The wife of a certain prominent evangelical televangelist made some recent comments about the reason we worship that sheds some unfortunate light on what we might call the popular theology of many within our society with her public interpretation of why we worship and what it is that “makes God happy.” Of course Victoria Osteen’s statement that “God takes pleasure when we are happy” is not necessarily a wrong statement. Indeed, like many well-meaning but theologically suspect statements, what she has said contains a grain of truth. Her words have gone “viral” on the internet with both positive and negative reaction over the last many days, with supporters and opponents of the notion that she was positing in the now-infamous clip weighing in. Mrs. Osteen’s idea simply seems to be rooted in pure American materialism. We live in a nation that does not have an understanding of what Jesus meant as we read it in the Gospel of Matthew (cf. Mt. 16:24) when he said “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Let us first admit what Mrs. Osteen has managed to get right, at least in part. The Lord does want us to be joyful, and living for God ought to cause us to be full of joy. Psalm 84:2 tells us:
My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Our choice to serve God will bring us joy, but only if we do live like Christ did and empty ourselves “taking the form of a slave” (cf. Phil. 2:7). I daresay that this is not the message that is coming across in the above clip of Victoria Osteen. The message that is being reflected is instead that we worship and serve God in all things not out of a love for God, and not out of a spirit of service to the Body of Christ or one another, but we should do good for our own sake, so that we are happy, since God takes “the greatest joy” when we are happy. Hence, the Gospel According to Joel and Victoria Osteen is not about Jesus Christ in the end, but it becomes about “us,” and Christ becomes a tool to bring us happiness, since our own happiness is the reason we ought to serve God, we should “do it for ourselves.”
Do I believe that the Osteens intend to deliberately lead people in a way that is not fully rooted in Gospel values? Very likely that is not their intent at all, rather it is likely that they actually believe the version of the Good News that they are presenting. If you think that this blog is interested in “running down” the Osteens because this is a Catholic entity and the Osteens are prominent evangelicals, I can assure you that this is not the case at all. The reason that this is important and deserves our attention is because Joel and Victoria Osteen reach millions of people around the world with their messages on television, radio, and the internet. For many of the people the Osteens reach, Joel and Victoria and their ecclesial community-Lakewood Church-are how those folks are hearing the message of Jesus Christ, and those people may come to believe that the message they hear is the Christian message in its fullness, and they accept it or reject that message based on what they hear. The danger of this kind of theology is that there is virtually none of the Cross in the message of this “prosperity Gospel,” none of the message that says “if you love me, keep my commandments.” (cf. Jn. 14:15) Catholics are not the only Christians or people of faith who can find legitimate fault with this “false message,” one of the clearest and most ringing denunciations of the “prosperity Gospel” to be found on the internet comes from Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., who is the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While I wouldn’t agree with Mohler’s basic theological ideas or thrust, I think that he hit the nail on the head where the message of the Osteens is concerned.
America deserves the Osteens. The consumer culture, the cult of the therapeutic, the marketing impulse, and the sheer superficiality of American cultural Christianity probably made the Osteens inevitable. The Osteens are phenomenally successful because they are the exaggerated fulfillment of the self-help movement and the cult of celebrity rolled into one massive mega-church media empire. And, to cap it all off, they give Americans what Americans crave — reassurance delivered with a smile.
As a thought exercise, let’s just limit the consideration to those people who have identified as Christians throughout the centuries. Does the Osteen message come close to their experience? Would it even make sense? Just consider the fact that most Christians throughout the history of the church have been poor, and often desperately poor. They were not hoping to move into a suburban mini-mansion, they hoped to be able to feed their children one more day. That picture is still true for millions upon millions of Christians around the world today.
And that is just the start of it. What about all those who are even now suffering persecution for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? What about the loved ones of the martyrs in Mosul? What about the Christians forced out of their homes and threatened with genocide? What about the children of Christians slain in Iraq and Syria just in recent weeks, or those martyred by Boko Haram in Africa? How does Prosperity Theology work for them? Can anyone look them in the eye and say that God’s plan for believers in this life is to know Your Best Life Now?
Sadly, I think the Osteens really believe that the message that they are sharing is the Gospel that Jesus gave to the Apostles. However, St. Paul speaks not of living his “best life now” but of sacrificing all, even his very life, all for the sake of Christ and the Gospel (2 Tim. 4:6-8):
For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
The Apostles preached a faith of giving all, if necessary, for the sake of Christ. The prosperity message is one of getting what we want merely by using the name of God or Christ. Would the Apostles recognize that message?