Monday, September 26, 2005

The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren

Some time ago, neighbors gave a bunch of people in the neighborhood a copy of Rick Warren’s runaway bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, and invited us all to join them in a weekly book club so we could all take the spiritual journey together. I remember a lot of angst from my wife and me over trying to decide if we would participate or not. I wanted to, desiring the kind of fellowship and sense of community such an experience would likely provide, but I was also afraid because it would mean either pretending to think as they did for the sake of that fellowship—which wouldn’t be real fellowship anyway if I was just faking—or confessing openly to the fact that I didn’t think as they did—which had the potential to ruin the spiritual experience for everyone else. Eventually we decided not to participate, but I put the book into my rotation knowing there would come a day when it would rise to the top and I would log my reactions to its chapters in a format similar to this. That day is now and these are those reactions.

Day 1: It All Starts with God

Rick wants me to read only one chapter a day and spend the intervening time thinking about what I have read and what it means. He even wants me to sign a “covenant” to that effect. A forty-day spiritual journey because forty is a “spiritually significant” time period. Whenever God wanted to prepare someone for his purposes, he took 40 days. Well, Rick, I really like the way you’ve decided to use the lower-case “he” when referring to God, but I ain’t gonna sign no covenant committing the next 40 days of my life to discovering God’s purpose for my life. Tell you what I will do. I will read your chapters one at a time and write something about my reaction to each one here before moving onto the next one. Deal?

The point to ponder form the first chapter is, “It’s not about me.” Guess what, Rick. I agree with that. You quote Bertrand Russell in the frontispiece to this chapter as having said, “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless,” as if to imply that life without God has no purpose, and you further label Russell only and simply as an “atheist,” again as if to imply that all atheists feel this way. Well, I'm willing to ponder not only that life without God does have a purpose, but furthermore that that purpose is not about me or my personal happiness or enjoyment. Going into this on Day 1, I would say that my pre-conceived idea about what the purpose of life is is to improve things for others, to make the universe a slightly better place than the way you found it. A life dedicated to individual enrichment is ultimately a life wasted if those enrichments don’t improve conditions for others in some way.

Day 2: You Are Not an Accident

OK. Here’s where we start to diverge. Day 2. Believe it or not. Rick says not only am I not an accident, but nothing is. God planned it all.

God never does anything accidentally, and he never makes mistakes. He has a reason for everything he creates. Every plant and every animal was planned by God, and every person was designed with a purpose in mind.

And it’s not just that he knew I would be here some day. According to Rick, God actively brought my parents together to create me.

God knew that those two individuals possessed exactly the right genetic makeup to create the custom ‘you’ he had in mind. They had the DNA God wanted to make you.

It doesn’t end there. After relying on scripture to reveal these truths, Rick inexplicably turns to science for his next one.

The more physicists, biologists, and other scientists learn about the universe, the better we understand how it is uniquely suited for our existence, custom made with the exact specifications that make human life possible.

Oh yeah, Rick? Which universe would that be? The one that will freeze, suffocate and explode us the moment we step foot off the shiny blue ball we call Earth? Human life, so far as we know (and I’m pretty sure the Bible doesn’t tell us any different), exists in only one infinitesimally small place in this gigantic universe, and everywhere else conditions exist which are deadly to it. Sure glad God picked this place to put us and not some quasar rotating around a black hole. Saying that God made the earth perfectly suited for human life is a little like saying he made chairs perfectly suited for the human behind. Look at how we sit. What other kind of chair could we use? Look at how we breathe? What other kind of air could there be? To me it seems less like our environment was made special for us and more like we and our environment developed in a co-dependent fashion, it suiting our needs only to the extent that our needs matched the only feasible alternative allowed by the environment.

And how about that word accident? Is that a loaded term, or what? Something created without a guiding purpose is not necessarily an accident. It could be the effect of random forces, or even forces that are not random but that are also not sentient, forces that are intrinsic to the energy and matter that comprise the universe and which don’t need a guiding hand to perpetuate themselves. It’s the same as Chapter 1. No God equals purposeless and accidental. I’m not sure I buy that.

Day 3: What Drives Your Life?

I have no idea what drives my life. I honestly don’t think that any of Rick’s five most common drivers are relevant to me. I’m clearly not driven by materialism, and I’m pretty sure I’m not driven by the need for approval, resentment and anger, or guilt. Of the five, I’m probably closest to being driven by fear, but even that may be overstating the case. As most recently made clear to me, I am afraid of failing and not being able to take care of my family, and I certainly do things I wouldn’t otherwise do as a result of that fear. But is fear driving my life? I don’t think so. Okay, smart guy, if not those five, what? What’s driving you life? Again. I have no idea.

Day 4: Made to Last Forever

I don’t buy the premise. It’s a good thing I didn’t participate in the book club because I don’t buy Rick’s premise. And if I don’t believe the premise, how can I take the spiritual journey? Rick's concept that what I do in this life will affect how I “spend eternity” strikes me as just a little parochial. Rick says,

If your time on earth were all there is to your life, I would suggest you start living it up immediately. You could forget being good and ethical, and you wouldn’t have to worry about any consequences of your actions. You could indulge yourself in total self-centeredness because your actions would have no long term repercussions.

Come on, Rick. You’re a grown-up, right? Or maybe you’re just assuming that you’re not talking to one. As if the only rational reward for being good and ethical is eternal life in heaven. As if, without heaven and hell, there are no consequences to being bad and unethical. Better be good, people. If you’re bad God is going to stuff you into hell and Santa won’t bring you any presents. Well, I don’t know about Rick, but I’ve looked into the abyss that is earthly self-centeredness and saw a lot of long-term consequences to walking down that path. Most of them ain’t eternal consequences, but one is, and that’s death itself. Screw up too bad and you die, and then all the potential your life represents is forever gone and will never manifest itself.

Rick also recites another one of my favorites.

What is it going to be like in eternity with God? Frankly, the capacity of our brains cannot handle the wonder and greatness of heaven. It would be like trying to describe the Internet to an ant. It’s futile. Words have not been invented that could possibly convey the experience of eternity.

That’s right, Rick. Avoid the tough questions. It’s simpler that way. And if someone asks about something that doesn’t fit between the covers of your Bible, tell them the capacity of their brain cannot handle the wonder and greatness of that something. You know. That “God works in mysterious ways” concept. It’s a convenient way to build a theory of everything that doesn’t have to explain everything. I hope this book gets better, because right now it’s reminding me a lot of Confirmation Class.

Day 5: Seeing Life from God’s View

Some thought provoking stuff at the beginning about the way we view life affecting the way we live life and the boundaries that get placed on our potential. Rick calls them life metaphors. What’s my life metaphor? Like the question about what drives my life, I’m afraid that I’m not sure about this one either. But that’s okay, because Rick is ready to tell me what my life metaphor should be. Are you ready? There’s three of them. Life is a test, life is a trust, and life is a temporary assignment. Let’s start with the test.

You are always being tested. God constantly watches your response to people, problems, success, conflict, illness, disappointment, and even the weather! He even watches the simplest actions such as when you open a door for others, when you pick up a piece of trash, or when you’re polite to a clerk or waitress.

Wow. God does sound a lot like Santa Claus.

We don’t know all the tests God will give you, but we can predict some of them, based on the Bible. You will be tested by major changes, delayed promises, impossible problems, unanswered prayers, undeserved criticism, and even senseless tragedies.

So, when God sends the hurricane to wash away everything I have and then doesn’t answer my prayers for assistance, it is because he is testing me. Hmmm. I wonder if there could be another explanation for those events? But wait. It gets better.

The good news is that God wants you to pass the tests of life, so he never allows the tests you face to be greater than the grace he gives you to handle them.

So then why is God testing me? Is he in fact testing me? If he sends the test, and then sends me the strength to pass that test, isn’t he really testing himself? Hey, Rick. Here’s a life metaphor for you. Life is a math teacher who gives you a pop quiz each morning but whispers the answers in your ear.

I found a little more value in Rick’s second metaphor, that life is a trust. Rick says all we have are gifts from God, things that he has entrusted to us for safe keeping. Whether that's true or not, I am cognizant of a certain stewardship rather than ownership I have over many things in my life. My children, for one. My life itself, for another. My life is mine, and I could end it if I so chose, but what a horribly selfish act that would be. What about all the people I touch and whose lives my life has the potential to improve? To take away that potential is one of the worst acts I can think of.

Day 6: Life is a Temporary Assignment

I agree that the years of my lifespan are just a wink of an eye compared to eternity, but I don’t necessarily buy that the purpose of my life here is to prepare me for life in eternity. Rick doesn’t come right out and say that (at least not in this chapter) but it is certainly implied. The use of the word “assignment” indicates it, but I’m not clear on what that “assignment” is. Rick goes out of his way to stress that we are not made for earth, we’re made for heaven, that we’re not citizens of the earth, we’re citizens of heaven. Well, if that’s the case, why are we on earth and why aren’t we in heaven? We’re made for heaven, but we have to spend some time on earth so that we can be tested to see if we are worthy of heaven. Tests, remember, that we’re sure to pass because God is whispering answers in our ears. And not just that. Rick says,

In order to keep us from becoming too attached to earth, God allows us to feel a significant amount of discontent and dissatisfaction in life—longing that will never be fulfilled on this side of eternity. We’re not completely happy here because we’re not supposed to be!

So, God makes us for heaven, but then puts us on earth to test us and then allows us (my favorite word yet, allows) to feel unsatisfied with life here. I ask the question again. Why are we here in the first place? Why not just keep us in heaven where we evidently belong? If God is going to pass all my tests for me and make me unhappy with my life here, what is the bloody point? I wonder what I would feel about life if God wasn’t “allowing” me to feel unsatisfied with it?

Day 7: The Reason for Everything

The ultimate goal of the universe is to show the glory of God. It is the reason for everything that exists, including you. God made it all for his glory.

Ugh. Who wants to live in that universe? OK. So I’m really great, right? So, because I’m so great, I’m going to create this universe, right? And everything in that universe is going to proclaim how great I was in creating it, I mean, even the rocks, man, the hard, heavy rocks are going to proclaim how great I am when they sit there being rocks. And the people! Wait till you see the people. One of them, named Rick, is going to write a book and remind them all that I have “commanded” them to “recognize, honor, declare, praise, reflect and live” for my glory! That’s what their whole lives are going to be about, man. Praising me for being great enough to create them. And if any of them refuse to do it, well, I’ll call that sin, man, and I’ll stuff their sorry asses into hell with all those angels who didn’t want to devote their lives to telling me how great I am either.

Maybe there’s a whole group of gods, and they all got their own universes, and they’re always trying to outdo each other. One third of your angels rebelled, Yahweh? I only lost one fourth of mine. I must be greater than you. Here’s one of my favorite sentences yet.

In nature we learn that God is powerful, that he enjoys variety, loves beauty, is organized, and is wise and creative.

He enjoys variety? Which variety would that be? A variety of species, no doubt, but surely not variety within species. It took a human being to recognize the power of that potential.

Day 8: Planned for God’s Pleasure

Here we go. The first of five purposes for my life, direct from the Gospel according to Rick. Bringing God pleasure by worshipping him.

When you fully understand this truth, you will never again have a problem with feeling insignificant. It proves your worth. If you are that important to God, and he considers you valuable enough to keep with him for eternity, what greater significance could you have?

Note my slip there. I almost wrote “the problem with feeling insignificant,” but that’s not what Rick says. Rick says you’ll never again have “a problem with feeling insignificant,” which means, if I read it right, that you still are insignificant, but that you no longer have a problem with it. Is that what you meant to say, Rick? Judging by the rest of that quote, I’d say no. Here’s another.

We often forget that God has emotions, too. He feels things very deeply. The Bible tells us that God grieves, gets jealous and angry, and feels compassion, pity, sorrow, and sympathy as well as happiness, gladness and satisfaction. God loves, delights, gets pleasure, rejoices, enjoys, and even laughs!

Wait a minute. Did you say God gets jealous and angry? What in the name of creation does God have to be jealous about? Maybe there is a clique of gods up there, and ours is jealous of the universes that the other ones have created. You know. The ones where all the life forms do worship their God because he’s grown up enough not to get jealous and angry about the insignificant beings he created not worshipping him. Wouldn’t that be a stitch? If the God of our universe was the dorky loser of the bunch, always goofing things up and getting mad at the success of others around him? Hey, Rick. Is that another one of those life metaphors?

Day 9: What Makes God Smile?

God smiles when we love, trust, obey and praise him, and when we use the human abilities he gave us. Rick says the person to model ourselves after in making God smile is Noah.

In Noah’s day, the entire world had become morally bankrupt. Everyone lived for their own pleasure, not God’s. God couldn’t find anyone on earth interested in pleasing him, so he was grieved and regretted making man. God became so disgusted with the human race that he considered wiping it out. But there was one man who made God smile. The Bible says, ‘Noah was a pleasure to the Lord.’ God said, ‘This guy brings me pleasure. He makes me smile. I’ll start over with his family.’

OK. Couple things. Didn’t God remember what happened in the Garden of Eden? Maybe the Church hadn’t yet invented the concept of original sin, but what made God think that Noah’s descendants would please him any more than Adam’s? Before I make my second point, here’s another quote.

Saving the animal population from a worldwide flood required great attention to logistics and details.

Is Rick kidding? No. No, Rick isn’t. Rick really believes that there was a guy named Noah who spent 120 years building an ark, which he then loaded with two of every kind of animal on earth (except, I gather, the fishes). This isn’t an allegory or a parable for Rick, a fictional story that illustrates an important philosophical point. This is reality. This actually happened. How does Rick know? His Bible told him, and his Bible is the very word of God. How did Noah get the animals from North America on the ark, Rick? Or weren’t there any different animals there or anywhere else in the world from those in Noah’s neighborhood? Or did Noah let them all drown? And which animals did Noah make extinct by offering burnt offerings to God upon hitting dry land? Don’t insult my intelligence, Rick. If you want me to devote my life to making God smile, don’t present something so implausible as Noah's ark as my reason for doing so or my example to follow.

Day 10: The Heart of Worship

The heart of worship is surrender, and in this chapter Rick extols me to surrender myself completely to God. God can’t do what he wants to do with my life, evidently, unless I do so. Puts me in a rather awkward position, doesn’t it? Little old me, single-handedly thwarting God’s will. Who knows what miracles he had planned to work through me? And we’ll never see them because I refuse to let God work them. All the good he wants to do through me. Like that guy at the end of the chapter, Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, who has brought more than 150 million people to Christ and to eternity in heaven. He surrendered himself to God and look what God could do through him. I’d better surrender myself right now. I’d hate to get blamed for keeping people out of heaven.

Am I really going to do this for the next 30 days? Yes, I think I am.

Day 11: Becoming Best Friends with God

Rick says there are six ways to do this, two he describes in this chapter and four in the next. The first is to pray constantly. The second is to meditate on his Word continually. I don’t think I have any snide comments about that. As I’ve said before, if God really does exist, and he wants us to do this kind of stuff, then we’d all be fools not to. If God doesn’t exist, would all that mental energy be just a waste of time? Hard to say. I would think the praying would be, which is why I’ve stopped myself from praying or asking God for help on any of the recent tribulations I have faced. But meditating on his Word? Even if not divinely inspired, I’ll grant there might be some use in that. The Word may not be wholly true, but there is wisdom there, much of it worth knowing.

Day 12: Developing Your Friendship with God

If you’ve just been going through the motions spiritually, don’t be surprised when God allows pain in your life. Pain is the fuel of passion—it energizes us with an intensity to change that we don’t normally possess. C. S. Lewis said, ‘Pain is God’s megaphone.’ It’s God’s way of arousing us from spiritual lethargy. Your problems are not punishment; they are wake-up calls from a loving God. God is not mad at you; he’s mad about you, and he will do whatever it takes to bring you back into fellowship with him.

This is a very interesting concept. God sends pain into your life as a warning that you’re falling out of favor with him. What happens to someone if they fall so far out of favor with God that they stop believing in his childish nonsense? Does the pain he sends their way become so unbearable that they take their own life or that they come crawling back to him begging forgiveness? Or maybe they realize that the pain isn’t really coming from God, it’s just there all around them, and it isn’t really pain, it’s just the way things are.

Day 13: Worship That Pleases God

People often say, ‘I like to think of God as…,’ and then they share their idea of the kind of God they would like to worship. But we cannot just create our own comfortable or politically correct image of God and worship it. That is idolatry.

I agree with the lion’s share of that. I believe that’s what most people do, consciously or not. They create a God in their own image, the kind of God they would want to be if they ran the universe, and then they worship it in their own way. In fact, I believe that some of the people that wrote the Bible were doing just that. That’s why Moses’ God is so different from Paul’s God. But let’s take Rick’s premise as given for the moment, that we need to worship the true God that is revealed in the Bible. What kind of God is that?

In the Old Testament, God gradually revealed himself to Israel by introducing new names for himself, and he commands us to praise his name.

Hmmm.

In the Old Testament, God took pleasure in the many sacrifices of worship because they foretold of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross.

This gets back to what Rick was saying before. God created the universe and everything in it for the purpose of demonstrating and proclaiming his tremendous power. We have no other purpose but to fulfill God’s ultimate plan, which is to praise him. Makes me wonder again how secure God is with himself that he needs a universe to remind him of how great he is.

Day 14: When God Seems Distant

We’re supposed to praise God even when he makes himself distant from us. More than that, it’s one of the true tests of our faith to praise God even when he seems to have abandoned us. We’re supposed to follow Job’s example.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.

I love this. I love it first of all because it is so counterintuitive. None of us are responsible for anything we have, it is all a gift from God, and he can take it away just as easily as he has given it—and he is completely just in doing so. We are entitled to nothing, so when God takes something away we are to thank him for letting us keep it as long as he did. No one really lives their life like this. No one but monks and lunatics. And yet we’re expected to act this way. But I also love this because of what a great con it is. Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Doesn’t he care? Doesn’t he have a sense of justice? Does he not really exist at all? No, no, no. Don’t be so silly. God abandons his faithful because he loves them, and he wants to give them a test to prove how much they love him. A test, remember, that he will be sure to give them the strength to pass. And it’s all to bring him glory, to show how great he is. Look at poor Job. See what he is without God? A sick, lame, naked creature covered in lesions and clawing his way through the muck and grime. Isn’t God great? Hallelujah!

Day 15: Formed for God’s Family

This is evidently the second great purpose in our lives—joining God’s family. Wait a minute. What was our first great purpose again? Oh yeah, giving God pleasure. But don’t we give God pleasure by joining his family? Doesn’t that make the second purpose part of the first? Or more precisely, doesn’t that make the second a way of accomplishing the first? Ugh. I really don’t see how I’m going to get through the rest of this book. The first ten days or so were interesting enough because of the philosophical challenges they presented. But now it’s all just doctrine. And the only way to refute doctrine is to say it ain’t so. There’s no good reason why it’s doctrine, and there’s no good reason why it ain’t. It’s just what one chooses to believe.

Day 16: What Matters Most

What was that I said about no more philosophical challenges? Try these.

Learning to love unselfishly is not an easy task. It runs counter to our self-centered nature.

Wait a minute, Rick. If we were “formed for God’s family,” why did he give us a self-centered nature? If he wanted a big happy family in heaven to praise him, why didn’t he just create us all there in the first place? Oh, wait. He did do that, didn’t he? And a third of “us” rose up against him in rebellion. Now why do you think that happened?

Four of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship to God while the other six deal with our relationships with people. But all ten are about relationships!

I think I love the exclamation point best of all. Yeah, I guess asking me not to kill anybody is a good way of dealing with my relationships. Hey! Wait a minute, Rick! They’ve all got verbs, too! All ten are about doing or not doing something!

The third reason to make learning to love the goal of your life is that it is what we will be evaluated on in eternity. One of the ways God measures spiritual maturity is by the quality of your relationships.

What the hell does that mean? I thought all we had to do was accept Jesus Christ as our God and savior and we’d be assured of going to heaven. Is there some other threshold we need to meet? Yes, you believe, but sorry, you’re not spiritually mature enough to get into heaven. Do we get to try again? Or is it one shot and then straight to hell if we don’t measure up?

Speaking of hell, Rick hasn’t said much about hell or the devil in this book. I wonder how they figure into all of this? Despite all this ridicule, I will give Rick credit for getting two things right in this chapter. The most important things in life are our relationships with other people, and the most meaningful way to show love for someone is to spend time with them.

Day 17: A Place to Belong

There are some interesting ideas here. Talk about the church as something different than a building or collected group of believers. The church is really the body of Christ and those who are members are organs in that body. When Jesus walked the earth 2,000 years ago, he relied on his own body and its efforts to achieve his goals. Now he has a new body, but he uses it in much the same way to achieve many of the same goals. That’s interesting. The church as a gargantuan organism, made up of millions of separate beings, all working in concert to bring about a higher purpose. But then Rick starts talking about brick and mortar again, and stressing how important it is to become involved with the local congregation. I suppose he sees the organized aspects of religion, with all their warts, as the closest thing we flawed humans have to a true community with Christ. But I’m not sure I’m ready to accept that.

On NPR’s This I Believe, I heard Penn Jillette read his easy on why he believes there is no God and he likened a belief in God to the belief that the desire to maintain a relationship with an imaginary friend should outweigh all of the reality that surrounds you. And I guess in my own limited way I’ve seen enough of that already, churches filled with people not interested in doing God’s work but interested in protecting their own turf. Does it make any sense to say that there’s just so much more that’s possible in a universe without God than one with God? And why can’t everyone see that? Do we really all want to believe in God? Do we all really want a destiny that is determined for us? Aren’t there some who would like a hand in setting their own course?

Day 18: Experiencing Life Together

Rick’s talking about fellowship here, a Christian fellowship in which a small group of believers offer each other authenticity, mutuality, sympathy and mercy. Well, I doubt I’m going to join some small group of church-goers, but the desire for some kind of fellowship is what I think tempted me most to participate in the neighbor's book club. In many ways I feel alone in my intellectual pursuits, and it would be great to have a small group of like-minded people to be in fellowship with. There must be others who read the books I read and think the thoughts I think, but I haven’t found them yet.

Day 19: Cultivating Community

Rick talks more about fellowship here, and how to structure it in your life. True biblical fellowship requires a covenant that goes something like this:

We will share our true feelings, encourage each other, support each other, forgive each other, speak the truth in love, admit our weaknesses, respect our differences, not gossip, and make the group a priority.

Sounds like a good gig if you can find it.

Day 20: Restoring Broken Fellowship

Rick’s not getting my hackles up in these latest chapters. I’m even giving him a pass on contradicting himself again.

When fellowship is strained or broken, plan a peace conference immediately. Don’t procrastinate, make excuses, or promise, ‘I’ll get around to it someday.’ Schedule a face-to-face meeting as soon as possible.

Followed two paragraphs later by:

The success of a peace conference often depends on choosing the right time and place to meet. Don’t meet when either of you are tired or rushed or will be interrupted. The best time is when you both are at your best.

If he had written that in another chapter, one in which he had already pissed me off, I might have said something like, well which is it, Rick? Immediately or when I’m at my best? Not the same thing. But in this chapter all about mending fences, most of which I agree with, I wouldn’t dream of it.

Day 21: Protecting Your Church

What did I say last time about Rick not getting my hackles up? Has he not so far spent a good deal of energy explaining that no one is perfect and that no church is perfect, and that we should stop waiting for either situation to present itself and accept the flawed church and fellowship that we currently have and devote ourselves to improving them? Well, get ready for this.

It is sad that in God’s flock, the greatest wounds usually come from other sheep, not wolves. Paul warned about ‘cannibal Christians’ who ‘devour one another’ and destroy the fellowship. The Bible says these kind of troublemakers should be avoided.

Avoided? What happened to “When fellowship is strained or broken, plan a peace conference immediately.”? What happened to “Don’t procrastinate, make excuses, or promise ‘I’ll get around to it someday.’”? What happened to “Schedule a face-to-face meeting as soon as possible.”? Avoided? Rick, are you sure? You even quote Jesus on that same page, and Jesus says:

If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church.

But then you say:

Private confrontation is always the first step, and you should take it as soon as possible. If you’re unable to work things out between the two of you, the next step is to take one or two witnesses to help confirm the problem and reconcile the relationship. What should you do if the person is still stuck in stubbornness? Jesus says to take it to the church. If the person still refuses to listen after that, you should treat that person like an unbeliever.

Hey, Rick, did Jesus say that last part, that part about treating really difficult Christians like unbelievers, or was that all you, your own little addition to the doctrine of fellowship and unity? Funny how the quote you included from Jesus didn’t say anything about that.

And what the hell does it mean anyway? Treat that person like an unbeliever? Is that code for something, something all Christians understand without having to explain it to them? I guess if they don’t believe we don’t have to love them or live in peace with them or do any of that fellowship crap with them. No, that’s just for us. That’s just for us believers, us chosen people. If they don’t believe, or more importantly, if they are a believer who is difficult to deal with, then I guess all bets are off. Ostracism, excommunication, burning at the stake. Do they all come into play?

But I saved the best for last. As Rick is wrapping up the chapter, talking about his church and how every member signs a covenant (there’s that covenant idea again) that includes a promise to protect the unity of their fellowship, he brags about how his church has never had a conflict that split the fellowship and about how so many people want to be part of such a loving, unified place. Then he says:

When God has a bunch of baby believers he wants to deliver, he looks for the warmest incubator church he can find.

Excuse me? Baby believers? Is Rick talking about real babies, or just people newly converted to the faith? Either way, does he think God is causing some people to believe, and by logical extension, causing others not to believe? What’s all this talk about growth and spiritual maturity if some people come out of the oven already baked on the inside and others soft and soupy? Geez, look at Rick down there with that church of his. He is really kicking some unbeliever ass! I think I’ll create a whole mess of baby believers and send them Rick’s way. Imagine how much praise I’ll get for doing that!

Day 22: Created to Become Like Christ

I think Rick is starting to tread over the same ground again. Here again, in becoming like Christ, I have the power to keep God from working his miracles through me, but once I surrender myself, only God can make the miracles happen. Kind of like the vampire at the window. He can’t come in unless I invite him to, but once I do, watch out! He’ll swallow my soul. I’d write more if I hadn’t written so much last time.

Day 23: How We Grow

Growth, spiritual growth, has been a reoccurring theme for Rick throughout his book. Here he begins to hit it head on and comes right out and says God wants us to grow up.

Your heavenly Father’s goal is for you to mature and develop the characteristics of Jesus Christ.

The question I have is whether or not this spiritual growth is necessary to get into heaven. I was told that all you have to do to get into heaven is accept Jesus Christ as your God and savior. Well, what if I do that, but I don’t do any spiritual growth after that? Am I still golden? Or am I bound for the lake of fire? I think I’ll keep an eye out for clues towards Rick’s thinking on this point in the next few chapters.

Day 24: Transformed by Truth

This one is all about reading the Bible. Not just reading it, but abiding in it, which means, according to Rick, accepting its authority, assimilating its truth, and applying its principles. I’ve noticed that Rick does that a lot.

Develop the habit of writing down exactly what you intend to do. This action step should be personal (involving you), practical (something you can do), and provable (with a deadline to do it).

Everything he wants us to do has three steps to it and they all begin with the same letter. Accept, assimilate, apply. Personal, practical, provable. Is that God talking, do you think? Or is that Rick just trying to be clever? Does it matter? Probably not to Rick.

Day 25: Transformed by Trouble

Life is weird, you know? As I was cleaning out some old papers today I came across some of the essays and papers I wrote in college, including a book report on Richard Ford’s Rock Springs. It’s a collection of short stories, and my theses was that they are all about the random events that make up life and how we are all so powerless to understand or prepare for them. I see now that this must be some of the inspiration behind my own story, “Things Happen,” which I must have written the same year.

And now, I guess that is all there is to say about it. I’ve never heard from nor seen Beth since that night, but I’ve come to grips with what happened between us. It was really nobody’s fault, it was just something that happened. For a long time I felt guilty about what I had done with her, but after a while I realized that I felt worse about lying to her boyfriend than I felt about sleeping with her. But even that, like getting hit in the face with a red rubber ball, or the Chippewa freezing over in the winter, was just something that happened.

And now Rick tells me all about being transformed by trouble, about how God causes everything to happen to us, even the bad things. No, make that especially the bad things because it’s the bad things and how we react to them that make us “grow” spiritually and become more like Christ.

Your most profound and intimate experiences of worship will likely be in your darkest days—when your heart is broken, when you feel abandoned, when you’re out of options, when the pain is great—and you turn to God alone. It is during suffering that we learn to pray our most authentic, heartfelt, honest-to-God prayers. When we’re in pain, we don’t have the energy for superficial prayers.

How interesting is it that these are the times of my life that I have specifically decided not to pray or turn to God? I figure if I’m going to ignore him when everything is rosy, it’d be damn hypocritical of me to turn to the Almighty for help when things start falling apart. So I’ve consciously steered myself away from that temptation whenever it has presented itself. And you know what I think I’ve learned? First, sometimes things just happen. Sorry, Rick. Your claim that “every day of my life was written on God’s calendar before I was born” is one of your most implausible, even if a God does exist that is similar to the one you believe in. And second, most of the time things happen because of our own dumb, misguided or self-destructive decisions and behaviors. As Sir Paul has so eloquently said, “Didn’t anybody tell her? Didn’t anybody see? Sunday’s on the phone to Monday. Tuesday’s on the phone to me.”

Day 26: Growing Through Temptation

There’s something going on under the surface current of this book that I’m having a hard time putting my finger on, but which seems to poke through in chapters such as this one. Rick’s thesis here is that we are all tempted to do evil, but we only sin if we act on that temptation, and that therefore every temptation is an opportunity to grow more Christ-like by defeating it. Several times he makes reference to the idea that Satan puts thoughts in our heads.

Temptation starts when Satan suggests (with a thought) that you give into an evil desire.

and

Sometimes while you are praying, Satan will suggest a bizarre or evil thought just to distract you and shame you.

What kind of world is this in which Rick lives? Satan is inside our heads, thinking for us? How am I supposed to know which thoughts are mine and which are Satan’s? Wait. I bet Rick has an answer for that. The evil ones. Those must be Satan’s. This is the world I want to write about. A world in which all I have is given by the grace of God, where everything I do is designed to bring glory to God, and a world in which God’s own enemy lives in my own brain, constantly tempting me to do wrong. When someone we love dies in this world, we give thanks to God for the time he allowed us to spend together.

I’m not sure I can write about it because I’m having a hard time getting my brain around it. It’s there. When I’m reading Rick’s book, it’s right there. But when I try to write about it or go back and find it, it’s gone. This thing. This thing that’s there and then it’s gone. I want to drag it out and shine some light on it, because I think it may prefer the dark corners of my mind to the intense glare of my attention. Like all the secret fears they taught us as children, it probably thrives in the darkness and dies in the light.

Day 27: Defeating Temptation

Here we go again. God will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you can’t stand up against it. It’s the Devil who tempts us, right, Rick? The Devil who tempts us and God who keeps that temptation from growing so strong that we can’t resist it. And he’s allowing the Devil to tempt us because God wants us to be tested, but not really tested, I guess, because we never have to worry about failing the test. God has promised that it will never be that hard.

My wife asked me recently how they know Jesus was born on December 25th and I said they don’t, that the early church just picked that day because they wanted their celebration and ritual to coincide with those already established for the pagan winter solstice. That got us talking about other things the church wants you to believe that aren’t really in the Bible (like hell, our modern view of which comes much more from Dante’s Inferno than the Bible) and that got me talking about Rick and his loony ideas that the purpose of the entire universe is to praise God—a universe that God himself created, of course—and about how we’re all “tested” to see if we can fulfill God’s plan for us—a plan that he has mapped out before the universe was even created. She thinks it’s all bunk, too.

Sometimes I wonder how much of this our children will pick up on. Last Christmas I asked my four-year-old son if he knew who Jesus is, and he pieced together the following reply. Jesus is a person who goes to church with pretty pink shoes and a book and a pencil. I’m tempted to teach him nothing else and ask him the same question every Christmas to see how much he is picking up outside the home.

Day 28: It Takes Time

Here’s the best one yet. In comparing Christ’s assault on my character as something similar to the Allies’ strategy for liberating islands in the South Pacific, Rick says:

Before Christ invades our lives at conversion, he sometimes has to ‘soften us up’ by allowing problems we can’t handle (like the Allies had to soften up the defenses on those islands through weeks of aerial bombardment).

So, after reassuring us for 27 days that God never gives us more than he gives us the strength to handle, now Rick says sometimes God will throw something our way and withdraw the strength we need to overcome it in order to…in order to…in order to what? Convince us how much we need him? Show how powerful he is? Remember, after all, the purpose of the universe and everything in it is to bring him glory. Think you can handle life without me? Here, try some prostrate cancer on for size. Oh, and don’t come crying to me for any help. I need to soften you up a little so you are more receptive to my influence in your life before I can start influencing your life. Oh, and don’t forget, I’ve got your role in my great, grand plan—you know, the one I wrote before I created you and before I created the universe, the one that marks the passing of every fallen sparrow and is designed to bring me glory—I’ve got your role in that all mapped out, so don’t go dying or committing suicide or anything like that before I can convince you to let me work that plan through you, because that would really screw everything up.

Does Rick really believe all this stuff he’s peddling? Listening to NPR a few weeks ago there was an interview with a guy whose name I wish I could remember who wrote a book whose title I wish I could remember about the four or five distinct personalities Christians attribute to God and try to paste together into this thing called the Trinity. One of those personalities is the Old Testament God the Father, who seems based mostly on the early Jewish deity Yahweh, who was more of a trickster figure in that pantheon than the benevolent type we think of today. Yahweh’s code was pretty much I’ll be there when I want to be there and not necessarily when you need me or want me. It seems like a little bit of Yahweh has spilled into Rick’s book. I wonder if he knows that?

This other guy and his other book, now that I’ve mentioned it, I can’t let it go without saying that one of his fascinating speculations is the idea that the whole concept of the Trinity may have been nothing more than the early church’s effort to deal with these disparate personalities that are there in the Bible for all to see. Kind of like them picking the winter solstice to celebrate Christmas and “finding” the Book of Deuteronomy, the Trinity may also be something cooked up to better sell the new religion to the masses.

Day 29: Accepting Your Assignment

You were put on earth to make a contribution. You weren’t created just to consume resources—to eat, breathe, and take up space. God designed you to make a difference with your life. While many best-selling books offer advice on how to ‘get’ the most out of life, that’s not the reason God made you. You were created to add to life on earth, not just take from it. God wants you to give something back. This is God’s fourth purpose for your life, and it is called your ‘ministry,’ or service.

I agree with that. Well, not that nonsense about God creating me and putting me on earth for a reason, but to the extent that Rick believes a life spent serving yourself is a life wasted, and that true value and meaning in life comes from serving others, Rick and I are on the same page. But that’s a contradiction to Rick, isn’t it? Just like it is to that guy on Book TV a few days ago who was arguing against the idea that America is divided on the traditional values question. Christian equals good and atheist equals bad. Belief equals morality and unbelief equals immorality. Religion equals selflessness and secularism equals selfishness.

The Bible warns unbelievers, ‘He will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves,’ but for Christians it will mean a loss of eternal rewards.

Okay. First of all, that’s from Romans, meaning Paul wrote it, and forgive me if I don’t believe everything that some guy named Paul wrote, especially since a lot of it contradicts a lot of what some guy named Moses wrote. But more importantly, the verse doesn’t warn unbelievers, Rick. It warns “those who live for themselves.” By your own admission, there are plenty of believers who live for themselves, who think more of “serve us” than “service.” You say Paul is warning unbelievers, but that’s because you equate selfishness, immorality and stale bread with unbelievers. I challenge that perspective, especially with the amount of selfishness and immorality I see inside the church walls, and all the service and good works that are done outside.

This chapter also gave me another glimpse at that big and indefinable thing I mentioned before, that thing swimming beneath the surface of the text, subtly working to connect this all together for me. It has something to do with the idea that the Body of Christ is really the amassed population of believers, each doing good works, each playing a role in God’s great plan. I wrote somewhere in one of my books that there is no “us,” that there is only “you and me,” that we each are a being forever separated from all the other beings that surround us, and that quests for some greater connection between us are quests doomed to fail. Well, maybe my belief in that separation and my disbelief in God’s great plan are connected. If there was some great purpose that we could all play a role in fulfilling, then some of those separations may break down, and we may begin to feel and see connections we were unable to before. People do feel a kinship with those who share their beliefs. But maybe both I and the Christians are wrong. Maybe there is no God and no great plan, but when beings come together to strive for a common goal, and when that goal is based on the benefit of other beings, something transcendental does happen, and a whole new set of possibilities open before us.

Day 30: Shaped for Serving God

OK, Rick, let’s take as given for a moment that all you say is true. Your God shaped me in my mother’s womb to be the way that I am and he has planned out every event in every day of my life, and that plan is designed so that I fulfill the ministry he has chosen for me as part of his grand plan. Is my unbelief in him part of his plan? Or am I somehow circumventing his plan? If I am somehow circumventing it, how is that possible? He’s God, right? And I’m what? Me? The will of Me trumps the will of God? Is that what you really believe? No, you want to know what Rick really believes? Read this.

God gives every believer spiritual gifts to be used in ministry. These are special God-empowered abilities for serving him that are given only to believers … You can’t earn your spiritual gifts or deserve them—that’s why they’re called gifts! They are an expression of God’s grace to you … Neither do you get to choose which gifts you’d like to have; God determines that … Because God loves variety and he wants us to be special, no single gift is given to everyone. Also, no individual receives all the gifts. If you had them all, you’d have no need of anyone else, and that would defeat one of God’s purposes—to teach us to love and depend on each other … Your spiritual gifts were not given for your own benefit, but for the benefit of others, just as other people were given gifts for your benefit … Whenever we forget these basic truths about gifts, it always causes trouble in the church. Two common problems are ‘gift-envy’ and ‘gift-projection.’ The first occurs when we compare our gifts with others’, feel dissatisfied with what God gave us, and become resentful or jealous of how God uses others. The second problem happens when we expect everyone else to have our gifts, do what we are called to do, and feel as passionate about it as we do.

Wow, Rick. That’s a lot of information about spiritual gifts. But wait. There’s still something I don’t understand. What the hell are they? You spend all that time talking about gifts, but you never say what they are. How about an example? If I start believing in your God, can my gift be x-ray vision?

Day 31: Understanding Your Shape

After quoting Aldous Huxley, of all people, Rick closes this chapter this way.

As we’ve looked at these five ways God has shaped you for service, I hope you have a deeper appreciation for God’s sovereignty and a clearer idea of how he has prepared you for the purpose of serving him.

A clearer idea? Rick, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Try this one.

God intentionally allows you to go through painful experiences to equip you for ministry to others.

So God displaced all those people with Hurricane Katrina not because he was angry with them, but because he wanted to prepare them to minister to the people displaced by Hurricane Rita. Hmmm. Maybe he should just stop sending the hurricanes. Here’s another.

We don’t realize how truly unique each of us is. DNA molecules can unite in an infinite number of ways. The number is 10 to the 2,400,000,000th power.

Well, gee whiz, Rick, that is a really big number, but last time I checked, 10 to the 2,400,000,000th power was not infinity. Divide 10 to the 2,400,000,000th power by 10 and you get 10 to the 2,399,999,999th power. Divide infinity by 10 and you still have infinity.

Day 32: Using What God Gave You

I’m going to do it. I’m going to finish this horrible book and write down my thoughts about each chapter. This one reminded me more than most about a lot of the self-help and career development literature out there in the marketplace these days. Serving God is all about finding what it is that you’re really good at and enjoy doing, and then doing that to the best of your ability, ignoring both the criticisms and praises that others may send your way. Sounds like the same formula for finding happiness or becoming a millionaire.

Rick quotes Paul an awful lot in this book, but I wonder how much of all of this is really Paul’s philosophy and how much is modern psychobabble that Rick has attributed to Paul. And as I’ve said before, as much Paul as there is in Rick’s manifesto, there is hardly any Moses or old testament prophets. Rick’s way is certainly much more about charity and self-actualization than it is about fire and brimstone, but the brimstone is still there, isn’t it, Rick, ready to rain down on our heads if we stray too far off the chosen path? Satan is always there, trying to:

...steal the joy of service from you in a couple of ways: by tempting you to compare your ministry with others, and by tempting you to conform your ministry to the expectations of others.

This could be worth exploring. Start serving others and wait for Satan to show up and start tempting me. He clearly doesn’t want me doing God’s work, and will therefore use tricks like my own desire to be like others or to please others against me. Come on, buddy, stop trying to write that novel. It’s not as good as so many others anyway, so what’s the point? And the things you’re writing! No one is going to want to read that. Even your wife can’t get through it. Is that the devil? That part of your brain that tells you you aren’t good enough and never will be? And if that is the devil, is that all the devil is? Or is he something more?

Day 33: How Real Servants Act

God often tests our hearts by asking us to serve in ways we’re not shaped. If you see a man fall into a ditch, God expects you to help him out, not say, “I don’t have the gift of mercy or service.” While you may not be gifted for a particular task, you may be called to do it if no one gifted at it is around. Your primary ministry should be in the area of your shape, but your secondary service is wherever you’re needed at the moment.

OK, Rick. I have a question. If God gives us gifts to use in helping others, and if God gives us problems so that others can help us, why doesn’t God make sure that someone with the right gift for helping is around for every problem he creates? I guess that’s not part of his grand plan. Maybe he’s too busy counting the hairs on my head to be bothered with connecting those dots. I mean, if Mary has the gift for washing feet, and Joseph has some really stanky feet, why doesn’t God just hook up Mary and Joseph? Why does he rely on me to wash Joseph’s feet when Mary’s right over there with her wash basin and towel? Because you know what? I’m not washing Joseph’s nasty feet. Let Joseph wash his own damn feet. And then the Body of Christ doesn’t get built and God’s great plan for us doesn’t get fulfilled. That must really get God steamed. When stupid, self-centered, free-willed creations like myself decide to do our own thing instead of what God’s laid out for us. Don’t we know what’s at stake? How is God going to get all the praise he deserves if we keep acting like this?

Day 34: Thinking Like a Servant

I’ve got very little to say about this one. Servants think more about others than about themselves. Servants think like stewards, not owners. Servants think about their work, not what others are doing. Servants base their identity in Christ. Servants think of ministry as an opportunity, not an obligation. Given your premise, Rick, I can buy all that.

Day 35: God’s Power in Your Weakness

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I think Rick’s God suffers from low self-esteem and an inferiority complex. This chapter is all about our weaknesses, and how God shows how great he is by working his will through us flawed creatures.

When Gideon recruited an army of 32,000 to fight the Midianites, God whittled it down to just 300, making the odds 450 to 1 as they went out to fight 135,000 enemy troops. It appeared to be a recipe for disaster, but God did it so Israel would know it was God’s power, not their own strength, that saved them.

I wonder what “whittled it down” means and what the 31,700 people who were whittled feel about God’s need to proclaim his own greatness over the flawed people he created.

Sometimes, however, God turns a strength into a weakness in order to use us even more. Jacob was a manipulator who spent his life scheming and then running from the consequences. One night he wrestled with God and said, ‘I’m not letting go until you bless me,’ and God said, ‘All right,’ but them he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and dislocated his hip. What is the significance of that? God touched Jacob’s strength (the thigh muscle is the strongest in the body) and turned it into a weakness. From that day forward, Jacob walked with a limp so he could never run away again. It forced him to lean on God whether he liked it or not. If you want God to bless you and use you greatly, you must be willing to walk with a limp the rest of your life, because God uses weak people.

He uses weak people? Well, I guess so, since he doesn’t seem to be able to control the strong ones. Not until, that is, he promised to do one thing and then does another. Bless me, dammit, bless me. Or I’m not letting you go. Okay, okay, I’ll bless you already. Just let me go. There. Now bless me. CRACK! Ha ha! Bless you, my ass! How’s that dislocated hip feel, sucker? Oh, you son of a bitch! You tricked me! Yeah, well, too damn bad. I couldn’t use you before because you were too strong, but now you’re weak just the way I like it. I can use you now. Get your ass out there and tell everyone you see how great I am. Or I’ll dislocate your other hip. Understand?

Day 36: Made for a Mission

And that mission is…guess what? Introducing people to God! And not just any people. If you’re introducing them to God they must be…unbelievers!

You many have been unaware that God holds you responsible for the unbelievers who live around you. The Bible says, ‘You must warn them so they may live. If you don’t speak out to warn the wicked to stop their evil ways, they will die in their sin. But I will hold you responsible for their death.’ You are the only Christian some people will ever know, and your mission is to share Jesus with them.

Rick, there you go again. Equating unbelief with wickedness and evil. Your Bible probably tells you that, but I’ll maintain it’s not automatically true. Wickedness may accompany unbelief, but I don’t believe unbelief is wickedness.

What we do know for sure is this: Jesus will not return until everyone God wants to hear the Good News has heard it. Jesus said, ‘The Good News about God’s kingdom will be preached in all the world, to every nation. Then the end will come.’ If you want Jesus to come back sooner, focus on fulfilling your mission, not figuring out prophecy.

Here’s a fun idea. I’ll keep the Good News forever hidden from someone. From my son, maybe. Then Jesus won’t be able to come back because not everyone has heard it. Won’t that piss God off? Unless… What if my son isn’t one of the people God wants to hear the Good News? Oh, Rick. You are a complicated little man. Do you really see all of this in your Bible, or are you making just a little bit up on your own? I’m not supposed to know the difference, am I?

Day 37: Sharing Your Life Message

This is all about using your own conversion to belief to convert others. Here’s an interesting quote:

God gives some people a godly passion to champion a cause. It’s often a problem they personally experienced such as abuse, addiction, infertility, depression, a disease, or some other difficulty.

Didn’t Rick say in an earlier chapter that sometimes God gives us troubles to test us? Does he give us abuse, addiction, infertility, depression, a disease, or some other difficulty, too? So he can give us a godly passion to champion that cause? I’m not so sure I like this God Rick is trying to sell me on. No, check that. I am sure. I don’t like him.

Day 38: Becoming a World-Class Christian

Here, Rick extols us to go out and bring people to Christ.

God invites you to participate in the greatest, largest, most diverse, and most significant cause in history—his kingdom ... There are over 6 billion people on earth, and Jesus wants all his lost children found.

Maybe I’ve said this before, but let me say it again. If God lost us all just so we could find each other and bring us back to him, why did he lose us in the first place? You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t think a cosmic game of 52 pickup is the greatest, largest, most diverse and most significant cause in history. If God wants us all in heaven telling him how great he is, then why did he put us on earth and make it so difficult to find him? If this turns out to be the true meaning of life, and some of us do figure it out and commit our lives to it, I think that is more of a testament to human kind that to its creator. And if it is the true meaning of life, then Rick is one of those people that I’d have to tip my hat to. And Rick wrote this:

Prayer is the most important tool for your mission in the world. People may refuse our love and reject our message, but they are defenseless against our prayers. Like an intercontinental missile, you can aim a prayer at a person’s heart whether you are ten feet or 10,000 miles away.

Now, really. Can someone who wrote that really know which way the wind is blowing?

Day 39: Balancing Your Life

More of the same. Now that I’ve told you the purpose of life, you are obligated to live it as I say and go out and tell others.

Anyone who knows the right thing to do, but does not do it, is sinning.

Just in case the glory of the cause isn’t enticing enough for you, I thought I’d throw that Bible verse in. Get on board or go to hell. Isn’t that what it always comes down to with people like Rick?

Day 40: Living with Purpose

Here, and finally, Rick wants me to write a purpose statement for my life, something that will keep me focused on God’s five great purposes for me. Something like:

My life purpose is to worship Christ with my heart, serve him with my shape, fellowship with his family, grow like him in character, and fulfill his mission in the world so he receives glory.

Living this way is the only way to really live. Everything else is just existing. And here’s how Rick ends his treatise.

Imagine what it is going to be like one day, with all of us standing before the throne of God presenting our lives in deep gratitude and praise to Christ. Together we will say, ‘Worthy, oh Master! Yes, our God! Take the glory! the honor! the power! You created it all; It was created because you wanted it!’ We will praise him for his plan and live for his purposes forever!

I’ll say it one more time. I question a God who creates a universe of thinking beings expressly for the purpose of proclaiming his power and glory over them. Does Rick's God kick ass? Assuming he exists, of course he kicks ass. He’s God. Why does he need a universe of inferior beings telling him how great he is? And to think that my only purpose is to stroke that divine ego is even more depressing than to think that my life has no purpose at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment