On Tuesday, October 3, 1995, practically everyone in America stopped what they were doing and gathered around a TV or a radio. The conclusion to one of the most riveting courtroom dramas in modern American history came to a stunning climax: A jury acquitted former football great O.J. Simpson of two counts of murder. The verdicts set him free 474 days after he was arrested and charged. Between 1:00 and 1:10 p.m., when the verdict was announced, everything came to a stop. People didn’t work. They didn’t go to class. They didn’t make phone calls.
They listened to the verdict.
Newspaper accounts noted that airplanes had to wait because passengers wouldn’t board before they heard. News conferences were postponed. The New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade slowed to a halt. The president of the United States, Bill Clinton, left the Oval Office to catch it with his secretary and aides. During that time period there was a 93-million-watt increase as people turned on something, somewhere, to catch the news. Even the aircraft carrier Independence, sailing in the Persian Gulf, contacted the Navy Public Affairs office in Washington and piped the verdict through the carrier’s sound system.
All to find out the decision of twelve jurors on the fate of one man.
Trials are interesting things. Evidence is put forth, arguments are considered, and testimony is heard. Then a decision, based on certain understandings of what is right or wrong, true or false, admissible or inadmissible, must be made. And make no mistake about the value-based nature of the decisions. Consider the Simpson verdict: People across America were divided on whether O.J. was guilty. They heard the same evidence and listened to the same testimony, but they came to very different conclusions. Even a second trial, for civil injuries, found O.J. guilty.
What Are Values?
Values are those things that make up, for you, what is right and what is wrong, what matters and what doesn’t matter. Everybody has values; the problem is that not everybody agrees on what those values should be, much less where they should come from.
My friend Lee Strobel tells a story about a panel that convened in a conference room in order to find out what the simple value of integrity was all about. First, they invited a philosopher to come into the room. “Tell us,” they said. “What is integrity?” The philosopher thought for a minute and then said, “Integrity is what you’re like when nobody’s around.” The panel thanked him and agreed, “That’s a pretty good answer.”
Then they invited a businessman inside and asked for his definition. “In my world,” he said, “integrity means a person is as good as his word.” They thought that was a pretty good answer too!
Then they invited an attorney to enter. “What is integrity? they asked him. The attorney’s eyes cautiously scanned the room. He crept over to the door, opened it, looked outside to make sure nobody was listening, and then bolted it shut. He closed the windows, pulled down the shades, and then turned back to the panel. “Tell me,” he whispered. “What do you want it to mean?”
A real value, of course, is not made up on the spot. An authentic, true value is something that is beyond us. It depends on a truth and a reality that is bigger than we are. That’s why there has been so much talk at the beginning of the twenty-first century about returning to values that exist independently of what an individual may or may not embrace. Shootings at schools, racially motivated slayings, sexual assaults — we intuitively sense that only in authentic, lasting, core values is there hope. That’s why Jesus spent so much time spelling out God’s core values for individual life application, once even saying: “These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life…. They are foundational words, words to build a life on” (Matthew 7:24).
What Do Values Have to Do with My Life Purpose?
How do your values tie in to your purpose for living? The answer is that your values are the moral compass by which you navigate through life. Your life values point you toward true north, setting your course. If values are timeless, eternal truths by which you guide your life, then the only way to fulfill your life purpose is to discover those foundational values. If you don’t know your foundational values, then you won’t have a basis by which to make decisions that will determine the very direction and destiny of your life.
This is the meaning behind the Bible’s warning that “a doubleminded man [is] unstable in all he does” (James 1:8). A doubleminded person is unsure of what he stands for, blown this way and that by whatever comes along, and without a moral anchor. This person never follows a purpose in life, because he never establishes values to guide him along the waters of life. We need that outside reality, that transcendent sense of what is right and wrong, fact and fiction, significant and trivial.
Before Tom Lehman had the chance to prove himself on the PGA Tour, he had to enter the 1990 qualifying school (Q-school, as the pros call it) for the PGA Tour. During that high-pressure, all-or-nothing event, Lehman called a penalty stroke on himself. A stiff breeze caused Lehman’s ball to move slightly after he addressed it, and the rules are clear: if the ball moves, you are penalized one stroke. The result? Lehman missed qualifying for the cut for the tour by — you guessed it — a single stroke. If the most important thing in Lehman’s life was qualifying for the tour, if his values were based on success rather than faithfulness, he might not have called the penalty stroke. But his faith in Christ, coupled with the importance of living a purposeful life on the basis of real values, called him to honesty. His honesty resulted in waiting another year to qualify. “If a breach of the rules had occurred and I didn’t call it on myself, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror,” explained Lehman. “You’re only as good as your word. And your word wouldn’t be worth much if you can’t even be honest with yourself.” Lehman’s loss at the Q-school sent him in 1991 to what’s now known as the Nike Tour, where he set a tour record with seven tournament wins in a single season. The confidence he gained while waiting for his dream led to his subsequent PGA Tour victories. But that isn’t what made his decision best. It was the fact that it reflected his values and resulted in faithfulness.1
Robertson McQuilken would understand. As a young man, he dreamed of becoming president of Columbia Bible College in Columbia, South Carolina. He adored his father, who had held this position, and wanted one day to take his place. McQuilken’s dream came true, and he served as president of the college with distinction for many years. Then, just as he was about to enter the most productive years of his leadership, his wife began to show the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. In a matter of months, she not only lost the memory of much of their life together, but she was unable even to recognize Robertson as her husband.
Then McQuilken made a values-based, purposeful decision. He resigned the presidency of Columbia so he could give full-time care to his wife. Without hesitation he walked away from his lifelong dream as an act of love for his wife. Many told him there was no point in resigning. “Anyone can take care of your wife,” they told him, “but not anybody can be president of Columbia.” After all, they would often add, she didn’t even recognize him when he came into the room.
McQuilken tried to explain his decision to his supporters and critics. He admitted that his wife didn’t know who he was. But that wasn’t the point, he told them. The really important thing was that he still knew who she was and that he saw in her the same lovely woman he had married those many years ago. Then, with finality and conviction, he laid out the simple truth of a value upon which he had based his life: “And I promised to be there for her ‘until death do us part.'”2
Where Do Values Come From?
Values are choices shaped by many competing forces, the strongest of which is undoubtedly the media. According to a study reported in the New York Times, the average person in America spends about eleven hundred hours a year watching broadcast TV, an additional five hundred hours watching cable, and three hundred hours listening to music.3 The media’s influence on human life cannot be underestimated. While television may not always tell you what to think, it certainly tells you what to think about. Today we are exposed to an estimated fifteen hundred commercial messages per day, with more than ten thousand magazines, six thousand radio stations, and four hundred television stations from which to choose.4 Howard K. Smith, for years a commentator for ABC-TV, estimated that at least 80 percent of what the average citizen continues to learn about the world after leaving school “comes filtered through observations of the journalist.”5 And those observations are not value free.6
I observed the media’s impact on values on Saturday, Sept. 6, 1997, while I was doing my morning run. The gym where I work out has a bank of televisions, and each treadmill has a place for headphones so you can hook up and watch while you run. On this particular morning, I watched the entire CNN Headline News program from 8:30 to 9:00 a.m.
The first 15 minutes were spent on Princess Diana. First, there was a story on her funeral. Then came a story on how her boys would handle her death and the media scrutiny of their lives. Then there was a report on the song that Elton John had composed for her funeral. Then there was footage of the bells pealing throughout England for her death. Then came another story on the eulogies that had been given at her burial. Then came two quick stories on other events: Hurricane Erica and the Space Station Mir. Then it went back to Elton John singing his new version of “Candle in the Wind.” CNN then went right into its business news, sports segment and entertainment coverage.
Now under normal circumstances, you would think that it was just a slow news day or that the death of Princess Diana was such a monumental event that it deserved to dominate the nation’s leading cable newscast. But I happened to know something else had happened the night before, something that was never mentioned — not even once. Another woman died, a small, old Albanian woman named Agnes, better known to the world as Mother Teresa. The death of this Nobel Prize winner, and arguably the most beloved woman in the entire world, was completely ignored.
CNN wasn’t alone. According to the Media Research Center, the coverage of Diana to Mother Teresa on the CBS evening news ran three to one; and on NBC, seven to one. Newsweek magazine had 47 pages on Diana, but only four on Mother Teresa. Time and U.S. News & World Report weren’t much better.7 But that wasn’t all. Andrew Morton, on an ABC news story, said that Diana’s death, and I quote, was “one of the most awful tragedies of the late 20th century, if not the greatest…. In her death something inside us had died…. People are grieving for lost hopes, lost dreams, lost ambitions.”8 When coupled with constant scenes of grief and crying, we were led to feel that this was a loss of cosmic proportions. Now, nothing against the tragic death of Diana, but not only was her death nowhere near the greatest tragedy that has occurred during the last 50 years — eclipsing such things as Vietnam, Chernobyl, Tiananmen Square, or the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger — but even when compared to the loss of other figures, such as Mother Teresa, Princess Di lived a life of very little significance. As has been quipped, she was just famous for being famous. But according to the media, Princess Di’s life greatly overshadowed Mother Teresa’s, and as a result, we were led to value her life that way. The talk was not that Mother Teresa would be made a saint, but that Princess Di would.9
There are other ways that the media can influence our values. One of the most powerful is through repetition, by putting certain choices or life styles before us over and over again until we become desensitized and accept those choices and life styles as normal. And if these choices are made by our favorite characters in a novel, actors in a film, performers on a music video, or actors on a television show, then we automatically associate positive feelings toward that behavior or choice.
Take sex, for example. U. S News & World Report did a study on a week’s worth of prime-time viewing from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. They found that of 58  shows, almost half contained sexual acts or references to sex.10 The Media Research Center has found that portrayals of premarital sex outnumbered sex within marriage by eight to one, and that “casual sex” was almost always approved of.11 To say that this media portrayal hasn’t impacted how we feel about sex, and from that, what is right and wrong about sex, would be naive. As George Lucas, one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood history, once said, “for better or worse … films and television tell us the way we conduct our lives, what is right and wrong.”12
Today’s Dominant Values
So what are the dominant values of our day? I grow increasingly convinced that the late Francis Schaeffer was correct in stating that there are two widely accepted values: personal pleasure and personal prosperity.13 The value of personal pleasure can be seen on virtually any talk show. Whatever life style is displayed, the conclusion is the same: If it makes them happy and doesn’t seem to hurt anyone else, then it’s okay. The value of personal pleasure says that what I want, what makes me happy, and what seems to give me the most satisfaction at this point in time is what is right and true and good and noble.
The second dominant value of our culture, personal prosperity, was baldly captured in the movie Wall Street. The character played by Michael Douglas gives a speech as a corporate leader in which he proclaims that greed is good. In a later movie, Indecent Proposal, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson play a couple who are offered a million dollars if she would sleep with another man for one night. They accept. The movie never comments on whether the act itself is right or wrong, only whether it is okay for their relationship. The plot was whether the night of adultery would be consequence free; it was already assumed to be value free. Although most are quick to concede that money does not always purchase happiness, many remain convinced that getting more of it would be a good thing. When people were asked what single factor would most improve the quality of their lives, the most frequent answer in one American survey was “more money.”14
Values for a Purposeful Life
The Bible gives an entirely different spin on the values of the world. The Bible, for example, says that pleasure is good. God smiles on it because He made it. But pleasure is not what God intended to be our reason to live, because operating your life on the value of pleasure alone is not investing in something that lasts. It’s a superficial life. In fact, it’s not really life at all. That’s why the Bible says that “[by focusing on the] pleasures of living, the life is choked out of them, and in the end they produce nothing” (Luke 8:14). The Bible is not against money, but it goes against culture by contending that money isn’t what life is about either. In fact, Jesus was clear when He said, “Real life and real living are not related to how rich we are” (Luke 12:15).
What Christ offers is a set of values that come from God Himself and that bring life itself. Transcendent values, ones that are bigger than we are, can speak to any and every situation, guiding us step by step toward significance and meaning. Notice how the apostle Paul speaks of this: “As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end” (Romans 6:20-21).
There is a fundamental life choice to be made when it comes to values: Christ or the world. As the Book of job reminds us: “We should choose to follow what is right. But first of all we must define among ourselves what is good” (Job 34:4). The choice you make on this is important. The stakes are high. Following the values of the world will cause you to miss God’s purpose for your life. You simply can’t live by the world’s values and still fulfill God’s purpose for your life. Instead, you’ll be like the infamous lemmings, small animals that live in northern Norway. Whenever lemmings go off in search of food, the majority of them die. There are so many that when they get near a cliff, some of them are pushed off the edge. And then, when some of them go over the edge, the rest feel they should follow. Soon an enormous herd of lemmings runs off the edge of the cliff to their deaths. It’s a tragic scene: Instead of turning away from the crowd toward life, they follow the crowd and die.
What Are Your Values?
So what are your values? And how will they guide your life? First, settle the big question. Choose between Christ and the world.
Early in his ministry, Billy Graham wrestled with whether he was going to embrace the Bible as the inspired, revealed Word of God and source of truth for his life, or dismiss it as a fallible, unreliable book of merely human insight. He knew that everything in his life was on the line. The resolution came at a student conference at Forest Home, a retreat center in the San Bernadino Mountains near Los Angeles. Billy went for a walk in the serene pine forest. About 50 yards off a main trail, he sat for a long time on a large rock, his Bible spread open on a tree stump. Then he made his choice. “Oh God,” he prayed, “I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions … some … people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.” I’ve been to Forest Home, and on a similar walk, I accidentally stumbled on the very rock upon which Graham made his lifelong values choice. A bronze tablet on the stone now commemorates his decision. Why such recognition? As Graham himself has observed, that single resolution “gave power and authority to my preaching that has never left me. The gospel in my hands became a hammer and a flame…. I felt as though I had a rapier in my hands and through it the power of the Bible was slashing deeply into men’s consciousness, leading them to surrender to God.”15 Settling the values question changed his life, and it changed the world.
Second, get specific about what your values mean for your life. Not many people have done this, so to get started, ask yourself the following questions:
If I knew that tomorrow would be the last full day of my life, how would I spend the day?
At the end of my life, what do I want to look back and say I’ve accomplished?
If a list of adjectives were compiled to describe my life, what words would I like on that list?
If I were to die tomorrow, what would I want people to remember as my most important achievement?
Am I investing myself in those things that matter most to me?
Is there any person or cause I would be willing to die for?
If I were contemplating suicide, what are five reasons for not killing myself?
What is vitally important to me, what has some importance, and what is a complete waste to me?
If I were to write a letter to my children about what was most important in my life, what would I tell them?
If only a single word could be written on my tombstone, what would that word be?
If you take the time to walk through these questions carefully and prayerfully, you will get very specific about what really matters to your life.
The third step is to evaluate your life. Take a long, hard look at your answers to these questions, and ask yourself. Is that how I’m living my life? If those are my values, is that what my calendar looks like? Is that reflected in my checkbook? Would the people around me say that’s how I’m living? Is that how I spent my last week, my last month, or even my last few years? Have I ever lived this way?
The goal is to evaluate your life in order to bring it into harmony with your values. If I were to take a survey of typical Americans about what is important to their lives, I could guess what some of the top answers would be: God, marriage, family and health. But if you could go to those people and poke around a little, I think we all know what we would find. The ones who say their relationship with God is the most important thing aren’t developing that relationship with very much intensity. The ones who say that nothing’s more important than their family are the same ones who contribute to the statistic that the average American father spends less than five minutes of true, face-to-face time with his children a day. People who say that they value their marriage are the same ones who contribute to a 25 percent divorce rate. The ones who say their health is so vital to their lives are the same ones who have made America the obesity capital of the world. You see, there is a huge gap between what we say matters to us and how we really live. Our values have become divorced from our life purpose.
Whenever there is a separation between values and practice, things break down. The way we want things to be aren’t, and the way we hope things will go don’t. In ancient China, the people desired security from the barbaric, invading hordes to the north. To get this protection, they built what is now known as the Great Wall of China. And this wall was, and still is, truly great! It’s thirty feet high, eighteen feet thick, and more than fifteen hundred miles long! The goal of the Chinese was to build an absolutely impenetrable defense-too high to climb over, too thick to break down, and too long to go around. But during the first one hundred years of the wall’s existence, China was successfully invaded not once, not twice, but three times. And it wasn’t the wall’s fault. During all three invasions, the barbaric hordes never climbed over the wall, broke it down, or went around it; they simply bribed a gatekeeper and then marched right in through an open door. The purpose of the wall failed because of a breakdown in values.16
A person who lives a purposeful life determines his or her values and then lives by them. Every year, Americans take a day to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His role in history is secure, but when I think of the civil rights movement, he’s not the first hero that comes to my mind. I think of a 42-year-old woman who was on her way home from work on a cold December day in 1955. Getting on a public bus, she paid her fare and sat down. She was just glad to rest, because her legs were tired. But as the bus filled with passengers, the driver told her that she would have to stand and give her seat to another passenger. Why? Because she was black, and more seats were needed for whites.
She wasn’t an activist or a radical — just a quiet, conservative, churchgoing woman with a nice family and a decent job as a seamstress. But she didn’t move. Maybe it was the injustice of it all. Maybe it was the years of persecution and abuse that she and millions of others had suffered for no other reason than the color of their skin. Maybe she was tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, having to drink from certain fountains, go to certain bathrooms, and being forced into certain schools. Whatever ran through her heart and mind, one thing was clear: This was wrong.
So she remained in her seat.
The bus driver began yelling at her, telling her to move. And then the other passengers began to yell at her, push at her, and even curse her. But she stayed right where she was. The driver stopped the bus, got off, and called the police. When they arrived, they hauled her off to jail. But what they really did was haul her off into history. Because that woman was Rosa Parks, and her stand for what was right — or her sit for what was right — ignited the entire civil rights movement.
She didn’t get on that bus looking for trouble or planning to make some kind of political statement. She just wanted to go home, like everybody else. And as a Christian, she knew she was made in the image of God. She knew she had dignity and worth. She knew she was a precious daughter of God who was called to live a life for Him. But she needed her values to come to the fore when it came time to enter into what she now sees as one of the grand purposes of her life. And the world has never been the same.
The good news is that living a purposeful, value-driven life is a journey open to all of us. In the film Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford played a lawyer who was injured in a robbery. He was cutthroat, dishonest, unfaithful to his wife and distant from his daughter. But the accident caused him to lose his memory, and so he started his entire life over again, this time as a different man. The accumulation of life choices that had led him toward one set of values were replaced by a fresh set of choices. Before the accident, he had ruthlessly suppressed evidence that would have awarded a poor family a medical malpractice settlement. After discovering the importance of honesty and values, he quit his job and went back to that poor family to give them the evidence they needed to win the case against his former firm. When he went to the door and handed over the documents, the shocked wife said, “I don’t get it. What changed?”
Ford simply said, “I did.”
Taken from You Can Experience a Purposeful Life by James Emery White, (c) 2000, Word Publishing, Nashville, Tennessee. Used with permission.
1Adapted from Bill and Kathy Peel, Discover Your Destiny (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1996), 162.
2Adapted from Campolo, Carpe Diem, 178-79.
3Statistics presented by The New York Times, August 24, 1997, as cited by The Pastor’s Weekly Briefing, August 29, 1997 (Vol. 5, No. 35), 2.
4These figures have most certainly grown since they were first reported by George Barna in The Frog in the Kettle: What Christians Need to Know About Life in the Year 2000 (Ventura: Regal, 1990), 53.
5As quoted by Fred Fedler, An Introduction to the Mass Media (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1978), 8.
6On this, see James Fallows, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996).
7″Some perspective, please,” WORLD, September 20, 1997 (Vol. 12, No. 18), 9.
9For an intriguing overview of how people and events can be placed into a certain perspective, regardless of fact, see the work edited by Mark C. Carnes, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1995).
10Jim Impoco, “TV’s Frisky Family Values,” U.S. News & World Report, April 15, 1996 (Vol. 120, No. 15), 58-62.
12As cited by Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 271.
13For the insights of Schaeffer, see The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volumes 1-5 (Westchester: Crossway, 1982).
14As cited by Robert H. Frank, Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess (New York: Free Press, 1999), 4.
15Taken from William Martin, A Prophet with Honor. The Billy Graham Story (New York: William Morrow, 1991), 112.
16Adapted from Maxwell, Developing the Leader within You, 37.

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