The Real Purpose-Driven Life

Last March in Atlanta, suspected rapist Brian Nichols overpowered a deputy and stormed a courthouse, eventually shooting four people. Nichols then fled the scene and hid in the apartment of a woman he had taken hostage. The next day, the killer–his location unknown to police–voluntarily freed the woman and peacefully surrendered.

Many Americans found themselves wondering why. Ashley Smith, the hostage he had taken, had the answer when she appeared before the press. The turning point in her captivity began, she reported, when she read to Brian Nichols from a book, The Purpose Driven Life.

As the title might suggest, The Purpose Driven Life seeks to explain what it means to have purpose in life. Authored by Christian evangelical Rick Warren, the book has already sold in excess of 20 million copies since it was published in 2002. Following Nichols’ capture, sales soared to the #2 slot on

According to Warren, the proper way for a human being to find purpose is to rely on divine revelation as expressed through the Bible. Warren’s central thesis is that it is a mistake to equate having a purpose with merely pursuing one’s life ambitions. To have a purpose means, specifically, to embrace God’s plan for you. As the creator of human life, God is the only legitimate source of human purpose.

Translation: any pursuit motivated by your own interests constitutes abandoning your life’s “true” purpose. There may be differences between the businessman who runs a bank and the criminal who seeks to hold it up, but according to Mr. Warren, as long as each is motivated by his own goals, each lacks purpose: “Being successful and fulfilling your life’s purpose are not at all the same issue! You could reach all your personal goals, becoming a raving success by the world’s standard, and still miss the purposes for which God created you… The Bible says, ‘Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.'”

On this view, Nichols’ basic problem was not that his life lacked direction. It was not that he would steal, cheat, lie, rape, and murder on whim–it was that he was not motivated by desire to serve God. In surrendering, Nichols came closer to accepting the idea that God had a plan for him–perhaps the very plan suggested by his hostage, that God meant for him to minister to the spiritual needs of prison inmates.

Mr. Warren’s “purpose-driven” life is a misnomer. It ought to be called the duty-driven life. To have purpose, on his account, means to push aside everything you know and want, and accept that your job is to serve God. Being purpose-driven, in other words, is supposed to mean voluntarily subordinating your own desires to an alleged plan that an alleged God has put forward for you.

This suggests that a purpose is supposed to be some mysterious supernatural command wholly indifferent to your own hopes and dreams, but one that must be accepted anyway. Where does this idea of “purpose” come from? Why think of having a purpose in life as synonymous with accepting such a duty?

Warren’s book begins with a quotation from the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.” This is Warren’s unexplained, undefended starting point which he assumes as an article of faith.

Unlike Warren, most people contrast being purposeful with drifting aimlessly: a student who studies regularly because he is devoted to getting into law school is purposeful–a student drifting aimlessly through his undergrad years is not. A mother dedicated to providing her children with a healthy, happy childhood is purposeful–a mother who raises her children by the seat of her pants, without any overarching plan, is not. When most people talk about someone having a purpose, this is what they mean: someone whose actions are deliberately and consciously directed towards the achievement of some goal.

Underlying the ordinary idea of purposefulness is a set of important facts about human nature. Unlike animals, human beings need to think and plan long-range in order to survive. They also need to choose to do this, which includes choosing the goals that will constitute their life.

In fact, some people accept the responsibility of figuring out what they want out of life and going after it while others do not. Some actively choose and pursue their dreams, while others passively default on that choice.

But which ends do purposeful men pursue? Is it really true, as Warren suggests, that a criminal like Brian Nichols was “purposeful” in the ordinary sense because he chose the goal of robbing a bank? No. Just because we need to choose our ends in life does not mean that “anything goes.” There is another important way in which men differ from animals: we survive by production, not by vegetation or predation on others. Choosing a purpose in life requires choosing a central, productive goal.

A central, productive goal, of course, is a career. A career, as his source of livelihood, is a man’s basic source of self-esteem–it is what enables him to pursue a romance, cherish friendships, enjoy art, sport, recreation. Choosing a career permits him to define the course of his life, to sort out from all of the complexities what is important and what is not.

A man whose life lacks an ambitious, productive goal is a man whose life lacks direction. As philosopher Ayn Rand once observed, “a man without a purpose is lost in chaos. He does not know what his values are. He does not know how to judge. He cannot tell what is or is not important to him, and, therefore, he drifts helplessly at the mercy of any chance stimulus or any whim of the moment. He can enjoy nothing. He spends his life searching for some value which he will never find.”

Having abandoned the idea of a productive career, Brian Nichols was not purposeful in any meaningful sense. But picking up the search for a divine purpose in life won’t help him, either.

Consider Warren’s conception of the purpose-driven life–a life in which an individual subordinates what he wants to God’s (alleged) plan for him. Is this idea even consistent with the idea of a productive, purposeful life? Consider Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount, which chastises man for thinking that he must toil to provide for his own sustenance. The fowl of the air “sow not, neither do they reap”; the lilies of the field “toil not, neither do they spin.” That is to say–other living organisms do not work to survive, so why should man presume his survival requires productive work from him?

Of course we have already discovered why man cannot survive by the methods of the fowl of the air or the lilies of the field: he must think. Indeed, the reductio ad absurdum of Warren’s view of purpose is Terri Schiavo. Hers is that coveted vegetable state in which man toils not. Having existed in a state of living death for 15 years, pro-life groups defended the “sanctity” of her life. In their eyes, her life had “purpose.” Incapable of thought or awareness, unable to conceive of any goals, she embodied the ideal of Warren’s conception of the purpose-driven life–a passive, selfless life in which one is resigned to whatever God has ordained.

The Biblical conception of purpose is arbitrary. Not only does it fail to explain the difference between those people who seem to lead goal-directed lives and those who don’t, but it counsels an individual to defer to God the very responsibility denoted by the concept “purpose”: the responsibility of consciously deciding which goals one wants to pursue in life and then making those goals direct one’s actions.

If man belongs to God then his life is not his to live. As those Americans who fought for the Emancipation Proclamation understood, only a master–not a slave–can actually lead a purpose-driven life. A life directed by purpose requires a process of independent, unrestrained thought at every moment: in regards to what goals you will pursue, how those goals will integrate together, and what means you will undertake to achieve them.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote about the sacred values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“, what did he mean by the latter, if not the value of purpose? The right to have a purpose, as originally conceived by America’s Founding Fathers, is not the duty to pursue some command from on high. It is the right to go after those things that you, as an individual, rationally decide constitute your happiness, your central productive purpose in life.

The media has made much of Brian Nichols’ surrender, and of the power of religion to inspire change and transformation. But can religion really give direction to a person’s life? It depends on your conception of purpose. On Warren’s conception, if you cajole a man into decent outward behavior with the bribe of God’s forgiveness and Jesus’ sacrifice atoning for his sins, that means he now has purpose. But on a proper conception, to choose the comforting fantasy of religion is to choose to abandon purpose–to reject your sacred responsibility to yourself as a reasoning, mortal being trying to live on earth: to actively pursue your own life and happiness.

Robert Sherman is an aspiring writer living in Sacramento, California. You can read his blog, authored under the alias “The General” at

Ray Girn graduated last year from the University of Toronto, and now teaches math and science at a private elementary school in Orange County, California. He is a student at the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center.

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