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!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Needs & Neediness - Part 2

Editor's Note: this is a long and fairly technical article, mostly due to the complexity of the subject, and the logic and Biblical studies involved. I have highlighted the more edifying or devotional parts in red. For readers who are not particularly interested in all of the details, you may find it useful to skim through and read the red highlights.
Editor's Note #2: This series was written in response to a question posed by Barry Wallace at this post. Although I'm going to argue my case strongly, I still respect Barry's opinion and won't be surprised if he disagrees with me. I could be wrong. But let the reader take all of the evidence into consideration and make his or her own decision. We're working on a sub-point here, not the essentials of the Gospel or the basics of Christian orthodoxy - although those things certainly play a part in the discussion. And I have no doubt that Barry and I would be in perfect harmony regarding those matters.
Editor's Note #3: Sorry for the way this looks. There are a ton of bugs in the new blogspot text editor, and I can't get it to format correctly to save my life. I've decided to give up on the aesthetics and just post this the way it is.
In part 1, we established some of the linguistic parameters of the word "need."

1. A "need" is defined by its associated purpose. (for example, I need light in order to see)
2. We can only legitimately use the word "need" when there is a clearly defined relationship of dependency between the subject, the object, and the purpose. (for example, my eyesight depends on light, and without light it is impossible for me to see - SUBJECT: Eyesight; OBJECT: Light; PURPOSE: Seeing).
Now I will attempt to show how and why these linguistic parameters - and Scripture - make the concept of "emotional needs" an illegitimate illusion. At the same time, I am going to be very careful to affirm that we have real needs similar to those usually touted as "emotional needs." Thus, it's not surprising that so many people embrace the emotional needs model of human behavior. The aim here, however, is to apply very precise Biblical thinking to the topic.
What is an "emotional" need? 
First, let's look at how secular psychiatrists talk about emotional needs (note the purpose and dependency in these statements) . . .
. . . our emotional needs often define the finer points of our relationships. Psychologist Dennis Sugrue says we must acknowledge those emotional needs before we can find someone who can fill them. "A need for intimacy, for sexual gratification and satisfaction, a need to be honored and understood and even accepted by our partner, these are all important aspects of who we are. Each of us has our own way in which these needs must be met in order to feel happy and secure" says Sugrue , an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School . . .  (Source:
But the happiness and security of a Christian come from God, not another person. Professor Sugrue apparently recognizes a potential problem with the psychological view and goes on to say this . . .
"If you are looking to a partner to make you feel worthwhile, to make you feel happy, to rescue you from a bored or unhappy life, if you are seeking someone to make you feel complete or whole -- well then you have some work to do, because these are needs that are never going to be met by any one other than yourself." (Source:
So, what distinguishes emotional needs that should be met by others from "work" that we must do ourselves? The professor does not elaborate on this distinction. Notice that the focus in this approach is on the assumption that one needs to feel a certain way and must depend on others to make this happen.
Now let's look at the approach taken by a Christian psychologist, Dr. Willard F. Harley, who authored the well known book, His Needs, Her Needs. Dr. Harley offers the following definition . . .
What is an emotional need? It is a craving that, when satisfied, leaves you with a feeling of happiness and contentment, and, when unsatisfied, leaves you with a feeling of unhappiness and frustration. There are probably thousands of emotional needs. A need for birthday parties, peanut butter sandwiches, Monday Night Football, I could go on and on. Some people have some of those needs while others have different needs. If you feel good doing something, or if someone does something for you that makes you feel good, an emotional need has been met. (Source: 
Now, that's a broad definition! Note carefully the number of Biblical references used to support this astounding claim. According to Dr. Harley, you and I are just brimming with oodles and oodles of "needs" all the time. We're slaves to our "cravings" and whatever makes us "feel good." And apparently the people who have the misfortune of being in proximity of demanding black holes of "need" like us are supposed to be fulfilling our cravings continually. 
A Few Problems . . .
-The term "emotional need" implies that in some way I depend on emotions. This is a huge problem, because reliance on emotion for anything is a road to disaster. Emotions are unstable by definition, and we must avoid every inclination to become dependent on them. Being reliable is not the job of an emotion because it is designed to be an effect rather than a cause.

-The term "emotional need" also implies that some legitimate (i.e. God-ordained and God-sanctioned) purpose can only be fulfilled after the presence of specific emotions has been established. This again is a huge problem, because it makes a legitimate purpose, for which man bears a responsibility, dependent on something that is inconstant (and often downright volatile) by definition.

We should grant, a la John Piper, that emotions play a key role in some of the commands God has given us. After all, how does one "shout for joy" without the involvement of feelings? However, we must not think the source of these Biblically mandated emotions is outside of God and His Word. Nor are these commands to be interpreted as beginning with emotion. Nor may we ever say that God commands us to make another person feel a certain way; rather, we are commanded to choose, think and do things which will inevitably result in particular emotions becoming increasingly present in us. As a specific focus for this article, we will show that obedience to marriage-related commands is never in any way dependent on emotions.
Note: we are not minimizing the significance of feelings. Rather, we are attempting to view them in their proper Biblical role, as intended by their Creator - nothing more, nothing less.
What's the Purpose?

It has been said that a man must love his wife because this is her greatest emotional need. As a corollary, it has been said that a woman must respect her husband because this will meet his greatest emotional need. Let's examine these claims carefully.
If I have a legitimate need for respect from my wife, what is the related purpose, and is it true that this purpose cannot be fulfilled in any other way than by a feeling that she is respecting me? In other words, what is the purpose of marriage, and how is it fulfilled? Clearly, the primary purpose of Christian marriage is to illustrate the Gospel, the story of Christ's love for His Church. For this purpose to be fulfilled, there must be several things: one man and one woman, for starters. There must also be love. And there must be respect. No problems there. But there must also be some disrespect, and there must sometimes be a lack of love. I'm sure I've just shattered someone's dream. Sorry, but it's true. I'll try to explain . . .

Does my wife's occasional (or extended) disrespect nullify the ability of my marriage to reflect Christ's love for His Church? Certainly not. Rather, it makes the picture that much more real, and it provides me with an opportunity to express an even greater love than I ever could if my "emotional need" for respect was continually and perfectly being filled. Christ died for a Church that had NO RESPECT for Him, and rather chose to kill Him. That is ultimate disrespect, and yet it is an essential element of the Gospel story. Christ died for sinners, evildoers and wretches. And if we didn't continue to struggle with sin after conversion, we would surely swell up with something even worse: Gospel-shrouding pride and cross-stifling self-righteousness!
Does my occasional (or extended) failure to effectively show love for my wife nullify the ability of my marriage to reflect the Church's high view of Christ? Certainly not. Rather, it makes the picture that much more real - not because Christ fails in any way to love the Church, but because the Church so often doubts her Lord's love for her. My very real lack of love for my wife elicits in her the same opportunity for faith and obedience that is produced in the Church whenever she feels that Christ's love for her is inadequate (though this feeling is unwarranted). Under suffering and strain, believers become fearful, and we sometimes lose sight of the imperishable love that undergirds us. But faith continues on through these times, through the dark night of the soul and on into the renewed brightness of morning. Eventually we rediscover the undying love that was always there. Likewise, a wife finds great blessing in Christ as she perseveres under the sufferings wrought by a hard-headed and hard-hearted husband (to be clear, I am not speaking here of abuse, but unfulfilled desires).
So, rather than diminishing the Gospel picture that is portrayed through Christian marriage, failures in love and respect become occasions for the Gospel to shine that much brighter! The trouble with the "emotional needs" teaching is that it implies I must feel Christ's love in order for the Gospel's purpose to be fulfilled in my life. It implies that He must feel my respect in order for the Gospel's purpose to be fulfilled through Him. And I am woefully incapable of producing those feelings in Him!
I am grateful that Christ loves me faithfully even when I fail to respect Him. I am grateful for the times I have continued to trust Him, even though I didn't feel His love. I am also grateful for the times I have been able to love my wife in spite of her struggles with submission. And I am exceedingly grateful for the Gospel's work in her, enabling her to respect me even when I have fallen terribly short of the mark in my love for her.
There is a very legitimate and real need for love and respect, in order for the Gospel picture to be portrayed in marriage, and there is also a legitimate need for their opposites. Without failure there can be no illustration of grace, forgiveness, and growth. The positive side of this equation is provided by God Himself, and the negative side - the failure - is supplied by us. Taken together, all of this paints the very best picture of the Gospel. None of this has anything at all to do with the emotions produced in one spouse by the conduct of the other. In fact, it is precisely at the times when I don't feel respected by my wife that I am most tempted to sin against her - and it is precisely at these times that my demonstrated love for her, springing from a reliance on God's grace and not from a dependence on my emotions, is most powerfully portraying the Gospel. In short, the ability of my marriage to illustrate the Gospel depends more on God's grace than it does on my emotions. In fact, with God's grace in view, my emotions become quite irrelevant to the purpose of marriage.
Emotional needs are neither legitimate nor real. They simply do not exist, because there is nothing Biblically essential that depends on the feelings generated by my response to another person's actions. Scripture calls me to obediently love my wife, with or without a feeling of respect from her. It calls her to respect me, with or without the feeling that I love her. This is why Ephesians 5 contains marital instruction in the form of commands, and not a single mention of emotions or feelings. 

With all of this in mind, let's consider this text, which might be considered definitive on the topic of needs:
II Peter 1:1-4 Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust (Gk. EPITHUMIA - more on this word later).

The clear implication is that there is no legitimate purpose pertaining to life and godliness for which the ultimate dependence is on anything other than God and His Word. Relating this to our discussion, the respect of my wife is a product of God's work in her through the Gospel, and my love for her is also produced by His love for me.  A Biblical marriage is one in which both partners are drawing strength and comfort directly from God, and then sharing the benefits of that relationship with one another. Union with God is primary, marital union is secondary. The alternative is idolatry. 
There is no problem with saying, "A Christian marriage cannot fulfill its primary purpose without love from the husband and respect from the wife." God's marriage plan involves many legitimate needs and purposes. The husband is needed. The wife is needed. The Gospel is needed. Love is needed. Respect is needed. The fact that these components are needed is Biblically true and undeniable, and there are purposes and dependencies tied to each of them. But to call any of these components an "emotional need" is another thing entirely. Emotions aren't needs and needs aren't emotions.
Biblical sanctification is intended to change our basis of decision-making from an emotionally-oriented pattern to a command-and-promise-oriented path. It is designed to lead us away from a focus on what other people aren't doing for us, and toward a discovery of what we can and should do for them (in response to what He has done for us). Indeed, a lifestyle in which we "take up our cross daily" assures us that we will suffer. When I stop depending on my wife's respect - and the wonderful feelings I have when I am basking in the glow of it - I get the privilege of dying to self and finding a new life in Christ. This is the life of divine power and grace that is sustained by heaven's authority and is free from the uncertainties of earth-life. I must not demand that my wife fill me up with good emotions, for she is as undependable as I am. Relying on God means there is abundant supply and nothing essential is missing, ever. I have to die to my idolatrous dependence on her, and live in full dependence on Him. If the feeling that my wife respects me is not an "emotional need," what is it? The last word from the passage quoted above is not there by accident. That which corrupts the world also corrupts man's understanding of psychology - and it corrupts good marriages, too.

Distinguishing Needs from Desires

Bear in mind that Dr. Willard F. Harley defined emotional needs as "cravings." This is the perfect word for what we falsely call "emotional needs." a "need" and a "craving" are two entirely different things. Anything I need in order to create a feeling is nothing more than a craving! There is a huge difference between a legitimate spiritual or physical need and the mere "craving" of a sinful heart.

Let's compare the two:

Needs are a matter of fact. Desires are a matter of will.
Needs are objective. Desires are subjective.
Needs are fixed by purpose. Desires are subject to change by the whims of the human heart.

Knowing the difference between the two is essential, but certain universal sinful tendencies lead us to confuse them.

Idolatrous desire/lust/coveting (a.k.a. craving) leads us to think of mere desires as needs. For example: "I need a cigarette."
Self-sufficient Pride leads us to think of actual needs as mere desires. For example: "I don't need God!"

For believers, legitimate "needs" are of no great concern, for we have a Great Father who cares for us with great affection. Consider our Lord's reassurances in this regard . . .
Matthew 6:8 ". . . your Father knows what you need before you ask Him."
Matthew 6:31-32 "Do not worry then, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear for clothing?' For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things."

On the other hand, dealing with our "desires" or "lusts" (a.k.a. cravings) is a key theme related to Christian growth in the New Testament. Consider these examples . . .

Mark 4:19 . . . but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires (Gk. EPITHUMIA) for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.
Romans 6:12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts (Gk. EPITHUMIA)
Romans 7:8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting (Gk. EPITHUMIA) of every kind . . .
Romans 13:14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts (Gk. EPITHUMIA).
Galatians 5:24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gk. EPITHUMIA).
2 Timothy 2:22 Now flee from youthful lusts (Gk. EPITHUMIA) and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
2 Timothy 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but {wanting} to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires (Gk. EPITHUMIA) . . .

It is significant that the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) uses the word EPITHUMEO for "coveting" in the 10th commandment (cf. Romans 7:7). EPITHUMEO is the common Greek verb for "to lust" (i.e., have strong desire for something, not necessarily sexual). EPITHUMIA is the equivalent noun.
Addressing an Objection
A significant objection to the view presented here is this: if man is made up of physical, spiritual, and emotional components, and there are clearly defined and Biblically legitimate physical and spiritual needs, doesn't it follow that there can be (yea, should be) emotional needs as well? While this objection sounds entirely plausible, it is grounded in a mistaken view of the psyche and therefore draws a false conclusion.
The word "psyche" comes from the Greek word PSUCHE, which means "soul." Psychologists are students of the soul, and are therefore dealing in an area of concern directly addressed by the Bible. They typically disagree with God's Word and are therefore flat wrong. But let's examine Scripture's view of the PSUCHE, or the "psychology" found in Scripture. 

Biblically, man is divided into two parts: material/physical and immaterial/invisible. The material/physical part is called the "body," while the immaterial/invisible part is called "soul" and/or "spirit." Some like to divide these into body and soul/spirit (two parts - known as the dichotomist view), while others are inclined to divide them into body, soul, and spirit (three parts - the trichotomist view). There are also other views, but our purpose is not to address these hair-splitting questions, for only the Word of God is a razor sharp enough to divide between soul and spirit. Perhaps there is a paradox in this.
Generally speaking, Scripture refers to the inner man, the immaterial/invisible part, as the "soul." When we speak of spiritual needs, we are talking about the needs of the inner man, the soul (or the soul/spirit, if you will). The inner man contains the three aspects of personality: mind, emotion, and will. The mind perceives, the will decides, and the emotions respond. To whatever degree there are legitimate, Biblical needs associated with these, they fall under the banner of spiritual needs, and they are all meant to be fulfilled by God Himself. Seeking another source is the essence of idolatry, and this is typically the path that is followed in the "emotional needs" paradigm offered by modern psychologists and Christians who adhere to their ideology.
Emotions are indicators of our thought processes and circumstances. They are the thermometer of our heart, as it were, while our minds and wills are the thermostat. In this analogy, our circumstances can be compared to the weather, and our hearts to a very inefficient HVAC system. Our minds and wills can be perfectly sound, but our emotions drag along, responding to yesterday's events or last week's pressures, or last year's life-altering event. Our minds and wills could be in outright rebellion to God's command, but our emotions might not figure it out and begin processing the facts until tomorrow. Or we may merely think of doing right or wrong, and find our feelings pulling us powerfully toward acting on those thoughts. But no matter how you slice it, emotions aren't needs and needs aren't emotions. Our need is not so much to experience particular emotions, as it is to pay attention and understand the effects they have upon us, and then to crucify the depraved desires which would lead us to idolize emotional experiences. As powerful as these emotions and desires are, the mercy of God is our only hope in this. So, rather than preach about emotional needs, preachers ought to feed us with the Gospel and lead us more and more to Christ as our ultimate and eternal Source of everything.

NOTE: If you read this entire article, give yourself a pat on the back and some much-needed (oops! I mean rightfully-desired) rest.


  1. Derek,

    This is a magnificent effort. I agree with all of you major points and I commend you for allowing that we have legitimate emotions, and also for reminding us that we are to be governed in interpreting these by what God has revealed in His Word.

    I liked your point about how God is absolutely trustworthy to provide for our true (real) needs through His providential care, as He promised in numerous ways. I would only add that we must trust God to be at work providing what we really need even when appearances seem to contradict it. He is the ultimate judge of these things.

    And your illustration about how the negative things that can happen in marriage help us to see Christ more clearly (through faith) is spot on.

    Er, where did you get the lead graphic from?



  2. Tony,

    Your comments are (as always) appreciated, and your added note about the need to trust God is an important and needed one. Faith IS the victory that overcomes the world.

    I swiped the "Fasten Seatbelt" graphic from somewhere on the internet, but it wasn't your site. Now that I think about it, I have seen this on Agonizomai, haven't I? Funny that we would pick the same one.

    Grace & peace,


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