Joel Osteen has been deemed by many as America’s Pastor. He is the pastor of the largest church in America and his books have sold in the millions.
I recently scanned Osteen’s book, “Your Best Life Now,” in search of any serious reflection or teaching on the life, teaching and death of Jesus and Jesus’ call to discipleship presented in the Gospels.
It’s not there.
That’s not to say that Osteen doesn’t have some good things to say. He talks about developing a healthy self-image, cultivating a positive outlook and claiming one’s worth and value as a child of God – all very good things.
But his emphasis on personal success seems to fly in the face of the gospel of Jesus in the Gospels.
He writes: “If you will keep the right attitude, God will take all your disappointments, broken dreams, the hurts and pains, and He’ll add up all the trouble and sorrow that’s been inflicted upon you, and He will pay you back with twice as much peace, joy, happiness and success … If you just believe, if you’ll put your trust and confidence in God, He will give you double for your trouble.”
Really, Brother Joel, double for my trouble? Is that what Jesus says?
In the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that because he was persecuted, they can expect to be persecuted, too, since the servant is not greater than the master (John 15:20).
Jesus turns the values of the world on their head when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:11).
Jesus rebukes his disciples for desiring upward mobility and worldly versions of success: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant … For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:42-44).
Jesus tells his disciples: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage: I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).
Jesus overcomes the world, not through worldly success, but through worldly defeat, through the suffering love endured on the cross, through bearing the hate and violence of the world without returning the hate and violence.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:24-26).
How do these words fit a gospel of success?
Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not knocking anyone’s desire to be successful in work, career, education or in any other endeavor one undertakes.
As far as I am concerned, the desire to be successful within the boundaries of an honest, humble, caring, compassionate and generous life is a noble aspiration. But let’s be clear: It is not the gospel of Jesus.
Osteen says: “Think big. Think increase. Think abundance. Think more than enough.” After he makes that statement, he tells the following story.
Years ago, a famous golfer was invited by the king of Saudi Arabia to play in a golf tournament. He accepted the invitation, and the king flew his private jet in to pick him up.
After the event, as the golfer was getting on the plane to return to the United States, the king told him that he would like to give him a gift for making this time so special. The golfer told the king that a gift was not necessary, but the king insisted.
So the golfer said, “Well, I collect golf clubs. Why don’t you get me a golf club?”
On his flight back, the golfer wondered what sort of golf club the king might get him. A few weeks later a certified letter came in the mail from the king of Saudi Arabia.
The golfer, at first, wondered what this had to do with a golf club. When he opened the envelope, to his great surprise, inside he discovered a deed to a 500-acre golf course in America. Pretty nice golf club, don’t you think?
Osteen writes, “We serve the Most High God, and His dream for your life is so much bigger and better than you can even imagine. It’s time to enlarge your vision!”
Certainly, Jesus challenges us to enlarge our vision, but is that Jesus’ vision? A 500-acre golf course? Personal success and fulfillment? Is that the greater story and larger vision Jesus intended through his proclamation of the “the kingdom of God”?
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples on three different occasions that he, the Son of Man, is going to be rejected, suffer many things and be killed.
On the first occasion when Jesus breaks the news, he then tells them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
This call to discipleship comes at a critical juncture in the story and sets the pattern for a life of discipleship to Jesus.
I don’t believe God calls us to be poor, though Luke’s version of the Gospel could be read that way. Some individuals and communities, like the Franciscans, are called to such a lifestyle.
Generally speaking though, I believe God wants all of God’s children all across the world to have enough, not just to survive, but to thrive, to live a flourishing life.
That will never happen by following Osteen’s teaching of pursuing your personal best.
Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to pursue the way of the cross. It’s not about gain and glory; it’s not about acquisition and acclamation; it’s not about self-fulfillment and success. It’s about self-denial and taking up one’s cross.
That doesn’t mean there is no joy. There’s plenty of joy, real joy, not the kind of joy that money and power can buy, not the kind of joy that comes by being successful and happy by U.S. standards.
That’s the paradox of the gospel; there is joy and peace and inner contentment in the way of the cross, but it is not found on the path to personal success.
It is found on the path of self-surrender, self-sacrifice and service to others.