Rick Warren speaks of this in theological terms — of course he does; he’s a pastor — but there is wisdom here for all of us. It all turns on training oneself to want not what one wants, but to want what one needs — that is, the Good.

A story from my own life. I came to accept Christianity in a mature way in my mid-twenties, in large part because I had until then been living my life according to what I wanted, and kept making a mess of it. I decided to surrender to God, to put Him first, in part because I trusted that He knew better what I needed than I did. (I’m vastly oversimplifying here, but you get the gist of it.) That meant having to change my life in significant ways, learning to discipline myself by denying myself certain things that I wanted in any given moment. Christians call this “dying to self,” and it was hard. 

The hardest part was in keeping myself from getting involved romantically with women who didn’t share my Christian commitment. I was single and I was terribly lonely, and I had the habit of falling for women who were smart, fun, beautiful, and suitable in most ways … but were not Christians, or serious about their faith. I couldn’t let myself follow my heart into these situations, because I knew that there would always be that gulf between us, and that if we married and had children, we could find ourselves in a very painful situation, divided against ourselves. So I would force myself to say no to my emotions, and no to my desires, because I could not see that the Good — for me, or for her — would be accomplished if I said yes.

What made this so tricky is that these women with whom I might have had a relationship were by no means bad people. They were good! I never fell for a woman who would have been conventionally “bad” for me. It’s just that having made a firm and serious commitment to Jesus Christ, all other commitments I might thenceforth make had to be subordinate to that one. For me, it was too risky to enter into an intimate, perhaps lifelong, relationship with someone who didn’t share my degree of religious commitment. For me, it was building my house on shaky ground. Things might have worked out fine in the end, but that was not a risk I was prepared to take. Years later, I met the right woman for me, and married her. I firmly believe that if I hadn’t learned to discipline my desires according to the Church’s teaching, I would not have been able to recognize that the woman I met that night in an Austin bookstore was the woman for me.

This is not just a story about love and marriage. The same principle applies to other fundamental areas of our lives — something as profound as career choices, for instance, or as relatively trivial as the people we choose to surround ourselves with. The question is not: does this path or these people give me what I desire, and what makes me happy right now. The question ought to be: will this path or these people help us to live out the Good?

One obvious danger in this is that you may find yourselves using people selfishly as means to an improper end. You have to think about what the end is. Is it money, power, material goods, pleasure, worldly success? That’s wrong, because what you identify as the Good is not, in fact, good, but an idol. The kind of friends I surround myself with are people who may or may not be religious, but who are kind, generous, funny, trustworthy, and who in some way are the kind of person I want to be: Good. If I meet someone who seems interesting and nice, but who lacks a similar orientation to what I identify as the Good, I will keep them at arm’s length. That doesn’t meant I treat them as Bad — everybody’s something of a mixed bag — but that I am careful to keep our relationship from getting too intimate.

Another danger here is that you may become too rigidly programmatic in your approach to life, and miss the opportunities for grace that come your way. When I was deep into my life as a single Catholic man, I had it in my mind that I could only marry a Catholic. When I met the woman God intended for me, she was a committed Presbyterian. That was a challenge to both of us — the same challenge, actually — but we concluded that our shared commitment to Jesus Christ was sufficient. Thank God both of us had the openness to grace to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Anyway, my thoughts. Whether you believe in God or not, Rick Warren is right that relationships with others with whom we ought not to have gotten involved is the easiest way to sabotage the Good life.