Just when you thought, or at least hoped, that I had forgotten about my series reacting to Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, I’m posting about it yet again. On the bright side, we are nearly finished with this damaging book! This will be my reaction to Purpose Four out of five. This time, it’s all about serving God.
Before I go on, I want to address my provocative title. “Of course,” Christians will think, “an atheist would think that serving God is throwing your life away.” Well, in this case, it is irrelevant whether I think that. Rick Warren himself uses this exact language to describe the act of serving God, quoting Jesus when he 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.” (As always, Warren uses a strange translation here for Mark 8:35, in this case the Living Bible translation, but the general idea is the same as in the NIV translation.)
The idea of throwing your life away to serve God can act as a catch-all of what Purpose Four is all about. When Warren says to spend your whole life serving God, he means your whole life. Every second. A moment spent looking after your own well-being instead of those of other Christians is wasted and could cost you eternal life. This idea is explained in the section’s seven chapters:
29. Accepting Your Assignment
30. Shaped for Serving God
31. Understanding Your Shape
32. Using What God Gave You
33. How Real Servants Act
34. Thinking Like a Servant
35. God’s Power in Your Weakness
As it is when anyone is faced with a difficult task, before one can serve God, they must first have the motivation to do so. In The Purpose-Driven Life, you’re told that if you serve on Earth, and especially if you do so humbly and privately, you will get the eternal reward of heaven. This reward is seemingly inversely proportional with how much praise you receive for your good works during your life. So it may sound like the humble route when one serves only for the sake of serving, but even Warren’s servant lifestyle exists primarily so that the servant can enjoy the reward of heaven.
But is not true service that which gets no recognition? Certainly it is less selfish to give every day of your life when that life is all you have. As he’s admitted already, Warren believes that it is reasonable to throw your life away for service, but what sacrifice is it really, if it’s only the blink of an eye you’re giving up for an eternal reward?
Once you’ve decided that you are going to devote your life to serving others (which should be an end in itself and not using others as a means to gain eternal reward), you must decide how you will do that. For a while, Warren gives actually decent advice on how to determine what your talents are. He says to introspect and find out what makes your heart race, and also to ask the people you know what they think you’re good at. According to Warren, “[God] would not give you abilities, interests, talents, gifts, personality, and life experiences unless he intended to use them for his glory.” But for me and for many of my readers, this begs the question, “What if your talents are to go against what Christianity teaches?”
Most of my personal talents are not exclusively atheism-centric, whatever that may mean. Some of my strong-suits (in my opinion) are writing, graphic design, and marketing. Plenty of people use skills like these “for the glory of God,” although I use them for things like writing this blog and promoting my ideas through my social media accounts. If I take Warren’s advice, would that mean that I’d be writing and promoting an apologetics blog instead, even if I didn’t believe a word I wrote?
As if he heard my question as I was reading, Warren then says, “Even abilities used to sin are God-given; they are just being misused or abused.” But what if that ability is having a skeptical, scientific mind? What if someone used their abilities to create the technology needed to date rocks, which determined that the Earth is not 6,000 years old, but 4.6 billion? What if your passion lies in learning about the evolutionary origins of the human race? Warren says that “God made you to be you,” but it is clear that like the rest of the advice in this book, God only made you to be Christian. And if you can’t force yourself to believe in something because of your own inherent skepticism, then that’s your fault . . . not God’s fault.
Before I move onto another one of the salient themes in this section, I want to give an example of Rick Warren blatantly twisting the words of (his) God himself in order to make a point. Here, Warren is trying to emphasize to the reader not to waste their talents (if your talents work for Christian ministry, of course). Warren says,
“If you don’t utilize the skills and abilities that God has given you, you will lose them. Jesus taught the parable of the talents to emphasize this truth. Referring to the servant who failed to use his one talent, the master said, ‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten talents.’ Fail to use what you’ve been given and you’ll lose it. Use the ability you’ve got and God will increase it.”
If you’re familiar with the gospels, then you might recognize this line and overall concept from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. And you might know why Warren’s application is just off. For once, Warren used a normal translation of the bible, the NIV; or so he says. As a matter of fact, the NIV actually says, “So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.” That’s because a talent in Jesus’ day was a form of currency. Specifically, one talent of gold would be today’s equivalent of about $1.5 million. Warren must have written this, crossing his fingers that his audience was so unfamiliar with their own bible to not know that this is a parable about investing money and not keeping it all for yourself, and not about skills or abilities at all. Any Christian reading this ought to feel disrespected.
Actually, let’s talk about investing money for a moment, since Warren brought it up. With an estimated net worth of $28 million, Warren is essentially financially secure for life. I suppose that this means he thinks he can give financial advice to people who couldn’t imagine money like that in their wildest dreams. Throughout the book, Warren warns against spending your life saving for retirement (or working, or just enjoying being alive). Instead of planning for the future, you must give as much as you possibly can to the church. I think that Warren does actually take his own advice for this, but talking about money seems to make him uncomfortable. I suppose it’s hard to reconcile the ideas that money is both an idol and a means of “glorifying God” at the same time. If it’s so dangerous, why does God want it so badly?
Finally, Warren focuses on the idea of using your weaknesses to serve God. Once again, he contradicts himself. Before discussing weaknesses in depth, he says, “If you’re going to be a servant, you must settle your identity in Christ. Only secure people can serve. Insecure people are always worrying about how they appear to others.”
He goes on to spend a chapter describing the value of being an imperfect person with weaknesses. He even goes so far as to use the biblical example of Gideon, whose weakness was his deep insecurity before God made him a “mighty man of valor.” This directly contradicts what Warren just said. Either God rid Gideon of his weakness (which Warren says is necessary for service) before Gideon began to serve, or Gideon began serving even with his insecurity, which is supposedly a necessary precursor to service, and God fixed it later. You can’t have it both ways.
Overall, Warren falls prey to the classic fault of trying to do too many things for too many people. You can try to be inclusive, but you can’t appeal to people with and without insecurities by saying that they’re sometimes a burden and sometimes necessary. You can’t tell the poor that money is an idol but tell the rich that it’s a virtue to become wealthy and give your money to the church. And you can’t tell people to use their abilities to serve God when billions of people were simply not cut out to do so.
The worst thing in this book, though, isn’t a contradiction or a sly mistranslation. It’s Warren’s constant demonizing of self-care. Warren expects his readers to give 110% of their time and energy to serving others, no matter what their mental or financial states look like. To him, there is never a time to choose yourself over others, but in reality, this attitude isn’t sustainable. Giving to others is a noble task, but you won’t have anything to give if you don’t first love and care for yourself. You must look out for yourself and know your limits before entirely giving yourself away for any cause.