A purpose driven life

In 2002, Rick Warren, pastor of the 30,000 member Saddleback Church, published the bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? Warren’s answer to the title’s question is that everybody shares a single purpose, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.

I found his book’s contents boring, predictable and unhelpful. Warren and I have conflicting understandings of the Christian gospel, e.g., his is exclusive and mine inclusive. Apparently, a majority of the people who bought Warren’s book agree with my assessment. Based upon their actions, a majority of purchasers either did not read the book or read and then ignored Warren’s prescriptions.

Nevertheless, the title of Warren’s book resonated deeply with me. One of the first sociologists, Emile Durkheim, argued that individuals who commit suicide do so because the person can find no meaning in life. Existentialist philosophes and theologians similarly posit that the search for meaning is life’s central question.

Recent psychological research supports that a strong sense of the meaning of one’s life boosts longevity.[1] For example, people who believe their life has meaning have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. People who believe their life has meaning lower their morality risk by about 17%.

A subtle shift occurred between the first two paragraphs and the one immediately above this paragraph. The opening presumed that each person has a cosmic or divine purpose for living. The preceding paragraph raises the possibility that each person constructs a narrative that gives her or his individual life. The psychological does not posit universal purpose. Some persons may phrase their individual purpose in cosmic or divine terms, other persons may speak only of a personal purpose.

Humans are meaning making animals. Humans tell stories (construct narratives) to satisfy a personal need for meaning making. Why do I love this or that person? Why do I pursue this or that vocation, this or that avocation? Etc. Brian McLaren describes these narratives as framing stories: “A ‘framing story’ gives people direction, values, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives. It tells them who they are, where they come from, where they are, what’s going on, where things are going, and what they should do.”[2]

The person who really has no such stories will feel adrift, frequently experiencing the anomie that Durkheim associated with suicide. Years spent carefully listening to thousands of people who sought pastoral counseling taught me that, more often, persons delude themselves into believing that they have no narratives about the meaning of their life. Listen with sufficient care and having established personal trust, and the majority or people will slowly reveal the narrative or narratives that they have constructed to infuse their life with meaning.

A person’s narrative is a major component in creating the world in which a person lives. The stories of the people whose lives intersect with mine naturally have an influence on me and may in ways large or small cause me to alter my narrative. Sometimes the alteration is intentional. Often, I am unaware of what has happened, perhaps never becoming aware of the changes.

Consequently, McLaren raises the question of what type of world a person wants to create and what type of world a person wishes to leave as an inheritance for future generations:

In these dangerous times, our whole planet now needs more than ever a good story to live in and to live by. There are a number of stories competing for the hearts and imaginations of humanity as we emerge together into this new century and millennium: the regressive stories of fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, or the progressive stories of secular “scientism” or American consumerism, for example. Once taken to the heart of human culture, each of these stories will produce its own kind of world. … The story we believe and live in today has a lot to do with the world we create for our children, our grandchildren, and our descendants one hundred thousand years from now (if?).[3]

But if our framing story tells us that we are free and responsible creatures in a creation made by a good, wise, and loving God, and that our Creator wants us to pursue virtue, collaboration, peace, and mutual care for one another and all living creatures, and that our lives can have profound meaning if we align ourselves with God’s wisdom, character, and dreams for us . . . then our society will take a radically different direction, and our world will become a very different place.[4]

What will give you a life worth living? Or, as Aristotle put it, how will you engage in lifelong pursuit of virtuous activity?


[1] Marta Zaraska, “Boosting our sense of meaning in life is an often overlooked longevity ingredient,” Washington Post, January 3, 2021.

[2] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Thomas Nelson: 2007), 5-6.

[3] Brian D. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves in: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass: 2003), xiv.

[4] Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Thomas Nelson: 2007), 67.

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