Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Needs & Neediness - Part 1

Editor's Note: I suppose the recent post on "Hogwash, Bad Hermeneutics and Psychology" was provocative. This article will go a little further in explaining exactly what might be wrong with an "emotional needs" approach to marriage, relationships, and life in general. This is a more or less formal response to a good question asked by Barry Wallace in response to the earlier post.

Affirming Neediness

Neediness, in-and-of-itself, is not a bad thing. God made us needy. He made us to need, more than anything else, HIMSELF. This was true even for Adam before the fall, when he enjoyed the blessedly pure life of innocence. God had made him naturally dependent on God, and the entrance of sin only proved that dependence. This has caused all sorts of problems for us, because when we reject God we start stuffing all sorts of other things into the big empty void of neediness that was designed for Him to occupy. He made that spot for Himself, but we've filled it with everything good and bad that isn't God. It's called idolatry, spiritual adultery, and (more generally) sin. Grace found in repentance is the wonderful path back out of this accursed situation, and grace is especially reserved for the needy. It is offered to the poor in spirit, those who break under the weight of sin, and those who come to God in abject defeat and total surrender. It's for the lowly and it's for the broken-hearted and it's for the needy. This kind of neediness is explicitly called "blessed." (Matthew 5:3-6). Interestingly, the words "hunger and thirst for righteousness" in Matthew 5:6 are an expression of want-and-need in perfect harmony. We're blessed when we finally begin to want what we need.

So, neediness is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very good thing. God made us needy so that we would be continually drawn to Him. This is effectively illustrated by the way our children are born in utter helplessness. What a magnificent bond is formed as a baby learns to receive EVERYTHING from its parents. It's part of the reason why we must be born again, and why we are instructed to become like little children.

Defining Neediness

The idea of "need" is built on two related concepts: dependency and purpose. In other words, for anything to be a "need," it has to be something on which the needy one depends, and it has to have some legitimate purpose tied to it. Neediness implies a relationship of dependence and a purpose to be fulfilled. The legitimacy of the need is determined by the legitimacy of the purpose and by a clearly defined relationship of dependence.

Some things are needs by definition, but are not tied to a legitimate purpose. For example, I need alcoholic beverages in order to get intoxicated - but that doesn't make alcohol one of my legitimate needs. I would have to need to get drunk for that to be the case. Often a need is merely assumed, but the legitimizing factor (an established relationship of exclusive dependence) is missing. For example, I think I need my job in order to make ends meet, but in actuality it's money that I need (and if we take it a step further, it's not even money I need, but the food and shelter and other things I buy with the money). I think I need a car in order to get to work, but that's not true - I only need a means of transportation (it could be a bus, a bicycle, or even my two feet). Let's consider a few more examples of apparent needs for the sake of discussion . . .
  • My wife needs food and water in order to live.
  • My guitar needs strings in order to make resonant music.
  • My car needs oil in order to operate properly.
  • My friends need my encouragement in order to fight sin.
  • My cell phone needs a battery charger in order to operate continuously over time.
  • My driveway needs to be swept in order to look nice.
  • My mind needs a steady dose of Scripture in order to maintain Biblical thinking.
To qualify as a genuine need, the subjective purpose has to be truly dependent on the object.
  • My wife can't live without food and water (at least not for very long).
  • My guitar can't make resonant music without strings (at least not in any way I can conceive. It does make a fairly good sounding drum, though).
  • My car can't operate properly without oil (although someone may be able to suggest an alternative to oil that works just as well).
  • My friends can't fight sin without encouragement (but they can get this encouragement from many different places, not just from me).
  • My cell phone can't operate continuously over time without a battery charger (and a battery, and a reliable source of energy, and a person to plug it in - needy little device, eh?).
  • My driveway can't look nice (in my opinion) without being swept (although there might be an alternative option - what about spraying it down with water?).
  • My mind can't maintain Biblical thinking without a steady dose of Scripture (although the dose can come from many different sources: reading, listening to the Bible, sermons, reciting from memory, a friend's encouragement, emails, even blogs).
As you can see from this list, defining actual needs can be tricky and complicated. Often, we imagine needs where they don't exist, and it requires a logical process of deduction to drill down to the actual dependence and purpose involved. Who ultimately determines whether my driveway needs to be swept? Who decides that it looks nicer that way? What are the consequences of not sweeping a driveway? It isn't going to crumble to pieces because there are a few leaves on it. Ultimately, I determine the driveway needs to be swept because I want it swept. This one is purely a matter of compulsion driven by opinion (that's another way of saying desire), and there's no real need here at all. Maybe I just "need" to be less picky about the appearance of my property.

On the other hand, my wife's need for food and water is undeniable. She can't live without these basic essentials. Our central and most defining need is equally clear and unquestionable: GOD.

Man's need for God is radical. We depend on Him for our very existence. We depend on Him for everything related to our existence. Apart from Him we can neither exist nor exist well. And it's not actually what God provides that we need the most - it's God Himself. This truth is foundational.

Acts 17:28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.'

In part 2, we will examine the differences between needs and desires, explore the way purposeful dependence relates to our emotions, and we will attempt to further define God's appointed means for the meeting of our various legitimate needs.


  1. Hey, Derek. I guess I'll kick off the discussion again.

    I assume you infer from all of the passages that command us to exhort one another in our fight against sin that we genuinely need encouragement in that fight. I think that's a fair inference. It also seems to me to be very much like the inferences Eggerichs and others make from Eph. 5:33, that wives need love from their husbands and husbands need respect from their wives, which (so far) I still think are fair inferences.

    Or am I understanding you wrong? Thanks, brother.

  2. Barry,

    This post was getting so long that I decided to break it into a few parts. I haven't yet begun to explain why I don't think the emotional needs approach is the best way. I have only laid a basic foundation for how the word is used linguistically. So I won't try to offer a direct answer - yet.

    The challenge this post makes is this: "If you are going to call love and respect from a spouse needs, you have to define the purpose and the dependency related to those needs." In other words, I need respect from my wife for what purpose? Anything can be a need, but what exactly is the purpose of her respect for me - a purpose for which I depend on her and no other? For what purpose in my life is her respect an essential component?

    I only have questions so far, but we're moving in the direction of an answer.

    Next, I'll try to explain why the language of needs is not a strictly legitimate way to describe roles in marriage.

    Yeah, I know, this is basically a non-answer.


  3. Non-answers are sometimes the best answers! I want to press my original question a little further, though. Would you say that you've making an inference about the need for encouragement from the commands to encourage one another? Is that not roughly what's being done with the Ephesians 5:33 passage?

    On to your main point, though: I don't think it would be too hard for me to pinpoint several specific reasons that my wife needs love from me and I need respect from her. One of the most basic may be that when those needs are met we are both better equipped to fulfill the purpose of marriage--to be an accurate reflection of the gospel.

    I look forward to your next post.

  4. Barry,

    You make an interesting argument here. I'll have to think further about this. Scripture certainly teaches interdependence, as you're pointing out, and yet it also teaches personal responsibility. A paradox, perhaps? Well, if it is a paradox, I will want to explore it to the furthest extent that wisdom and time allow.

    I hope the follow up post isn't a disappointment . . . but I'll try to address all of the issues, including what you've brought up here. This may turn into an entire series before we're done!


  5. Barry,

    Thinking a little further about this . . . I want to turn the tables.

    I was basing my reasoning about needing encouragement to fight sin on Hebrews 3:13.

    "But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called 'Today,' so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."

    There appears to be a clear statement of purpose and dependency in this verse. It seems to be saying we need encouragement from others in order to fight sin. But I'm not so sure now that I've thought further on it. What if it's saying I need to encourage others so that I will not be hardened by sin's deceitfulness? In other words, the very act of encouraging others softens my heart. That's a paradox, too, but a very different one, and I've seen and experienced this often.

    Ultimately, I can't blame my hardness of heart on my friends' failure to encourage me. But I can blame myself for failing to encourage them. This is not to say that I don't fight sin better when my friends encourage me, but it's not like my hands are tied and the Gospel no longer has any power in my life because a friend forgot to share his latest gleanings from the Scriptures.

    See what I'm saying? I'm questioning whether Hebrews 3:13 presents a relationship of absolute dependence, or if it's just my cultural conditioning that causes me to want to read it that way.

    Further, if I were to demand that my friends encourage me, and blame them for not doing it, that might be a clue to the state of my heart, revealing the fact that I've idolized something good - encouragement - and turned it into a false god.

    So I may have been mistaken on this point in the post. Those were supposed to be potential discussion points, and that has turned out to be the case.

    Thanks for the iron.


  6. Hey, Derek. I knew the verse that you had in mind, and I'm not sure that I think your original reasoning was wrong. We are interdependent, and there seems to be at least some sense in which we "need" each other (1 Cor. 12:21). I would say that interdependence is heightend and deepened in the marriage relationship, and that perhaps because we are especially vulnerable to one another in that most intimate of all relationships, the need to both give and receive love and respect in that relationship is legitimate.

    I'm not dogmatic about any of this, you realize; I'm just trying to think through it along with you.

  7. Barry,

    I know you're not being contentious, and I appreciate your tenacious intellectual pursuit of this topic. I don't even mind if we end up disagreeing here. It's a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-point in the overall Biblical Orthodox Reformed Conservative theological orientation on which we are so very much in accord. And you're not saying unbiblical psychology is legitimate. You're just challenging me to prove definitively that the "needs" terminology, in a specific application, is unbiblical. The whole topic is interesting and has practical value. And I'm having to examine some of my presuppositions along the way.

    I'll learn a few things from you about this, no matter where we end up. BTW - do you believe in a pre-trib rapture?

    Ha ha, just kidding, let's not even talk about THAT! (at least not right now).


  8. very interesting discussion on supposed needs. the danger is that what one thinks of as a need can then become a demand that the supposed 'need' get met by others. and our unmet expectations can bring resentments. and this is sinful. so the best possible thing i can do is get my eyes off of what others are doing, and focus on what i need to be doing, as difficult as this might sometimes be

  9. Jon,

    Very good insight here. You've just written Part 2 of the article - and in far fewer words than I will impose upon my poor readers.

    What you just said is pretty much where I'm planning to end up. But I want all the groundwork to be in place, and all the underlying reasoning to be explained. I'll have to sacrifice brevity for the sake of completeness. This may arise from an emotional need to do things thoroughly, or not at all (just kidding)!


  10. Derek and JD,

    I completely agree with JD's comment, but I don't think that line of reasoning has any bearing at all on how we define needs.

    I think that anyone could make the same demands and commit the same sins with regard to whatever you eventually call legitimate needs, and still end up with unmet expectations that can bring resentments.

  11. Barry,

    The rest of this article is slowly getting finished up and should be ready to publish soon. As I've been thinking through this more thoroughly, the following has come to mind: receiving encouragement may be a legitimate need with the related purpose of avoiding a hardened heart and fighting sin. However, a FEELING of encouragement (intangible, subjective) is NOT the same as the encouragement itself (tangible, objective). The feeling is nice, but it is only incidental. The real need is the encouragement itself. So, what I'm rejecting is not "having needs" per se, but calling emotional responses "needs." Emotions are too subjective and indefinite to be relied upon. I don't want to open a subtle means of excusing myself by saying, "My emotional needs weren't met."

    Also, I'm going to argue that any Biblically essential need is provided by God Himself - even if the means of meeting that need is a person. God provides the person, and when the person fails, God steps in and ensures that our needs are met.

    Anyway, this is where my thoughts are going on this.

    I am discovering that the issue is way more complex than I ever expected it to be. It's giving my brain a real challenge! Thanks again for thinking through this with me.


  12. Derek,

    The issue is complex, and the discussion is helping me to think through it, too (although I don't have much time to think about anything but having to teach twice on two different subjects this coming Sunday, which means that I probably won't be able to jump back into this discussion until some time next week).

    To be honest, I had never thought much at all about the issue before now, but I've become fairly convinced at this point that we have needs of every kind; physical, emotional, and intellectual. God created us as physical, emotional, and intellectual beings, and seems to have designed us to be dependent both on Him and on others (1 Cor. 12:21). In other words, need is an intrinsic part of every aspect of our creatureliness.

    Abruptly changing course here, I think there's been an over reaction to emotionalism in the evangelical world that often infiltrates our thinking in unhelpful ways. For instance, it seems artificial to me to distinguish between a feeling of encouragement and encouragement itself. The word encourage, according to the dictionary, means "to inspire with hope, courage, or confidence; hearten" or literally, I've been told, "to put courage in" to someone. Courage has a clear emotional component. To say that I need encouragement is to say that I need someone to put courage into me; to hearten and inspire me with hope; to strengthen my heart with words of grace.

    So, a more helpful distinction may be to say that I have a variety of needs, but that I have no right to demand that someone (or anyone specifically, including my spouse) meet those needs. My ultimate dependence for all of my needs, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual) must be on God.

    Do I need encouragement, do I need to have my heart, my affections (emotions) strengthened? Yes. Do I have a right to demand it or resent it when the need isn't met? No. Does my wife need my love? I would say yes. Does she have a right to demand it or resent it when the need isn't met? No.

    I'm thinking as I type, and flying to some extent by the seat of my pants, so I may completely revise my opinion in the next five minutes. For now, at least, this is where I stand.


Feel free to respond to anything written in the posts, or to the comments left by others. All comments are reviewed before they are published.

Please be charitable. If you disagree, do so with grace. Keep your words positive, focused, and on-topic. We don't expect everyone to agree, but we do expect everyone to treat everyone else with respect and grace, speaking the truth in love.