I’d never heard of the Prosperity Gospel until I started college. My family had attended a conservative Presbyterian church since I was six, and I was rather sheltered. In college, however, when my tics began to worsen and my anxiety attacks began to occur on a regular basis. I was confronted (on more than one occasion) by well-meaning Christians who tried to share the Prosperity Gospel with me. According to them, if I’d only believe and declare it, I could have God’s blessing on my life, and all my tics and anxiety would disappear; God didn’t want me to be sad or to suffer, they said, but according to God, I was supposed to happy and prosperous all my days.
As someone who had grown up in a Christian home, I wasn’t convinced. I was, however, curious, amazed I hadn’t heard this kind of theology before. So over the last few years, I’ve been conducting research on this Prosperity Gospel. What surprised me upon investigating is just how popular this other gospel is. Some of the most famous preachers for this gospel are really big names, such as Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and Mike Murdock.
Today, however, we’re going to focus on a particular message by perhaps the most influential of them all. The pastor of America’s largest church, Lakewood Church, Joel Osteen’s face adorns many popular books like Become a Better You, You Can, You Will, I Declare, and Your Best Life Now. He and his wife, Gloria, speak all around the country, where people are told they can hear a message from God for just $24.30 a ticket.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Mr. Osteen is a gifted speaker. In fact, if he were simply a motivational speaker, I would leave it at that. But the problem is that Joel Osteen purports a Gospel that is received by thousands, and yet it’s not from the Bible. One message in particular caught my eye this week while I was on the treadmill. It was near closing time, so the staff began to shut off all the wall TVs. Curious, I looked over at the treadmill next to mine, the kind with its own TV. Someone had left it on, and there was Mr. Osteen’s face. For lack of anything better to do, I began to read the subtitles (And no, it wasn’t a great workout.) as I walked. And this is an overview of the message I read.
“#624, I’m Still Standing”
Osteen starts the message off by paraphrasing Matthew 5:45, reminding the audience that God makes it rain on the just and the unjust alike. You may be be honoring God with your life, and your neighbor may not be, but both of you will experience storms in your lives. No matter how much you honor God, you’re going to have some problems.
Then he paraphrases Matthew 7:24-27, the parable where one man builds his house on the sand, not honoring God, and another man, a wiser man honors God with his life, and builds his house on the rock. Here’s what he said of this parable.
“When you honor God, the storms may come. But you have a promise that others don’t have. When it’s all said and done, you’ll still be standing. In difficult times, you have to remind yourself this is not the end. My house is built upon the rock. The enemy doesn’t have the final say. God does, and He says when it’s all over, I’ll still be standing…It rains on all of us. The promise God gives us is if you’ll stay in faith, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, you will not be the victim. You will be the victor. You will still be standing.”
Osteen goes on to recall how when his father died, he took over Lakewood Church, and some of the oldest church members decided to leave, how it made him feel awful knowing they were going to leave. Then he remembered,
“I did it through all those other things…,” which included his father’s death, his mother’s battle with cancer, the three year lawsuit to get the church’s current building, naysayers, and his own doubtful, negative thoughts. Then he heard God say, “They may leave, but I’m not gonna leave.” And with that, he was fine.
“You need to look back at all God’s done before…You’re house is built on the rock…You have this promise that no matter what comes your way, when the storm is over, when the trouble has passed, when the opposition has ceased one thing you can count on: you’ll still be standing.”
He then recalls how Katrina killed most of the trees in New Orleans, all but the palm trees. There’s even a certain kind of palm tree, he says, that not only bends all the way over in the wind, but it’s roots grow even stronger while it’s bent over. And when it stands, it’s even stronger than it was before. He says that’s because God put the bounce back into that tree. It may get pushed over for a time before it stands right back up.
“That difficulty [like Katrina] is not going to defeat you: it’s going to promote you…You’re going to be standing stronger than ever.”
Osteen tells a story about a friend who’s had cancer three times. He exercised, thanked God he was getting better while he waited to hear the results, saw himself as healthy and whole, and ended up defeating the cancer. Then he spoke of another couple who had their home and livelihood taken in Katrina. Now they have a better house, job, and schools for the kids than they had before.
“When it’s all over, you’ll still be standing, not the same, but increased, promoted, better off than you were before.”
Osteen also says that when bad things happen to you, when storms descend, “That bad break…gets God’s attention.” And then God tells those bad forces that they’re dealing with the wrong person. You don’t go after His child. God’s got our backs and He’s put that bounce back inside of us so that we can once again stand tall.
He ends by declaring that we need to have a warrior’s mentality. Instead of sulking and being the victim during hardship, we need to be strong and face that adversity. And then we are to go after what belongs to us in this world.
“When you’re in a tough time, you can’t sit around thinking about the bad break…or you can have this warrior mentality, do what you’ve got to do, push…and beat it.”
But Does Osteen Really Address Pain?
Osteen admits that he’s been through hard times in his life. His father died and his mother suffered from cancer. You’d think he, of all people, would be most sympathetic to those who are suffering. Interestingly enough, however, Osteen skips right over those long-term battles. You see, the Prosperity Gospel teaches that if you’re truly faithful to God, your problems will disappear. Your faith will allow God to remove those hardships from you; and if your troubles don’t disappear, your faith is obviously lacking.
Well, I can tell you that as a child, I prayed every night with the faith of a child that God would heal me of my tics and anxiety. I can tell you that I had rock solid faith that God would heal me at the age of eight. And yet, He didn’t. Here are some more (and much more severe) cases of suffering that God has not taken and made everyone happy, healthy, and rich merely because they had faith.
- Joni Eareckson Tada, a lifelong quadriplegic injured in a diving accident as a teenager. As a young woman, she attended a “faith healing” session with all the hope that God would heal her. And yet, she never left her wheelchair.
- Families of those with Alzheimer’s, who must watch their loved ones disappear before their eyes.
- Children like the little girl I hear about on Facebook all the time, “Kaley” (name changed for privacy purposes). Kaley was adopted from China with a heart defect, and she’s spent her entire time in the United States in tubes and under monitors. Her parents and friends and friends of friends have been praying desperately for this baby girl, but no miracle cure.
- Individuals with debilitating disorders, severe cases of Bipolar, OCD, Tourettes, Anxiety, and Borderline Personality Disorder who live with their struggles all their lives.
- The Christians who are faithful to the end all over the world, like those who are being beheaded by ISIS, sent to work camps in China, crucified in the Sudan. What faith could be greater than declaring it until death?
In the light of all of these pictures of suffering, Osteen’s message of “bouncing back” rings hollow. When he says you’re guaranteed to “bounce back,” he’s speaking under the assumption that you were fine to start with. This doesn’t work when your storms have been raging for years, or when you’ve grown up in fear because of your faith. Logically, if you don’t “bounce back,” according to Osteen’s argument, you’re not living in faith, because everyone honoring God with his life is guaranteed worldly covery.
By Osteen’s reasoning, these Bible characters weren’t living by faith:
- Abel was murdered by his brother, Cain, when Abel rightly offered God a sacrifice, and Cain did not.
- Jonathon, David’s best friend and King Saul’s son, had to suffer the consequences of his evil father’s scheming and foolish planning.
- Samson, after realizing he’d acted foolishly, gave His life to kill the evil Philistines.
- Stephen, after proclaiming God’s word to the religious elite, was stoned to death for his faithfulness to Christ.
- According to scholars, John is the only apostle of Christ who was not horribly martyred. The others, they believe, were killed by stoning, beating, and crucifixion, among other things
Now could God heal all of our problems? Absolutely. But it is His right to choose not to. God does, however, promise His children the reward of living with Him for eternity in a perfect new Heaven and new earth, never to want or suffer again in Revelation 21:3-4. Saints shall receive rewards for their deeds on earth in Heaven in 2 Corinthians 5:10. This, however, will not be immediate. There is still suffering to be endured on this earth. Life will not be hunky dory if we just declare it, and there is a reason for this. God sees all suffering, and indeed, uses it to refine us so we are ready to receive our eternity in Heaven with Him. There is a purpose in the pain.
“And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. – Hebrews 12:5-10
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:3-5
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christand be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death“ – Philippians 3:7-10
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.“ – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Let me clarify now by stating that suffering isn’t enjoyable, and God isn’t saying we have to enjoy it. In fact, He hears all our sighs and groans. Psalm 56:8 says he counts all of our tears. God doesn’t have fun torturing us like the pagan gods did in mythologies. So why does God allow suffering, which He sometimes does, according to these verses? Why does Osteen’s vision of God make it out that God doesn’t like us to suffer?
Joel Osteen’s problem is that the god he describes isn’t a big god. According to Osteen, when trouble happens, God (who for some reason was busy and not paying attention) suddenly comes running over when he realizes what’s going on. The God of the Bible is so much bigger than Osteen’s portrait. Then he threatens whatever or whomever has gotten in the way of our happiness.
The true God of the Bible is intimately involved in all details of our lives. In fact, He’s so involved that He’s willing to do whatever it takes to draw our stubborn souls closer to His own. Sometimes, that hurts…but it’s worth it. He’s so involved that when evil (thanks to Adam and all his descendents) tries to rear its ugly head, God is there to only let it go so far…and what He does let happen is even then worked for the good of His children.
Now, sometimes that good isn’t what many would consider to be a blessing. But then, growing closer to God isn’t something you can put in the bank. I can assure you from personal experience, however, that the closeness to God that is produced by suffering is far more precious than any jewel or amount of gold. As I’ve stated before, if given the choice now, I would not give up my tics or anxiety; they’re key players in my life that drive me back to Christ over and over again.
I cannot answer for all the evil that happens in this world. My heart breaks for my brothers and sisters-in-Christ who are being slaughtered across the world, for those who struggle with chronic diseases, for those who have been abandoned and feel utterly lost. But those who have truly been chosen as saints of God and have received the hope of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, we, like Paul, cling to this promise ever more with each year we spent on this dark world:
“ For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.“ – Romans 8:18
We don’t need to worry about “bouncing back” as Joel Osteen says we should, for God doesn’t consider the things of this world worthy of pursuing over our relationship with Him. Wealth, social status, jobs, fame, health, and fine objects aren’t evil in and of themselves, but when they become the goal of our recovery, we’ve lost sight of our real prize, which is the person of Christ.
If you notice, the overall theme of Osteen’s speech has nothing to do with Christ. Rather, God is there to help us achieve our goals of earthly rewards here and now with instant gratification. God isn’t to be glorified above all else, and He certainly isn’t actively involved in our lives. The Bible, however, reminds us that this world is just in passing; our jobs are to glorify God and share His Word and love with others. Sometimes, it takes hardship for us to do that best. The difference between Osteen’s definition of pain and the Bible’s definition, however is remarkable.
In Joel Osteen’s world, pain has no purpose other than to bring us more earthly riches and to be gotten over as quickly as possible; the Bible, however, comforts us with the knowledge that no pain is meaningless. There is always an eternal purpose in the pain. Whether it’s to teach us, rebuke us, train us, rid us of a certain sin, or is even for the sake of another, God allows nothing to touch us without reason. As we endure, we can take comfort knowing that Christ has suffered nothing less for us, but has accomplished all we could hope for and more through His life, death, and resurrection, and one day, He shall return to bring us Home out of all sufferings with Him forever.
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