Q: Your book “The Purpose-Driven Life” is the best-selling hardcover non-fiction book in history. What do you think has made the book connect so passionately with people?
A: First, it deals with the most fundamental issue of life, and that is “What on earth am I here for?” Everybody is interested in the question of existence, which is “Why am I alive?”; the question of intention, which is “What is my purpose?”; and the question of significance, which is “Does my life matter?”
Second, it is extremely simple. I worked very hard to make the message simple and understandable. I don’t think there is a single thing new in the book that hasn’t already been said in classic Christian books. It’s just that each generation has to hear it again–that we are here for worship, evangelism, fellowship, discipleship and ministry.
Third, the book is kind of “the anti-self-help book.” The first line in the book reads, “It’s not about you.” It’s funny that it is considered a self-help book. Try to name another self-help book that starts with “It’s not about you.” I think people are tired of self-centered, narcissistic culture. They are saying, “There’s got to be something bigger than my own self-fulfillment in life.” And, of course, there is. We were made by God and for God, and until you figure that out, life isn’t going to make sense.
Q: So you want to help Christians gain a fresh perspective on the big picture?
A: Yes. People ask me, “What is the purpose of life?” And I respond, “In a nutshell, life is preparation for eternity.” We were made to last forever, and God wants us to be with Him in heaven. One day my heart is going to stop, and that will be the end of my body–but not the end of me. I may live 60 to 100 years on earth, but I am going to spend trillions of years in eternity. This is the warm-up act, the dress rehearsal. God wants us to practice on earth what we will do forever in eternity.
Q: How do you apply these big-picture kinds of principles to your life?
A: It takes both discipline and habit. Life is a series of problems: either you are in one now, you’re just coming out of one or you’re getting ready to go into another one. The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort. God is more interested in making your life holy than He is in making your life happy. We can be reasonably happy here on earth, but that’s not the goal of life. The goal is to grow in character, in Christlikeness.
This past year has been the greatest year of my life–but also the toughest, with my wife, Kay, getting cancer. I used to think that life was hills and valleys–you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don’t believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it’s kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for. You can focus on your purposes, or you can focus on your problems. If you focus on your problems, you’re going into self-centeredness, which is my problems, my issues, my pain. But one of the easiest ways to get rid of pain is to get your focus off yourself and onto God and others.
Q: Did it take you awhile to hone “The Purpose-Driven Life” down to the five principles of worship, growth, evangelism, fellowship and ministry?
A: As I studied the Scriptures, I wrote “The Purpose-Driven Church” first. In it I considered, “What is the purpose of the Church?” And I began to see these patterns over and over in Scripture, that God wants the church to worship, to help people grow, to reach people through evangelism, to fellowship and to minister to the needs of people. And I believe that these are not only the purposes for every church as a body; they are the purposes for every individual.
The clearest expressions of the five purposes are the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. We have a phrase at our church that goes, “A great commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission will produce a great Christian.” We get two purposes from the Great Commandment and three from the Great Commission. The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:35-40) says, “Love God with all your heart.” That is worship. Then it says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is ministry.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) says, “Go and make disciples.” That is evangelism. Then Jesus says, “Teach them to do everything I’ve commanded you.” That’s discipleship. And Jesus also tells us to baptize. We are baptized into the Body of Christ, and the fifth purpose is fellowship.
Q: Jesus was purpose-driven but always took time to deal with interruptions.
A: That’s because one of the purposes is ministering to people. And they are not interruptions; they actually are divine encounters that God planned. If we are to become like Christ and be conformed to His image, then we have to learn to love. You have to be in relationships to grow up spiritually. In other religions, the holy men are the guys who isolate themselves–they sit up on a hill completely untainted by culture. Jesus was the exact opposite. He said the way you become holy is by loving other people. He was called the friend of sinners. These are not distractions–they are divine encounters.
Q: Where do I start?
A: Ask: “Am I going to live for possessions? Popularity? Am I going to be driven by pressures? Guilt? Bitterness? Materialism? Or am I going to be driven by God’s purposes?”
When I get up in the morning, I sit on the side of my bed and say, “God, if I don’t get anything done today, I want to know You more and love You better.” At the end of the day, if I’ve done that, the day was a success. On the other hand, if I get to the end of the day and I haven’t gotten to know God better and love Him more, I just missed the first purpose of life, and I’ve wasted the day. God didn’t put me on earth just to fulfill a to-do list. He’s more interested in what I am than what I do. That’s why we’re called human beings, not human doings.
Q: What has this past year been like–not only with your book sales but also with your wife’s cancer?
A: We discovered quickly that, in spite of the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people, God was not going to heal Kay or make it easy for her. It has been very difficult for her, and yet God has strengthened her character, given her a ministry of helping other people, given her a testimony, drawn her closer to Him and to people–all the five purposes we’ve been talking about.
You have to learn to deal with both the good and the bad of life. Actually, sometimes learning to deal with the good is harder. For instance, this past year, all of a sudden, when the book sold 15 million copies, it made me instantly very wealthy. It also brought a lot of notoriety that I had never had to deal with before.
I don’t think God gives you money or notoriety for your own ego or for you to live a life of ease. So I began to ask God what He wanted me to do with this money, notoriety and influence. He gave me two different passages that helped us to decide what to do. First, He gave me 1 Corinthians 9. In that passage, Paul says those who preach the Gospel should make a living by the Gospel. But that he would not use this right, because he wanted to serve God for free so he would be a slave to no man. So we made four decisions. First, in spite of all the money coming in, we would not change our lifestyle one bit. We made no major purchases. Second, about midway through last year, I stopped taking a salary from the church. Third, we set up foundations to fund an initiative we call The Peace Plan–to plant churches, equip leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick and educate the next generation. Fourth, I added up all that the church had paid me in the 24 years since I started the church, and I gave it all back. It was liberating to be able to serve God for free.
Then, regarding the influence, God led me to Psalm 72. It’s Solomon’s prayer asking God to make him more influential. When you read this Psalm, at the start, it sounds like a selfish prayer. Solomon was already the wisest, wealthiest, most influential man in the world. Yet he wanted God to make him more powerful and influential. Then you read down and it says he wants this so he may rescue those who are oppressed, defend the afflicted and needy and to judge the afflicted with justice–to care, basically, for the marginalized of society.
To me, God said that the purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence. That was a turning point for me. I had to repent and admit that widows and orphans have not even been on my radar. Now God is saying, “I’m giving you a platform to speak up for those who have no influence.” And I said, “OK.”
We intend to use the affluence and influence to do The Peace Plan and to mobilize hundreds of thousands of churches to speak up for those who have no influence. It’s a whole new direction, and I know it is what God wants me to do. The phrase that I have adopted for the rest of my life is “living for the global glory of God.” Purpose is all about that.