No television preacher’s name likely evokes more visceral reactions than Joel Osteen’s. Some love his style of preaching while others denounce him (Google Christian rapper Shai Linne’s Fal$e Teacher$ for one example). I have to admit that until fairly recently I had never really paid very close attention to what Osteen said or wrote. Recognizing that it would be unfair of me to come to any conclusions about what he believes without letting the man speak for himself, a few years ago I checked out two of his books from the local library, Become a Better You and Every Day a Friday.
I started writing this note back then and had thoughts of doing a series of posts, pointing out both the good and the bad from Osteen’s works. Brutal honesty time: I really couldn’t get into his books. I read the first few chapters of Become a Better You, but I just gave up after a while. Aside from any theological issues, I just found the book repetitive and not engaging. Those are issues of personal preference, however, and I certainly don’t hold those against Osteen or those who find value in his writing.
Be that as it may, the few paragraphs below are more along the lines of what I wanted to write about. I don’t intend to read any of Osteen’s books in the future nor do I intend to spend very much time (if any) trying to discern whether his teaching is biblical or helpful. I’ll leave that to others who can do it more effectively and who have the time to devote to it.
In the first few pages of Become a Better You I came across the following passage. I quote it at some length here to provide context. The emphasis is in the original.
Too many people don’t have the confidence and self-esteem they should because they’re constantly dwelling on negative thoughts about themselves. I don’t say this arrogantly, but in my mind, all day long I try to remind myself: I am anointed. I am creative. I am talented. I am successful. I have the favor of God. People like me. I’m a victor and not a victim.
Try it! If you go around thinking those kinds of thoughts, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, or inferiority won’t have a chance with you. Throw your shoulders back, put a smile on your face, and be looking for opportunities to stretch into the next level.
Back in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit, they hid. In the cool of the day, God came to them and said. “Adam, Eve, where are your?”
They said, “God, we’re hiding because we are naked.”
I love the way God answered them. He said, “Adam, who told you that you were naked?” In other words, “Who told you that something was wrong with you?” God immediately knew that the enemy had been talking to them.
God is saying to you today, “Who told you that you don’t have what it takes to succeed? Who told you that the best grades you could make in school would be C’s rather than A’s? Who told you that you are not attractive enough to succeed in your personal relationships or talented enough to flourish in your career? Who told you that your marriage is never going to last?
Those paragraphs come from the first chapter of the book entitled “Stretching to the Next Level.” The focus of the chapter should be obvious from the excerpt above: don’t let what other people tell you about yourself (negative thoughts) overshadow who you are as a child of God (at least that’s the best way I can think of to summarize Osteen’s writing). As far as that statement goes, it’s unobjectionable and, I think, is not inconsistent with Scripture.
In the passage above, however, after some reflection, I think there are two problems. At first blush, the Scripture passage to which Osteen refers seems to support his general point about rejecting negative thoughts put in one’s mind by someone else. But upon closer examination, I think that Osteen has divorced this particular story from its context (perhaps dangerously so).
Indeed, God did pose the question to “Adam, who told you that you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11). Osteen’s next sentences, however, are where I think he goes astray. First of all, looking back a few verses we see that Adam and Eve “realized they were naked.” (Gen. 3:7 NIV). So the answer to the question God posed was not, as Osteen seems to imply, that the serpent (“the enemy”) had told them they were naked; rather Adam and Eve came to understand it on their own. Failing to read Scripture in context is an error. It’s an error that’s rampant, of course, and each of us has our favorite verses to which we resort with little or no regard for the context. To that extent, I can’t fault Osteen more than anyone else for making the same mistake that I’ve made on more occasions than I can probably even remember. Nevertheless, the error seems pretty clear in this instance.
The second and more significant problem with this passage from Osteen’s book is that the error is not harmless. Osteen suggests that God, as he did with the first people, asks each of us, “Who told you that something was wrong with you?” His line of reasoning is that people should reject negative thoughts about themselves and focus instead on telling themselves things like, “I am successful. I have the favor of God. People like me.”
Here’s the problem with using the passage about Adam and Eve to make that point: there was something wrong with Adam and Eve. They had sinned, thereby requiring God to separate Himself from His creation. Even if God meant to ask them “Who told you that something was wrong with you?” there can be no doubt that He certainly did not mean to imply that there was nothing wrong with them.
Osteen thus obscures the source of the first human beings’ sense that something was not right with them. Removing sin from the story is, I think, the most harmful error one could possibly make. To the extent that people today sometimes feel that something is missing from their lives or that something is wrong with them they are correct. The only solution to that problem is salvation. Absent a recognition of one’s sin nature and repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ there is no salvation.
Encouraging Christians with truths about the standing they enjoy with God because of Jesus’ work is one thing. That seems to be the basis on which some defend the tone and content of Osteen’s preaching. Confusing the lost by obscuring the effects of sin is indefensible for anyone who claims to be preaching the true Gospel. Non-Christians very well may leave a service at Lakewood Church feeling better about themselves, but if they don’t come away with a clear understanding of their own sin and their need for repentance they have been deceived and they are likely much worse off than they were before.
That, I think, is the danger of the teaching of Joel Osteen and others like him. I don’t doubt his sincerity and he does seem to be a genuinely happy person. It is possible, however, to be very sincere, but, at the same time, to be sincerely wrong.