The Purpose-Driven Life: A Review Essay
Considering it has spent almost three years on best seller lists, the number of people who have not heard of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life (Zondervan, 2002) must be very small. As of September 2005, over 23 million English copies and 1.5 million Spanish copies of the book have been sold. 1 Thousands of churches the world over have experienced “40 Days of Purpose,” a program developed by Warren which takes participants through the book from beginning to end. Free publicity courtesy of “Larry King Live,” Time, even the Wall Street Journal, 2 is only a small part of the reason its hardcover sales exceed those of any other book in American history. 3 Its “no-nonsense” style, avoidance of overtly religious terminology, clarity, compassion, and its bold declaration to a cynical generation that life really does have a point come together to produce an Evangelical tract of unexpectedly broad appeal.
Warren’s genius lies not in creating new ideas but in his distillation of a complex body of Christian doctrine into five simple, though overlapping, propositions.
NOT SIMPLE SELF-HELP
It is easy to mistake The Purpose-Driven Life (PDL) for a self-help book. Warren writes as if carrying on a face-to-face conversation with his reader. He demands discipline from his audience, as many self-help writers do, requiring them to make a forty-day commitment and read one chapter a day. And, like most other self-help authors, Warren makes promises: readers who accept his message will experience less stress in their lives, find a focus for their energies, make decisions more easily, discover the meaning of their existence, and be prepared for an eternity with God when they die (9).
But Warren quickly subverts self-help expectations by pointing out that we cannot convincingly create the meaning of our lives for ourselves. We know intuitively that our sense of purpose needs validation through an objective authority; we need to know that our purpose accords with what our Creator had in mind when he made us. Moreover, while most self-help books stoke the egoism of their readers, Warren immediately decenters his by declaring, “It’s not about you” (17). It is, rather, about God and what he wants. We will best help ourselves when we give up the idea that we can help ourselves and instead yield to God’s purposes for our lives.
The substance of Warren’s message will not immediately strike veteran believers as novel: Everything exists for the glory of God. We are not accidents but created by God for friendship with him. Because of Jesus, we can be part of God’s family and live with him forever. Life on earth is a testing ground where we are made more like Christ. We must serve as we are gifted and share with others the good news of what God has done for us. Warren’s genius lies not in creating new ideas but in his distillation of a complex body of Christian doctrine into five simple, though overlapping, propositions:
- We exist to please God.
- We are meant to join his family.
- Our goal is to become Christlike.
- We are designed to serve God.
- Our mission is to share God’s good news with the world.
The packaging is new, but as other readers have noted, PDL presents no principles that differ in any significant way from those that most Evangelicals already hold. 4
A SUBTLE RECONFIGURATION
And yet there is something new here. In the distilling process Warren subtly reconfigures the old Evangelical doctrinal system to produce a theological outline that will nourish a leaner, more aggressively missional, less introverted Evangelical self. Doctrines of creation, divine sovereignty, sanctification, judgment and eternal life remain relatively unaffected by his revisioning, even if, for strategic reasons, he does not mention most of them by name. But they take on a slightly different significance by the role they are asked to play in Warren’s theological vision. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty, for example, is used not so much to reduce readers to submission, and then to worship and wonder, but—since God never allows anything to happen that cannot be directed to a spiritual end—to encourage them to think how divinely-permitted hardships can develop their character.
The necessity of conversion, to take another example, is fully acknowledged. But Warren does not dwell on it as if it were the zenith of Christian experience. Accepting Christ is merely the beginning of a relationship with God that grows deeper with time, through which we are slowly refashioned into the likeness of Christ, that directs our energies toward work of eternal significance, that culminates (normally) only much later in a direct meeting with God in heaven. This is why Warren offers his readers the opportunity to receive Christ earlier rather than later in the book: it forestalls a fixation on the experience of dramatic rebirth and allows the post-conversion essentials of church participation, spiritual formation, obedience, and mission to be given their proper due. He thus relativizes the value of the “born again” experience. It is significant as a starting point of a God-directed life rather than an end in its own right. This demotion, if you will, of conversion from leading to supporting character in the Evangelical drama is not serious but represents an important shift.
CERTAIN DOCTRINES MINIMIZED
Other aspects of Evangelical doctrine are not so much relativized as glossed over. Warren never explains exactly why, in the absence of a redeemer, we would have to go to hell, or just how Jesus’ dying provides us with a way to avoid going there. The doctrine of atonement, of course, has exercised the minds of theologians for centuries. Perhaps Warren is simply stepping around a theological hornet’s nest by keeping his discussion of it short and superficial. As other critics have noted, however, Warren does not strongly emphasize repentance as part of the conversion experience either, and this lack seems connected to an inadequate account of human sinfulness. 5 Perhaps this is why Warren’s explanation of Christian faith can touch so lightly on the subject of atonement: although an atonement doctrine can exceed one’s hamartiology in depth, 6 in Evangelical practice the two tend to be closely coordinated and equally weighted. Since Warren spends little time on the nature of our sinfulness, he feels no need to provide details on just how the cross redeems us from that condition. But he also hurries past these doctrines because he can afford to. In his rendition of faith, knowing what to do once we have been reconciled to God is more pressing than understanding the metaphysical mechanisms by which reconciliation itself is accomplished.
So, with conversion reduced to the first step of a longer journey, atonement through Jesus being a bare given, and our sinful nature, a condition to be recognized and confronted but not unduly lamented, space is freed up at the center of Warren’s theology for the concept of God’s original purposes in creating human beings. The idea that human beings have ends that dovetail with their deepest longings, indeed, that are rooted ontologically in what human beings are, has the advantage of giving post-conversion life on earth some meaning. To listen to some Evangelicals, the best thing you can do after you “get saved” is die, because it gets you out of this miserable world and into heaven. Warren, without denying the splendor of the future life, strives to convince his readers that much remains to be done here. Indeed, he asserts that the quality of their life in heaven depends very much on what they do or do not do on earth (232). Among other things, there are heavenly rewards to be had, even positions of responsibility (255), for those who devote their talents and energies to serving God (263). This life and the next are inextricably linked.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CHURCH
The idea that Christians ought to cultivate an intimate relationship with their Lord and Savior (a “friendship,” in Warren’s words) through Bible reading, meditation and prayer (i.e., worship), is a mainstay of Evangelicalism, and Warren underscores and emphasizes it by making it the first the five purposes he discusses. But one of the surprises of PDL is the prominence Warren gives to the church and membership in it, though this will not be entirely unexpected for those familiar with his first best seller. 7 “God wants a family, and he created you to be part of it,” he says (117). The Bible is finally the story of how God shapes a family for himself that will love and honor him and rule with him throughout eternity (ibid.).
To be part of God’s family is therefore our highest honor and greatest privilege, and baptism is the rite by which we are initiated into it. So important is the church in PDL that, early on, having walked the reader through the sinner’s prayer, Warren writes, “If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God!” (59). Another Evangelical writer might easily have said, “Congratulations! You’re saved!” In PDL, conversion means being born into the church, the primary training ground and support network of a purpose-driven life.
The points at which PDL will most resonate with Mennonite Brethren (MB) are obvious: it encourages a close personal relationship with God as well as discipleship, upholds the authority of the Bible in matters of faith and life, insists on God’s sovereignty, stresses the importance of establishing an intimate and accountable fellowship with other believers, of serving in one’s church, and of the responsibility to proclaim the gospel to neighbors far and near. On these points there will be no argument since, in one form or another, they have been central to MB spirituality and ethos from the beginning. PDL will encourage us to maintain and strengthen these emphases. Indeed, Warren’s trumpeting of mission as an obligation for all Christians may call MBs back to an old passion that, in North America at least, has waned in recent years. And his emphasis on the church just might keep MBs from sliding further down the slope of spiritual individualism.
But PDL also begs a number of questions from an MB perspective. We can appreciate Warren’s emphasis on baptism as nonoptional for Christians (120), but why pass over the Lord’s Supper? The Supper, like no other Christian observance, establishes Christian identity and unity as it commemorates the Lord’s passion and the mystery of our redemption. Why no attention to it? Should it be any less nonoptional?
As for the discipline of daily meditation and Bible reading, Warren’s encouragement is welcome, especially in these days when even churchgoers suffer from biblical illiteracy at an alarming rate. But what is the role of the church in facilitating and guiding scriptural interpretation and holding private interpretation accountable? Warren’s practice in PDL is not exemplary. His freewheeling citing of verses from a host of biblical versions and paraphrases encourages proof texting as well as reliance on religious experts (like himself). Neither of these options fits comfortably with the biblical “hermeneutics of peoplehood” to which the MB church has committed itself. 8
Furthermore, the personal piety Warren promotes is guilt-free and self-confident in a way which would once not have put us at ease. The consciousness of our sinfulness can only be felt by believers regularly reminded of their sorry condition apart from God. This same awareness, however, determines the intensity of our thanksgiving: gratitude for forgiveness is only as strong as our sense of how badly we need it. Indeed, a feeling of unworthiness used to be part and parcel of MB piety, which was suffused with a deep awareness of God’s holiness and one’s lostness without his grace. PDL sometimes seems impatient with such sensibilities in its eagerness to get us out serving and missionizing.
Warren’s is, in the end, the gospel of an activist and self-confident extrovert. He would be at home with the British Evangelicalism of Spurgeon, who is said to have urged his listeners (in a manner worthy of Nike), “Brethren, do something; do something; do something. While committees waste their time over resolutions, do something.” 9 Though Warren urges “balance,” in the end there is more of mission than mystery in PDL, more work than worship.
JESUS MISSING FROM WARREN’S CHRISTLIKENESS
Finally, while Warren insists Christians make Christlikeness their telos, his discussion of what this entails seldom refers to the gospel accounts of Jesus. The reason for this omission is that Warren equates “becoming like Christ” with spiritual formation, the development of subjective “character.” But is there not more to “Christlikeness” than attitudes and character? Than knowing the Bible and resisting temptation? The ethical dimensions of becoming like Christ, the notions of self-giving, nonresistance, and enemy-love taught in the Sermon on the Mount, seem to lie outside the scope of Warren’s understanding of what it means to be Christlike.
Indeed, Warren seems to be blind to other key biblical themes. Our immortality is a main premise of his theology, but the idea of the resurrection of the body, so central to the New Testament witness, gets hardly a mention. And the notion, scattered throughout the Scriptures, of justice for the orphan, widow, and poor is left out of his discussions of service and mission. Like most conservative Evangelical thinking, PDL seems infected with a Platonic dualism of body and soul, the latter being its first and often only concern. 10 To the extent that popular MB thought shares this infection, PDL will confirm it in its dualistic mental habit.
THE CHURCH AND ITS MISSION
The influence of North American Evangelicalism on MBs has been so far-reaching for so long that it is hard to imagine that PDL—in the end, a classic Evangelical text—will produce a noticeable change in MB thinking. And yet it might. Warren summarizes his vision of Christian faith in the alliterative jingle, “A great commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission will make you a great Christian” (306). Unfortunately, he reduces the broad scope of Christian ministry and mission implied in this maxim when he asserts that “Nothing else you do will ever matter as much as helping people establish an eternal relationship with God” (284). If churches consistently adhere to the latter principle, if they evaluate and develop all programming on that basis, if individuals make it the sole criterion by which they choose vocations and worthy causes to support, a great deal of good will be done, but a great deal will also be left undone. Perhaps relief work, medical aid, and limited educational projects could still be justified: the first two might keep people alive long enough to hear the gospel and the third would equip them to read the Bible. But ultimately, Warren leaves us with no doubt that all efforts and goods that do not serve the goal of saving souls are wasted and ultimately without value. Those who take this message seriously will fix their gaze firmly on the business of soul saving.
This is a valid conclusion given the Evangelical metaphysic in which, apart from God, only souls are eternal. It should come as no surprise, then, that PDL fails to help us appreciate the eternal significance of earthly life in all its harsh, fleeting splendor, as intimated throughout the Scriptures. It also helps us little in understanding why the biblical God seems to care so deeply about our temporal well-being, even though we as bodies are vapor and wither away like grass. It fails on these scores because it works with a lamentably inadequate doctrine of creation and a soteriology that borders on the gnostic. But in these matters, too, Warren has not been creative; he has merely passed on the received wisdom of North American Evangelicalism, which has tended to see temporal and eternal as constituting a tension to be resolved in favor of the latter.
That having been said, Warren’s newly found passion for the poor, sick, illiterate, and oppressed is a measure of the seriousness with which Evangelicals can take the Great Commandment and, perhaps, also their insensitivity to the more extreme implications of their theology. 11 It also reveals the basic generosity at the heart of Evangelicalism, which manifests itself in an irrepressible desire to share the gift of faith and to do good. This generosity is evident throughout PDL, as is much hard-won insight into the meaning of Christian faith and life and how that life might be deepened and sustained. And these go a considerable distance toward making up for its several theological deficiencies. The Purpose-Driven Life should not be the last book of theology Christians ever read, but for clarity and simplicity, for catching the basic spirit of Evangelical faith, they could read many that are worse but probably not many that are better.
- Daisy Maryles, “Religion Hardcover Bestsellers,” Publishers Weekly, 12 September 2005, 23.
- Larry King interviewed Warren November 22, 2004. Excerpts of the interview are available at cnn.com. Articles and reviews of The Purpose-Driven Life in the secular press include Sonja Steptoe, et al., “The Man with a Purpose,” Time, 29 March 2004, 54-56; “Godliness—in 40 Days,” Wall Street Journal (Eastern ed.), 31 December 2003, D8; Margaret Wente, “Soul Hunger, Always a Strong Suit,” The Globe & Mail, 6 November 2004, A25.
- “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America,” Time, 7 February 2005, 34.
- Tim Stafford, “A Regular Purpose-Driven Guy,” Christianity Today, 18 November 2002, 46.
- “Forget Your Bliss: The Success of The Purpose-Driven Life Reveals a Cultural Opportunity,” Christianity Today, 1 March 2004, 29.
- As David Bentley Hart demonstrates regarding the case of Anselm in “A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo,” Pro Ecclesia 7 (Summer 1998): 333-49.
- Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995).
- The term comes from John Howard Yoder’s essay, “The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood: A Protestant Perspective on Practical Moral Reasoning,” Journal of Religious Ethics 10 (spring 1982): 40-67.
- Quoted by Timothy Larsen, “ ‘Do Something’: Evangelicals in the Age of Spurgeon and Moody,” Books & Culture, November-December 2005, 17.
- In fairness to Warren, he has since “repented” of his blindness to the Bible’s concern for the poor and has launched a P.E.A.C.E program, the objective of which is to address issues of poverty, disease, illiteracy, leadership, and spiritual emptiness around the world. After a recent trip to Africa, Warren reread his Bible and, finding two thousand verses referring to the poor, confessed, “I was not seeing all the purposes of God” (Timothy Morgan, “Purpose Driven in Rwanda: Rick Warren’s Sweeping Plan to Defeat Poverty,” Christianity Today, October 2005, 34).
- See note 10.