In 1954, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that human beings possess two sets of fundamental needs. He organized those needs into a pyramid, with the most base needs at the bottom. He then divided the pyramid into deficiency needs (the first four levels), and growth needs (the highest level).
At the bottom, the absolute base, are physiological needs – things like air, water, food, shelter, and the like. After that come safety needs. These are things like resources, employment, and personal security. The very next level are the needs of love and belonging. In other words, and according to Maslow’s hierarchy, as soon as a person has the basic necessities the very next thing they need is love. They need friendship. A sense of belonging. Family.
We know that is true, even if we have never studied the hierarchy. We know it’s true not only because of our own experience; we know it because of the place Jesus gave love in terms of the greatest commandments:
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:35-40).
Of all the commandments within His reach, Jesus grabbed two that centered on love. Love of God, and love of people. And so Maslow, was in a sense, also affirming what Jesus has known from the beginning – the vital importance of loving and being loved to a person’s well-being.
If you were to say, then, that the most important thing in the church is loving other people, you would probably get a lot of head nods in agreement. And though it is vitally important, it is not in fact the most important thing.
By way of another example, consider the conversation Jesus had on the beach with Peter. They had this talk after the cross, and after the resurrection, but also after Peter’s denial of Christ. These few words would set the stage for the remainder of Peter’s life, and this conversation, too, revolved around love:
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15).
Peter would go on to be the preacher of Pentecost and one of the first leaders of the early church. He would write letters we have recorded for us in our Bibles. And here we see Jesus sending him out on that mission. It was a mission largely about these “lambs,” those that would come to believe in Christ in the future.
But notice that Jesus’ command was not to love the lambs. Three times He went back and forth with Peter but not once did He tell Peter to love the sheep. Now why might that be?
It is not because love for others is unimportant; it is because love for others is presented in the Bible as a byproduct of something else.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God, because God is love. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:7-11).
Do you see it? There is a definite chain of events that happen when it comes to love. The last link in the chain is that we love others. Back up on, and you get that we love God. And then back up to the beginning and you find that God loves us. Put it in reverse order and you find that God loves us. We love God. And we love others. Though they fit in concert with one another, the order matters, and it matters greatly.
Yes, love for others is important. Vitally so. And yet it is not the most important thing. To treat it as such is to get the cart before the horse, and will always end up in an exhausted supply. But when the chain is linked? When our love for others is flowing from the truth of God’s love for us and then our love for Him? That is a chain not easily broken.