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Osteen: "God Wants to Supersize your Joy" -- So what's wrong with that?

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The following is by Rev. Dr. Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington D.C. and is used with his permission. This was originally posted on The Daily Caller on May 1, 2012

On Sunday night [April 29, 2012], 41,000 fans packed Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., to hear a message of hope, inspiration, and encouragement from Joel Osteen. Most paid about $20 (including fees) for the privilege.

Osteen sold out the stadium—a feat the Nationals rarely accomplish. But did he have to sell out to do so?

Osteen is the latest embodiment of the American Religion—Revivalism. For centuries now, preachers have known how to fill stadiums or circus tents and send people home with hope in their heart and a skip in their step. Osteen promises you will leave a transformed person—at least until his tour comes around again next year, when you can be transformed again.

Osteen's message is a positive one for a difficult time. Every one of us has seeds of greatness inside, potential that has not yet been released, buried treasure waiting to be discovered. If you were a car, you would be the fully loaded and totally equipped model—"with pin stripes," he says, gesturing to his suit.

Before God created you, he planned great things for you. As you stretch your faith, "God is going to show up, and show out, in tremendous ways. ... If you don't step into your destiny and release your gift, then this world will not be as bright as it should be."

That's a pretty positive message. What could be wrong with that?

The biggest problem with Osteen's message about God is that it is really a message about me. God is a potential, a force, a co-pilot, waiting to be tapped and deployed. I may have a net below me, but I am the one that has to take the first steps on the wire:

Taking steps of faith is imperative to fulfilling your destiny. When I make a move, God will make a move. When I stretch my faith, God will release more of his favor. When I think bigger, God will act bigger.
God is as big as I think him to be.

Yes, this is the American Religion: a program, a plan, five simple steps to help me be all that I can be. This is the religion of the bootstraps, where "God helps those who help themselves."

By the way, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that is a quote from the Bible. It's not.

And that's the second problem. Osteen's message is not biblical. His promise that his audience will be taught the Bible—from a preacher who has admitted that teaching the Bible isn't his strength—is fulfilled with a smattering of verses. These snippets are at best torn out of their context, at worst fabricated.

There's this stretch: "God is saying to you what He said to Lot, 'Hurry up and get there, so I can show you my favor in a greater way.'" In Genesis 19:22, the Angel does tell Lot "Get there quickly, for I can do nothing until you arrive there." God waiting on Lot to step out in faith so he can bless him? Not exactly. It is God telling Lot to flee to Zoar, a city of safety, so he can rain down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Osteen bolsters his bootstrap religion by quoting Jesus: "Roll away the stone, and I'll raise Lazarus." This, Osteen says, is a "principle," "God expects us to do what we can, and He will do what we can't. If you will do the natural, God will do the supernatural."

One problem. Jesus does command them to roll away the stone, but no such quid pro quo is found in holy writ. This foundational principle is one of Osteen's own making.

It is not primarily the details of Osteen's biblical sunbeams that are problematic. It's the overall message. What's missing is any sense of human sin. Osteen leads his crowd in a mantra at the opening of his performance: "This is my Bible. Tonight I will be taught the word of God. I can do what it says I can do." Again, bootstraps.

What does the Bible say we can do for ourselves? Our best works are like filthy rags, the prophet Isaiah teaches (Isaiah 64:6); we are like sheep gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). Paul says "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and includes himself in this "all" as "the chief of all sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15). The big problem is that we don't want what's good for us, and when we do, Paul says, "The good that I want to do, I do not do" (Romans 7:19).

Ring true? It does for me. That's why the stadium will be full next year. Self-esteem doesn't help me, it just leaves me with more me, digging deeper within.

How about Jesus? Surely he's more upbeat than Paul or the prophets? Well, he does offer this simple recipe to happiness: "Sell all you possess, give it away to the poor, and follow me." You done that yet? Yes, he does say that our faith makes us well, but he is the healer our faith looks to. He also tells the paralytic to take up his bed and walk, but only after he has healed him.

What we want is the excitement and encouragement and affirmation of the stadium—"God is waiting for you to act." What we need is the truth and compassion of Jesus—"Come to me you who are weary, and I will give you rest."

After the adrenaline boost, I hope some of those 41,000 find their way through the desert to some place where they can get a drink of water.

Earlier Sunday, 45 worshipers (about 0.1% of Osteen's crowd) gathered at Christ Reformed Church in Logan Circle—and other churches in this city—to hear a message of sin and salvation, the Good News of a God who loves those who are his sworn enemies. They responded to God's word with prayer, song, and confession, and received the benediction of a God who pardons sin full and free.

There was hope and inspiration too, but of an entirely different sort. Admittance was free.

[Note: The author didn't make it to Nationals Stadium on Sunday; he caught the previous "Night of Hope Event" at Yankee Stadium online.]

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Editor's note: Just so that you don't think it is only cranky Reformed types who are saying these things about Joel Osteen, Salon.com also posted a piece on The Osteen Tour stop in D.C.: Joel Osteen Worships Himself

Tagged in: Gospel Osteen

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  • There's a famous bit of graffito from the Palatine Hill in the first century, "Alexamenos sebete theon". There is a picture of a man hanging on a cross, but the man has the head of a jackass instead of a human head. The graffito is apparently from some who are mocking a first-century believer.

    I wonder what the god on Osteen's cross would look like? There's certainly no shortage of mockery to be made of the god he preaches.

    Good one, Aimee!

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  • Guest - Eric


    I truly understand and am sypathetic with what you are trying to say here, but if the message of the Gospel is compromised (which I think Osteen does) then we are worshiping nothing more than an idol of our own making. Christians should have joy, more than anyone. Christians who don't have joy don't really understand the Gospel or aren't being fed with the Gospel. True joy comes from what Christ has done for us, rather than what blessings God will give us if will just exercise our faith. The Osteen's message of joy is "all vanity and a striving after the wind." We will never truly be satisfied. What happens to his message when disaster comes upon us? Do we just need to exercise more faith?

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  • Guest - Not Cain

    I believe it's a terrible assessment and I despise the fact that we as Christians are so hell bent (yes I said hell) on ripping each other to shreds all in the name of sound doctrine & biblical correctness. It's ludicrous and has no benefit for the body of Christ. As a Christian do I agree with everything Joel preaches? No. Matt 7:1-2 says we shouldn't judge unless we want to be judged by the same measure & that we can fall victim to the same problems that we accuse others of. Matthew 12:33 states you will judge a tree by its fruit, and I am one of those fruits. I came back to the Lord thru reading a Joel Osteen book ( which I'm sure many will say that's why I'm defending him--no I don't believe Joel preaches a complete gospel message), however I do believe that God uses halfway houses all the time to bring people into deeper relationship. But many of us who havent witnessed the true power of the Holy Spirit like dont believe that conviction can do a lot for changing a person's heart (which is what had happened to me in the past 7 years). My final point is Dr. Lee uses the example that Joel doesn't preach a full gospel message because he doesn't preach about sin & salvation?!?! Again I say what about resurrection life and being a new creation as Christ followers and the fact the Bible says we will do greater works than Jesus, and that we are seated at the right hand of Christ, and that we are royal priesthood of believers...maybe that's in Dr. lee's next article about the dunamis power we now have to bring the full gospel with signs & wonders following. Maybe in dr. Lee's next article he will discuss how are sin nature is dead now??

    Let's just stop all the bickering and infighting in the body and say its ok to have differences as long as our belief in Christ is not trumped by anything else--including the Bible! And worry about our own 2x4 in our own eyes than the splinters in our brothers...

    Oh and one last thing--so relieved to hear that salon.com has written an article about Joel and how he worships himself...whew!! Now I take back everything I said!! Lol

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  • I think the kernal of truth in Osteen's message is that the Christian life involves new power which impacts the way we live. The Spirit of power, love, and self-discipline Christians have received will lead to a changed life, one that begins to flourish in ways it didn't before. The difference between the Old and New Testaments is one of degree. We live in the age of the abundance of the Spirit. We are promised rivers of living water flowing from within.

    I think many intuitively sense an under-realized eschatology among some heirs of the Reformation. Yes, the flesh remains. Yes, we're not in heaven. And yet, with Luther I can say,

    “[faith] is a divine work in us that transforms us and begets us anew from God, kills the Old Adam, makes us entirely different people in heart, spirit, mind and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. Oh, faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, so that it is impossible for it not to be constantly doing what is good” (FC SDIV, 10; Tappert, pp. 552-553).

    That kind of changed life has real world effects.

    Yet, I agree Osteen rarely preaches the source of such change, and so we wind up with moralism/works-righteousness and unregenerate souls.

    I agree too that his emphasis is wrong. He focuses on happiness found in getting ahead while the Bible focuses on joy in being known by God (Jesus' command not to take joy in power over devils but that our name is written in heaven).

    I agree he has little understanding of evil and sin, and that his preaching of a first step of faith is wrong. It winds up being "God helps those who helps themselves."

    But Osteen is filling a void. There is a need for teaching on the sanctified life--a life that steps out in faith to receive the real change God has promised Christians. Paul is not afraid to say "therefore (in light of these things) ... let us (step out and live)."

    I'm wholeheartedly in agreement with the basic thrust of folks associated with MR and WH INN. We need an explicit gospel. Justification is primary and foundational. Evangelicalism is degenerating into therapeutic moralistic deism. But what's needed is not an over-emphasis on justification to the exclusion of teaching on sanctification.

    This is the age of the Spirit. People see that in Scripture. What they need is balanced, biblical teaching on what that means. They need teaching which roots sanctification in justification and does full justice to the abundant life of joy Jesus promised. Till that happens they'll continue to fall for folks like Osteen, perceiving something there that's missing in churches that undervalue the extent to which God's power is at work in the present age.

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  • Guest - Larry

    I've never heard Joel Osteen preach the Gospel. He is a motivational speaker at best. There are millions of real christians world-wide who are being tortured and imprisoned and killed for their faith in Christ. According to Olsteen they just don't have enough faith for God to rescue them. What nonsense!

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  • Guest - Rose

    I am leery of anyone who seems too much like the world. I've only heard Osteen speak a few times and I guess his style isn't for me, I'm more of a meat & potatoes Christian. Not that I don't have joy...true joy in Christ is thanking him even when your heart is breaking. I think true joy in my faith is knowing that God is holding me in the palm of his hand, because I am so broken I can't stand up.
    I do want to say, I think Joel has it right on the "do something" idea, because stepping out in faith is paramount to the Christian faith. So many will only step to their pews and out the door on the way to their cars. What about the workweek? What about that still small voice of God that say, "do this"?
    I also wanted to add, I think the idea of "God is doing for me what I cannot do for myself" is also a sound Christian idea. That is one of the recovery mantras as well. But its not to be taken lightly or as a trite saying. The old saying "faith without works is dead" I think is so true. But when I have trusted God and walked out on a plank with my eyes shut, He is the one that takes my hand and guides me when I can no longer feel with my feet.

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  • Guest - Eric


    I have a couple of questions:
    1. The word for "reconciled" in Romans 5.10 is aorist (past tense) in the phrase (NIV) "while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son".
    Why are you preaching to the congregation - quoting you - "the Good News of a God who loves those who are his sworn enemies.", implying that those in the congregation are the sworn enemies of God, contravening St. Paul's admonition that, in Christ, we are no longer enemies subject to God's wrath (an echo of Isaiah 54, no doubt)?
    2. Shouldn't this message of "You are enemies of God, but God still loves and wants you for His own" be more appropriate in the highways and byways of the land, and not to the elect? More appropriate as a commissioning service for Monday to Saturday missionaries?

    And, for the record, John Piper (and Martin Luther) are wrong when they say, "I am a worm"...; far more true to the Gospel would be for them to say, "I was a worm, and now I am a child of the living God".

    People in glass houses....
    ...just sayin'....

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  • [...] to Brian Lee, what it missing from Osteens message is any account of sin: It is not primarily the details [...]

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  • [...] - Osteens message is unbiblical, even though it sounds loving. The Revd Dr Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC, wrote in 2012: [...]

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