One of the things I wanted to do with this year’s reading plan is to read a lot of things I would not normally choose. These books span a wide range of topics and ranged from the excellent Smartest Kids in the World to the mind boggling Fear and Trembling and lots of good stuff in between.
I have been pretty critical of Joel Osteen for a long time based on what I have seen of him on TV and read in snippets. I also had the chance to meet dozens of people coming to hear him speak in Atlanta which you can read about here. I became convicted that if I was to be fair, I should actually read something he wrote from start to finish to give him a chance to dispel my concerns. I picked up a used copy of Become a Better You for that purpose. The book is nearly 400 pages long and provided Osteen a solid opportunity to put forth his view of God, man and the world.
I try to commend the commendable, so let me start by saying it’s easy to see why so many people like Joel Osteen. Not only does he reek “positivity”, he has great stories to back up his points. Whether it’s talking about how ancient warfare including plugging up an enemy city’s water supply as a bridge to talk about shutting down pathways God chooses to bless us or telling a story of a real person living out what he teaches with good results, this is compelling. He has an excellent manner of drawing people into the content he wants to pass on to them and I wish I was better at that.
The other thing that may not be commendable but explains a lot of his popularity is that while in the whole, he seems to be a false teacher (which I’ll detail in a minute), he is so close to the truth in many places. He tells people to run from temptation, that life starts in our hearts, to let God be their vindicator rather than hold a grudge, not worship the approval of others, to defeat bad habits by replacing them with good ones, and many more ideas that are basically biblical. It should not surprise us that God’s truth, delivered incrementally, would actually be compelling to many people.
The problem is that he uses these points to teach a message that is not in the Bible. He wants people to run from temptation not because sin is an abomination to a holy God but because it will drag you down and prevent your happiness. He tells people to let God set the agenda for their life because God has a great destiny for them on earth. He encourages people to celebrate the victories of others because that way God will give them victories. He consistently, almost exclusively, treats God as some kind of captive to our happiness rather than what the Bible teaches which is God exists for His own happiness. In almost every case where Osteen started with something going in the right direction, he ended with a totally man-centered, Godless application. That isn’t to say he didn’t have some good horse sense in the same way that Dr. Phil does, I’m just saying that when he starts out saying something is Biblical virtually always ends it with false teaching. He misquotes the Bible and takes whole passages out of context to make the point he wants to make. Osteen would benefit from reading something simple like How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth or Living by the Book.
He may have covered this in other books more but even in this one, you can see the basis for this false teaching. Osteen believes that the best possible thing that can happen for you is to be happy right now. I wonder how he would handle Jesus’ statement that people who are slandered, persecuted, or killed for their faith are blessed. Osteen completely misses the gospel and only once or twice in the entire book even mentions the word “sin” or applies the doctrine of sin in any way. As as result, he does not tell people to repent and turn to God by faith – he tells people to rub their genie lamp and get some stuff by faith. Just like the people I met years ago at Philips Arena, there is no chance anyone reading this book will get a picture of the God of the Bible because I don’t believe Joel Osteen knows the God of the Bible. Christians should absolutely cling to the promises of God by faith regardless of circumstances, but Osteen over and over tells his readers to cling to promises that God never made (abundance, long life, success, material prosperity, career advancement, good health, debt free living, great relationships, etc.).
Osteen does not understand faith in the way that the Bible puts forward. In his mind, faith is sort of like positive thinking. Believe that you don’t have cancer and suddenly the cancer will leave your body. (He literally says you should tell your cancer that it isn’t yours.) This is bizarre and nothing like the way the Bible discusses believe or faith. In the Bible, there is always an object of faith. People believe IN things or IN someone. They don’t believe in general ideas of goodness or well being. The Bible calls on all people to believe in a specific God who has revealed Himself in its pages. Osteen does not teach this, other than to believe that God is a cosmic genie who is obligated to make you happy.
And this leads to my final criticism, namely that there is nothing supernatural or eternal about what Osteen puts forward in this book. I may have missed something but it seemed that 100% of the blessing he believes God wants to give his readers are material things. Even when he gets close to the truth, where things fall apart is the expectation that everything in this life will go great. This is simply the exact opposite of the Bible story that tells us things were great (Gen 1-2), then sin entered the world and stained it (Gen 3), then God instituted His rescue mission, (Gen 3 – Rev 20), and one day all will be made new in eternity (Rev 21-22).
None of this gives me pleasure to write, and I know that but by God’s grace I would be worse than how I’ve portrayed Osteen in this review. I frequently pray that God would not let me be a Demas – a companion of Paul who was praised in the book of Colossians but had abandoned Paul (and Jesus) by the time Paul wrote 2 Timothy. May God have mercy on Joel and draw him to Himself in a real, soul-saving way.