The Purpose Driven Claim

(Originally printed in the Summer 2004 Issue of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 12 )

Purpose driven life graphic“What have you written on The Purpose Driven Life?” is a question we receive by phone, mail, and e-mail several times a week. In some cases, it is folks who are wary of what they perceive as just another church fad. Other times, the question comes from individuals and couples who have been removed from their church as “divisive persons” for questioning the pastor. On a few occasions, the inquiries came as a result of a church split over the book. In some instances, we were told how wonderful and helpful the book has been in giving direction to churches that seemed to be lacking direction. Others have written reviews of the book, and we recommend reading those when deciding the proper course of action for you and your church. We highly recommend Berit Kjos four-part series, “Spirit-Led or Purpose-Driven?”1

Due to the volume of requests, we decided to read the book to see what it is that might be causing the wide and varied reactions. We have no doubt that Rick Warren has a heart to reach the lost, train believers, and help churches grow. We are aware that any written material can be distorted and used in an abusive way by leaders who are fearful and/or controlling. As we read the book, we had several reactions, but we will only address two of them.

First, the popularity of the book probably says more about the overall state of the church than it does about the quality of the material in the book. What we mean by this is: The material that is good, and there is a fair amount of that, is so basic that anyone who has been a Christian for more than six months ought to understand it already. If they don’t, it might be a sign that either the individual is simply “putting in their time” at church without paying much attention, or there is not much in the way of a real teaching ministry in the basic doctrines and practices of the church on a regular basis.

Second, it is probably the case that Rick Warren understands exegesis and hermeneutics, but that is not at all apparent in the book. Even in the cases where the points he makes are valid, the passages cited do not support the points. In other cases, grand leaps are made and serious Scripture twisting is employed to support Warren’s assertions. The latter is, in fact, how he arrived at the premise of the book: 

Today the average life span is 25,550 days. That’s how long you will live if you are typical. Don’t you think it would be a wise use of time to set aside 40 of those days to figure out what God wants you to do with the rest of them? 

The Bible is clear that God considers 40 days a spiritually significant time period. Whenever God wanted to prepare someone for his purposes, he took 40 days: 

  • Noah’s life was transformed by 40 days of rain.
  • Moses was transformed by 40 days on Mount Sinai.
  • The spies were transformed by 40 days in the Promised Land.
  • David was transformed by Goliath’s 40-day challenge.
  • Elijah was transformed when God gave him 40 days of strength from a single meal.
  • The entire city of Nineveh was transformed when God gave the people 40 days to change.
  • Jesus was empowered by 40 days in the wilderness.
  • The disciples were transformed by 40 days with Jesus after his resurrection.

The next 40 days will change your life. This book is divided into 40 brief chapters. …”2 

A Closer Look

In order to evaluate the accuracy of this base claim of the book, which sets the tone for the rest of the work, we need to look at and examine the instances cited. We will refrain from getting into a long discussion of Warren and his “movement,” but we suggest that Warren has employed, at least in this book, an abuse of Scripture which is very similar to that employed by Bill Gothard and others. Warren’s initial claim is that: 

The Bible is clear that God considers 40 days a spiritually significant time period. Whenever God wanted to prepare someone for his purposes, he took 40 days. (p.9)

Okay, that is his core claim. If his assertion is true, it should be easy to support from the pages of Scripture, right? Well, let us examine the evidence one support at a time:

Noah’s life was transformed by 40 days of rain. (p.10)

Wrong! There is nothing in the text of Genesis 6-9 regarding Noah being transformed by the rain. However, everyone outside the ark was (Genesis 7:21-23)! In addition, the flood was not only the 40 days of rain, but also the months of “fountains of the great deep” activity (Genesis 7:24). Why pick out the 40 days of rain, then? Well, how else can it be made to FIT? 

Moses was transformed by 40 days on Mount Sinai. (p.10)

Wrong again. Moses was transformed at Mt. Sinai, all right, but it was NOT during those 40 days. It was during his first encounter with YHWH on the mount before he ever returned to Egypt, and we are not told how long that encounter lasted (perhaps a few hours? Exodus 3:1-4:17). He had also spent 40 years on the backside of the desert. [Moses fled from Egypt at the age of 40 (Acts 7:23-29), and then after 40 years in the desert, YHWH appeared to him (Acts 7:30).] Perhaps that had something to do with preparing him. We dunno. In addition, Moses spent 80 days on the mountain the second time, not just 40. When he came down from the mountain after 40 days, he angrily destroyed the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32:19) and had to go back up again for another 40 days (Exodus 34:28). “Transformed?” When he came down the second time, his face shone, but gradually, that “glory” faded. See 2 Corinthians 3 for a good explanation of the importance of this. How much more profitable would it have been for Warren to preach that rich truth from Scripture instead of this contrived premise? 

The spies were transformed by 40 days in the Promised Land. (p.10)

Again wrong. If this was baseball, Warren would be called out on strikes. Ten of the 12 spies came back fearful and warned against going up against the inhabitants of the land (Numbers 13:30-33). Only two had faith that YHWH would conquer the land for them (Numbers 14:6-9). There is NO indication that even those two spies were “transformed” by their time there; rather, they had faith in YHWH’s promise in spite of what they saw in Canaan. 

David was transformed by Goliath’s 40-day challenge. (p.10)

Should we say it? Well … wrong! What we see from the text is that the Israelites were transformed by it. They were transformed into faithless, fearful blobs (1 Samuel 17:11)! We also find that GOLIATH was transformed by DAVID in maybe 40 seconds (1 Samuel 17:49)! Goliath’s so-called “40-day challenge” had nothing to do with transforming David as far as the Scripture goes. It appears that David showed up at the end of that time. What was the difference? Was it the challenge? Of course, not. David had faith in YHWH in spite of the challenge. It was his faith and the object of that faith that are important in this story, not the time period of Goliath’s challenge. 

Elijah was transformed when God gave him 40 days of strength from a single meal. (p.10)

This refers to the angel feeding Elijah in 1 Kings 19. The passage does say that he gained strength for the next 40 days, but that was not from “a single meal” as Warren mistakenly claims. Rather it was from TWO meals. However, the point in the passage is that he had nothing more to eat for the next 40 days. A closer look at the passage, though, shows nothing about any so-called “transformation.” Elijah was running scared from Jezebel, who had threatened his life after he had slain the prophets of Baal. While on the run, the angel fed him these two meals (1 Kings 19:5-7), and then he kept on running. No transformation there.

God spoke to Elijah two more times during the following days (1 Kings 19:9-18), and He eventually reminded Elijah that there were still other faithful ones in Israel besides him (1 Kings 19:18). It was after this that Elisha joins himself to Elijah to help him (1 Kings 19:19-21). Where’s the “transformation?” It very likely only exists in the pages of Warren’s book. It looks suspiciously like Bill Gothard’s apparent methodology: Find passages that have something … ANYTHING … remotely connected to the claim (yep, “40 days” are mentioned). Then just claim it. Point to the 40 days, and the average undiscerning reader will accept that the assertion roves the claim.

What a way to treat the Word of God! It is sad, indeed, that so many seem to be unaware or, worse yet, not care about this and truly think this is “deep spiritual truth.” 

The entire city of Nineveh was transformed when God gave the people 40 days to change. (p.10)

This one is true … well sort of. It wasn’t the 40 days that transformed them. That is, after all, what Warren has been attempting to demonstrate. They were given 40 days as a deadline (Jonah 3:4); it was not a “process of transformation.” As a side note, they also were given a deadline about a hundred years later by the Prophet Nahum; and that time, they didn’t make it. Oops! 

Jesus was empowered by 40 days in the wilderness. (p.10)

Somehow the word “wrong” doesn’t seem strong enough to us on this one. There is nothing in the Bible indicating that Jesus was transformed or “empowered” at all (or, as Abraham Maslow, from whom much of this thinking comes from, would say: self actualized) much less “BY” those 40 days. Well, perhaps that isn’t completely accurate. We would concede that in at least one way Jesus was transformed by those 40 days; he was transformed into a STARVING MAN! The Scripture says that after those 40 days, he “… became hungry,” (Matthew 4:2) and it was after this that Satan tempted him.

Jesus successfully resisted Satan—after the 40 days were over—and returned from the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). The Scripture does not say that the testing produced that power (which, like Rick Warren Bill Gothard claims), nor does it say that the 40 days had anything to do with that power.

A bit of trivia might be helpful here: Jesus was the Son of God before going into the wilderness. He was the Son of God during the testing. And He was the Son of God when He came back and began His ministry. He did not need to be transformed—much less “by 40 days!”

The disciples were transformed by 40 days with Jesus after his resurrection. (p.10)

We really don’t want to come across as being mean, but the big game show buzzer is going off again to inform us that this is WRONG! Scripture says nothing of the sort. It appears, from the evidence we DO have, that they were transformed by the events of Resurrection Sunday—including the events on the road to Emmaus and His appearing in the upper room that evening.

Before that, they were demoralized and bewildered. Afterward, they “turned their world upside down” (cf. Acts. 17:6). Sure, the 40 days were important as a teaching time (Acts 1:3); but it appears to us that the importance of the time period is that it spans the gap between Passover and Pentecost. (That, however, is another long discussion.) 

How Long Oh Lord?

If it is true that “whenever God wanted to prepare someone for his purposes, he took 40 days” (p.10), then shouldn’t Warren be able to find some passages that say so … and show so … instead of having to resort to this kind of twisting and eisegesis?

We feel the need here to remind the reader of a basic principle of logic and interpretation: Even if something is true, it is still wrong to twist Scriptures that do not support that truth in order to make them seem to support that truth. And even if that truth is supported in Scripture, it is still wrong to use passages from Scripture that do not support it, just because they have some of the words we need. If it really is supported by Scripture, then it should be a simple matter to cite those passages that actually do support it. If all we have to go on are passages twisted out of context, then maybe we need to be suspicious that perhaps there is no real scriptural support for the claim to begin with. We will concede that the number “40” does seem to be a recurring theme in Scripture, but it is a leap of Grand Canyon proportions from that to Warren’s claim.

What about Job? How did God “transform” him in 40 days? How about Abraham? Did God have a purpose for him? Where’s the 40 days of “transformation” for him? We simply cannot find it! Where do “40 days” transform Isaac? Jacob?

What about the children of Israel who escaped from Egypt. Did God have a purpose for them? How long did it take to “transform” them? 40 days? How about 40 YEARS? The entire generation that left Egypt, except for Caleb and Joshua, were transformed into CORPSES! Now THERE’S a transformation for ya!

What about Samuel? Did God have a purpose for him? Where’s his “40 days?” All we find is God calling him while he was serving Eli. What about David? Isaiah? Jeremiah? Ezra? Nehemiah? If it’s true that “Whenever God wanted to prepare someone for His purposes He took 40 days,” then where are all those 40-day references for all these people for whom the Scriptures prove to us that God had a definite purpose?

What about the Apostle Paul? Is there anyone more important to Gentile believers than Paul (excepting our Lord, of course)? How did God “transform” Paul? Wasn’t it in a FLASH on the road to Damascus? (Acts 9) And how did God prepare Paul for His chosen purpose? Did He do it in just 40 days? No, perhaps Paul was a much tougher case—it took three years in the wilderness to get him ready! (Gal. 1:15-18) Whoops! Can’t use that one, it doesn’t “fit” the pattern.

Is there anything wrong with asking people to set aside 40 days … or 30 days … or a week … or any amount of time … to prepare for ministry or to get to know the Lord better? Of course not! Time with the Lord or preparation for ministry is not that to which we are objecting. What we do object to—with Warren, with Gothard, and with anyone else who does this kind of thing—is the disrespect towards the Word of God which shows disrespect for the God of that Word. It amounts to telling God what we wished He had said, instead of doing our real job—which is to work at understanding and explaining what He has said.

Our job, as teachers who are subject to the greater judgment (James 3:1), is to present the truths of Scripture as clearly and carefully as possible. Believers need to do everything we can to derive from the text the meaning intended IN the text, rather than always looking for so many “neato-Frito” ways to twist it and make it “sound” oh-so spiritual. Some may not be as good at it as others, but that should be our obsession: 

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the Word of Truth. (2 Tim. 2:15) Ω

The late Pastor Mike Mahurin was the co-author on this article. We appreciated his faithfulness and clarity of thinking as he served in his pastoral capacity in helping those who had left Gothardism come to understand how to understand Scripture in its historical-grammatical setting.

  1. http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/2003/1-purpose.htm
  2. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002). All page references contained within parenthesis are to this publication.

Comments

The Purpose Driven Claim — 1 Comment

  1. “neato-frito” lol! Now, that’s an expression that takes me back to a different era!

    I have never read Warren’s book, but this explains why it has been controversial. I have also seen plenty like it in my years working for Christian publishers. The powerful influence of utilitarian philosophy on modern Christians is strongly in evidence in Warren’s m.o. you describe here it seems to me. I agree we ought to be more careful in how we use the Scriptures in this or any other context, and I confess I have not always resisted the temptation to use verses of Scripture here and there to fit my own agenda either. Thank you for this very cogent reminder.

    There are other examples of Jesus, the apostles writing in the New Testament, and of the early Church Fathers in their teaching going far beyond the literal surface meaning of the OT Bible texts in their own context in their exposition of the Christ-inspired and gospel-revealing meaning of these, but this is far different in method and purpose than that of Warren’s. As examples, I offer the Apostle Paul’s use of Sarah and Hagar as types in his allegorization of this portion of Genesis in Galatians 4:21ff as well as most of the use of the OT in the NT epistle to the Hebrews, showing how the OT spoke of Christ. I don’t believe most modern Bible expositors would consider those NT interpretations, which are decidedly more symbolic and mystical in nature than most modern Interpretive methods, a legitimate use of those OT texts if these typological interpretations had not also appeared in what was already passed down to them as a “given” within their Christian traditions that the NT texts were also inspired by the Holy Spirit and true!

    It’s interesting to me that almost any knowledgable Bible scholar with integrity, regardless of his or her personal beliefs, could come up with sound and accurate interpretations of the literal surface meaning in its own immediate context of various Bible narratives using the historical- and textual-critical approach, but no one can discern the deeper Christ- and gospel-revealing sense of any of the Bible apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit (1Corinthians 2).

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