Note: Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff and Prophet of Purpose author Jeffery Sheler will discuss Sheler's new biography and the life and ministry of Rick Warren in a special online seminar Wednesday, December 2. Registration is free.
At the start of his first semester in college, Rick picked up almost exactly where he had left off in high school. With his outgoing personality and bold, upbeat manner in talking about matters of faith he became instantly popular on the Baptist campus and was elected president of his freshman class. He also became engrossed in his course work and delved hungrily into the advanced Scripture studies and the expository readings on church doctrine and history. Nearly every weekend was booked with speaking engagements at area youth events, where he continued to sharpen his preaching skills while earning extra cash from the honorariums.
All of that left little time for dating, which didn't seem to bother him in the least. He and some like-minded friends jocularly proclaimed themselves "Bachelors to the Rapture" and boasted that they would be pleased to remain single until the Second Coming.
Kay, meanwhile, quickly met and fell in love with a young man who also happened to be a close friend of Rick's, and they began dating steadily. One day she asked her boyfriend about Rick and why he did not date. She saw that he was popular on campus and that girls seemed to like him, but he never asked any of them out. Her boyfriend explained about Rick's busy schedule and also the fact that he was very, very frugal. "Rick just figures, 'Why spend money on a girl you're not going to marry?'" he explained. "He believes that when the right one comes along, God will point her out and that will be that." Kay found that to be an interesting perspective on dating. She promptly filed the information away and thought nothing further of it.
During the following summer, Rick stepped up his speaking schedule and preached at youth revivals all over the state. While he had no way of knowing it, his commitment to bachelorhood was about to be challenged. One weekend he accepted an invitation to speak at the First Baptist Church of Fresno. The church's pastor was Kay's father, and Kay played piano for the service. In a radio interview many years later Rick would recall what happened: "I looked over at her right before I got up to speak, and God said just as clearly as I'm talking to you, 'You're going to marry that girl.' Now, I immediately doubted it for two or three reasons—first, I didn't love her; second, God had never before or ever since talked to me that clearly in my life, ever; and, number three, she was madly in love with my best friend." He decided to keep the revelation to himself.
Soon after they returned to school in the fall, Kay's boyfriend broke up with her. It came as a complete surprise to Kay and she was crushed and certain that she would never love again. Then, as she recalls, "All of a sudden this Rick Warren guy started hanging around me, sitting down next to me in the cafeteria, standing beneath my dorm room and tossing rocks at my window to get my attention—you know, very subtle things," she deadpanned. "And it scared the daylights out of me because I remembered what his friend had said, and I'd never seen him so interested in anybody. And I had this panicky feeling: what does he know that I don't know?"
Rick asked her out and she accepted. On their first date, they went to a nearby Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour, a favorite date spot for Cal Baptist students, and shared the house specialty: a "pig's trough" filled with ice cream and all the fixings. Rick paid the tab. They laughed and talked and, while both were a little nervous, they seemed to enjoy the lighthearted conversation and one another's company. Eight days later they went out again, this time to a youth revival meeting at a nearby church where Kay had been invited to play the piano. Rick went along and sat in a pew while she played. After the service they walked back to the campus and went into a prayer room to pray together; the tone of the evening had been far different from that of the first date. As they finished praying, Rick looked up at her and blurted out, "Will you marry me?"
The proposal, as sudden as it was, did not come as a complete surprise to Kay. The mere fact that he had asked her out signaled that he had serious intentions. Still, she was not prepared for it, not that soon, and her mind raced to come up with an answer. "I instantly said to God, 'Okay, God, I don't love him. I'm in love with his best friend. What in the world do I say to this guy who has asked me to marry him?' And God clearly said to me, 'Say yes, and I'll bring the feelings.' So I said yes." They kissed for the first time.
It never would have occurred to the proud family and supportive friends who packed the church sanctuary on that sunny June afternoon that the nervous young couple standing before them were virtual strangers who were about to descend into marital hell. "I remember standing in the back of the church," Kay recalls, "waiting to walk down the aisle, going, 'Okay, God, those feelings that you said you'd bring? It would sure be nice if you'd bring those feelings sometime soon.'" Theirs had been an unusual courtship, to say the least. What they had managed to learn about each other during the many months they were apart only seemed to underscore their differences. The bonds of affection that should have grown stronger had barely taken hold. Despite their misgivings, they both still believed that God had brought them together, and so they went ahead with the wedding.
The honeymoon was a disaster. "He was so loving and so tender, and I loved him, but I wasn't in love with him," Kay recalls. "I was scared to death." She had every reason to be. Shortly before the wedding Kay revealed to Rick a secret from her past that she had never shared with anyone up to that time. At the age of three, Kay was sexually molested in the basement of her father's church by the teenage son of a church employee. The young man eventually was caught molesting other children in the neighborhood and was sent to juvenile detention for several years. Kay had never told her parents.
She told Rick the story simply and without emotion, suggesting that it was "no big deal" when in fact, as she would later admit, it was a huge deal; the psychological trauma haunted her into adulthood. "I did my best to block it out of my mind," she would write many years later, "but the effects of the trauma began to affect my developing sexuality." As a teenager she became "alternately fascinated and repelled by anything sexual." She would sneak into her father's study to pore over the Masters and Johnson book Human Sexual Response, which was part of his marital-counseling collection. While babysitting for neighbors she found a stash of pornography and quickly became addicted to it. She began experimenting sexually with older friends. "All the while, the 'good girl' part of me loved God passionately and wanted my life to count for something. The 'bad girl' part of me didn't know how to break the cycle." So she learned to compartmentalize. "By the time Rick and I got engaged, I was totally messed up."
On their wedding night Rick was unaware of the inner turmoil that had skewed Kay's self- image for so many years and had confused the sexual attitudes that she had carried into their marriage. They returned from the honeymoon feeling frustrated and angry. "People would say, as they normally do, 'So—did you guys have fun?'" Kay recalls. "And we're like, 'Sure, great.' But inside we were dying. We were just dying." In the following months their relationship spiraled downward. They argued and fought over money, sex, in-laws, children—all of the usual marital flashpoints—and felt themselves sinking deeper and deeper into a dark pit.
They also felt embarrassed. Rick was a youth pastor and they were concerned about how it would look if people knew that their marriage was a shambles. They felt trapped and alone. There was nowhere to turn, and divorce was not an option. Their Baptist faith had taught them that marriage was a lifetime commitment, a sacred vow that could not be broken. "I wasn't going to go back on the commitment," Kay explains. "But I just saw no hope. What I saw was that I had just consigned myself to a lifetime of misery. And so I wished that divorce was an option. I knew it wasn't for me, but I wished it was because I was so miserable."
Within a few months, the stress of the marriage and an exhausting workload put Rick in the hospital. "I was so sick from the stress. I was angry. It was like, 'Wait a minute. I saved myself for this?' I was just flat-out angry at God and felt cheated, and Kay thought she was going crazy. And that's where we had to say, 'Okay, we're going to get help.'" They began seeing a Christian marriage counselor and it immediately became clear that there would be no quick fix.
The counselor charged $100 a week, about half of the young couple's income. It was far more than they could afford, so they charged it to a credit card and eventually racked up a $1,500 bill. (Years later Rick would joke that he could make a commercial: "MasterCard saved my marriage!") Slowly the counseling began to pay off. "It was the beginning of teaching us how to communicate with each other," Kay recalls. "Rick and I are so different and we didn't know how to deal with that. Neither of us really knew how to handle conflict very well. So it at least opened the door to begin talking about the problems and the struggles and our differences."
They would continue to seek counseling unashamedly over the years, even after the success of Saddleback and of Warren's books. "There are times now when we'll say, 'You know, we could really use a tune-up,' and we'll go for a while and it helps us through a rough spot. Rick and I are big believers in really good counseling."
Adapted from Prophet of Purpose by Jeffery L. Sheler Copyright © 2009 by Jeffery L. Sheler. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Religion, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff reviewed the book.
Prophet of Purpose is available at Amazon.com, ChristianBook.com, and other book retailers.
Alan Wolfe reviewed Prophet of Purpose for Slate. Amy Sullivan reviewed it for Washington Monthly.
336 pp., 5.95
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