It's always worth paying attention to what's popular. In my ongoing quest to open a Christian window on the world, I constantly scan newspapers, magazines, and websites to see what people are thinking and talking about. This is not because I'm trying to keep up with the crowd, you understand, but because what the crowd is doing usually gives insight into the spiritual needs of our culture.
I also pay attention to the books that people are reading, and what people have been reading is The Purpose-Driven Life [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002] by California pastor Rick Warren. After more than a full year at or near the top of the New York Times bestseller list, the book has sold more than 15 million copies.
The Purpose-Driven Life has a number of significant strengths. I'll mention some weaknesses in a moment, but the book contains valuable and reliable teaching in a number of areas. Warren advocates a God-centered approach to life and worship. He opposes the wrong motivations that often drive us, such as guilt, resentment, fear, materialism, and approval. What ought to drive us instead is a passion for God and his glory. So the main point of the book is also the right point. “The ultimate goal of the universe,” Warren writes, “is to show the glory of God. It is the reason for everything that exists, including you” [p. 53].
At the center of that grand and glorious purpose is a relationship with Jesus Christ, in which you do everything “as if you were doing it for Jesus and by carrying on a continual conversation with him while you do it” [p. 67]. Warren offers five basic principles for living a Christ-centered, God-glorifying life, all of which are thoroughly biblical. How do we bring glory to God? By worshiping him, by loving other believers, by becoming like Christ, by serving others with our gifts, and by telling others about him [pp. 5557]. The Purpose-Driven Life also has some good things to say against individualism and for life in the Christian community, such as the importance of becoming members of Christ's church, and not simply regular attenders.
The book does have a number of weaknesses. Warren believes that the Bible is the very Word of God, but he relies heavily on a hodgepodge of loose Bible translations. His goal is to let familiar Bible verses speak with fresh power, but in fact his approach takes us farther away from the true Word of God. Warren also says precious little about the atonement. He invites people to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but strangely, he does not offer any clear presentation of his saving work on the cross. Nor does he have very much to say about the confession of sin. The Purpose-Driven Life assumes the gospel without ever really proclaiming it.
There is also a problem with the way the book is presented. The author begins by saying, “This is more than a book; it is a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey” [p. 9]. Warren proceeds to argue that whenever God calls people to do something significant, he takes forty days to prepare them. There are a few biblical examples of this, of course, like Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus in the wilderness. But Warren takes the point too far when he presents his book as the forty-day formula for getting great things to happen in life. This only fuels the faddishness that besets the evangelical church and distracts people from the ordinary means of spiritual growth. What people really need is basic biblical truth about how to live, rather than yet another re-packaged, step-by-step mechanism for spiritual growth.
An additional concern is that people who read The Purpose-Driven Life may be enticed to read Warren's earlier book on church growth. The Purpose-Driven Church, as that book is called, advocates a seeker-driven philosophy of ministry that is not the best or most biblical approach to church life.
I make these comments to help people who read The Purpose-Driven Life or talk to people who have read it. But my main interest is the extraordinary popularity of a book on this subject. Who would have guessed that fifteen million Americans were interested in reading a book about living for the glory of God?
It can only mean that millions of people are still looking for the meaning of life. They are tired of focusing on themselves and living for all the things that our culture uses to define them, such as money, security, and approval. They find themselves wondering what they are really here for after all. Deep down they know they are living without any meaningful sense of purpose, which explains why they find it so difficult to make a marriage work, or to settle on a satisfying career, or to feel that there is a community where they truly belong.
Not only do people know that they are missing the meaning of life, but they are making an effort to find out what it is. And they are ready to at least consider a worldview that says, “You were made for God, not vice versa, and life is about letting God use you for his purposes, not your using him for your own purpose” [p. 18]. They are ready, in fact, for a purpose-driven life—one “guided, controlled, and directed by God's purposes” [p. 30] rather than their own.
What kind of life are you leading? Are you making sure that the main thing is still the main thing? Do the choices you are making about the use of your time and money make it perfectly clear you believe that from God and through God and to God are all things, and that to him belongs the glory forever (Rom. 11:36)? If so, then you are fulfilling your true purpose in life, which is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
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