Examining the Purpose-Driven Life

by Ron Julian


Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life (PDL) is a publishing phenomenon by anyone’s standards. Publishers Weekly calls it “the bestselling hardback in American History.” I find this plausible because many people tell me that their churches have gone for this book in a big way. I have a mixed reaction, however, to its popularity. Some of the ideas in PDL are very good. However, in my mind the book’s serious flaws outweigh the good things; when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. Let me explain what I mean.

Some very good ideas

Let me start by listing some of the things I really like in the book:

PDL encourages people to live for God and to put Him at the center of their lives.

• Unlike much of the modern church, PDL has a very wise perspective on suffering. It says that God is sovereign and in control of the suffering in my life, which He brings because He is more interested in my character than my comfort. God’s focus is long-term, to bring me to His eternal kingdom where I will suffer no more.

PDL rightly emphasizes the importance of love and service toward our fellow believers.

These ideas (and there are others) are true and profound, and PDL speaks to them well.

The problem of proof-texting

My first big problem with the book is the way it uses the Bible. PDL throws a blizzard of verses at its readers, mostly drawn from a variety of broad paraphrases like the Message Bible and the Living Bible. The cumulative effect of this approach is ultimately misleading and harmful.

Now I must admit that Rick Warren has anticipated the critique I am about to offer. He admits that proof-texting can be misused, and he says that he wishes he had the space to show us how all these verses he quotes fit into their contexts. He also says that he deliberately uses a variety of paraphrases because the standard translations with which we are familiar are too familiar; he wants to shake us up by appealing to a variety of translations. In the light of his comments, then, I can agree in theory that the way PDL proof-texts could be all right, if the paraphrase being cited is accurate and actually supports the point PDL is making. In practice, however, PDL uses the Bible very badly.

Let me illustrate how this approach can go terribly wrong. Imagine that a verse in the Bible speaks of a “great battle.” A modern paraphrase wants to jazz it up and make it more powerful, so it translates the phrase “great battle” as “the mother of all battles.” Now imagine an author comes along and quotes the translation: “The Bible often uses the imagery of motherhood, as for example in the verse which speaks of `the mother of all battles.'” Do you see the problem? This fictional author quotes “the Bible” by quoting this paraphrase, and then makes his argument based on the part the translator added for effect.

Now let me show you a real example from PDL. In making the (perfectly fine) point that PDL is not a self-help book, it says (p.19),

You need more than self-help advice. The Bible says, Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. (Matthew 16:25, Message Bible)

Now, here is the same verse from a more literal translation:

For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:25, NASB)

The Message Bible has translated this verse very badly, severely misrepresenting what Jesus meant. (We will discuss this more.) Even worse, however, PDL‘s argument depends on the words “self-help” that the Message Bible added.

Now why am I making a big deal about this? Didn’t I say earlier that I liked many things that the book says? Even in this example, I agree with the idea that we need more than self-help. If PDL is saying true and important things, what does it matter if it got a few verses wrong?

Well, as it happens, it matters a great deal. The first problem is captured by the expression “feed a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Christian teachers do not only impart facts from the Bible; they also model for their listeners how to read the Bible for themselves. Even though some of the fish PDL has fed us are good, it is teaching us to be terrible fisherman. If we were to use PDL as a model, we would become foolish Bible students. (And in fact, I see this misuse of the Bible all the time, and it is a tragedy for the church.)

More importantly, however, PDL’s methodology is leading it to distort and trivialize the central truths of the Bible. In other words, bad theology is being hidden behind misleading proof texts. In the rest of the article we will explore this problem further.

The theological problem

PDL discusses what human life is about and, specifically, what our motivation is for doing what we do. Here is my summary paraphrase of how PDL presents what is at stake for a Christian:

If I live for God, then God receives pleasure through my worship, the church grows through my ministry, I grow spiritually through my obedience, and the world is saved through my evangelism. If I choose not to live for God, however, my choice will not affect my salvation, but I will not find meaning and fulfillment in this life, and I will not receive rewards in the next.

I believe this is a faithful picture of PDL’s central message, and it is a message with which broad segments of Evangelicalism would agree. My choices in the Christian life are not about salvation; they are about making life better now and getting rewards in heaven. But this picture is fatally flawed. My choices in the Christian life have everything to do with my salvation. One of the key teachings of the New Testament is that God is going to test our faith. In the midst of struggle and trial, we must decide whether we really believe what we say we do, and act on that belief. Our choices will be far from perfect because we are still sinners. But if we are truly believers, our beliefs will ultimately make their way into our actions. Most of the commands in the New Testament are not instructions for living a more fulfilling life but rather tests of my discipleship; they are commands for me to ratify my faith in action. They are commands for me to persevere in believing the gospel, even when life puts pressure on me to abandon the faith.

PDL has profoundly missed the point; my “purpose” in life is not fundamentally to find fulfillment and rewards; my purpose is to choose life over death. That is why I find PDL’s proof-texting so destructive; it is hiding important theological issues by taking bad paraphrases and running with them. Often the paraphrase’s message is not bad, but it is trivial in comparison to the life-and-death issue the biblical author intended to communicate. Take, for example, Jesus’ language that we saw earlier, “If you lose your life, you will save it.” I would argue that Jesus is talking about salvation, eternal life versus eternal destruction. As a disciple of Jesus, I may be confronted with a choice: will I deny the faith and keep what I have in this world—my friends, my job, even my life—or will I remain faithful, face loss now, and reap eternal life in the end? In other words, at stake is not whether we can have more satisfying lives but whether we will live at all.

PDL, however, uses various paraphrases of Jesus’ “lose your life to save it” language in a way that shifts the focus from eternal salvation to finding fulfillment now. Let me show you two examples, one using Matthew 16:25 (which we saw earlier) and one using the parallel passage, Mark 8:35:

You need more than self-help advice. The Bible says, Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. (PDL, p.19; Matthew 16:25, Message Bible)We are only fully alive when we’re helping others. Jesus said, …Only those who throw away their lives for my sake and for the sake of the Good News will ever know what it means to really live. (PDL, p.232; Mark 8:35, Living Bible)

These two paraphrases speak of “finding yourself” and “what it means to really live,” which seems to be why PDL quotes them. After all, that is the book’s message: in this life you can find yourself and be more fully alive if you live the purpose-driven life. PDL argues for that message, however, by quoting paraphrases that obscure what Jesus actually said. Jesus’ actual words about losing and saving your life confront us with the issue of our eternal destiny—an issue that PDL has exchanged for a relatively trivial one.

Let’s look at one more example. PDL (p.72) makes this argument:

God’s word is clear that you cannot earn your salvation… But as a child of God you can bring pleasure to your heavenly Father through obedience.

To support this argument, PDL says:

James, speaking to Christians, said, We please God by what we do and not only by what we believe. (James 2:24, Contemporary English Version)

Here is a more literal translation:

You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone. (James 2:24, NASB)

James 2:24 is a famous problem passage: how can James say we are justified by works, when Paul says we are justified by faith? Notice that the CEV translation hides the problem by speaking not of justification but of pleasing God. PDL runs with this translation to deny that justification is at stake at all; the only issue is whether we make God happy. Although I cannot argue the case here, I maintain that this is a profound misunderstanding of James. His real message is this: We are not saved just because we say we have faith; we are saved by having a genuine faith, and a genuine faith will show itself in our actions. Once again, PDL has quoted a misleading paraphrase to distort the argument of a key biblical passage.

Conclusion

If this were a longer article, I could point to more things that I like and more things that I dislike in PDL. My purpose here has been to highlight two fundamental problems with PDL. First, it engages in the worst, most misleading proof-texting I have ever seen. This is a great disservice to the millions of Christians reading the book. Even worse, though, is the theological confusion that permeates the book. In each of the examples we have examined, PDL has shifted the emphasis from choosing eternal life to improving my experience here and now—not “I will find eternal life” but “I will find my true self and how to really live”; not “I will be justified before God and be saved” but “I will make God happy.” The Purpose-Driven Life has some good things to say. But it has not said the most important thing, and because of that its message is essentially unbiblical. It has not said that the fundamental purpose of my life in this world is to choose life over death. At stake in how I live my life is not whether I have a more or less fulfilling experience as a Christian, but whether in spite of my weaknesses and sin I persevere in being a disciple of Jesus and so find eternal life.

Copyright August 2005 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Ron Julian