Joel Osteen, The Gospel, & Human Suffering
In December I began reading through the latest book by Joel Osteen, The Power of Favor. The pastor of one of the largest megachurches in America, Osteen is no stranger to controversy. I am quite familiar with Osteen and his approach–my family having tuned in to watch him from time to time when I was younger. I also keep up with the headlines when he happens to be in them. Nothing I read in this new release surprised me. At the same time, I always come away from his sermons, interviews, and books with the same thought: how do we read the same Gospels?
A few months ago the internet was buzzing with a debate about what the gospel is. The Gospel Coalition was involved, as well as respected scholars Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates. (Partly in response I have begun a series asking respected scholars about what the gospel is and isn’t.) While the two sides are not likely going to come to a consensus anytime soon, I feel that both sides agree with what the gospel is not: it does not involve cheap hope; instead it offers good news for the suffering. But how do we even go about trying to find the essence of the gospel? I hope that all can agree that we must look first and foremost to one person: Christ. To understand the nature and essence of the gospel you cannot beat around Jesus. Whatever Jesus is about, his gospel will surely be about.
The most offensive thing about Osteen’s The Power of Favor is that it does not offer good news to the poor and suffering, which is precisely what Christ’s mission was about. Osteen, on the contrary, repeatedly suggests that those suffering have done something that they are suffering for, or they haven’t tapped into their potential, or they need more faith. The gospel is first and foremost good news to the poor and suffering and not false hope to get those who are suffering to feel worse about themselves.
The Gospel of Joel Osteen in the Midst of a Pandemic
While the New Testament notes a sort of spiritual disadvantage for the comfortable and affluent believer (Mark 10:23-25), Osteen tends to disagree, insisting that comfort and affluence in one’s life are in fact sure signs of God’s favor. This seems to be the crux of the entire book. This would mean that those suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic have done something wrong or have not tapped into their potential (potential that is activated, of course, by their own faith).
Osteen promises the reader that if he or she has enough faith, their business will see favor in the coming year. He promises the same for those diagnosed with cancer or for those who haven’t found “the one.” Two issues: the first being, the Bible never promises that Christians will be exempt from suffering; it is, in fact, abnormal for Christians not to suffer according to the New Testament. The second problem? What about those who have faith and yet their businesses continue to do poorly? The cancer report remains the same? What ends up happening is a whole lot of shame and anger at oneself for not having enough faith.
Idolizing Power and Success
Not only does The Power of Favor mistreat Scripture, it mistreats the poor as well–the very opposite of the spirit of Jesus’ own ministry. Osteen identifies the cross of Christ with things like more money, or affluence, etc. In the New Testament, the cross is identified with suffering (never comfort!) and scorn, with weakness more than with power. Identifying the cross of Christ with power, success, wealth, and even perfect health is all very problematic given that the New Testament authors generally distanced themselves from such things. Jesus, in eating at a table with them, identifies with the scorned of society and not the elite. Paul the Apostle lays out life for apostles and it is anything but what Osteen proposes: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4: 8-9, NIV).
A problem with celebrity pastors is that they, in seasons of suffering, are as relatable as celebrities.
Jesus calls us to self-denial while Osteen calls for believers to look inward and follow their dreams and desires. Not once does Osteen critique human pride or our tendency towards darkness; it seems that the unforgivable sin, to Osteen, is low self-esteem.