If you don’t pay attention to where you’re going on the internet, you may accidentally expose yourself to some terribly objectionable content. I’m usually very careful about that, but yesterday I let my guard down for just a moment and I ended up reading a Joel Osteen tweet. I don’t follow the famous motivational speaker on Twitter, but someone I do follow happened to retweet one of his self-esteem boosting quips. It said:
When you can give God praise even when life doesn’t make sense, then He will release you into a new level of your destiny.
— Joel Osteen (@JoelOsteen) July 30, 2016
I was confused. Release me into a new level of my destiny? What does that mean? And is this a reliable guarantee? If I praise God enough, can I be quite confident that I will ascend to this graduated plane of existence where greater success and fortune awaits? What can be said, then, about the people who are not at that level? Have they simply failed to be grateful? Are all the people at the higher level more grateful than the ones at the lower level?
Ah, but there are no answers to these questions. These are just Osteenisms, similar in character and quality to all other Osteenisms. Vapid, approaching creepy. The kind of wisdom you look forward to reading on a little slip of paper after you just finished way more than your fair share of General Tso’s, but also not far from what you’d expect to see if you flipped through a copy of Dianetics. Basically, a Joel Osteen tweet — and a Joel Osteen sermon, which is just a collection of Joel Osteen tweets — is exactly what you’d get if L. Ron Hubbard wrote fortune cookies. Or if Yoda and Dr. Phil had a baby, and then the baby attended too many Tony Robbins seminars.
Still, I was compelled by some dark force to click on the good pastor’s Twitter page and read more of these morsels. As I skimmed, I learned, among other things, that “if I get rid of the negative” then “God will fill my life with good things,” and that I must “break out in my thinking” so that I won’t be “kept from my destiny,” and that if I “live in my faith” very soon “all of my dreams will come to pass,” and that I can only “go forward” if I don’t “focus on the negative,” and that “if I have a positive mindset” then “I can’t be defeated,” and that “the fuel I need to accomplish my dreams, release my potential, and overcome obstacles is the anointing on my life.”
I’m fairly sure that last one actually makes no sense. It’s almost like a bunch of random buzzwords from a Joel Osteen word search were strung together haphazardly. This is common with prosperity preachers. Lacking the truth, they tend sometimes to descend into utter incoherence, pouring out of their smiling mouths a verbal smoothie of faintly spiritual cliches.
But there are some words that never seem to make it into the smoothie. If you listen closely to all the self-help mumbo jumbo spewed by these heretics, you may notice the glaring absence of certain crucial terms; terms that any pastor ought to be shouting proudly and with great regularity. For one thing, you won’t hear “Christ.” Neither will you hear “sin.” Or redemption, sacrifice, atonement, repentance, Bible, etc. Prosperity preachers are notoriously hesitant to share the spotlight with Jesus. They’d rather keep all the attention centered on the self — their own selves, specifically — and some vague “god” character, who, according to their mythology, is a genie-like figure who shows up to grant wishes before returning to his magic lamp.
In Osteen’s case, I saw that he sends out one or two tweets a day, and almost none of them mention anything about Jesus or Scripture. I brought this to the Osteen’s attention and he responded by blocking me. Dozens of people told me they’d been treated similarly when they asked the “pastor” why he doesn’t ever invite Christ into his “Christian” ministry. Apparently, not only does Osteen refuse to talk about Our Lord, but he will block anyone who so much as utters His Holy Name. You know, just like Scripture commands:
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of self-help and positivity, and lo, if any evildoer mentions the Lord, thou shalt blocketh him and runneth to thine safe space.” — The Gospel according to Joel.
Of course, Joel Osteen and his fellow prosperity “pastors” have many defenders. Osteen’s “church” is the biggest in the country for a reason. It’s so big that his entire congregation would only barely be able to fit into his enormous mansion if they were all invited over for dinner. Obviously Osteen is connecting with people. A man must be very good at connecting with people if he can cash in on their loyalty to the tune of $40 million, buy a 17,000 square foot castle and a few other properties, and somehow still convince his flock to donate to him. (Yes, it’s true that Jesus said “whoever has will be given more,” but I don’t think this is what he meant.)
So when I criticized Osteen yesterday, I received a number of chastising emails in response. Many of the defenses offered were biblically illiterate and absurd, but one common theme emerged from most of them. I was told that we should not discourage people from listening to Osteen and his ilk because “at least they’re getting some Christianity.” It may not be perfectly pure of orthodox, but at least the adherents to the Prosperity Gospel are adhering to some kind of Gospel. It’s better that they be given milquetoast, self-help Christianity than no Christianity. Osteen may not be bringing people all the way into the truth, I’m informed, but he is bringing a lot of people closer to it than they would be otherwise. Osteen’s Christianity is, then, a sort of stepping stone or farm team for the more authentic variety. He’s an ally, not an enemy. And although he may not talk about Christ or call his followers to repentance, it’s not like he’s saying anything actively harmful. He’s telling people to be happy, act nice, and think positive. What’s wrong with that? It’s better than nothing, isn’t it?
Well, this is my answer: No, it’s not better than nothing.
Nothing — no faith at all, even a passionate hostility to faith — is vastly preferable to a faith in a perverted Christianity. An atheist is easier to save than a heretic. Put another way, it’s better for someone to reject Christ than to make up their own version of Him. It’s better for someone to hate the true God than to construct a fake one out of pieces of the real one and fall in love with their creation. It is better for us to be one or the other — Christian or not — than to find some supposed middle ground in between. As the book of Revelation puts it: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Prosperity preachers make worldly happiness and success into the ultimate goal. In fact, they teach us that faith is a means to that goal. Whereas Christians are meant to seek ye first the Kingdom (Matthew 6:33), prosperity Christians seek ye first themselves and their own contentment. GK Chesterton said that our religion is a love affair with Christ. Joel Osteen says that our religion is love affair with ourselves. What he and his colleagues in the Prosperity racket preach is, therefore, nothing less than theological masturbation.
This “seek ye first your own happiness” mantra isn’t “almost” what the Bible says. It’s literally the exact opposite. Scripture tells us repeatedly, over and over and over again, that our faith will bring us suffering in this life. “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy). “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10). Persecution and hatred aren’t merely potential outcomes of following Christ — they’re guarantees. There is a reason why the Bible uses words like “will” and “everyone,” not “some people” and “perhaps.”
That doesn’t mean we can’t be happy here, but it does mean that temporal happiness here on Earth is not the point. It’s not why we were made. It’s not why we were baptized. It’s not why Christ died on the cross. We must be willing to sacrifice that Earthly happiness, and to embrace pain and loss and misfortune and even death, for the sake of something far greater. That is the fundamental message of Christianity, and anything that is merely “close to it” is automatically a billion miles away from it. And it’s better for people who are a billion miles away to know they’re a billion miles away than to think they’re standing right beside it.
Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Joel Osteen asks, “What does it profit a man to gain his soul, yet forfeit the world?” Jesus wants you to have your best life in the world to come. Joel Osteen wants you to have your best life now. The latter philosophy in both cases is certainly not true Christianity, and it’s not in the proximity of true Christianity. It’s actually about as far away as you can get before you start traveling back to it again.
Here’s the thing: We all feel a longing for something. We all yearn for fulfillment, for happiness. We are all thirsty. We are all hungry. And in that hunger and that thirst, that longing, we will feel a certain amount of suffering and even despair. Jesus tells us that feeling is there for a reason, not to be afraid of it, but to come to Him to be satiated. He is the bread of life (John 6:35). But so long as we live as sinners in this fallen world, we will not be completely and permanently satiated. We will stumble and fall and feel that emptiness once more, and then we will return to Him lost and hungry and penitent, and this process will continue until we can finally drink directly from “the spring of the water of life” in Paradise. Until then, we will cry in agony to the Lord out of the depths of our sin, and the more we hunger and thirst for the eternal cup, the better off we will be. And the more we reject sinful pleasure and indulgence, the more acutely we will feel the pain of our separation from Him.
The worst thing we can possibly do in the mean time is try and fill that hole in our hearts and numb the pain in our souls with something other than Christ; to try and drown out the sadness and misery of our sin with “positive thoughts” and desperate hopes that our “destiny” will lead us to wealth and fortune right around the corner. That is why I say it’s more hazardous to subscribe to Joel Osteen’s Christianity than to subscribe to no Christianity at all. Joel Osteen wants to satiate the hunger and cure the sadness with false and selfish hopes. But it is better to live hungry and sad — as many atheists do — than to be filled with lots of sugar and happy thoughts and a contorted theology that attempts to grasp the joy of Christianity without any of the necessary pain and sacrifice.
It’s better to yearn for Christ without knowing that He is the one for which you yearn than to feel no yearning for Christ because you think you have Him when you don’t, or that you’re “close enough” anyway. There is only one thin wall that separates God from the atheist who desires truth but hates the Answer. There is a whole labyrinth of walls and locked doors separating God from the “Christian” who no longer desires truth because he found self-esteem and “positive thinking” instead.
Giving the Prosperity Gospel to our culture is like giving diet pills to a starving man. Yes, he will no longer feel the pangs in his gut, but he is still dying all the same. And dying faster now, in fact. We should eat the Bread of Life or not eat at all, and that should be our message to the world. The Bread of Osteen is indeed the option in between those two extremes, and that is what makes it so dangerous.
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