When Jesus Was Needy

The Blog That Speaks: When Jesus Was Needy

Cowboy on a horse in the wilderness.

Need is not a word that has an abundance of favor in our culture. The word quickly becomes even less palatable when the letter “y” is added. Now, I will shamelessly admit to my attempt to use an eye-catching ploy in the title by calling Jesus needy. Of course . . . if you are reading this, maybe my tactic worked.

(Thank you to Image by mstodt from Pixabay)

Yet, this is more than a simple attention-seeking ruse on my part. Perhaps (as this blog will attempt to argue) my classifying Jesus’ (and other human) behavior as needy is not a bad thing but a part of being human.

Our American culture tends to cringe at the idea of appearing needy. After all, a cherished part of our country’s heritage is the image of a cowboy, sitting alone on a horse in an expansive wilderness. The historical West was carved out on the backs of bold pioneers who braved the unknown to lay claim to a homestead on the vast, untamed prairie. Now, perhaps buried beneath the layers of our contemporary technology, there remains somewhat of a romantic notion of Me and my horse.

Advertisers, the students of American culture, seem to have understood this attraction. The longevity of the Marlboro man (I am dating myself here) seems to play this out. For thirty-some years, we saw a cowboy smoke a cigarette with his horse nearby.

While the days of being a cowboy have faded from the American scene, the systemic impact has not. The words “I have my rights” are a faint echo of that independent, cowboy spirit.

It is my right to vote . . . It is my right to carry a gun . . . It is my right not to wear a mask.

Personally, I get it.

I was raised in a culture within a culture that amplified the American independent spirit. My father was a farmer, and his father homesteaded the land on which I was raised. (Need I say more?) The family homestead was located on the wind-blown prairie of the Midwest, 30 miles from nearest shopping area (a town of 13,000, give or take a few).

Independence, then, became a way of life. It was a part of the air I breathed. It was the unspoken rule of my family system: We do not have needs.

But let me be clear: This rule was not compartmentalized to only the activity on the farm. It bubbled over into my pentecostal upbringing, too. Rather than Me and my horse, the motto became Me and Jesus. Such a theology could be heard on Sundays as the congregation robustly sang, “He is all I need. He is all I need. Jesus is all I need.”

But . . . one day . . . I began to learn a different song.

The prelude to this new song was from deep hurts and wounds that I acquired through some of life’s circumstances. The result? My theological moorings were turned on their head, causing disorientation and grief. I was living in chaos. Amidst such turmoil, I sought out help from a counselor. One day, he asked me a question that became a fairly regular feature of our sessions: “What are you needing?” To be honest, no matter how many times I heard this question, my reply did not change too much. At first, I would be caught off guard. This was followed by feelings of frustration, confusion, and annoyance. Finally, my thoughts (which were sometimes verbalized) were, “Need? I don’t have needs!”

Obviously, I was ignorant, too.

As time passed, I was introduced to Marshall Rosenberg’s Compassionate Communication (a.k.a. Nonviolent Communication), and not only did my world change, but I came to understand more fully my counselor’s persistent question. You see, the subject of needs is the crux of Compassionate Communication.

Compassionate Communication holds that having needs is fundamental to being human. To put it simply, I have needs. Contrary to my previously held opinion, my having needs is not a sign of weakness. Needs are not something to ignore or deny; they are something to embrace. 

Embrace my needs, embrace my humanity. Embrace my humanity, embrace my needs.

Since Americans tend to provide a wide berth to a discussion of needs, it may be helpful to offer a clear definition of the word “needs.” According to Compassionate Communication, needs are:

universal qualities that help humans to flourish.

This means that needs are cross cultural. Those in China, India, Tuva, Sierra Leone, Brazil, and Fiji, and I share needs because we are all human. Needs are something we all have, no matter the color of our skin, the flag that we raise, or the politician we support.

If needs cross cultural boundaries, this also suggests that needs are broad categories, not narrow particularities. Some human needs include: health, predictability, community, security, compassion, water, nutrition, shelter, etc. That which is absent from this list are specifics, such as a car, designer jeans, a gun, a four-bedroom house, etc. These are things I may want in order to meet a need, but they are not to be equated with needs. I may say (after binging on hours of HGTV), “I need new kitchen cabinets.” But according to Compassionate Communication, new kitchen cabinets would be a strategy to meet my need for organization, order, cleanliness, or maybe even respect. If I say, “I need a new car,” a new car may be a means to meet my need for transportation, efficiency, or admiration.

Clues to the identification of my needs lie within the identification of my feelings. Unfortunately, this is yet another area of being human for which Americans cultivate an aversion, but I request that you stay with me. Compassionate Communication asserts: 

  • If I have positive feelings (happy, content, delight, etc.), my needs are being met.
  • If I have negative feelings (sad, angry, discouraged, etc.), my needs are not being met.

Let me illustrate this, somewhat ironically as well as humorously, by using an American commercial for a Snickers candy bar. The Mars corporation first played its “you’re-not-you-when-you’re-hungry” commercial in 2010 during the Super Bowl. The viewers saw a group of young guys playing football with an elderly Betty White. When Betty White is tackled, one of the players yells, “Mike, come on . . . You are playing like Betty White.” However, after “Betty White” eats a Snickers, a young man appears in her place, and we hear the announcer say those now familiar words: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

This commercial basically states what Compassionate Communication asserts: Having our needs met helps us as humans to thrive. If we are hangry, our need for food is unmet, but after we eat and feel contentment, it signifies our need for food has been met. In essence, we must acknowledge the ache of an unmet need in order move towards wholeness.

Regrettably, very few of us, if any, are thriving today due to the 2020 pandemic. If we are honest, many of us struggle with feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, and exhaustion. For some, the threat of severe sickness, or death, is constant. For others, the threat is more often experienced as an ongoing hum in the background. We may attempt to drown it out by binging on Netflix and/or sugar; however, such attempts fail to erase the feelings of stress that indicate unmet needs of predictability, stability, health, security, safety . . . to name a few.

Despite such negative feelings, this may be an opportunity to embrace our humanity, like Jesus. That is, to acknowledge the ache of an unmet need.

Jesus’ needy behavior is part of a story that is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It is the account of Jesus praying on the night of his arrest. However, my attention narrows to the more similar accounts of Matthew and Mark as they highlight Jesus’ search for relational support in the midst of his suffering at the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26; Mk 14).

Matthew and Mark inform us that after arriving at Gethsemane with the eleven remaining disciples, Jesus selects Peter, James, and John to accompany him to a more secluded place to pray. He transparently tells The Three: “My soul is deeply grieved, even to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me” (Mark writes, “Remain here and stay alert”). As both New Testament scholars John Nolland and R. T. France assert, these words portray a Jesus who is seeking support from his disciples amidst his own pain. This is also implied in the correlation between Jesus’ expression of his feelings (deeply grieved) and his request to his disciples (stay awake with me). His feelings point toward his need, and his request flows out of that need.

Granted, the subsequent verses in both Gospels speak of Jesus’ beckoning his disciples to pray for themselves. Nolland suggests, however, the disciples’ need to watch and pray with Jesus is significant, not just for the disciples but for Jesus, too.[1] France seems to agree as he perceives that Jesus has “a strong need for companionship” (italics mine) by taking Peter, James, and John with him.[2] The need for support also could be seen in the verb to “stay awake.” Nolland points out that this verb (grêgoreite) carries a sense of being ready for what is about to transpire in the Passion.[3] Thus, Nolland writes, “One who is alert to the will of God as Jesus was would stand with Jesus as he went to his death”(italics mine).[4] Therefore, for Jesus, it is not just about Me and the Father. The Son moves toward his pain when he seeks solace from his disciples in asking them to be alongside him. Let me also add that such quests for support from both the Father and his disciples are not mutually exclusive. The disciples had an opportunity to participate in the Father’s ministry by supporting the Son.

The point that I am seeking to make is: Jesus moves toward his pain, which reveals his unmet need, leading to his request for disciples to accompany him. Jesus, then, has needs that he asks humans to meet: companionship, support, and relationality, and so on. Unlike the image of a lonesome cowboy, Jesus, who is fully human as well as fully divine, needs others.

That is, Jesus is needy.

In a similar way that Jesus embraced his own humanity, we too are being invited to do the same, to welcome our genuine humanness by moving toward our pain. And like Jesus, our doing so may cause us to unveil our unmet needs, resulting in seeking others for support. In turn, our reaching out provides opportunities for others (similar to the disciples) to participate in God’s ministry in the world by offering care, companionship, and empathy to us. Thus, whether we our seeking support or offering it, both are avenues to resist the lonesome cowboy motif and embrace who God has created us to be . . . human.

Holy Spirit, may you give us courage and strength to fully embrace our humanity by embracing our feelings and needs by which we may glorify God. Amen.

[1] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, edited by I. Howard Marshall and Donald Hagner (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 2005), 1101.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Gordon Fee (Grand Rapdis: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 2007), 1003.

[3] Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 1098.

[4] Ibid.