The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren has been a bestseller in the Christian world for decades. It was on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 90 weeks and sold 18 million copies in its first six years. It has over 215,000 ratings on Goodreads averaging 3.93 stars and over 2,400 ratings on Amazon averaging 4.7 stars.
In reality, the only nice thing about this book is that its “reading plan” has already been laid out for the reader. It’s meant to be read one chapter a day for forty days, and each section (except the last one) takes one week. So each of my review posts will be about one week-long section. (But don’t worry, they won’t be consecutive. I need a break from reading this already.)
The first section of the book is an introduction to the five “purposes” for life. It’s titled, “What on Earth Am I Here For?” and contains seven chapters.
1. It All Starts with God
The very first thing (following a bible verse) in Chapter One of Part One of this book is a Bertrand Russell quote taken out of context. Beneath the chapter title, it reads, “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless. – Bertrand Russell, atheist”. Of course, the first thing I did was Google the quote, and I found this page. The full quote is, in fact, “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless, and like Laplace, ‘I have no need of that hypothesis.'” (The Laplace quote was translated from French here.) So maybe there is no true purpose to life without a god. But that doesn’t make Warren’s god real.
The main gist of this chapter was that you’re hopeless at finding your own meaning or trying to choose your own purpose in life. Warren says that we are God’s invention, and the only way to understand us is to ask the inventor and read the owner’s manual, which he says is the bible. He says that the bible “explains why we are alive, how life works, what to avoid, and what to expect in the future.” Needless to say, this was my first clue that Warren has not read the bible.
2. You Are Not an Accident
Warren starts this chapter off with Einstein’s famous quote, “God doesn’t play dice,” but I really don’t have time to get into why all of his quotes miserably miss the point.
I’m glad that this chapter is short, because it is just Warren saying “God made you for a reason, even if your parents didn’t,” in as many different ways as he can.
If there was no God, we would all be ‘accidents,’ the result of astronomical random chance in the universe. You could stop reading this book, because life would have no purpose or meaning or significance. There would be no right or wrong, and no hope beyond your brief years here on earth.
First of all, I would love to stop reading this book! Secondly, barring the fact that evolutionary changes are far from just random, I think it’s so incredible that against all odds that any one person happened to be the sperm that won! And how incredible that every one of any given person’s ancestors lived at least as long as they did to reproduce, that we are the few that got the honor to live at all, however briefly. That is so much more amazing than being created as a pawn in God’s game, and being expected to pay him back for all eternity.
3. What Drives Your Life?
In my attempt at being brutally honest, I will say that the first half of this chapter isn’t all that bad. Of course, it is only paving the way for Warren to tell you to live for God and absolutely nothing else, but he starts by telling you what not to live for: guilt, resentment and anger, fear, materialism, and a need for approval.
The half-decent advice doesn’t last long. Warren says, “Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope.” I wrote in the margin that literally all of this is wrong. We have no way of knowing which, if any, god exists. If it is the god of the bible, he’s so fickle and often at odds with Jesus that you don’t even know who to follow. (I mean, should you be circumcised or not!?) With or without a god, there is no inherent purpose built into life. The only purpose we have is doing what we can to make our days count.
4. Made to Last Forever
This chapter is when Warren really begins making it crystal clear that our only purpose is to live to die. He advises readers not to get too attached to this life or anything in it, because the real party only starts in heaven—and only Christians are invited.
In addition to this truly sad way of living (given that we have absolutely no way of proving any kind of afterlife), Warren inevitably claims that you choose where you end up, and that there are no options other than heaven or hell. He says, “Tragically, many people will have to endure eternity without God because they chose to live without him here on earth.”
I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve taken it upon myself to correct his statement. “Billions of people have found it impossible to accept the existence of the Christian god because he doesn’t satisfy their need for evidence. Billions more worship the wrong gods. But most people in the history of humanity either lived before the dawn of Christianity, or they’ve just never heard of it or of Jesus. But that’s their problem, not ours. It’s their fault that God decided never to reveal himself to them, and it’s their fault that he will now burn and torture them for all eternity. But you, my Christian reader, don’t you worry about that. You’re better than all those people.”
5. Seeing Life from God’s View
In this chapter, Warren describes that you can view life through the metaphors of its being a test and a trust. In regards to it being a test, he says, “When you understand that life is a test, you realize that nothing is insignificant.” And about it being a trust, he says, “At the end of your life on earth you will be evaluated and rewarded according to how well you handled what God entrusted to you.” (Hey, Rick, this would be a great time to bring up climate change!) “That means everything you do, even simple daily chores, has eternal implications.”
When I was working in retail in college, the manager told me that how much I would be scheduled would depend on on how well I performed on my last shifts. I thought that this was unfair, because sometimes you’re just having a bad day or you’re in a bad mood. It’s unfair to expect someone to be perfect all the time, and to threaten that with money. Similarly, it’s pretty manipulative to threaten someone to be perfect using eternity.
It seems in this chapter that Warren is beginning to show that life is a game, and God is the gamemaster. If you win, you go to heaven and if you lose, you go to hell. Whether you win or lose depends on how many points you have. If you don’t believe in the Christian god, you lose by default, but if you do believe, then you could gain or lose points in anything you do. So don’t mess up.
6. Life is a Temporary Assignment
This might actually be the worst chapter so far. Warren has begun to hammer home the points of the last two chapters: Life is a brief test to determine where you’ll go when you die. He describes life on earth as a short visit to a foreign country where you don’t belong.
Warren uses this as the explanation of why we “experience difficulty, sorrow, and rejection in this world. . . . We’re not completely happy here because we’re not supposed to be!” He’s essentially telling Christians that they should accept and even be proud of being miserable in life, because it will all go away when they die. They don’t belong to this world, so they shouldn’t get attached to anything in it, be it happiness, family, success, or anything that brings them joy that isn’t God himself. Life is just treated as the staging area for a destination that doesn’t exist, and we’re encouraged to waste our time on this earth wishing for death.
7. The Reason for Everything
This chapter, if you can believe it, is more full of fluff than the other six. It is really just the introduction to the five purposes that will make up the rest of the book. Before listing the five purposes, however, Warren discusses bringing glory to God, because not bringing glory to God, or “loving anything else more than God,” is “the worst sin and the biggest mistake we can make.”
Apparently, the five purposes in the rest of the book will define what bringing glory to God is. But Warren makes some analogies that I think undermine the point of the whole book. He says, “Birds bring glory to God by flying, chirping, nesting, and doing other bird-like activities that God intended. Even the lowly ant brings glory to God when it fulfills the purpose it was created for. God made ants to be ants, and he made you to be you.”
For the sake of my sanity, I’m just going to ignore the fact that birds and ants do what they do because they evolved to be that way. But if Warren wants to measure other non-human animals’ purpose by doing what they instinctively do, then he should measure humans’ purpose in the same way. This would mean our purpose is to do things like eating, sleeping, having sex, and having other meaningful relationships. Being religious is natural and instinctual, but not to the point where you deny your own identity and love nothing as much as God.
So far, it has seemed to me that Warren is diagnosing a problem that he made up so that he can sell us the cure in his book, journal, and “scripture-keeper plus.” He likes to twist around biblical passages by presenting them only in the most obscure translations that support his points. I don’t trust him at all, and neither should anyone else.