Joel Osteen is one of the most recognizable and polarizing figures in American Christianity—being the pastor to the nation’s largest church has seen to that. If fame is to draw the attention of many, then Osteen is certainly famous. But it would be foolish to presume that all the attention directed towards him is favorable, he has attracted some passionate opponents. Some of the criticism aimed at him is quite vicious and personal, and I will seek to avoid these excesses as I review his book, Your Best Life Now.
The book is not new, it was written some years ago, but it continues to sell well (currently over 4 million copies). I recently decided that I needed to read it because my opinion of the man was based on his persona or brief snippets I had seen or read. I needed a more informed opinion, which I now have.
Reading the book has not been easy. His writing style is not engaging and his charismatic stage presence doesn’t seem to translate onto the page. But then, I didn’t read it to discover his literary talents; I wanted to understand his theology. That wasn’t easy reading either.
I believe that Osteen has a real faith, but his worldview reflects more of the American Dream than it does the mission of God. His overarching thesis is that God wants to give you the very best of life, and that best is usually described as physical and emotional wealth. He writes, “He doesn’t want you to barely get by. He’s called El Shaddai, “the God of more than enough.” He’s not “El Cheapo,” the God of barely enough!” (pg.33)
Yes, he writes about the need for forgiveness, generosity and suffering, but in all these his claim is that God will repay you for your inconvenience and double your blessing. I was somewhat encouraged by his chapters on adversity, where he clearly states that God willingly puts his children through all manner of trials. But then he concludes the section by explaining that these struggles are designed to propel us into greater expectation. Our hurts are meant to make us hungrier for God’s gifts.
Such bounty is not inevitable—a response from us is needed. Osteen claims that positive thinking is the key that unlocks God’s provision. Faith, it seemed, is synonymous with optimism and God is quick to reward it. He is longing to overwhelm us with plenty, if we would make space in our imagination for His generosity.
I have no quarrel with those who describe God as generous, He certainly is! But Osteen makes Him seem indulgent, as though the preoccupation of God is our blissful prosperity. This message isn’t new. Joel Osteen is simply the freshest face to the prosperity gospel, a persuasion that is devoid of the gospel. There is no mention of sin and anger, judgment or atonement. There is no cross, and subsequently, no one is expected to pick one up in order to follow Jesus (Luke 9:23).
I can’t imagine a devotee of this thinking, who would choose to suffer for the sake of the lost. I don’t see how they could understand martyrdom, or ever consider it themselves. How do they appreciate the Christians in Hebrews who “were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection”? The prosperity gospel cannot understand such things any more than the ancient fertility cults could.
Please understand, I am not dismissing everything Osteen says or does, much of which is good. My major concern is with his central thesis. He seems far more devoted to God’s favor, than he is to God’s glory. If only he understood that the two are inextricably entwined. We are most blessed when we surrender our lives to glorify God.
He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)