Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In Defense of the Osteens (Kinda, Sorta, Not Really)

Does God want you to be happy? Is that his main concern? Does he hope you’ll be good, but mainly hope you’ll be happy? Is your main purpose in life to seek your own personal comfort and peace and happiness? Is that really what life is all about, or is there something more? Maybe life is about seeking none of that, laying yourself aside, forgetting about you and caring about others. Maybe life is about being consumed simply by what God wants, no matter what that means for your personal happiness. Maybe personal happiness is not something that you should care about at all? Is that the way it works?

Victoria Osteen, the wife of famed prosperity preacher Joel Osteen, has been a hot topic of controversy in Christian circles for the last couple of weeks because of something she recently said about what the main purpose of living the Christian life, the main purpose of worshiping God is. She seems to indicate that the main point is seeking happiness. Here’s a look at what she recently said at the couple’s Houston mega-church:


If you don’t want to watch the entire thing, here is the part that I think upset people the most:

“Do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”

“Do good because God wants you to be happy,” she says. She tells the people in the congregation not to worship God for God’s sake, but to worship God for their own sake. She is telling them, in essence, “What makes God happy is for you to be happy.” Here’s the problem with what she said – it has a grain of truth in it, enough so that many people who hear it will believe it. But when you take a grain of truth and make it the whole truth, then what you end up with is untruth. And that is what I believe Osteen did in this situation. Let me explain.

The Bible is littered with promises of great reward given to those who follow Jesus. And among those rewards is the reward of happiness. Indeed, God wants you to be happy. Notice what Jesus says in the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, commonly referred to as “The Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) Notice that word – blessed. In literally means “happy,” or “happy in God.” God wants you to be happy, and he wants you to be happy because he is happy: he is "the blessed God." (1 Timothy 1:11) So Jesus is basically saying, “Here is the path to happiness.” But his ideas of where we find happiness are not where we would generally think to look – Jesus promises happiness in poverty of spirit, and meekness and mourning, in persecution for righteousness’ sake. Honestly, this does not seem like the kind of happiness that I commonly hear the Osteens talk about.

You see, the issue with humanity is not necessarily that we are seeking happiness – it’s that we are seeking it in all the wrong places. Jesus promises happiness that comes in turning away from ourselves, not happiness in prosperity, health, or finding a good parking spot at the mall. (Osteen, Joel. Your Best Life Now) God is offering us true, lasting, permanent, perfect happiness, if only we will seek HIM instead of seeking after ourselves. If we pursue God, we will get happiness thrown in. If we purse happiness, we will get neither God nor happiness. C.S. Lewis put it this way in his classic Mere Christianity:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Our problems are not rooted in the fact that we are seeking happiness; they’re rooted in the fact that we’re seeking it in the wrong places. But just because we see that true worship of God will lead to our happiness, we can’t begin to get the idea that worship is simply pleasure, or simply for ourselves. This is, I believe, the mistake the Osteens make here in particularl, and generally with their brand of theology. Yes, there is great joy in worshiping God. But sacrifice is also required. The apostle Paul says that we must “make our bodies a living sacrifice,” and that is our “spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) Worship without sacrifice is not worship at all. Worship that is not first centered on God, and what I can offer to God, before it is concerned about what I will get from God, is not true worship. The promise at the end is certainly joy; but the sacrifice must come first.

Let’s go back to Lewis for a moment, because he illustrates this idea beautifully in his gem of a book, The Great Divorce. In this book, a group of people in Hell get a bus ride to Heaven, and they can stay if they like. (Set aside for a moment that this would not happen, that’s not Lewis' point.) The interesting thing is that almost to a person, every one of them decide they’d prefer to go back to Hell. But there is one man, who seems at first like he would do the same, before something fantastic happens. The man has a lizard on his shoulder. A chatty lizard, who seems to be running the show. That lizard represents some deep sin in his life that the man hates, but still doesn't want to let go of. He is confronted by an angel, who offers to kill the lizard for him. The man is afraid:

“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so,” says the angel.
“Why, you’re hurting me now.”
“I never said it wouldn't hurt you. I said it wouldn't kill you.”

After a period of intense negotiation, the man finally cries out for the angel to kill the lizard. It is loud and painful, with both lizard and man screaming in agony, and both finally passing out, the man apparently unconscious, the lizard apparently dead. But what happens next is what is amazing. Slowly, the man comes back to life, and even more back to life than he was before. He grows larger and larger until he is almost as large as the angel. And something even more amazing happens to the lizard. He reawakens, and then transforms into a great stallion! The man jumps on his new stead and rides away into Heaven.

What’s the point here? Worship costs something. When you turn to God, it is not necessarily an easy ride. But it is worth it. The rewards that come after the pain are always worth the pain. This is what Gospel happiness feels like; joy that comes after intense sacrifice and pain, but joy that makes the intense sacrifice and pain feel like nothing. This is why the writer of Hebrews said that Jesus went to the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2) This is what real worship is; it comes with the promise of our own happiness, but it also comes with the command to first offer a sacrifice to God before we can experience that happiness.

This picture of worship, and the joy it leads to, is a far greater and more beautiful picture than simply worshiping God because it makes you feel better. Worship is not therapy. Worship is sacrifice, but it sacrifice that leads to joy. It’s like the person who found a treasure buried in the field, and in his joy, sold everything they had so they could buy that field. (Matthew 13:44). The sacrifices are real, but they are worth it for the thing that we get in return – God himself, forever. This is not the Gospel of self-fulfillment. It’s the Gospel of self-emptying and of God-fulfillment. It's the Gospel that says, "Jesus is better than anything."


Rozena said...


Great post. I always learn so much from your teachings. Wish I could see you preach, regardless I feel blessed that I got to know you and Crystal.

God bless you.
- Rozena

Wade Phillips said...

Thanks Rozena, we miss you guys, and are thankful we got to know you in your short time here. Hope you're doing well!