In the fall of 2007, Joel Osteen released the book, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day. The book was an instant hit that rocketed up the New York Times’ best seller list and stayed there for two years.
Flush with the success of the book, Joel agreed to several interviews with most of the major network news outlets in the fall of 2007. Among them was an extensive interview with Byron Pitts of 60 minutes, and during the interview there was a brief exchange between Mr. Pitts and Mr. Osteen that could be pretty much summed up like this: Where’s Jesus?
PITTS: “To become a better you, you must be positive towards yourself, develop better relationships, embrace the place where you are. Not one mention of God in that. Not one mention of Jesus Christ in that.”
OSTEEN: “That’s just my message. There is scripture in there that backs it all up. But I feel like, Byron, I’m called to help people…how do we walk out the Christian life? How do we live it? And these are principles that can help you. I mean, there’s a lot better people qualified to say, ‘Here’s a book that going to explain the scriptures to you.’ I don’t think that’s my gifting.”
To remove any doubt that Joel was misquoted or taken out of context, Joel had a similar exchange during a CNN news segment with Mike Galanos where Joel was asked a couple questions over common criticisms about his theology and Become a Better You. The first question centered on criticism that there is no mention of God, Jesus Christ or quotations of Scripture in the pages of Become a Better You to which Joel responded:
“To me I’m trying to help people improve their life and using the principals in God’s Word. A lot of the people I talk to at my church each week, they’re already born again, they know Christ is their savior. I got to teach them how to live the Christian life. And so that’s kind of what the book is about. Every broadcast, every service, we give people an opportunity to receive Christ, you know, the true Gospel there, but I’m trying to help us live an abundant life while we’re here on this earth.”
Later when the question about the lack of Scripture in the book resurfaced again, Joel attempted to clarify his approach:
“Well, I really feel like what I’m best at is taking a part of the Scripture, or just taking one thought from the Bible, and making it relevant to our everyday lives. And so, I may speak my whole message and just come back and bring in Scripture at the end. But to me Mike, I just want them to leave with one great thought whether it’s love your enemies, or don’t get stuck in a rut or know that God loves you. So, I don’t know, I think that there’s different callings for each minister. And I’m not kind of line by line, I’m not going to tell you all the in depth, you know, study behind it all. I’m just going to give you a simple thought.”
In fact, in the three plus years since Become a Better You‘s release, Joel has been remarkably consistent in his response to criticism. Each time that Joel has been challenged over his lack of Scriptural citations, he has quickly and candidly admitted that he’s not an expository preacher but that his message and missional focus is to help the Christian live a better, happier life. He says his job is to be positive and to “give people hope” when they struggle with the common difficulties of life, and that when it comes to Scripture, he purposefully takes a simple thought or a single verses in order to bring out its truth for happier, healthier living.
Now there are thousands of discernment ministries who comment on Joel Osteen and his books (including Become a Better You) everyday. In fact, there isn’t a more identified face with the Prosperity Gospel than Joel Osteen, and so this article isn’t about to serve up another dish of red meat to controversialists and watch bloggers in the same old way as before. Anyone can condemn a heresy and toss around a few Bible verses, but what’s sorely lacking in deconstructing Joel’s message isn’t just another “exposing Joel Osteen’s false gospel” kind of post or calling into question his motives. This kind of flaming has been done hundreds of times before, and playing yet another game of “theological whack-a-mole” isn’t going to advance the Gospel or give God glory.
What’s often lacking in discernment is analysis, that is, a careful analysis of Joel’s sermons and books that clearly show how a book like Become a Better You is a radical departure from the Gospel. One of the main reasons why Joel’s message marches on isn’t just because the world can drink down his friendly smile and smooth words like water. A main reason why Joel’s message continues to gain traction is that the Church has so very few voices that are willing to intelligibly dismantle Joel’s message in a thoughtful, credible way – and are also dedicated in doing so without making themselves and the Church look like a bunch of angry halfwits.
So here’s to better discernment.
The central issue with Joel Osteen’s theology, and the Prosperity Gospel in general, is that it avoids the life, death and resurrection of Jesus almost wholesale. In fact, watch any sermon or interview with a Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, etc. and listen carefully for how many times Jesus’ name is actually evoked in their sermons and note how little he’s mentioned. God? He’s mentioned all the time. The Holy Spirit? He’s brought up a lot, particularly about money. But when Jesus is mentioned he only seems to come up when these preachers are pressed in an interview or as an afterthought at the end of a sentence. “Praise Jesus!” to the prosperity gospel preacher is often a good substitute for an exclamation point, but not as the central focus of his preaching.
In fact, listen closely and you will hear prosperity gospel teachers talk about God all day long. God wants to give you blessing. God is ready to free you from the bondage of your failing health and poverty. God wants to get you out of a rut. But a long, savoring discussion about how Jesus is lovely to them because of what he did and why he did it is something you’ll likely never hear. Now prosperity gospel preachers are quick to say things like “Jesus is my hero,” but what they won’t say is why he is their hero – at least not in any way that resembles a deep heartfelt thanks for being released from the bondage of sin and the horrors of hell.
And, of course, all this talk about God, is perfectly acceptable in our culture. The word god has become a placeholder to describe all kinds of gods. The word god could mean one of 300 million possibilities to the Hindu, or it could just mean yourself if were discussing Buddhism or what you will be if we’re talking about Mormonism. To the Muslim, God is Allah, and even to professing Christians who give little thought to God (let alone Jesus), God is just the vending machine in the sky who gets them out of trouble and helps them when their sick. Beyond a few hours at their church on Sunday, God isn’t thought about much by the average American Christian at all. The world loves god, as long as that god has nothing to do with Jesus Christ.
But where’s Jesus? Where is Jesus in the philosophies and religions of this world? And in the Prosperity Gospel’s paradigm where’s Jesus? Where’s the Jesus we read of who forsook all earthly comforts, abandoned all lucrative career paths, turned down every political opportunity and who spent the last years of his short earthly life to be mocked and jeered and die on a cross
To embrace Jesus in the Prosperity Gospel paradigm is to destroy it because embracing Jesus would mean to embrace the “ugliness” of the cross and all the divine reasons and plans behind it. To embrace Jesus means to embrace the shame he bore, the shame that he took up for our spiritual infirmities and nailed them to the cross. To embrace Jesus also means to live a life of sacrifice and to seek out heavenly treasure at the expense of earthly riches.
That message, Jesus’ message, is one that stands in complete opposition to a message that thinks the Christian life is about getting away from thinking about one’s own sin that brings with it the wrath of God. Instead, the Prosperity Message is a message of thinking happier thoughts and living happier lives here on earth. Jesus is there, sort of. He’s needed to get us in the door, where a one time prayer takes care of all that sin stuff so that we can get on with “living victoriously.” Of course, “living victoriously” doesn’t mean we’re killing our sin, pursuing humility and meekness, peacemaking, mercy and being persecuted for the cause of Christ. Living victoriously to the prosperity gospel is the pursuit of bigger homes and better health to get through life easily so that we’ll slip into heaven without giving it another thought.
But again, where’s Jesus?
This fact that Jesus is so seldom mentioned at all, let alone in any serious fashion, is not some kind of theological exercise for the rigidly religious. The Scriptures themselves insist that Jesus is the centerpiece of the Gospel message. In fact, John uses Jesus as a litmus test to distinguish between those who are false and true regarding faith in Jesus Christ:
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. – 1 John 4:2-3a
Sadly, Joel is sincere in his preaching. He truly believes that his message is helping tens of millions of people live what he thinks is the authentic Christian life. He truly believes God has put him on earth to bring out “relevant cultural truths” from the Bible so that we can live the Christian life. But clearly, Joel doesn’t acknowledge that Jesus “has come in the flesh” in Become a Better You or any other of his books. Just look at what Joel claims to possess as his chief gifting. He claims that his gift is taking a Scripture or good thought and making it relevant for our lives today. He says he may come back to Scripture at the end of his message, but if he does return it, he will never make it a point of emphasis because he’s just trying to leave his listeners with a positive message.
Joel understands that the average person does not want to hear the hard things of Scripture, and that many can’t even stand to listen to it for a few sentences. So he accommodates his hearers with a message of positivity that he wholly embraces. He purposefully excludes those things that are hard for unrepentant souls to hear for the sake of the message. Joel truly believes God has put him on earth to bring out “relevant cultural truths” from the Bible so that we can live the Christian life.
Yet in the same breath, Joel will quickly tell you that he’s not a “line by line kind of preacher.”
Notice the subtle arrogance in that. Notice how Joel is saying two very extraordinary things at once. First, he’s saying that his message takes a Gospel truth and “makes it relevant” to us today – that he unlocks a truth so that people can live the Christian life. Second, he’s saying that getting granular in the Scriptures isn’t necessary for him to advance his message, and this is why he only returns to Scripture at the end of his message. But how is it that Joel can take in Gospel truths and make them relevant for us when he’s unwilling to immerse him and hearers in them? If the Gospel is so wonderful to Joel, why doesn’t share the raw message itself? Why does Joel think he’s the filter? And how does Joel believe he arrives at unlocking this relevance from Scripture today?
But there’s an even more fundamental problem. Simply put, Joel, like any professing Christian, is obligated to get his Jesus from somewhere and he has very limited options. He could take the Gospels at face value, but taken in whole, it opposes his message. He could invent a Jesus out of thin air, but even then he’d be accused of borrowing his invention from Scripture. Or Joel could blend his inventions with the Gospel and cobble together something entirely different, a Jesus that actually looks quite a bit like the true Gospel but without all the unsavory parts – or at least without the need to repeatedly dwell on them.
Tragically, Become a Better You shows its readers quite clearly which path Joel has chosen. If nothing else, the title of his book gives it all away. Become a Better You is not the message of the Gospel. Doubling down on ourselves, on our sin nature, is not what Jesus came and bled for on a Roman built cross. Becoming like Jesus through faith, a faith that embraces and emulates his life, a faith that revels in his death and resurrection for sins, is the end goal of the Gospel. Faith begins by the recognition of sin within and the horror it brings. It is a message that causes its hearers to flee from one’s old ways into the arms of a Savior, not by running deeper into the pleasures of this world to forget all about God. The Gospel gives us a Lord that will give us a better life, not through excessive amounts of money and good health now, but in the promises of unimaginable glory in the world to come.
Update: Here’s a great quote on Josh Harris’ blog from Ray Ortlund that shows the strark contrast between the approaches of Gospel and Prosperity Gopsel preachers:
When God rends the heavens and comes down on his people, a divine power achieves what human effort at its best fails to do. God’s people thirst for the ministry of the Word and receive it with tender meltings of soul. The grip of the enslaving sin is broken. Reconciliation between believers is sought and granted. Spiritual things, rather than material things, capture people’s hearts. A defensive, timid church is transformed into a confident army. Believers joyfully suffer for their Lord.
Update II: Check out Tullian Tchividjian’s beautiful article, I’m Addicted for another juxtaposition between the Prosperity Gospel and Christ’s Gospel.