When Donald Sterling had to sell the Los Angeles Clippers because he was caught on tape saying he didn’t want his mistress bringing black people to his basketball games, many people cheered. But if you had paid much attention to Sterling prior to the TMZ-leaked audio, you probably didn’t cheer—not because you weren’t troubled by Sterling’s comments, but because Sterling’s downfall over those particular comments felt a bit anticlimactic.
Sterling was sued for racial discrimination in basketball. He was repeatedly sued for housing discrimination against blacks and Latinos. Sterling’s wife allegedly posed as a health inspector to survey the race of people living in the couple’s properties and threaten them with fines if they didn’t keep their space clean. Not wanting people of a certain race to attend your basketball games is most definitely bad. But it is a minor tremor on the Racist Richter Scale in comparison to Sterling’s earthshaking brand of discrimination that directly hurt people’s lives and harmed their communities. So when you consider all of the insanely racist things Sterling has done, isn’t it a bit of a letdown that the least racist thing of the bunch served as his Waterloo?
From a theological perspective, I see something similar with the outrage from various Christian circles over recent comments from Victoria Osteen, wife of Joel Osteen and “co-pastor” of Lakewood Church, America’s largest congregation. At a recent service, Ms. Osteen commented that, when we offer God our obedience and worship, we do this for the sake of our own happiness rather than for the glory of God. Like Sterling’s TMZ tape, yes, Osteen’s comments are bad. Yes, the 37-second clip is a rambling mess born from almost incomprehensible Biblical ignorance. Yes, I hope these comments cause Osteen disciples to seriously reconsider their devotion to the most mega of America’s megachurches. But if these words succeed in toppling the Osteen empire, isn’t it a bit anticlimactic when the Osteens have said a thousand things that are even more theologically indefensible during their time at Lakewood Church?
A Long Tradition of Theological Ignorance
When interviewed, Joel Osteen won’t clearly affirm there is no salvation outside of faith in Christ and seems incapable of articulating a coherent doctrine of repentance. And, as both these clips show, Osteen’s default response to any theologically challenging question is essentially, “Well, whatever the Bible says about this, the important thing for everyone to know is that I’m nice.” So is it bad for one Osteen to tell Christians God wants them to be more concerned with their own happiness than His glory? Absolutely. But this pales in comparison to the other Osteen telling Christians they should be more concerned with mimicking Joel’s unflappable positivity than with knowing what the Word of God actually says.
In their sermons and books, both Joel and Victoria Osteen give full-throated endorsement to the prosperity gospel, a theology which states that those enduring hardships, poverty, and sickness have only their lack of faith and confidence to blame for their suffering. There are, of course, some enormous theological problems with this Christianized version of “The Secret,” where you obtain God’s blessings by speaking them into existence. The first is that it has no basis in the Scriptures and conveniently ignores all of the words that Jesus speaks about the question of suffering, the cost of discipleship, and the blessedness of persecution. The second is that it offers nothing but despair to those who are faithfully enduring the crosses Christ has given them to bear. And the third is that such a doctrine simply doesn’t square with the lives of those who were the first to tell us about God’s blessings in Christ (self-promotion alert).
So is it bad for Victoria Osteen to encourage us to think of God as the “Treat Yo Self” Tom Haverford to our name-it-and-claim-it Donna Meagle? Most definitely. But surely it’s a few notches lower on the pole of theological indefensibility than speaking words that, one, say the exact opposite of what the Bible says; two, belittle suffering Christians with the insensitivity a man horking down a hot fudge sundae three inches from the face of a starving child; and, three, imply that St. Peter, St. Paul, and even Jesus Himself must have been really lousy Christians who couldn’t unlock God’s potential blessings.
Has Joel Osteen Ever Mentioned Jesus?
But what really makes the Osteens’ books and sermons worse than the things they say are the things they don’t say. The Osteens talk about living your best life now and unlocking God’s earthly blessings. But the Osteens don’t talk about the best life won for us in the blood of the Lamb and God’s eternal blessings for those who cling to Christ in faith. The Osteens doesn’t talk about sin. They don’t talk about forgiveness or redemption or atonement. They don’t talk about heaven and hell or the crucifixion and the resurrection. Do you know why a teetotaler’s favorite drinking game is “Take a Shot Every Time Joel Osteen Talks About Jesus?” Because Joel Osteen doesn’t talk about Jesus.
So is it terrible that one of Lakewood Church’s preachers would mislead people into thinking they don’t need to focus on God’s glory? Most definitely. But it’s substantially worse to mislead people into thinking they don’t need to hear about God’s Son, without whom God’s glory could never be ours. And while Victoria Osteen is wrong about the glory of God, if you find those words more unchristian than the Osteen’s unwillingness to proclaim Christ Himself, I’m not sure your understanding of God’s glory is much better.
“For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
What do these words from Psalm 50 tell us about obedience, glory, and worship? God didn’t command His people to sacrifice bulls and goats because He needed those sacrifices in order to be glorious. God is, after all, perfectly glorious and holy without us. Rather, God commanded His people to sacrifice so that they would see, in the blood of those animals, His promise of deliverance in the blood of the Messiah who was to come, and so they would thank Him in response.
Return to The Truth
In other words, God glorifies Himself by forgiving our sins, and we glorify God in our worship by thanking Him for His mercy in Christ. Why does God command Christians to be baptized and celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Not because He needs our obedience in order to be glorified, but because He wants to glorify Himself by wrapping us in His glory through the waters of regeneration and feeding us with Christ, the very bread of life, in the Sacrament of the Altar. Why does God command Christians to gather together in worship? Not because He needs the sacrifice of our praise, but because we need the sacrifice of Christ’s life, which is given to us in the Word of the Gospel proclaimed in Christian worship. How does God want us to glorify Him? Not by saying, “Lord, look what I’ve done for you,” but by saying, “Lord, thank you for what you’ve done for me.”
So when Victoria Osteen says we worship God for our sake and not His, she’s wrong. But she’s not wrong because she’s choosing man instead of God as her answer to the question “for whose benefit do we gather for worship?” Rather, she’s wrong because she’s made an either/or proposition out of the matter. And while it’s perfectly fair to criticize Ms. Osteen for this error and for a shallow, “God just wants you to be happy” theology of praise, I do find this offense rather minor in comparison to the Osteens’ overarching error of “pretty much everything we say is incompatible with the Scriptures and we will never, ever, ever point your eyes to the cross of Christ.”
I’m glad Victoria Osteen’s words are being criticized. I hope it causes people who have been lapping up the Osteen fluff to hunger for the real spiritual food they’ve been denied. But I’d rather see a heavyweight get knocked out with a haymaker than a jab. I’d rather see Al Capone go to jail for murder than for income tax fraud. I’d rather see Donald Sterling lose the Clippers for housing discrimination than for comments from a private conversation. And while it’s indefensible that Ms. Osteen spent 37 seconds preaching her recent nonsense, I’d rather see the Osteen kingdom come toppling down because it spent countless hours not preaching the King of Kings.