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The First and Last Thing I’ll Ever Write About Joel Osteen

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.

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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.

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A Time Management Tip from a Puritan Minister

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Jeremiah Burroughs, c. 1600 –  November 13, 1646

What can we learn from the Puritans about the frenetic pace of modern life? Most would probably assume that their world and ours are so different that nothing they had to say could have much relevance for present-day followers of Christ. I think, however, that we should not be so quick to jump to that conclusion. Consider the following excerpt from Jeremiah Burroughs’ work The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment:

 

By murmuring and discontent in your hearts, you come to lose a great deal of time. How many times do men and women, when they are discontented, let their thoughts run, and are musing and contriving, through their present discontentedness and let their discontented thoughts work in them for some hours together, and they spend their time in vain! When you are alone you should spend your time in holy meditation, but you are spending your time in discontented thoughts. You complain that you cannot meditate, you cannot think on good things, but if you begin to think of them a little, soon your thoughts are off from them. But if you are discontented with anything, then you can go alone, and muse, and roll things up and down in your thoughts to feed a discontented humor. Oh, labor to see this evil effect of murmuring, the losing of your time

The Puritans, of course, could never have known anything of our technological advancements, but we can still learn from them because God never changes and because fallen human nature remains the same as well. If anything, modern Christians (especially those in the United States and other wealthy countries) are more susceptible to murmuring than the average Englishman of the 1600s. We have so many more distractions that the ways in which we can come to be discontent and prone to murmuring are almost without end.

What if we took Burroughs’ advice? What if we took all the time we spend thinking about things we think we ought to have or afflictions we think we should not have to bear and instead spent that time worshipping God and thinking on whatever is true and lovely and of a good report? (Philippians 4:8) I can’t help but wonder how much more productive we can be for the cause of Christ if we could rid ourselves of murmuring. We modern American Christians claim (murmur?) about how busy our lives are, but how much of that busyness could we shed merely by being content with God?

 

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What Does Inability Mean? (On Freedom of the Will, Part I Section 4b)

On Freedom of the Will Index page

Online version of Freedom of the Will

The previous explanation of natural and moral Necessity may also shed light on the concepts of natural and moral Inability. Someone would be naturally unable to do something when he cannot do it because nature does not allow it or because of some “obstacle that is extrinsic to the Will; either in the Faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects.” However, none of those things constitutes moral Inability, which may be defined simply as a want of inclination.

Some examples of moral Inability are the following. A person “of great honor and chastity may have a moral Inability” to engage in prostitution. A child who is devoted to and truly loves his parents may be morally unable to kill his father. “A very malicious man may be unable to exert benevolent acts to an enemy.” Strength of virtue and a great degree of holiness may result in one’s being morally unable to “love wickedness in general.” On the other hand, the strength of one’s habitual wickedness may make him unable to “love and choose holiness.” Such a person may be “utterly unable to love an infinitely holy Being, or to choose and cleave to him as his chief good.”

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Saul Attacking David by Guercino

Regarding this idea of moral Inability, I think it is useful to draw a distinction between the general/habitual and the particular/occasional. A general/habitual moral Inability is “an Inability in the heart to all exercises or acts of the will of that kind.” Thus, a person “whose heart is habitually void of gratitude” may be unable to show gratitude through his actions. By contrast, a particular/occasional moral Inability is an Inability relating to a particular act at a particular point in time. If it is true that “the Will is always determined by the strongest motive,” it follows that the will is always unable (a particular/occasional Inability) to “act otherwise than it does.” It is not possible for the Will to “go against the motive which has now, all things considered, the greatest advantage to induce it.”

 

The second of these kinds of moral Inability is commonly referred to simply as “Inability.” because the word’s original meaning related “to some stated defect.” In addition, as we noted before, Inability is most commonly used as a relative term; it relates to a will and endeavor that is “insufficient to bring to pass the thing desired and endeavored.” Whether occasional or habitual, a will and endeavor against present acts of the will cannot even be supposed; “that would be to suppose the Will, as present, to be otherwise than, at present, it is.” There conceivably could be, however, will and endeavor “against future acts of the Will.” There is no contradiction in saying that acts of the Will at one time “may be against the acts of the Will at another time.” One might desire to prevent a future act of the Will, but that desire might be overcome by the strength of a fixed habit. “In this respect, a man may be in miserable slavery and bondage to a strong habit.” On the other hand, it may be much easier to prevent future acts that “are only occasional and transient.” In this way, the moral Inability associated with fixed habits “especially obtains the name of Inability.” So just as the will may, in this sense, resist itself in vain, reason may resist a present act of the Will, although its resistance may be insufficient.

Again, with each kind of moral Inability, the word “Inability” is being used very differently from its original meaning. The word refers to a natural Inability, those cases where it can be supposed a person is inclined to do an act, but is unable. Under the ordinary definition, we cannot say that “a malicious man . . . cannot hold his hand from striking.” Strictly speaking, a man is able to do something “if he has it in his choice, or at his election”; we would not say that a man cannot do a thing “when he can do it if he will.” It is incorrect to say that someone is unable to do a thing (something that depends on an act of the Will) that “would be easily performed if the act of the Will were present.” It would be even worse to say that he is unable to “exert the acts of the Will themselves.” That would be a contradiction; to say “he cannot will, if he does will.” Therefore, we should not attribute non-performance to a lack of power or ability. What is lacking is not ability, but one’s being willing. A person may understand, and have the natural ability and everything else necessary, except a disposition. The only thing missing is a will.

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What Determines the Will? (On Freedom of the Will: Part I, Section 2a)

On Freedom of the Will Index page

Online version of Freedom of the Will

Section II.

Concerning the Determination of the Will.

The phrase “determining the will” means making a choice regarding a particular thing. This is in the same sense as the phrase”determination of motion” which means causing motion in a particular direction instead of another. For the Will to be determined there must be a Determiner. In other words, the Will is an effect that must have a cause.

Two questions then arise: what determines the Will and does the Will always follow the last order/command of the understanding? Rather than delve into all the various answers to those questions, I think it is sufficient to say that the will is determined by the strongest motive of the mind. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Domino efect rendered on white isolated

Motive is whatever moves or invites the mind to volition. It could be one thing or several things working together. By “the strongest motive” I am referring to whatever it is, whether one thing or many, that induces a particular act of volitions.

For something to be a motive in the way I use the term, it must be something that can actually be perceived. In other words, only those things that are in the mind’s view in some way are things that can induce the mind to will or to act. Anything outside the mind’s perception could not possible affect the mind at all.

I think most would agree that any true motive to a perceiving, willing agent has at least some tendency to move the Will prior to the act of the will itself. This prior tendency of the motive is what I call the strength of the motive (a motive with less tendency to move the Will would be a weaker motive). Whatever is most appealing to the mind and has the strongest prior tendency to induce the choice is what I call the strongest motive. It is in that sense that I say that the will is always determined by the strongest motive.

A thing may draw its tendency to move the Will from many different sources (the nature of the thing itself or the nature of the mind that views it). Listing all the possible sources would be difficult if not impossible. However, I do not think it would be controversial to say that in general whatever moves the will of a person (“an intelligent and voluntary agent”) is seen by that person as good; it moves a person to act only to the extent that it is viewed favorably. To say otherwise, would be to claim that things move the will by some means other “than by their appearing eligible to it.” That would be absurd. Therefore, in some sense it must always be the case that the will and the apparent greatest good coincide.

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Friday Feature: The Plunder of the Egyptians

Reason In View

-By Cody Libolt-

Here I present an outline of my worldview and philosophical project.

The title of this essay refers to the Exodus, in which Israel gained much wealth from their enemies. I will argue that Christians need to learn from the philosophical achievements of their enemies.

Read the full article…

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Providence, not Fate

This blog takes it’s name from a short passage in a sermon that Charles Spurgeon preached at New Park Street Chapel and was published on October 15th, 1908. The sermon is entitled simply “God’s Providence” and is reproduced here, at The Spurgeon Archive. The passage in question appears near the end of the sermon and reads, in part, as follows:

You will say this morning, Our minister is a fatalist. Your minister is no such thing. Some will say, Ah! he believes in fate. He does not believe in fate at all. What is fate? Fate is this—Whatever is, must be. But there is a difference between that and Providence. Providence says, Whatever God ordains must be; but the wisdom of God never ordains any thing without a purpose. Every thing in this world is working for some one great end. Fate does not say that. Fate simply says that the thing must be; Providence says, God moves the wheels along, and there they are. If any thing would go wrong, God puts it right; and if there is any thing that would move awry, he puts his hand and alters it. It comes to the same thing; but there is a difference as to the object. There is all the difference between fate and Providence that there is between a man with good eyes and a blind man. Fate is a blind thing; it is the avalanche crushing the village down below and destroying thousands. Providence is not an avalanche; it is a rolling river, rippling at the first like a rill down the sides of the mountain, followed by minor streams, till it rolls in the broad ocean of everlasting love, working for the good of the human race. The doctrine of Providence is not, that what is, must be; but that, what is, works together for the good of our race, and especially for the good of the chosen people of God. The wheels are full of eyes; not blind wheels.

God’s providence and sovereignty are crucial concepts for Christians to understand. They are important, I think, not just as matters of abstract theology, but because they are indispensable to developing an all-encompassing Christian worldview. Given how important those concepts are, I thought it would be appropriate to refer to them in naming this blog, in which I hope to build on that foundation to write about developing a Christian worldview and related topics.

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