What's Wrong with Joel Osteen?
Novelist Lars Walker — a friend of this blog and an insightful reviewer of some of my own novels — makes a trenchant comment in the Elizabeth Smart post below. I know it's trenchant because I was about to make basically the same comment but Lars beat me to it! In the comment, he makes a delightfully concise reference to "the Osteenian view that suffering is always a sign of God's displeasure." This, of course, refers to popular preacher Joel Osteen, who has been promoting his new book at the Blaze and other places. He basically preaches that God wants wonderful things for your life and you only have to open yourself to God's will in order to receive those blessings.
I stumbled on Osteen before he was famous. It was more than ten years ago, when I was wrestling with my own conversion to Christianity. I was struggling deeply with the fear that faith would limit my freedom of thought (it didn't) and the idea that I might be betraying my Jewish heritage. Late one night, while channel surfing, I came upon one of Osteen's half hour sermons on some religious channel. I (who generally dislike religious programming) was bowled over by him. He was brilliant at conveying God's love for his human creation and I found his words very moving and comforting. I remember telling my wife about him over our morning coffee. I was well aware of the intellectual flaw in "the Osteenian view." If God wants only good things to happen to us, and we have to "activate his blessings," by our positive prayers and good actions, then indeed, as Lars says, suffering must always be a result of some failure on our part. Still, I found his optimism and generosity of heart compelling.
And there is some Biblical support for his point of view. "A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all," says the Psalmist, whereas "Evil will slay the wicked." This attitude dominates both Psalms and Proverbs. But it is offset by Job and Ecclesiastes. The latter tells us: "Here is a pointless thing that happens on earth: A righteous man receives what happens to the wicked, and a wicked man receives what happens to the righteous." And Jesus, who knew a thing or two, remarked that the sun shines on the evil as well as the good and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.
Not surprisingly, the Bible is right on both counts. That is, of course, in general, a good life is likely to make you happier than a bad one, and good habits will probably make you healthier and more prosperous than bad ones. No good parent tells his child, "My son, go forth and treat yourself and others like garbage, it'll be great." There's a reason the proverbs say what they say.
But at the same time, bad things do happen to good people and life is unfair and it's important to include that in your philosophy lest you end up blaming the victims — or God — for the evils of this fallen world. For a few years after I first saw Osteen, I followed him, read his books and listened to his sermons sometimes... then I stopped. I don't mean this in any way personally. I have no reason to think he's other than a good guy spreading the Word as it comes to him. But I personally began to find his philosophy... well, unhelpful.
The preacher in my novel True Crime comments that if you want to have faith, you have to believe in a "God of the sad world." I think that's clearly true. For me, one of Christianity's central assets is that it's a tragic religion — which is to say, a realistic one. The son of God prayed for release from a dreadful death and his prayer went unfulfilled. That tells you something, something you need to know in order to live with patience and wisdom. It's not that God is absent, it's that (as Job discovered) the moral context of life is larger than mortal man can comprehend. Which can make things very, very difficult at times. Tragedy is what we know; redemption is what we believe; that's why they call it faith instead of knowledge.
I appreciate Osteen's good will. I enjoy his warmth and spirit. I really like the visceral way he convey's God's love. But in the end, if you don't have a sense of evil and unfairness, I don't think you can preach truly.