A Warranty for Life?

In the waiting room of my car dealership’s service department, I was hoping to hear that the needed repairs would be covered by the warranty. I didn’t want to hear that the transmission of my car had been damaged by something I had done or failed to do.  I didn’t want to admit that I had allowed some ill-equipped fast-lube mechanic to tinker with my transmission, thus making it my responsibility to pay for the repairs.  I wanted the dealer to fix it.  

Perhaps my hopes for a good, solid car warranty predisposed me to equally high hopes for the Zondervan best seller The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren, which had recently been suggested to me by a colleague for possible use in a congregational adult education class. I noted the unambiguous guarantee: “By the end of this 40-day spiritual journey you will know God’s purpose for your life and will understand the big picture–how all the pieces of your life fit together” (p. 9).

In the car dealership waiting room, it appealed to me to read that I can’t discover the meaning of my life by looking within myself, because only the Designer knows.  I was hooked by the simplicity of discovering that there are only two ways to find out what the Designer knows about me: either speculation or revelation.  And revelation, of course, is the preferred choice, because the Bible is our Owners Manual, which explains “why we are alive, how life works, what to avoid, and what to expect in the future” (p. 20).

As a person with deeply Reformed roots I resonate with the truth contained in this approach, but as a pastor I want to say, “That’s true, but it’s not that simple.” There are more than exactly five purposes for our lives revealed in the Bible.  There could be other than two precise questions that God will ask us at the end of our lives.  There are people of faith who do not see clearly where they are going.  I recall a man who told me that his life of faith was like driving a scenic highway on a day with low-hanging clouds.  He kept coming across signs for scenic overlooks, but whenever he would stop to look all he could see was fog.  He had seen the pictures others had taken of stunning mountains framed in wildflowers, but for him it was always cloudy, and he didn’t know why.

I don’t know why, either, and so I find Warren’s warranty misleading to a troubling degree. He claims that if you follow his formulas for forty days you can walk into the light and clearly understand the purpose of your life from God’s perspective.  No more clouds, no more mystery.  The simplicity of the book’s format and the very accessible everyday metaphors the author uses make this book initially appealing, to readers. From the perspective of pastoral care in the real people’s real lives, it is meager fare.  Although it contains kernels of biblical teaching, the claim that knowing your life’s purpose will “reduce your stress, simplify your decisions, increase your satisfaction and prepare you for eternity” (p. 9)  sets you up for a heart-rending crisis of faith when you encounter the mystery of suffering. 

My car had a faulty axle which was replaced at the dealer’s expense.  Although I was grateful not to get the bill, it did not lower my anxiety to learn that the quality control at the factory had let this defective part be installed in my car.   Following my owner’s manual would not have changed a thing.

Evelyn Diephouse is associate director of ministry formation at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan