You may or may not have heard of it before. But Maslow’s hierarchy of needs[i] is a popular theory to explain what we human beings require to live full lives.
It’s usually pictured as a pyramid. And, as you can see, the most important, basic stuff is at the bottom. And it works its way up, building one on the other.
As you can see at the bottom is the most obvious—Physiological needs. Air. Food, water, clothing, shelter. All that necessary fuel and other stuff we need merely to stay alive. Can’t do anything else without it.
The next most important thing on the pyramid is safety. Once our need for food and shelter, etc. is satisfied, we turn to this need. We need comfort. We need to know that a bomb isn’t going to fall on us tomorrow. Finance, health. Stability.
Next is love and belonging. We need family, we need intimacy, and friendships. We need to feel loved. Cared for.
Next up is esteem. We not only need to feel loved and cared for. We need to feel respected. Valued, recognized. We need to feel like we’re important, that we matter to ourselves and others. We need to feel good about ourselves.
And finally, self-actualization. After all the others, physical needs, security, loving relationships and esteem. Once all of those basic needs are met. Then… that’s when we can start reaching our full potential. We can accomplish and achieve our passions, our life goals and the like. When all of the basics are covered… then we can finally start to become our true selves.
It all makes pretty good sociological sense. Because it really does reflect conventional wisdom on how to live a good life. Once we have food, shelter and water. Then we can concentrate on security and safety. Find a decent paying job or go to college or university to we can get one. Once we have that, then it’s time for relationships. Once things are all in place and secure, buy a house. Start a family, pension. Start on retirement savings and investments. Get in the right career lane so we not only feel secure, we feel useful, like we’re contributing (the esteem thing). And then, at some point, the hope is that we’ll then be able to search for meaning. To find fulfilment.
Build one need on the other until you get to the top of the pyramid. It’s our pattern for prosperity.
Which, of course, makes today’s scripture reading sound all the more ridiculous.
Jesus, it says, calls his disciples, and a huge crowd of hangers-on together. And he offers them the following teaching:
“If any want to become my followers,” he says. “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“For those,” he says. “Those who want to save their life will lose it. And those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Remember how I said this scripture sounds ridiculous? It sounds ridiculous because it basically flies in the face of how we envision the good life, the right life.
Where we tend to believe that the way to a full life is through physical needs, then security, then relationships, then esteem, then self-actualization. Jesus sort of inverts the whole pyramid.
Deny yourself, he says. Put your own needs in the backseat. Take up your cross, embrace suffering—don’t run away from it. Be willing to give away everything you’ve got, up to and including your own life, and that’s when you’ll finally inherit the real treasure. Be willing to alienate friends, family and neighbors, and become a social outcast. Give up your ego, give up your comfort, give up your life to suffering and possible death. All for my sake and the sake of the gospel. That’s the real way to self-actualization, to the fullest life you can live. And it’s shaped less like a pyramid, Jesus says. Less like a pyramid you build. And more like a cross you carry.
And, of course, Jesus isn’t just giving instructions. Just before this teaching Jesus took his disciples aside and told them “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” If they wanna take part in his resurrection, they’ll have to take part in his suffering. And his death. He’s not just giving instructions. It’s the pattern that he himself will follow. Gotta join him on the cross.[ii]
Like I said, it sounds ridiculous. Peter thought it was crazy. When Jesus said that his arrest, suffering and death were unavoidable on the way to his resurrection, Peter gave him a dressing down. He took him aside and rebuked him. “You know how bad this is going to be for morale? Or for the Sunday collection? Tone it down already.”
I mean, could you imagine me coming up to the pulpit every Sunday and telling you that you needed to deny yourself, to give yourself up to suffering and possible death. And that’s the only way you can be truly alive?
It’s at this point in the sermon where my instinct is to pull a Peter. To try to sugar coat Jesus’ words. To explain them to take of their edge, try to give a better interpretation. To get between us and Jesus to try to get Jesus to tone it down. What he really meant was this, not that. But Jesus says to me the same thing he says to Peter: “Get behind me Satan.” “You’ve got your mind set on human things. You’re worried more about Maslow’s pyramid than you are the divine truth I’m bringing you.” Outta my way.
It’s a harsh saying, it sounds ridiculous according to the way we understand the world and envision life in it. But in the end, Jesus tells us the truth.
All those things that we strive for in life with the hope of happiness, fulfillment, self-actualization. None of them will ever come through for us. Everything we’ve been taught by conventional wisdom. Everything that’s been promised to us via commercials, billboards or advertisements is a lie. Because even if we gained the whole world, Jesus says. Even if we’d met every need on the pyramid, even if we filled our bellies, our bank accounts, and our beds with everything we’d ever wanted. Even then… we’d still find ourselves empty. We’d never be fully alive.
Jesus tells us the truth. He shows us the truth, he embodies the truth. There is something, someone intangible, without which, without whom, we will never be satisfied. And that is the love and mercy of the living God. Something that we can’t find through all of the conventional methods of acquisition, success or achievement. But we can only receive it by opening ourselves to the difficult, risky, and sometimes painful path of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. In emptying ourselves in patient, self-giving love for the love of God and sake of neighbor. In putting our priorities behind Jesus’ priorities without fear of judgment or ridicule. The only way to receive this gift of new life, eternal life, life in the full, is by yielding our needs for comfort and security to Jesus’ demands on us. Giving our whole lives over. Dying to ourselves, in order to be raised to new life.
It sounds crazy. But we know it’s true. Deep down inside we know it’s true.
It’s true. And that’s what makes it so scary. An overwhelming, seemingly impossible to-do. But the good news is that it’s less a “to-do,” than it is an orientation, a way of life we’re gradually invited further and further in to. The great preacher Fred Craddock puts it like this:
“We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1000 bill and laying it on the table—‘here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’
But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here, 50 cents there.
Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents a time.”[iii]
Following Jesus isn’t done in one single, fell swoop of self-sacrifice. Though it certainly may be. But for most of it it’s a way of life that’s taken up, one we learn over time. Eugene Peterson, appropriating Frederick Nietzsche calls it “a long obedience in the same direction.”[iv] One we take on, one small act of trust at a time. A daily path of dying and rising. Yielding a quarter here, a quarter there, day-by day. Until the account of our own self-interest is emptied for good. To be filled completely by God’s Spirit.
And the other good news is that, we’re not in it alone. Following Jesus was never meant to be, nor could it ever be a solo spiritual project. We’re meant to carry the cross together.
The church is what my friend and mentor Ed Searcy calls the “School for Saints.”[v] One where we learn the Way of Jesus, by taking gradual steps on the Way of the Cross together. One where we set aside a couple hours of one day each week to worship, to prioritize our spiritual lives over temporary goods. One where we give away our money for the common project of the kingdom, so we train our economic muscles to spend more of our money on making a difference in other peoples lives than we spend on cable or Starbucks. One where we take time out of our busy lives to help each other out when we’re sick or in need, so we can learn to sacrifice our spare time and energy to ease each other’s burdens. And one where we learn to welcome strangers, people who aren’t like us, with the fullest love and compassion so we can learn to give ourselves away in love to people who the world thinks are unloveable.
And when we do, we might not feel full-blown spiritual ecstasy at first. But each time we’ll get a glimpse of that self-actualization, that fullness of life we long for. A little taste of true joy. I know that a lot of you know what I mean. A little sneak preview of heaven, that total freedom of self-giving love. One that will make us want it more and more until it becomes second nature to us. As crazy as it may be. And counter-intuitive as it may sound. We know it’s true.
Brothers and sisters. Fullness of life, true life, life as it was meant to be, isn’t found in all the places we’ve been taught to look. We won’t find it in a hierarchy of needs, nor a stairway of success. What we all are looking for, what we all are seeking, is only to be found in the cross of Christ, in The Jesus Way. The way of self-sacrificing, self-empyting, self-giving love. In giving ourselves up. And in giving our lives away. Daily dying to ourselves, and rising in new life. As strange as it may seem. As difficult as it may sound. And as hidden as it may be.
So, may each of us, may each of you be given daily the courage to
Take up your cross, and follow Christ,
think not till death to lay it down;
for only those who bear the cross
may hope to wear the glorious crown.[vi]
[i] I’d learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs in university. But the image and other information was gleaned from that font of all wisdom: Wikipedia.
[ii] “Since the disciples participate in the ministry of Jesus, they must also learn to share in the suffering of the Son of Man.” Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 621.
[iii] Quoted in Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” 629.
[v] Edwin Searcy, “School for Saints,” on his personal blog Holy Scribbler https://holyscribbler.blogspot.com/2011/10 /school-for-saints.html