(Joel and Victoria Osteen’s megachurch)
The recent controversy over Joel and Victoria Osteen has put these megachurch preachers back in the spotlight. This time, it was because Victoria said:
I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy. So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?
This wasn’t spoken by someone on the fringes of Evangelicalism. The Osteens run the largest megachurch in the United States, with over 40,000 weekly members (and millions more tuning in), bringing in an estimated $75,000,000 a year. That’s in addition to the tens of millions that Joel has made selling books: his Your Best Life Now sold some seven million copies.
And why are millions of people clamoring to follow the Osteens? Because these two are the most successful peddlers of what’s known as the “Prosperity Gospel.” Here’s how they describe the “Prosperity Gospel” on their website:
So many people are confused about what the Bible means by prosperity. Prosperity isn’t just about money. It’s about having health and peace in your mind. It’s being able to sleep at night and having good relationships. There are many things that money cannot buy that represent prosperity, but having monetary provision is also a part of prosperity. You’ll never find one place in the Scripture where we are supposed to drag around not having enough, not able to afford what we want, and living off the leftovers of others. No, we were created to be the head and not the tail! Jesus came that we might live an abundant life!
It turns out, when you replace this:
All of this success has come at a price: to achieve it, they have had to pervert and sell out the Gospel. My original idea was to analyze the Prosperity Gospel point-by-point, to show how it puts us, rather than God, at the center of Christianity; how it prostitutes the Gospel in service of Mammon; and how it misrepresents the very Scriptures that it cites as support.
All of this seemed too small, though. If you’ve ever actually read the Bible, or even if you simply know the basics of the history of the Jews, of Jesus Christ, and of the Christians, then you should be able to see that the Prosperity Gospel is very nearly the antithesis of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Consider.
|Nicholas Poussin, Gideon’s Battle Against the Midianites (1626)|
God chose Israel precisely because it was so small and weak. The survival of the Jewish people is literally a miracle, given that so much of their history has been spent surrounded by people who wanted to kill them. But the constant temptation for Israel was to rely on their own strength, or on powerful political alliances, rather than trusting in God. In response to this, God would sometimes force Israel to be weak, just so that they could see that it is He, and not they, who are responsible for their survival. My favorite example of this is from Judges 7:2-7, before Gideon leads the Israelites into battle against the Midianite army:
The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Mid′ianites into their hand, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.’” And Gideon tested them; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained.
And the Lord said to Gideon, “The people are still too many; take them down to the water and I will test them for you there; and he of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall go with you,’ shall go with you; and any of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall not go with you,’ shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water; and the Lord said to Gideon, “Every one that laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself; likewise every one that kneels down to drink.” And the number of those that lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was three hundred men; but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water.
And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Mid′ianites into your hand; and let all the others go every man to his home.”
|Jacob Matham, Avarice (1587)|
The Psalms in particular are full of the Jews’ grappling with this problem of prosperity. For example, in Psalm 73:3-7, Asaph admits:
For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as other men are; they are not stricken like other men. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies.
In other words, the threefold prosperity that the Osteens describe — wealth, health, and freedom from trouble — is a great description of the wicked and arrogant. The Psalmist comes to recognize that all of this prosperity is fleeting and pointless, and that the wicked enjoy it only briefly on their way to destruction (Psalm 73:16-19).
By the light of the Holy Spirit, the Jews came to see that the prosperity that they envied wasn’t actually a blessing, but a curse. Even saintly men like Abraham and Lot had to part company, “for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together” (Genesis 13:6). Such prosperity also provokes jealousy and greed, and most disturbingly, causes the greedy to hunger for money and worldly security, rather than hungering after God and eternal salvation.
Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
Arise, O Lord! confront them, overthrow them! Deliver my life from the wicked by thy sword, from men by thy hand, O Lord, from men whose portion in life is of the world. May their belly be filled with what thou hast stored up for them; may their children have more than enough; may they leave something over to their babes. As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form.
So that’s the Old Testament, in a nutshell: a long history of God’s chosen people being kicked around by the prosperous and powerful, while the Israelites’ very lack of prosperity leads them into greater faith and to salvation.
|Michael Rieser, The Night Before the Birth of Christ (1869)|
Jesus is born to a working-class couple. His first crib is a food trough used by animals, “because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7). His Mother sang of the glory of God (Luke 1:51-52), and how “he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” After spending His infancy as a refugee in Egypt, the Holy Family returns to Israel (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23), to a town sown lowly that one of the Apostles would later ask, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
The teachings of Christ reflect the poverty that He freely chose from all eternity. When John the Baptist sent his followers to see that Jesus was the Christ, He confirmed it for them by showing that “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). Part of this Good News is of the blessedness of the poor in spirit, those who have come to rely upon God (Matthew 5:3).
Meanwhile, He warns the rich: “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:23-24). He calls them, like all of us, to love God and hate wealth. “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).
Christ praises a tax collector named Zacchaeus for giving away half of his possessions, and repaying fourfold all of the money he earned fraudulently (Luke 19:1-10). And when a pious young rich man asks Jesus how to be saved, He says (Matthew 19:21), “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Nor was it just what He said. Just as the Osteens practice what they preach, so too does Christ. The Osteens preach that we are to be wealthy here below, so they live in a mansion worth over $10 million, while keeping another $3 million mansion just to show what they think of Luke 3:11. Christ preaches the opposite, so He could boast of no such mansions: “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Instead, His mansions, and the ones prepared for His followers, are in Heaven (John 14:2).
Of course, Christ warns us not to follow the Osteens short-term investment strategy (Matthew 6:19-21):
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
And again, in Luke 12:33: “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” Does any of this sound like the God that Osteen believes in, who wants you to get rich, and to enjoy your mansions and the good life now, and here below?
|Carlo Crivelli, Saint Sebastian (1491)|
All of this is not to say Christ was never extravagant. He was, in suffering. Despite being sinless, He suffers numerous untold indignities: being spat upon, beaten, tortured, and eventually executed on the Cross. This was the Chalice of His Passion (Matthew 26:39), and it’s this Chalice from which He offers us a drink (Matthew 20:23), and it’s this Cross that He invites us to pick up and carry as part of our life of self-denial (Matthew 16:24).
Christ sends the Twelve with these instructions (Matthew 10:8-10):
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without pay, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food.
The Apostles take these words to heart, not holding on to any material possession that might obstruct them from a full devotion to the Gospel (Acts 2:45). So radical was their devotion to Apostolic poverty that when a crippled man begs at the feet of Peter, the Apostle can respond honestly, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6).
Nor was it simply poverty that the Apostles eagerly embraced: they also embraced persecution, just as their Master had promised at the Last Supper (John 15:18-20):
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.
Therefore, the earliest Christians “rejoice in our sufferings,” (Romans 5:3; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 4:13). Rather than calling him to enjoy the good life, St. Paul calls Timothy to “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), a message less likely to get on the New York Times bestseller list.
When St. Paul’s Apostolic authority is challenged, the credentials he cites to show his authenticity is that he has eschewed prosperity for the sake of suffering (2 Corinthians 11:24-30):
Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
By boasting in his weakness, Paul was both showing a deep understanding of the Old Testament message, as well as the New. Such a teaching can be neatly summarized in Our Lord’s words to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Such a witness is proclaimed in the lives of the martyrs, from St. Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) down to the present day. Christians happily give up everything and are poured out like libations (Philippians 2:17) out of love of the Gospel.
Such a paradox has long baffled the enemies of Christianity: if Christianity is true, why aren’t the Christians all healthy, rich, and powerful? When the Mongolian leader Kuyuk (or Güyük) Khan was continuing his grandfather Genghis’ domination of Christian lands, Pope Innocent IV wrote to him calling for peace and trying to convert him to Christianity. Kuyuk wrote back:
Furthermore, you have said it would be well for us to become Christians. You write to me in person about this matter, and have addressed to me a request. This, your request, we cannot understand. […] how do you know who is pleasing to God and to whom He allots His grace? How can you know it, that you speak such words? Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven?
In other words, Kuyuk assumed that since he was prosperous, he must enjoy the blessings of Heaven, and therefore, his religion must be the true one. Needless to say, his Prosperity Gospel was a false one, and the Mongolians were eventually crushed (though not before several prominent Mongol leaders converted to Christianity).
Hopefully, this suffices to show that the Gospel preached by the Osteens is a false and horrible bastardization of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is almost the perfect negative of the Gospel message. The Osteens, and those who preach and teach similar false Gospels, have pimped out the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a way to gain worldly wealth, rather than recognizing it for what it is: the self-revelation of Almighty God, and a sure path to eternal salvation. The French writer Léon Bloy described such rotten shepherds as worse than Judas, who at least returned the money:
The sum total of fifty worldly priests would not even amount to as much as one Judas, a Judas who returns the money and hangs himself from despair. Frankly, such priests are appalling. Through them it is that the rich are confirmed in their wealth, as ice is solidified by sulphuric acid.
Of course, I can’t say with any certainty that the Osteens are worse than Judas Iscariot, or even that he and his followers will surely rot in Hell. Only God can know that for sure.
What I can say with certainty, though, is that trading the Pearl of Great Price for a few tens of millions of dollars is a terrible rip-off. The Prosperity Gospel is no path for your best life, either for now or (most surely) for eternity.