Joel Osteen, Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, is the Norman Vincent Peale of our generation. While Osteen has won popularity with throngs of people in Houston — even opening his new church in the former basketball home of the NBA Houston Rockets — his appeal lies not in his biblical wisdom but in man’s age-old desire to better himself in this world on his own terms.
Playing to the basic human desire for self-fulfilment and worldly success, Osteen uses psychology salted with a few scripture verses to appeal to his ‘Christian’ -audience.
Unlike the UK, America has produced a ‘Christian subculture’, comprised of people who see themselves as moral, religious, and nominally Christian. Devoted to Christian television shows, Christian music, and Christian books — all provided by ‘Christian’ organisations — this group has become a profitable marketing niche for American marketers.
It is to this group that Osteen most appeals, though mainstream America is beginning to hear and read him.
Joel Osteen has written a best-selling book entitled
Your best life now; 7 steps to living your full potential(Warner Faith: Time Warner Publishing; ISBN: 0-446-53275-4). The ‘seven steps’ in question are listed in the Table of Contents under these headings:
Enlarge your vision.
Develop a healthy self-image.
Discover the power of your thoughts and words.
Let go of the past.
Find strength through adversity.
Live to give.
Choose to be happy.
Good advice? Probably so, at the level of human psychology. But the Christian gospel it is not — and there lies the problem.
There is nothing glaringly unbiblical about Osteen’s message of success and worldly attainment unless one happens to believe that an Evangelical Christian, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones proposed, is a person ‘who is entirely subservient to the Bible …[and] who starts from the scriptures’. 1
While the suggestions and observations given by Mr Osteen may be helpful to the casual reader, the underlying problem with his message is that he starts in the wrong place. He begins with man and self, and then adds God to the equation as one who affirms and blesses man’s endeavours.
While even pragmatic truth is God’s truth, Osteen has turned the gospel into mere self-improvement philosophy. His mantra might be, ‘You can do it and if you do it, God will bless it’.
Osteen sets out this premise in his introduction where he writes: ‘We can live at our full potential right now. In this book you will find seven simple, yet profound steps to improve your life regardless of your current level of success or lack of it. I know these steps work, because they have worked in the lives of my family members, friends and associates, as well as in my own life’.2
Thus we discover early on that pragmatism, not Christianity, is Osteen’s underlying philosophical driver. As a pragmatist, he is concerned with ‘what works’ rather than ‘what is true’
.Sometimes these two ideals coalesce, which is what makes this book palatable to the Christian subculture. But when they don’t, pragmatism carries the day.
An example is found in chapter 15, which is entitled ‘Speaking life-changing words’. Rehearsing the circumstances of his mother’s cancer, Osteen recounts how she ‘refused to speak words of defeat … started speaking faith-filled words … started calling in health and calling in healing … mixed her words with God’s words and something powerful began to happen … Today … Mother is totally free from that cancer, healed by the power of God’s word’.3
To make his point that his mother found the power to change her own medical condition, Osteen writes, ‘We are our own worst enemies. We blame everybody and everything else, but the truth is, we are profoundly influenced by what we say about ourselves. Scripture says, “we are snared by the words of our mouth”.’
The quote is from Proverbs 6:2 to which Osteen adds Proverbs 6:3 to support his claim that we can all ‘deliver ourselves’ from this self-imposed bondage.
At first glance, his argument might seem convincing, but when the cited scriptures are read, one discovers that Proverbs 6:1-4 is concerned with putting up security for a neighbour’s debt. It is in this scenario that a person becomes ‘ensnared’ by their words.
When read in context, Proverbs 6:3 has nothing to do with healing or one’s circumstances being changed by one’s speech.
Justice or mercy?
In a chapter dealing with God’s justice (‘Let God bring justice into your life’), Osteen fails to see that the
lastthing a man needs is justice! God’s justice would -condemn him to a lost -eternity; man’s greatest need is God’s mercy given in Christ.
Instead, Osteen writes, ‘God has promised if we will put our trust in him, he will pay us back for all the unfair things that have happened to us’.4
In support he cites Isaiah 61:7-9. But again we find that he has taken these verses completely out of their context — which is God’s promise to retrieve his people from exile and restore them to the promised land.
Isaiah is reminding us of God’s faithfulness to his covenantal promise. God’s people are in captivity and their circumstances are bleak, but Isaiah bids them look beyond their circumstances and believe in God’s gracious and unbreakable promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Thus the essence of these verses is not that ‘God promises to pay us back for all the unfair things that have happened to us’, as Osteen asserts, but rather, as Calvin writes, that ‘believers who were mourning in sackcloth and covered with ashes would be sprinkled with the oil of gladness … He not only confirms what he promised in the name of the Lord, but also urges the Jews to repent and shows where they should expect salvation to come from and how great is the Judge with whom we are dealing’.5
Needless to say, we hear nothing from Osteen about mourning over sin, repentance, grace, deliverance or judgement.
Osteen has a penchant for taking verses out of context and manipulating them to fit his own predetermined ideas. In the best of scenarios, he has done so out of ignorance; in the worst, he has wrested the scriptures from their context to achieve his own misguided ends.
In either case scriptures are twisted to support Osteen’s presupposition — namely, that man must take control and God exists to make man’s life on earth more bearable, happy and successful.
An older generation will recognise in Osteen’s philosophy a rebirth of Norman Vincent Peale’s
The power of positive thinking. Osteen could very easily have written these lines from Peale:
‘Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy’. And again: ‘Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture… Do not build up obstacles in your imagination’.
Illinois Senator Adlai -Stevenson, when asked to compare Peale’s book with the New Testament, said, ‘I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling’. The same can be said for Osteen.
Harmful to the Christian mind
Are the ideas in this book harmful to the Christian mind? Yes, because they’re not grounded in the truth of the Bible’s message that God is sovereign and man is not. Those seeking truthful answers to the human condition will not find them in the ‘seven steps’.
Osteen seems to be a kind and likeable person who enjoys tremendous popularity and numerical success in pastoring the church started by his father. But church history shows that likeable, popular and charismatic leaders often have done much damage to the gospel, offering what Paul called ‘no gospel at all’.6
If you are looking for worldly answers to the worldly questions of worldly success, this book is as good as any and perhaps better than some. But if you are looking for biblical answers to man’s intrinsic inadequacy and inability, you can spend your $20 more profitably elsewhere.
1. D. M. Lloyd-Jones,
What is an Evangelical? (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1992), p.42.
2. Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now(New York: Warner Faith, 2004).
3. Osteen, p.127.
4. Osteen, p.164.
5. John Calvin, Isaiah, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, Crossway, 2000), p.366.
6. Galatians 1:7.
The author is Associate Pastor at Parkside Church, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.