There are books that, as a pastor, I need to read, but don’t really want to. It may be because they are light weight and trite, heretical or just a plain waste of time. Yet despite that, some of these books have had or are having an impact on culture and the church—THE SECRET, THE DA VINCI CODE, come to mind. YOUR BEST LIFE NOW also falls into that category. Joel Osteen is the pastor of the largest church in America (Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas). Besides that, his book was sent to pastors all across America. For that reason alone, I have to take it seriously. You can’t go to the supermarket in our town, without seeing his books lining the shelves. Well, all this intrigued me, so I took the plunge and read his most famous book.
You should know that I have nothing against Joel Osteen as a person. He has a winsome personality. Nice hair. The fact that he is always smiling bugs me a bit. But he seems like a nice guy. And, as you read the book, you’ve gotta admit, the guy has faith. He is very positive. I imagine he is a very encouraging person, which is why people like him. On top of that, there IS good advice in this book, which is probably why it has sold so many copies.
He speaks about enlarging your vision for life—that’s something we all need more of. He writes about how our thoughts have a huge influence on how we live. This is true. We should not let bitterness take root in our life. We should learn to be givers and not takers. We should show God’s kindness and mercy to others. We should be people of excellence and integrity, and live with enthusiasm, and on and on. The book is filled with “we should, we should we should.” If you will only do these seven things, then the good life will finally come. In fact, you can summarize this book by quoting the last paragraph. “If you will: enlarge your vision, develop a healthy self image, discover the power of your thoughts and words, let go of the past, stand strong against opposition and adversity, learn to give, and choose to be happy, God will take you places you’ve never dreamed of, and you will be living your best life now.” (p. 306).
There is nothing wrong with any of these “seven steps.” It’s just that Osteen presents a totally inadequate vision of the Christian message. Here is some of what is missing (more will come in a later blog).
1 The gospel is missing. The gospel is good news about what God has done to save us through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Osteen, on the other hand, puts the focus on what we do. His message is, that if you will just do this, this and this, you will have the best life now. Set aside for a moment that he is preoccupied only with the here and now. Set aside the prosperity gospel and psychologizing. His message is essentially moralism, not gospel. Moralism puts the emphasis solely on what we must do. It overloads us with moral advice, forgetting the fact that we can’t do this good stuff (that is our deeper problem). Essentially, it is a works based, performance Christianity, not a God-centered “growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3.18).
2 There is no significant place for the reality of sin, death, evil and judgment. There is no place for anything negative like this. After reading his book, you do not come away with the sense that we need to be rescued, for we are essentially okay. He flat out tells us that God is not dwelling on our faults. He always accepts us. There is no place for guilt and condemnation (p. 68-71). Strangely, in this book God appears as a well meaning, but weak and indulgent dad, not the sovereign, holy and strong God of the Scriptures. Osteen also takes the covenant promises that God gives to his people, and consistently applies them to everybody.
3 Christ’s work is missing. It is interesting how Jesus is presented in YOUR BEST LIFE NOW. Osteen uses lots of Bible illustrations. He often quotes Scripture too (even though he regularly resorts to proof texting). But Jesus shows up in his book as moral example. One is hard pressed to finds statements about his redemptive work on the cross. After finishing the book, I asked myself, “do I truly need Jesus to live my best life now.” My conclusion? Evidently not. God yes, but not Jesus, not his cross or resurrection. Jesus’ main role is to inspire me to do these seven things for this life.
4 Grace is absent. The decisive issue for “the best life” is what WE do. In the end, it all depends on us. This is essentially the ancient heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk (c. 354-415) who not only denied original sin, but held that humans are capable of realizing the potential of their created powers without grace. Salvation ultimately depends on our choices and works. Pelagianism was actually condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD because its teachings could not be squared with Scripture. Osteen’s Pelagianism takes the subtle form of “if you just do these seven things, which depends on YOU, God will show up and bless.” Again, it all depends on you. He will often use the phrase “God is trying.” God is trying to help you, to promote you, to give you more, etc., but the phrase is regularly followed up by, “but YOU must….” do these seven things. It makes our work decisive, not God’s.
So here is one of the great spokesmen for pop evangelical Christianity, pastoring America’s largest church, with a message that is basically moralistic and Pelagian. See why I didn’t want to read his book?
Sadly, what Osteen presents is actually not far from H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous description of American 19th c liberalism where we have “a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”