Examining 'The Purpose Driven Life'
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 26, 2006
That’s quite an accomplishment. The Purpose Driven Life has, again according to its dust jacket, sold 20 million copies worldwide—and that’s in hard-covers alone. Hey, any book that has sold 20 million copies must be good, right? Twenty million people can’t be wrong, can they?
Well, I will resist the temptation to note for whom 62,040,606 people voted in the 2004 presidential election. But I will assert something that most of you might not be surprised to hear: having huge sales is not the same thing as producing huge quality. I mean, McDonald’s sells more hamburgers than anyone else? Does that mean McDonald’s food is better? Hardly.
Frankly, The Purpose Driven Life may not be the book for many of us. There are many ideals, allusions, and propositions here that are guaranteed, I would say, to turn off most of us here in this church this morning. There is something in these pages for all of us to dislike. Rick Warren is an evangelical Christian preacher. He is minister of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, one of the largest churches of any denomination in America, which regularly greets 16,000 worshippers every weekend (another reason for some of us to hate his guts, I suppose) and, to his credit, he makes no attempt to hide these credentials. He doesn’t pretend to be a New Age guru, or to be theologically everything to everybody, and to be anything other than who he is, religiously speaking. That is admirable, it seems to me. It also means many of us will be turned off when we come across all the Jesus talk—and all the “giving your life to Christ”—and the acceptance of a “the Bible says it, so I believe it” attitude that seems to be very close to literalist and fundamentalist in its orientation.
So why go any further, then? Why not just disparage The Purpose Driven Life as one more example of the ascendancy of the religious right in America, and leave it at that?
Because, very simply, in my (hardly) humble opinion, there is a lot of meat on these bones, plenty for all of us to chew on, whatever our personal theologies. While the fact that his book has sold 20 million copies doesn’t make it right, the author’s conservative religious persuasion doesn’t make everything he says wrong either.
We pride ourselves on looking for the truth in all religious scriptures. Religious maturity means, at least in part, that we are willing to hear valid lessons from people with whom we might otherwise disagree. This includes being open, then, to the lessons offered by The Purpose Driven Life (as well as through other manifestations of conservative Christianity). Rick Warren’s book has struck a chord to which many of us, if we are honest, might be more responsive than we might think. His work attempts to feed a spiritual hunger which many of us are feeling as certainly as our more theologically conservative neighbors.
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates a long, long time ago. It’s also true, I think, that the readily marginalized and unexamined book will never offer any of its lessons to us. So, for our own edification, let’s take a closer look at The Purpose Driven Life.
Often, it might seem to us that we are drifting through life aimlessly, dazed and confused, barely half awake. A Buddhist adage reminds us that “As long as one is a monk, one goes on tolling the bell,” But often, we might feel as though we are not actually participating in our lives any more, and that we can’t remember for the life of us the reasons for which that damned bell is ringing.
One dreary day late in the life of the Soviet Union, a young Russian writer named Andrei Bitov had the following revelation:
“In my twenty-seventh year,” Bitov writes, “while riding the metro in Leningrad… I was overcome with a despair so great that life seemed to stop at once, preempting the future entirely, let alone any meaning. Suddenly, all by itself, a phrase appeared [in my mind] 'Without God life makes no sense.' Repeating it in astonishment, I rode the phrase up like a moving staircase, got out of the metro and walked into God's light."
“It’s all about God,” Warren writes. “It’s not about you.” Unlike other self-help gurus who have us look within to find truth, Warren has us look beyond—to that which is so much greater than we are. He reminds us that if we worship at the altar of our own ego—our own little wants and needs—then we worship at a very small altar, indeed. If we put ourselves at the center of the universe, then we create a very fragile and unstable (and ultimately transient and meaningless) universe, indeed.
Instead, Warren places at the center of things the God who has made us, and of whose plan we are part. “God never does anything accidentally, and he never makes mistakes,” he writes. There is God’s purpose at the heart of Creation, and all evidence from science supports the core proposition “that the cosmos is a specially designed whole with life and [humankind] as its fundamental goal and purpose...” He would agree with Julian of Norwich, the great 14th/15th century Christian mystic who proclaimed: “We have been loved from before the beginning,” and he quotes the poet Russell Kelfer:
Unless we believe there is some deeper, divine purpose in our three score and ten years upon this Earth (maybe a little more), then what is the use? Either we were put here for a purpose—or we put here by accident, born to die, and that’s it. The choice of how we look at life is ours. But faith chooses to see (or at least to seek) the deeper purpose hidden in all life.
Everyone’s life is driven by something, Rick Warren says, and he names some of these things that drive us:
Finally, Warren asserts, “Many people are driven by their need for approval.” They allow the expectations of others—parents or spouses or children or teachers or bosses or friends—to control their lives. “Unfortunately,” he points out, “those who follow the crowd usually get lost in it,” and whatever the key to success in this life is, the key to failure (or at least to interminable mediocrity) is to try to please everyone. We can’t serve two masters, as Jesus said, and “being controlled by the opinions of others is a guaranteed way to miss God’s purposes for your life.”
But as Thomas Carlyle said “The man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder,” and like Job (who, if anybody did, had a right to complain), we might be tempted to lament: “My life drags by—day after hopeless day… I give up; I am tired of living…” “The greatest tragedy in life is not death, but life without meaning,” Warren points out, and it is knowing the purpose of our lives that imbues them with greatmeaning.
Knowing our purpose also, frankly, simplifies our lives. It defines what we are to do, and what we are not to do. It helps us to winnow our way through the great supermarket of life, where we are bombarded with choices and options and decisions all the time, it seems.
“Without a clear purpose, you have no foundation of which to base decisions, allocate your time, or use your resources. You will tend to make choices based on circumstances, pressures, and your mood at the moment. People who don’t know their purpose try to do too much—and that causes stress, fatigue, and conflict.”
Knowing our purpose focuses our lives. We will no longer get distracted by minor issues, and waste our time playing Trivial Pursuit with our lives. “Henry David Thoreau observed that people live lives of ‘quiet desperation’,” Rick Warren writes, “but today a better description is aimless desperation. Many people are like gyroscopes, spinning around at a frantic pace, but never going anywhere.” Or, their lives are “full of sound and fury,” but ultimately “signifying nothing.”
Knowing our purpose also motivates our lives. “Purpose… produces passion. Nothing energizes like a clear purpose.” “Without a song, a man ain’t got a friend,” and without a purpose to our lives, just getting out of bed to face another (seemingly) meaningless day can be a chore. Perhaps one of the reasons for the epidemic of depression in modern society is our lack of purpose, our lack of focus. “This is the true joy of life,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clot of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
“Knowing your purpose prepares you for eternity,” Rick Warren declares. Certainly, it joins our lives with the epic aspirations of humanity through all time.
When we view our lives—our purpose—though the lens of eternity, then our little needs and wants become much, much less important. C.S. Lewis once said, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”
When we realize that there is more to life than just this here and now—when we cast our lives in the framework of eternity, we “will begin to live differently… Living in the light of eternity… will color how you handle every relationship, task, and circumstance… The closer you live to God, the smaller everything else appears.”
“The way you see your life shapes your life,” and the metaphor we choose for our lives will determine how we will view it. One of the best ways to understand other people is to ask them “How do you see your life?” What metaphor do they choose for life? They may see life as a circus, a minefield, a roller coaster, a puzzle, a symphony, a journey (I think that’s mine), a dance. “People have said, ‘Life is a carousel: Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, and sometimes you just go round and round’ or ‘Life is a ten-speed bicycle with gears we never use’ or ‘life is a game of cards: You have to play with the hand you’re dealt.’”
Whatever we might think of The Purpose Driven Life, it seems to me that this exercise of discerning our life metaphor is a useful one. Getting stuck in the wrong metaphor might cost us dearly. For instance, if we see life as a party, we might concentrate solely on having fun and meeting our sensual desires, to the detriment of everything else. If we look upon life as a race, we might speed through life, and miss out of all its greatest treasures. If we see life as battle, then don’t be surprised if we leave a battlefield littered with broken relationships in our wake.
Warren offers two metaphors, drawn from scripture, as a means of building character and drawing closer to our purpose. Life is a test, he says, which builds our character and strengthens us; life is also a trust, he says, in which we take care of and manage the gifts of God which are loaned to us on Earth, in this life. Both these metaphors, Warren says, point to this life as a “temporary assignment”—a training ground for the life which is to be. This may be where some of us—many of us?—most of us?—part company with him and his ideas. But it is yet another reminder to keep the Big Picture in mind as we go through life, and not to get trapped in a view of life which is too horizontal—based too firmly in the right here and the right now-- and which ignores the vertical—or eternal, or divine, or transcendent—dimension.
It’s not about us, The Purpose Driven Life asserts, time and again. It’s all for God; it’s all about the Holy. “The smile of God is the goal of your life,” Warren writes, in an absolutely lovely and evocative phrase. “The smile of God is the goal of life.” Certainly, we might all want to make God smile. What kinds of things make God smile?
“God smiles when we love him supremely,” Warren points outs. Then: “God smiles when we trust him completely.” And: “God smiles when we obey him wholeheartedly.” Finally: “God smiles when we praise and thank him continually.”
Those aren’t necessarily descriptions of God with which many of us are terribly comfortable. They are problematic for some of us. They speak of that detached Father God off in heaven somewhere, who seems a little too high and mighty—and judgmental—and maybe even anthropomorphic (too human-like) for some of us. We might well agree with our great religious foremother Susan B. Anthony who said, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” Susan B. continued: “I cannot conceive of a God whose greatest wish is that I should get down on my knees and call Him great.”
It is only when Warren gets to “God smiles when we use our abilities,” that we, too, might smile, and nod our heads, and remember that yes, that is why we are here. We are here to use our gifts, our abilities, to help one another and make the world more beautiful. We might remember the words of the ancient Church Father, Iraneaus, who wrote that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
God smiles when we use our abilities, when we use our gifts, when we are fully alive to life, and all of who we are. That does mean unlocking ourselves from the prison of our egos and our little selves—and that requires a surrender to that Power which is greater than us. This surrender points toward what the great Unitarian process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman called our yearning for “intimacy with the absolute”. We seek intimacy with God, friendship with God, even becoming “best friends with God,” as Rick Warren characterizes it. “You are as close to God as you choose to be,” he writes, and quotes the Epistle of James in the New Testament: “Draw close to God and God will draw close to you.”
How do we do this? By loving one another. “The Bible knows nothing of solitary saints or spiritual hermits isolated from other believers and deprived of fellowship,” Warren writes. “The Bible says we are put together, joined together, built together, members together, heirs together, fitted together, and held together.” We are members one of another, St. Paul reminds us. “It is not what you do but how much love you put in it that matters,” said the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Love is the secret of a lasting heritage. Love is our legacy. Love is at the heart of our purpose here in this life.
The best way to spell love, The Purpose Driven Life reminds us is “T-I-M-E”. The greatest gift we can give to someone is our time. The greatest gift we give to God is using our time here on Earth to do God’s will, as we discern it working in our lives. When we use our time in union with those things that really matter, then we have infinitely more time than these 24 hours, these 365 days, these three score and ten (maybe a little more) years. We have all the time in the world. We have all the time in the cosmos. We have an eternity full of time.
Our days upon this Earth may seem very short, for all of us. The older we get, the shorter they seem. “Time like an ever-flowing stream, soon bears us all away,” the old hymn tells us. It has been said that this little life each of us leads is but “a glimmer of light between two vast eternities.”
But never forget that we share in eternity.
And when we live in eternity’s sunrise, there is nothing small or insignificant or meaningless at all in these lives we lead. They are, rather, part and parcel of the greatest and most awesome power that is. They are part of that power which throbs at the very heart of the universe itself. They are, then, part and parcel, of the very Love of God.