Years ago I was confronted with the prevalence of “health and wealth” teaching in Eastern Europe. It poured in with the many teachings, both good and bad, following the collapse of communism. When ideas could be freely sought, hearts and minds opened. Mix this with a desire to have more after a long dark era of neglect and lack, add a dash of Western media and – presto! Many embraced openness to what is referred to as health and wealth teaching. It came largely from America.
Positive thinking, a close cousin of “health and wealth” seems to have merged with “health and wealth” into some very popular teaching in the US and now, it seems, in Eastern Europe as well. A colleague of mine has discovered that this (very popular in the US) teaching has made its way into local churches. I’m grateful that this work of reading, thinking and analyzing from a position of Biblical scholarship has been made available to us. Here is…
A Review of
Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential By: Joel Osteen
Osteen observes that although most people at some point have a hope of a great future, few actually realize it. Most end up living ordinary or average lives. Your Best Life Now offers seven steps to improve your life. The seven steps focus on having a positive state of mind regarding yourself and your future. The goal of these steps is that you will be happier now and for the rest of your life. In particular he emphasizes throughout his book the positive effects that it will have on your: financial status (raises and promotions), family life (especially a better marriage), and physical health. This is his understanding of what it means to start living at your full potential.
The seven principles focus primarily on thinking and speaking positively about one’s self and one’s future in order that God would bring these positive hopes into reality. God desires to give to people abundance, that is, “God’s best.” Speaking and believing that God will do these things is the way to get God to make them happen. He defines “God’s best” as things like a nicer house, a promotion, a better marriage, and physical healing. However, having a negative attitude or speaking negative words will prevent God from giving you this abundance. He emphasizes the things we must think, feel and do in order to receive God’s favor. Two examples illustrate this: “Understand this: God will help you, but you cast the deciding vote;” and, “God has already done everything He’s going to do. The ball is now in your court.” Osteen declares that God’s abundant blessings are only available to us if we follow his seven steps. His evidence consists of personal stories, anecdotes and examples of people in the Bible. Osteen does briefly mention that following these steps does not always bring about positive results. Everyone will face trials. During this time one needs to rely on sustaining faith, which is trusting God when things don’t make sense. However, we are to stay positive and God will bring us more abundance than before. In the final section, “Live to Give,” he states that this abundance is received, sustained and increased through our generosity to others.
Osteen has a way of fostering a positive mind-set in his readers. His upbeat tone, confident declarations, enticing promises, and engaging stories are enjoyable. It is easy to see why his writing is so popular. Who wouldn’t want more money, better health and a stronger marriage? He offers hope to people. He also give some attention to helping others by being generous with our time and money.
However, despite these positive contributions Osteen’s book is ironically discouraging, and quite dangerous for Christians. While Osteen is often viewed as being encouraging, in reality he is devastatingly discouraging for Christians. This is because of his neglect and distortion of God’s grace. His repeated commands throughout the book: “keep a positive attitude,” “don’t give up,” “keep doing the right thing,” “put the past behind you,” “keep getting up in your heart,” “have a good attitude,” and many others are rapid fire commands without offering any strength to do so. You simply must have the self-strength to do it. But what of people who consistently fail at these commands? It becomes even a greater discouragement. In the Bible God is always seen to give grace and strength in order to fulfill commands – not so in this book.
Furthermore, he says that in order to get the favor (i.e. grace) of God we must do certain things. So, if someone cannot obey Osteen’s commands, they are doomed to a life without the favor of God. This is the exact opposite of what grace means. Grace is when God gives his favor to those who have not done anything to deserve it. Jesus died for sinners who were helpless, not those who did something in order to deserve it. Therefore, his teaching is the essence of legalism. He teaches people to obey his principles in order for God to give them His favor. It is not the Christian gospel of grace, and is thus discouraging and dangerous.
It is dangerous in other ways as well. Aside from his legalistic teaching, Osteen promotes desires that are not appropriate for Christians. He repeatedly tells people to seek abundance from God financially. A number of personal stories of financial blessing illustrate his call. He adamantly says that this is something we should set our thoughts on, pray for, hope for, and speak positively about. This emphasis on hoping for financial prosperity stands in stark contrast to biblical teaching. In 1 Tim 6:8 Paul says we will be content with food and clothing, but Osteen tells people to long for promotions, bigger houses, better cars, and raises. 1 Timothy 6:9, warns against desiring to be rich, but Osteen encourages the desire to be rich. In his teaching Osteen turns God into the means for attaining health and wealth.
These errors are explained by his poor understanding and use of the Bible. Throughout his book there are numerous citations of Scripture. However, the majority of them are flagrantly removed from their context and grossly misinterpreted. One example is Jesus’ parable about the wineskins (Mk 2:21-22). In context, Jesus is explaining the change in history that happened because he came. Osteen, however, interprets it saying, “Jesus was saying that you cannot have a larger life with restricted attitudes.” He merely uses this passage to support his idea that we need to have a better attitude in order to get God’s best. This kind of distortion of the biblical message is rampant throughout. He admits that the Bible is not source of authority in his principles, but rather the experience of him and his family. So, he largely misinterprets and includes the pieces of the Bible to say what he wants to say.
In summary, while Joel Osteen may be a Christian, his book ought not to be considered Christian literature. The book is better categorized as motivational or inspirational, but certainly not Christian. It perverts the Bible’s message of grace. The biblical Gospel is that God helps the weak, sinful and discouraged, before they do anything to earn it. He does not help them by giving them money or wealth, but by giving them His own presence through the forgiveness of sin. A Christian heart is one that longs for God above all, despite our financial or physical health, or lack thereof. Our best life is not now, but will be when God completes His work of redeeming undeserving sinners and renews the world.
— Kevin Walker