What does it mean to become the truest self?  What does it mean to deny self? Is it possible to do both simultaneously? This brief will  explore the psychological concept of self-actualization and its relationship to the practice of self-denial as seen in the Christian metanarrative. The blog will theorize that Jesus Christ existed as a self-actualized human and practiced self-denial.


The phrase self-actualizing finds in origins in psychology and became popular in the early nineteen forties by Abraham Maslow. It can mean a myriad of things, but simply put, it is the realization of full potential in an individual or the act of “achievement of one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world.”[1]  Maslow talked about the self-actualizer when he introduced his hierarchy of needs. He theorized that each person needs basic things to survive. Once one feels security in the basic needs, i.e., shelter, sex, food, an individual will find freedom to complete needs based on being. He stated these persons were “distinguished far more easily than most[2]” and found “the fresh, concrete, and idiosyncratic”[3] in life rather than dwell on the generic and basic needs of self. Maslow concluded that evil people are exceedingly rare, but people act evil when basic needs are not met. Maslow performed the majority of his research on animals, including primates.

Albert Ellis, a famous humanistic doctor, explores the “self-actualizer,” and suggests along with Jacquelyn Small(the author of Becoming Naturally Therapeutic), that these persons may seek mystical, contemplative, altered states of awareness, or “peak experiences.”[4] Ellis says in order to become better one must face difficulties[5] implying that spiritual trials and tribulations may be the key to becoming fully alive. Small suggests that self-actualized individuals care more about the whole then themselves[6] and naturally move towards service projects and helping careers. Carl Rogers equates the self-actualized person as one who “lives in each moment as if it is new” or one who is fully present in each moment.[7] Jacquelyn Small adds that each individual will experience each moment “more vividly, with full concentration and without self-consciousness.”[8] Much like the notion of emptying self in Buddhism, she suggests that in those moments a clear connection exists, one of complete unity with the other.[9]  These psychologists noted talk in a language different than religious persons but attribute characteristics to self-actualizers that religion would consider as saints, prophets, sages, god-men, or heroes of the faith.


Self-denial doesn’t necessarily relate to the self flaggulation of the middle ages monastics, nor does it resonate with ascetic attempts to rid one’s self of evil. Fasting for a time, going without sex, and perhaps giving up social media for lent can have lasting spiritual effects. However according to scripture, God is not pleased with a multitude of sacrifices, but rather is pleased in ones relationship to him and to others.[10] Unfortunately the Church in America convoluted the message of Grace and the work of the cross into a warped view of total depravity and a strange brew of Max Webber Capitalism and Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Humanity exists not as worms, completely filthy and disgusting to the Divine and conversely, it is not capable of pulling itself up by its boot-straps without the awareness of the Divine. Somewhere in the mixing, perhaps even lingering in the heresies of Pelagius or in the philosophies of modern mystics lay more questions that ask us if it is possible to be fully human and fully divine, or rather self-actualized and practicing self-denial.


Looking into such passages as Philippians chapter two,[11] one can theorize that self-actualization may simultaneously occur with the practice of self-denial. Kenosis comes from the Greek word, Kenton, which means to empty out. In theology it refers to “the doctrine that Christ relinquished His divine attributes so as to experience human suffering.”[12] This idea of Kenosis, prevalent in Pauline scripture, can be found in philosophies and worldviews separate from Christianity. Kenosis within Buddhism means the denial of selfishness in order to become one with others and creation. Christ himself demonstrates his self-actualization knowing he was the son of God and being affirmed in his humanity and divinity in the proclamation of the Holy Spirit after his baptism by John as recorded in the gospels.

This notion of coexistence between self-actualizing and self-denial exemplified in the works of   James Fowler, where he contends that both characteristics manifest in what he labels as the Universalizing Faith[13]or the sixth stage of faith. The universalizer forsakes nationalism, ethnocentrism, and even traditional dogma for the love of humanity. Fowler contends that the universalizer, no longer seeks selfish needs of power or importance, but instead sees the need to act selflessly in order to help others self-actualize.[14] Much like Jacquelyn Small’s account of self-actualizers, Fowler designates Universalizers as “contagious” souls who create spaces of freedom from the “social, political, economic, and ideological shackles” that institutions throw on humanity.[15] He further suggests that most persons who reach stage six are self-actualizers according to definitions made by Carl Rogers or Abraham Maslow.[16] He reasons that stage six persons cannot be perfect, noting Erik Erickson’s critique of Gandhi.




               Through a hermeneutic of love, one can grapple with scriptures and see that being a self-actualized human is the hope of Christ in us, and also that being self-actualized leads to true self-denial. God changes us from glory to glory. As the Apostle Paul said, we do not know what we will be, but we will all be changed. May the kingdom of God be actualized on earth today in each of us.























Ellis, Albert. Art and Science of Rational Eating. Ft. Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 1992.

Fowler, James. Stages of Faith Development: The Psychology of Human Development and the

          Quest for Meaning. New York: Harper Collins, 1981

Maslow, Abraham. On Dominance, Self-Esteem, and Self-Actualizing: Germain Lectures.  Ann

Capland, 1974, 2006.

Rogers, Carl. On Becoming a Person: A Therapists View of Psychotherapy Boston: Houghton

Mifflin, 1989.

Small, Jacquelyn. Becoming Naturally Therapeutic:  A Return to the True Essence of Helping. New York, Bantam Books, 1990.

[1]       Dictionary.Com, s.v. “Self-Actualization,” accessed January 3, 2011, last modified 2009.

[2]      Abraham Maslow, On Dominance, Self-Esteem and Self-Actualization: Germain Papers (1974,2006 Ann Capland), 152.

[3]      Ibid.

[4]      Jacquelyn Small, Becoming Naturally Therapeutic: A Return to the True Essence of Helping (New York: Bantam, 1981),139.

[5]      Albert Ellis, Art and Science of Rational Eating  (Ft. Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 1992), 186.

[6]       Small, 136.

[7]      Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (Boston: Houghton

Mifflin, 1989),  188.

[8]       Small, 137.

[9]       Ibid.

[10]       Micah 6, The New International Version 6With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

[11]      Phillipians 2, The New International Version 1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

[12]    Dictionary.Com, s.v. “Kenosis,” accessed January 3, 2011, last modified 2009.

[13]   James Fowler, Stages of Faith Development: The Psychology of Human Development and the

Quest for Meaning.  (New York: Harper Collins, 1981), 199.

[14]    Ibid., 200.

[15]    Ibid., 201.

[16]    Ibid., 202.



  1. Bec~Thanks for your wise words, it explains a love that I am attempt to discover in GOD, myself and others. Part of the problem is most people including myself consider the sexual part of love as something that is needed. Unfortunately, I am still in the wilderness on this one since it seems unfulfilled. The good thing is that it took a self-awareness and loving my shadow by embracing it for me to see the unconditional love of GOD for me anyway. Thanks~Chuck

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