Everything about Rick Warren is larger than life, from his megachurch, Saddleback, with its tens of thousands of members, to his best-selling book and its millions of copies.
It is not an exaggeration to say his brand of warm, accessible Christianity has changed the way many evangelicals see themselves … and changed how many other people see evangelicals.
But it is Kay Warren — his wife of 32 years and mother of his three children — who changed him.
The couple, both children of ministers, met at a Baptist retreat and married at 21. Rick proposed after only two dates.
"He's fast," said Warren. "And I had one of those moments where I felt like that was what I was supposed to do. And so I said yes, even though looking back on that, I think, 'Wow, I was very young and naive.' But I really do believe that Rick and I might not have gotten together any other way."
"I don't believe in the phrase compatibility. I think it's a myth," said Rick Warren. "I think any two people can be compatible if they just grow up. And a lot of it is plain selfishness: 'I don't want to change.' You know, we say before marriage 'opposites attract,' and then after marriage 'opposites attack.' And so that's what happened with us."
"The first few years of our marriage were pretty much hell on earth," he added, laughing, "but we've been married now 32 incredible years."
Now 53, Warren has written her own remarkable story, "Dangerous Surrender," which details their journey together as her husband became one of the most influential pastors in the world, including those "awful" early years of marriage.
'Brokenness' and 'Addiction'
Warren doesn't just open up about her relationship; some other revelations in the book are shocking, particularly coming from the minister's wife. She talks candidly about being molested when she was 3 years old.
"I talked about some of the effects of that molestation, the brokenness that happened in my life," she said. "The addiction to pornography. Experimentation, sexually, with some older kids. I'd never talked about that to anybody besides my husband and my counselor."
Warren says that as a teenager, pornography "became a regular part" of her life.
"I did a lot of baby-sitting, and it turns out some of the people I baby-sat for had pornography," she explained. "And I viewed it. And I wanted to do it. And it became a cycle of failure. Anybody who's ever caught in any addiction. … The cycles are the same. … Drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping. … It doesn't even matter. Whatever that addiction is, that cycle is the same. And to break that and to find freedom on the other side, and to find freedom from the guilt and the shame is so incredible."
Warren says that like any addiction, she was using pornography to "soothe the ache" of her abuse. Years of living with silence and shame makes the startling change Warren underwent five years ago even more surprising. Abrupt and unexpected, it was brought about by reading a magazine she has long since thrown away.
"It was not a cover story, but on the cover there was this little line that read something about a story on AIDS in Africa," she said. "I opened it up and began to read. I was instantly horrified."
Reading about the 12 million children orphaned in Africa due to AIDS rocked her world, but Warren says she isn't sure what made her notice that particular article on that particular day, or why she had been oblivious to the issue beforehand.
"There's a spiritual answer and there's a not so spiritual answer," she said. "The not-so-spiritual answer is that my heart was hard. I had spent the majority of my adult life raising my kids, helping my husband build his church. I had tunnel vision: my life, my dreams, my plans, my agenda, my family, my struggles. Everything was about me and my life. That's the nonspiritual answer. The spiritual answer is, for reasons I don't know, God intended me to read that article that day. I can't think of any other reason."
'It's Not a Sin to Be Sick'
Warren wrestled with "a very intense internal battle" over whether to take on an issue as daunting, painful and unfamiliar as HIV/AIDS. She says at first a sexually transmitted disease "was not something I wanted to be a part of."
Part of her struggle was the widespread attitude of the evangelical Church toward AIDS and homosexuality.
"In my mind I tied HIV with homosexuality, and coming from the faith tradition I did … we didn't do very well talking about sex. In my mind, that was one of the stereotypes I had. I could never even think about it here," she said. "Somehow, when it was in Africa and it had to do with children, it caught my heart. I could enter in on that level."
"The fact is, HIV is not a gay disease," she said. "I was caught on one particular aspect. I've learned, so what? … What if every single person in the world that was infected was a gay man? Should that or would that change the level of compassion?"
Warren says for her, the answer is no.
"As I began to learn and listen and really get God's heart, it doesn't matter who is sick. It's not a sin to be sick. It doesn't matter how they got sick. Our question should be, how can I help you?"
Ultimately, she decided to travel to Africa, a decision she says came down to a conversation with God.
"For me, it came down to the moment of telling God why I said no," she explained. "I can imagine myself coming face to face with God at the end of my life and [he'll] ask me, 'Do you remember that day I showed you that magazine article ? … Why didn't you do anything about it?' I couldn't imagine myself saying, 'Come on God, I was busy. I had a lot of stuff going on. I had my own problems. You really meant me? You wanted me to do something about that?' I couldn't imagine that conversation going well."
'I Have Today'
When Warren told her husband about her decision, she says he was proud of her, but he wasn't initially convinced that the problem of AIDS in Africa was related to their church and their message. In 2003, she made her first trip to Africa. Rick stayed behind.
Warren describes the experience of meeting a woman in Mozambique named Gwana who was "about a week away from death." She and her husband had been kicked out of their village in Mozambique because they were HIV-positive.
Warren says her first thought was, "What do I say? I don't know what to say.' My faith did not prepare me to talk to a dying homeless woman under a tree. I mean, I know how to talk to women about how to lose the last 10 pounds, you know, that they can't seem to lose. And I know how to talk to parents about when they're having trouble with their kids … but to talk to a dying woman, homeless under a tree, I didn't have the faintest idea what to say."
For Warren, Gwana gave the disease a face and a name, and changed her life forever. "To me, the goal is to end AIDS," she said.
Within six months, her life changed again, when she discovered she had breast cancer.
"If anything, I think I am really grateful for cancer. I never want it again … but I am so grateful for what I have learned. Cancer clarifies. It is an extremely clarifying experience. … It stripped away the illusions that I have loads and loads of time to do all these things that I think are important. I always thought that, you know, Rick and I would grow old together, and we'd sit on the front porch in our rocking chairs, and I could see that day coming. I don't live with that illusion anymore. Because I don't know. I know I have today."
Within a year, Warren was back on the road, this time with her husband, as a full-fledged advocate for those with HIV/AIDS. They traveled to Rwanda, a country where more than 900,000 people were slaughtered in just 100 days. The trip was particularly powerful for Warren, who says that she does believe that there is the potential evil in everyone.
"I do [believe in the devil] because the Bible says there is an actual devil," she said. "Just like I believe there is an actual, literal God, I believe there is an actual, literal devil. I think there's an actual, literal heaven, and I think there's an actual literal hell, as well."
"The core of us, I don't think we're basically good. I'm sorry, I don't. … I don't know how anybody could. I don't know how anybody could look at some of the evil in the world and think that we are good. I think we have the capacity for both good and evil."
Warren's trips to Africa led to a seismic change in the church she and her husband both love. At Warren's urging, in the fall of 2005 they launched the Saddleback HIV AIDS Conference, attracting evangelicals from around the world to help. Warren has had to reconcile her work to combat HIV/AIDS with her own beliefs, not just about homosexuality but also about sex education.
She said while she believes, "Homosexuality is not the expression that God intended," she is committed to helping anyone with HIV/AIDS. "I believe the Bible very literally, and I know this will not sit well with people. I think the Bible says that he intended sexuality to be expressed in men and women in marriage for life. That is God's ideal."
While she also describes abstinence before marriage as the ideal, saying "Let's not throw away the ideal, just because it's difficult and hard to achieve," she said condoms should also be made available.
"Let's live in reality, but let's also live for the ideals."
To those who say her point of view is naive, Warren's response is that "the naive thing is to say that people cannot control their sexual desires, that people cannot control their bodies. That's naive. The fact is, all of us can control our bodies a lot more than we think we can. Sometimes it becomes a matter of not wanting to. And if you're not going to, then at least protect yourself with correct, consistent condom use. That's not my first choice. My first choice is to particularly be faithful. Be faithful in your relationships with your husband and your wife. "
Warren says her book is a "before and after" story.
"When I catalogue what my life was like before I picked up that magazine article almost five years ago, and the way it is now, there's almost nothing that's the same. I have the same husband. I have the same kids. All of those things are still in place. Where I spend my money, where I spend my time, what I think about, what I do, all of those things are completely different."
Her message for her readers is that they should "say yes to God."
"It is the scariest, the riskiest, the most dangerous thing that anybody can ever do. We say yes to the God who made the universe. He's this powerful, almighty God. But he's a God who is good; he's a God who can be trusted. So when you say yes to him, he takes you places you never thought you would go. Not just externally, but there's a journey that happens on the inside, that is transforming. I want that for everybody. "