James (Steve) Clay, MABC, LPC
Author: James (Steve) Clay, MABC, LPC

The newly married couple came to counseling seeking a better marriage, citing that they have frequent conflict, which they cannot seem to resolve. Talking only seems to make matters worse, as it seems neither of them listen to the other. She tells him that what she needs from him is to be heard, understood, and cared about. He tells her that she needs to give him respect and affirm the decisions that he is making. Both are caught up in expectations of the other, much of which stem from what they consider as “unmet needs.” Each looks to the other to fill a void believed to be necessary for responding to the other in appropriate, loving ways. This couple, common as they are, is caught in a dilemma. Both believe the other must meet his or her needs in order for them to be happy together, but both also believe that they cannot give to the other until their own needs are met. At best, each will try for a while to meet the other’s needs, but with a sense of expectation of reciprocity. Is this the way God designed us to relate? Are we a bucket of needs waiting to be filled in order to give to others what God commands we give?

The beginning of the problem is the notion of needs. What are our real needs and how are they met. Much of what we call needs may really be something entirely different. One thing is for sure, as our needs multiply, so does our worship and fear of people. People become idolatrously big and God becomes belittling small. Anxiety increases with the feeling of the possibility of unmet needs, and anger swells when others fail to meet them. God’s presence is eclipsed with the notion of need-meeting people. This is where many relationships go wrong, especially marriage.

From where did all this nonsense about needs proliferate? A cultural (popular) view of people is that we are built (hardwired) as a receptacle that holds needs. These needs are a long list clustering around love (relationship) and significance (acknowledged worth). When these needs are not met, we feel empty—because we are empty. These are, therefore, labeled as emotional needs.

Several Christian theorists add another dimension—Christ can fill these emotional needs. They then posit that people sinfully seek to meet these needs outside of Christ through various means. This model makes Jesus a “need-meeter” of emotional needs. Christianity gets reduced to another version of emotional therapy. For those who hold this view, a sinful belief is: “If ______________ would only ___________, then I would/could __________.” In other words, people are responsible to take care of my emotional needs if I am to do right. The stated biblical belief is: “Since God takes care of my emotional needs, I am secure and significant. I can, therefore, do the right thing.” At first glance, this view seems plausible, perhaps even strongly, because it so fits with our internal experience. It just kind of feels right, doesn’t it? But is it?

What happens when we don’t feel that God is meeting our emotional needs the way we expect? What do we do then?

Let’s put needs in some kind of order. How can we categorize them?

    1. Biological needs—what we need to continue life
    2. Spiritual needs—what we need to get to heaven.
    3. Psychological needs—what we need/want from relationships to feel good


We would certainly admit that we need food and water for our physical lives to continue. And we need God’s forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness to get to heaven. But is there such a thing as emotional, or psychological, needs? Abraham Maslow sure thought so. He developed a hierarchy of them. And many in the mental health field would die on their swords to defend this notion. Where do Christians go in their attempts to prove that people have emotional needs that must be filled?  There are two prevailing views:

Trichotomous nature of man (proof texts: Hebrews 4:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:23)

  • People are body (physical), soul (emotional), and spirit (spiritual)
  • A biblical answer to this proposition: Scripture teaches that man is both material and immaterial—but does not support a three-fold aspect of man. We must find some other meaning to these texts.


Image of God in man

    •  What is similar in both God and man is a deep longing for relationship. Therefore, like God, we need relationship.
    • A biblical answer to this proposition: This theory of man suggests an incompleteness in God. However, his glory is greater when we realize that He really doesn’t need us to love him. Furthermore, which is our more fundamental problem: our emotional need or our sin?


A biblical response to the notion of emotional needs

Let’s begin with the question of God, since we are made like Him. Who is He? God is complete; He has no needs. God’s greatest pleasure is in Himself; anything else would be idolatry. God’s goal is to exalt Himself (Romans 11:36; Exodus 15:11). God deserves praise simply because He is God—not because He meets needs. Praising God is one way our real needs are met. In other words, we have a need to worship God, to praise Him, because we are made in His image. God’s character is expressed in many biblical metaphors and images: loving bridegroom, feast-giver, loving redeemer, judge, advocate, father, mother, submissive son, servant, counselor, friend, shepherd, physician, creator, potter, etc. When we act well in these rolls, resembling God, our actions glorify Him and demonstrate our “likeness” to Him. Jesus perfectly expresses the image of God in man (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:3).

Now, who are we? People are most similar to God when He is the object of their affection and worship. People are made to reflect the glory of God (Exodus 34:29-32) as they come into His presence, and by the indwelling presence of His Spirit by faith (2 Corinthians 3:18). The essence of imaging God is to rejoice in His presence, to love Him above all else, and to live for His glory alone. This forces us to wonder which question is really most relevant, “How can I bring glory to God?” or “How will God meet my emotional needs?” The image of God is seen in simple acts of obedience, loving God and loving our neighbors (Matthew 22:37-40).

So, what do we really need? We do have biological/physical needs. We are sinners who have spiritual needs. We were created as people with limited gifts and abilities. All the gifts of God are not contained in any one person. Therefore, we need other people in order to accomplish God’s purposes and most accurately reflect His ultimate glory. This means that we need to love rather than we must be filled by another’s love. To love another is not because they need love, but rather there is a need in us to reflect the character of God in showing love. We love not because people have the need for love, but because God first loved us.

To be created in the image of God means that we are like God in every way a creature can be like Him, to the praise of His glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). God has given us gifts to serve rather than need to be served.

So, what does the couple in conflict need? They need to realize who God is and know what He has done in their behalf. They need to seek Him for all that they need, for He is a loving Father who gives good gifts of Himself to His children. They need to realize how much of their emotional cravings are rooted in and strengthened by sin. They need to trust their cravings less and the truth of God’s word more. They need to seek God for the restoration of His image in them (Romans 8:29-30). They need to seek Him for help in imaging Him well in all they do, but especially in their relationship of marriage. They need to realize that their marriage is another image—that of Christ and His church. They need to seek to live with one another in such a way that Christ is exalted in the picture they portray of Him to one another and a lost world. They need to jettison the ideas that they have emotional needs that have to be filled, and rather look to Jesus to enjoy the fullness of life that over-flows to one another.

Our greatest need is taken care of in Jesus. The rest is a matter of faith in the promises God has made to us. Let’s stop thinking about unmet needs  and begin looking to Jesus and all that God has done and will do for us in Him.


*Much of the material for this short work came from Dr. Edward Welch’s book, When People are Big and God is Small.