Saturday, August 19, 2006

Your Best Life Now? A Scriptural Examination of Joel Osteen's Best Seller (Part 1)

Your Best Life Now?
Part 1

In response to a host of questions about one of the most recognizable television preachers in America, I have decided that it would be a good time to reflect upon the theology of Joel Osteen's message of prosperity and positive thinking as presented in his book Your Best Life Now. I think the best way to approach this task is to blog through his book section by section. The question we will ask of Joel, as we ask of all men who stand as preachers of God's Word, is this: "Are his claims supported by Scripture?" After all, every one of us should strive to be like the Bereans, whom Luke said were noble because they examined the message they heard against their knowledge of the Scriptures (Acts 17.11).

Here is the format I will use for the project:
1) I will summarize the section fairly and briefly for those who have not read the book.
2) I will examine his use of Scripture to see if they are interpreted properly and taken in context.
3) I will examine his claims to see if they are based upon the passages of Scripture he uses to support his contentions.
4) I will examine whether or not his claims are consistent with other portions of Scripture he did not cite (remember, God's Word never contradicts itself).
Section One - Summary
Section one of Osteen's book is an introduction to the prosperity gospel as a whole. The basic premise is this: You have not because you expect not. In other words, if you want God's best for you life now, then you must think, confess, and expect God to give you His best. The first section is filled with similar quotations:
1. "You must conceive it in your heart before you can receive it" (6).
2. "If you believe, all things are possible" (11).
3. "God usually meets us at our level of expectancy" (14).
4. "Break our of your self-imposed prison" (15).
5. "Low expectations will trap you in mediocrity. You must think positive thoughts of victory, thoughts of abundance, thoughts of favor, thoughts of hope; good, pure, excellent thoughts" (17).
6. "God wants to give you your own house. God has a big dream for your life" (35).
7. "[God] has crowned me with favor, therefore, I can expect preferential treatment [from the world]. I can expect people to go out of their way to want to help me" (39).
The list could continue, but you get Osteen's point. The reason God has not blessed you is because you have been thinking poor thoughts about your present situation. God wants to give you your best life NOW. Now that we have completed the summary of section one, we turn to the scriptural examination.
Let's begin by examining Osteen's use of Scripture. After all, this message of prosperity is supposed to be based upon God's Word. Osteen uses four verses of Scripture in his foundational chapter (one) to support his contentions: Ephesians 2.7, Matthew 9.17, Isaiah 43.19, and Mark 9.23. The first issue of note is that the author fails to give the citations for those verses in the text itself. Rather, he makes the reader turn to the endnotes if he or she wants to know what verse Osteen has cited. At first I gave the author the benefit of the doubt and just assumed that the use of endnotes was a stylistic issue insisted upon by his editor. After I began to examine the verses, however, it became obvious why Osteen did not tell you where the verses were: every verse he cited was taken out of context! If the reader merely reads his Bible while reading Your Best Life Now and is careful to read each verse he cites in context it becomes very clear that the author has not scriptural support for the claims he has madewille wil examine the two most egregious examples of Osteen's misapplication of Scripture.
The first example is Ephesians 2.7. Osteen cited this verse to support his contention that God wants to give all of us His "far and beyond favor" (5). By "far and beyond favor" Osteen means "victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness," which "nothing on earth will be able to hold" from us (5). Is that what Ephesians 2.7 teaches? ABSOLUTELY NOT! The point of Ephesians 2.7 is an explanation of the riches we have in Christ. Now at first glance, "riches in Christ" may seem to support Osteen's claims. If you read all of Ephesians 2, however, it becomes clear that this verse refers to the grace that God has poured out upon his children in saving them from their sin and reconciling them to Himself. NOTHING IN THE TEXT speaks of physical health or material blessings. This verse is misapplied by Osteen.
For another example, we turn to Isaiah 43.19, which Osteen cites to support the idea that we have to think differently if we want God to do something new in our lives. Osteen said, "God is always trying to do new things in our lives. He is trying to promote us, to increase us, to give us more. Yet it is interesting that God asked the question, 'Do you not perceive it?' In other words, are you making room for it in your own thinking? Are you believing for increase? Are you believing to excel at your job? Are you believing to be a more effective leader, a better parent? It's time to enlarge your vision" (10). Is this contention supported by the text of Scripture in which Osteen tries to ground it? Not if you read the passage. In this passage God is speaking of His faithfulness and mercy in light of Israel's unfaithfulness. The passage is not a call to positive thinking. It is a rebuke of Israel's failure to acknowledge their only Savior, the One who chose them and keeps His promises.
These examples are only two of a number of misappropriations of the Scriptures by the author. Careful examination of the rest of the book's citations of Scripture leads this reader to believe that Osteen has little regard for whether or not he handles God's Word appropriately.
Is Osteen's Message Consistent with the Remainder of Scripture?
The simple answer to this question is NO. Osteen tells the reader that because of God's favor we can expect great blessings in this life (health and wealth) up to and including preferential treatment by the world around us. Apparently Osteen has not read either the Old or New Testaments. No one had more favor with God than His Son Jesus Christ, yet he did not have wealth. Scripture tells us he had no place to lay his head. Health? He was crucified. What about his followers? Jesus said that the world would "hate" us because we follow Christ (Matthew 10.22) not give us preferential treatment, after all no servant is greater than his master. What of the apostles and early leaders of the church? They certainly had favor with God. Did it result in health, wealth, and advancement? Only if you rip the book of Acts and Paul's letters out of your Bible. Paul was stoned and left for dead. Stephen was stoned and died! John was boiled in oil and lost everything in his exile to Patmos. So much for the "name it and claim it" promises in the Bible. If anyone should understand those promises it would be Paul and John who authored over two thirds of the New Testament, yet according to Osteen's standards they did not understand them because they did not have "success" in ministry, were unhealthy, and poor.
Osteen fails to recognize that suffering, as much as faith, is an integral part of the Christian life (Phil. 1.29). Does God want us to have our best life now? No, He wants more than that. He wants us to have our best life for eternity. For that to happen, we must struggle in this life as we are sanctified and grow into the image of Jesus Christ. Does that mean that all Christians will be poor or unhealthy? No. One of my very godly mentors has more money that he knows what to do with. His financial blessings are a direct result of God's blessing of his hard work. God, however, is in no way obligated to bless us all financially just because we have an expectation of Him to do so! God is only obligated to keep His Word and act in a way that is consistent with His character. He has never promised to bless us all in the manner in which Osteen says He has.
Scripture provides us with a great case study in the Apostle Paul. Consider his account of his thorn in the flesh. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says that he pled with God three times to take away this messenger of Satan that "tormented" him. Certainly Paul could envision life without the painful torment. He was, after all, pleading with God to take it from him. He was an apostle, we can safely assume he was not lacking faith. If you look at Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians 10.7-10, however, the reason God did not answer his prayer had nothing to do with a lack of "vision" on the part of Paul, rather it was God's sovereign plan to keep Paul humble. What's amazing is this passage follows one of the very verses Osteen cites for the power of positive thinking (2 Corinthians 10.4)! How's that for ignoring context!
We will review the rest of Osteen's book over the course of the next couple of week's. For now it is safe to say that Osteen has two major problems. First, he consistently fails to approach Scripture honestly. Second, he consistently defines success according to the world's standards rather than God's.
I hope to have the next installment posted by Monday afternoon. Blessings.