfilment, and personal growth

  • Esteem needs include self-worth, accomplishment, and respect.
  • Belonging needs are the desire for relationships and group membership.
  • Safety needs are for order, predictability, and control.
  • Physiological needs are biological requirements for minimal human living

The basic idea is that people need to satisfy most of their basic needs most of the time before they are motivated to pursue higher needs. In other words, people need to be reasonably well-fed, hydrated, warm and rested within a secure and safe environment before they bother much with psychological needs, let alone with self-fulfilment.

Sociological Perspective

To put this into a current sociological perspective consider the following:

People who do not have enough to eat and a place to stay will focus their energy on acquiring food and shelter. If they cannot do this legally, and without harming others, they may satisfy these basic needs through some form of crime unless the state or private citizens provide them with help (social grants, charities etc.) Once they have these needs met, people will seek to provide some form of permanence to their situation. They will require liveable housing within an environment where they are protected (housing schemes, shared accommodation etc.). It is easy to see from this that job creation becomes paramount for society and government. Poor people ideally need to provide basic and safety requirements for themselves as only this will provide a viable long-term solution to the problem of poverty.

Once basic needs are met, people will deploy their remaining resources seeking to belong to a group (family, community) and in developing close relationships with others. Gangs and cults provide an attractive yet highly destructive means to these ends. Gangs in particular provide their members with basic and psychological benefits at the cost of legality and moral corruption. They even provide a perverted form of self-esteem and respect.

The socially acceptable and legal path to esteem for most people is through hard work, economic success, and achievement in any number of fields of endeavour. Hence the societal obsession with career, winning, fame and wealth.

There have been several criticisms of Maslow’s theories of motivation, but it remains a reasonable way of understanding how we function both as individuals and as societies. Where my problem lies is with the concept of Self-actualization, the capstone of his pyramid. This is the point where this article will, hopefully, become more interesting to you as a Christian.


Maslow described Self-actualization as ‘the person’s desire for self-fulfilment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.’ He refined his thinking over several years and qualified the concept of Self-actualization to include seeking fulfilment and change through personal growth and discovery throughout life. He believed that people are always “becoming” and never static.

The pyramid way of presenting his theory suggests that self-actualization is only something that motivates once all lower needs are met, but this is not what Maslow taught. This qualification brings inconsistency into the model; if the top of the hierarchy is present in all other levels of need motivation, then why should this not apply equally to, say, esteem or safety needs? However, from a humanistic point of view, I can see how a person can only really devote focus and energy to self-actualization once he is free of striving to fulfil lower-level needs.

My real problem is that, as with most secular models, the needs hierarchy stands on the assumption that a human can, within itself, realise real self-fulfilment. It makes no room for a divine source of human worth.

Later psychologists added a further level to the needs pyramid by topping self-realisation with what they call Transcendence. The article in ‘Simply Psychological’ explains this expanded concept as follows: ‘A person is motivated by values that transcend beyond the personal self. Beyond self-actualization.they represent the human desire to connect with a higher reality, purpose, or the universe. This level emphasises altruism, spiritual connection, and helping others achieve their potential.

Individuals seek experiences that move beyond personal concerns, aiming to achieve a deep sense of unity, understanding, and belonging within the vast expanse of existence’. Now, this gets us a step further towards truth, but why can’t they just say ‘God’ rather than ‘higher reality’ or ‘the universe’? And what about citing Jesus who consistently taught and modelled an other-oriented life.

True Self-actualization

I do not believe that transcendence is something we attain apart from God at any level of human need. When people come into a saving relationship with God through the rebirth of the Spirit, then they become new creations and their primary identity becomes ‘child of God’. Consider the following passage of scripture:

Galatians 3:26-4:7 “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father”. So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.” Note the final verse “so you are no longer a slave, but a son.

So then, true self-actualization comes through knowing who we are as children of God and the realisation that our worth and fulfilment is sourced in him. What is more, we can experience this at whatever ‘level’ we are in the pyramid, whether we are in the process of satisfying basic or psychological needs. We do not have to ascend to the higher levels of the motivation pyramid before experiencing self-fulfilment; it is not the pinnacle of development, but rather a potential reality throughout all of life.

Biblical Examples

The book of Ecclesiastes records King Solomon’s attempts to self-actualize.  He fully exploited the possibilities of life, from the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy to the top. After all this, there was only one thing he had to say: “Have reverence for God, and obey his commands, because this is all that man was created for”.  Ecclesiastes 12:13 (TEV)

Of course, as usual, the Lord Jesus was the perfect example of living in the knowledge of who he was in the Kingdom of God. Words that grip me every time I read them are: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:3-5).


Whilst some of what I have written might have been interesting to you, the one big takeaway is that no matter what level in the pyramid we are engaged with, the thing that gives it all lasting meaning is the sense of who we are. If we are born again of the Spirit, then our identity is a son or daughter of God, followers of Jesus complete and worthy in him.  With this understanding, we can find meaning and peace no matter our current circumstances or levels of need.

‘As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”  “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” ‘ (2 Corinthians 6:16-18)

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