All humans share some basic, fundamental needs that must be fulfilled in order to be mentally healthy individuals. Those needs are love and connection, exploration and imagination, purpose, and identity.
Let’s begin with identity. If we asked you who you are, how would you answer? You could describe your physical characteristics – are you a male or female? Tall or short? What color is your hair? Your eyes? Your skin? I could draw some basic conclusions about you from these descriptions, but none of them capture the essence of who you are, do they?
You could tell me what you do – are you a teacher? A lawyer? Do you work in a factory? Do you deliver the mail? You could describe your living situation – are you married or single? Do you have children? Are you wealthy, comfortable, or poor? Once again, I might make some judgments about you based on your job title or social and financial status, but I would still be missing the core of what defines you.
You could describe your personality – are you an introvert or extrovert? Do you tend to be perfectionistic? Are you stand-offish? Are you a people-pleaser? These traits tell me more about you, but I still wouldn’t know the fundamental, foundational answer to the question.
If I am going to truly know who you are, I need to understand your inner qualities; in other words, the unique, intrinsic characteristics of your nature. Beyond your personality, these qualities reside in your spirit, your innermost being. They are placed in you by God at your creation. They are not a result of what you do or how you look or how you behave. They are the essence of your being. This is the definition of identity.
The first and most precious treasure God gives you is your identity. You are fearfully and wonderfully made in His image (Psalm 139:14; Genesis 1:27). As His child, you are created to mirror His nature. Your spirit reflects His glory. He gives your heart the capacity to love and your mind the capacity for wisdom and understanding. He is the designer of your whole being.
But beyond these general truths about identity we all share, you hold specific aspects of His reflection, “knit together” (Psalm 139:13) by God with those precise qualities for the exact time and place you are and for the life you are living. Step out of yourself for a moment and contemplate the magnificence of God, who imagined the vastness of the mountains and depths of the oceans and spread them across the planet, teeming with life; who engineered the tides and orchestrated the curve of each wave; who splashed vivid colors across the sky at sunset just to express His glory and beauty; who in each strand of DNA created a language that said, “you are a bird,” “you are a crab,” and “you are an elephant.” God, who made and intimately knows the stars and the amoeba, the vast and the microscopic, decided He wanted a YOU. He wove Himself into your DNA, within the language He created to say “you are a human being, made in My image” and chose specific aspects of His nature to combine in unique ways to make a one-of-a-kind work of art that has never been seen before on this earth and will never be seen again: YOU. And He did this on purpose, with intent.
This brings us to purpose. Before you jump to the conclusion that we’re referring to a purpose He has in mind for you to “do something” for Him or “accomplish a task” on His behalf, let me clarify. We’re not referring to a “do.” We’re describing a state of being. He made you exactly who you are, with the identity He chose, reflecting the aspects of His nature He put in you, for the purpose of you being you. In other words, He created you to BE. He desires the nature or identity He created to flow freely from you into the world. By being who you were created to be, the aspects of God’s nature He wove into you are also expressed into the world.
To help you understand this concept, let’s use the example of a chair. The craftsman designs the shape of the seat just so for comfort. He shapes the arms and places them at the right height to provide a resting place for hands or arms. He curves the back in such a way to give adequate support. He fills the cushions to make them soft and covers them with beautiful material to make the chair a lovely addition to home décor. He carves the legs, making them thick and sturdy enough to support weight but with a designer’s flare. When all these elements come together, the chair is ready to be a chair, just by being as it was created.
Would you now tell this chair to dry someone off when they get out of the shower? Or carry someone down the road to the grocery store? Would you expect it to be a television? No. By being what it was created to be, it fulfills its purpose. Whatever flows from you as you are living into your true nature – your identity – fulfills your purpose.
Exploration and imagination are elements that give us fulfillment in our lives. Consider this: without imagination, we would not be able to make decisions, problem-solve, or predict the consequences of our actions. The way we make decisions is to imagine a myriad of choices not yet made. At the same time, we imagine the possible outcomes of those choices. Then, we choose (hopefully, if we are wise) the best combination of choice and consequence available to us from everything we imagined. We solve problems in much the same way. We create potential solutions from our imaginations, then imagine the results from each of the possible solutions. Without imagination, none of these things are possible.
Exploration throughout life builds and develops our imagination. As infants, everything is new to us, including our own bodies. As we grow, we branch out and explore our environment, learning as we explore through play. Reading opens up a whole new type of exploration, which also stimulates our imagination. Our need to explore doesn’t stop when we reach adulthood. Exploration, creativity and imagination stimulate our brains and help maintain neuroplasticity, which slows mental aging.
We saved the most significant for last: love and connection. Infants without love and connection fail to thrive. Infants with broken attachments develop personality disorders. These physiological and psychological indicators of the importance of love simply highlight what Scripture already teaches: love is the single most important element in our lives. Love is the very nature of God.
The two greatest commandments of Jesus – to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself – demonstrate for us that love is the essential focus and need of our lives. To love someone is to see them for who God created them to be (not what they do but the aspects of Jesus’ nature they were designed to reflect) and to treat them according to who He made them be. This same principle applies to ourselves: to love ourselves (the second part of the second commandment) is to know who God created us to be and to live fully and completely out of that nature, reflecting the character of God that He placed in us and allowing it to flow into the world.
Both of these reflections of love are dependent on the first commandment, for if we do not love God (knowing His character, seeing Him as Who He is, and responding to Him based on Who He is) we cannot know who we are, and we cannot see others through His lens. So, all things that have meaning and purpose in our lives begin with loving God and flow from there.
God’s love for us is our source, both for our lives and for the love we offer to ourselves and others. Connection with others is made possible because we first receive God’s love flowing into us. Even those who do not believe in God are beloved of God and receive His outpouring of love. Through Him, we are capable of extending that love to others.
Love is the only seed that grows and lasts, bearing eternal fruit. All other things we sow become dust. “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). “Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers his righteousness on you” (Hosea 10:12). What we sow in anger becomes dust. What we sow in division becomes dust. What we sow in fear becomes dust. What we sow in materialism becomes dust. What we sow in self-aggrandizement, in self-approval, in self-protection, in self-gratification, and in all other reflections of “self” becomes dust. When we bring it all down to the bottom line, love is the main thing. Love is, in fact, the only thing.