As the offering is about to be taken at the Compaq center, Joel Osteen's wife and co-pastor Victoria urges generosity as a way of prompting God's favor. "He not only wants to enrich you but do things for you you know nothing about," she said. "Let him breathe the breath of life into your finances and he'll give it back to you bigger than you could ever give it to him," she said. To which the congregation, said, "Amen," and the buckets went around. This paraphrased excerpt is but a part of a new article in today's NY Times about the ministry and enormous success of Joel Osteen, and in particular his recent book 'Your Best Life Now'. The whole article is worth reading. Here is the link.----http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/30/books/30oste.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&th&emc=th
With 20,000 peeople regularly showing up at his church in the Compaq center in Houston and bringing in revenues of millions on his bestseller book, it is not a surprise that many will wonder and ask--- well what is wrong with a message that speaks about kindness, and generosity and success and prosperity? What could be wrong with this? What's wrong with a message that hardly ever mentions Jesus by name, or sin, or suffering, or self-sacrifice? Of course this message of prosperity is not new in America, nor new to American Churches.
There used to be a TV preacher from New York called Reverend Ike. One of his core messages was on the supposed Scriptural topic--- "The lack of money is the root of all evil". He kept saying things like, if you have trouble handling money, send it to me. Osteen is far more slick than this, and in fact far more accountable. His ministry maintains public records and provides financial reports, and in fact he has not taken a salary since his book went mega-platinum. He has also reportedly signed an enormous contract for his second book with Simon and Schuster. He is then not a shister or a crook it would appear. His example seemsfar more beguiling than the obvious huckster. Wherein lies the problem then?
The problem is several fold, and it involves a fundamental replacement of what the Bible actually has to say about wealth, with what our culture says about wealth and prosperity. And of course when you preach a message that is heard as saying "God wants you rich" or is heard as saying "if you give generously to God (i.e. our ministry) he will repay you many times over"), then of course the implication is that the Gospel message is really all about us, and ways to get God to fulfill not merely our needs and desires but even our conspicuously consumptive dreams. But is God really a nurturer of a vision of life that says its all about me and my material success?
How very different indeed this message is from John Wesley's Famous Sermon "On the Use of Money" in which he stresses that if you make all you can honestly and save all you can, but do not give all you can to relieve poverty, feed the hungry, make well the sick you may be a living person but you are a dead Christian. Wesley like the Bible warns of the enormous dangers of wealth, especially if it is used to provide one's self with an opulent lifestyle while others have nothing to survive on. As Wesley suggests my luxuries should always come after someone else's necessities, or I am living a selfish and self-centered life style. Wesley preached that Christians at the beginning of the industrial revolution should de-enculturate themselves, live simply, and have as their goal, giving so much to others during their lives that when they die they will have successfully given it all away. This sounds far less narcissitic and self-centered than the message of Osteen. And it comes from a different vision of God. God is not viewed as the grand sugar Daddy in the sky who exists to meet our every desire, and in particular our desire to live well, or even opulently. But forget the warnings of great church leaders of the past--- what does the Bible say about such things?
First of all, I would stress that there are more warning about wealth in the New Testament, than about any other ethical subject with the possible exception of sexual and relational issues. And right off the bat this ought to seem odd to us, since only a small percentage of first century Christians had any prospect of getting wealthy. Why such a stress on a message that is the polar opposite to Osteen's message in the NT when the audience was much poorer on the whole? It is a question worth asking. It has to do with fallen human nature and its desire to secure its own life on its own. But let's start with some texts we will not likely be hearing preached from Osteen's pulpit. Let's start with Jesus.
The Sermon on the Mount would be Jesus' version of "Your Best Life Now". In it he says "Do not store up for yourselvss trasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store 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 your heart will be also." Mt. 6. 19-20.
This saying of course comes before the "do not worry about what you will eat, drink, or wear, because God will provide" message in 6.25-33. This text warns strongly against the accumulation of wealth, and in particular having and keeping for yourself more than you need. Jesus' real concern is found at the end of vs. 21 in the saying about treasure. Human beings are acquistive by nature-- consider how many Americans are addicted to shopping. Consider how our culture encourages us to think luxuries and necessities to the point that we can't tell the difference between the two.
If you want to know where a person's heart really is--- follow the money. This could be said of all of us. And what happens to already self-centered acquistive persons when they are encouraged to be even more that way is that they commit idolatry. Their real center of existence is not God. They only relate to God for what they can get out of God. Their real center of existence is their own prosperity and life style--- "God bless my standard of living". we should have seen Osteen coming when the "Prayer of Jabez" became a run away best-seller and an excuse for continuing to think that God wants us all to be rich, even if it destroys our soul.
Notice as well that Jesus says quite clearly three things at the end of Mt. 6: 1) we should seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, and the necessities of life will be added to us. Jesus does not say anything about wealth will be added to us. He says the necessities will be taken care of if we are God-focused and seeking his righteousness, not our profit. And while we are at it it is well to remember that when Jesus says "ask anything in my name..." this means "ask anything that is in accord with my will, in accord with all my other teaching about the dangers of money and wealth, the sorts of things I would ask for". If you are praying prayers Jesus would not endorse, selfish and self-centered prayers, prayers about purely material success then you had best not sign Jesus' name to them, nor should you expect him to answer yes to them. 2) Jesus' teaching consistently tries to get us to focus on God and others, not our own desires or needs.
This is not in fact the character of Osteen's preaching unfortunately. He is doing his best to make us feel comfortable and happy if we are wealthy, and to simply see it as a blessing from God. But even if on occasion God does bless someone with abundant material resources, the next question should be stewardship. The next question should be how should I use these resources so that God is glorified and others are helped. It should not lead to a "God bless my standard of living" and we give ourselves permission to live high off the hog. There should always be the thught that God has blessed you to be an abundant blessing to others, and I don't just mean one's own family.
Mt. 6. 24--- "You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth." The issue is what is your object of ultimate concern? Where is your heart and treasure? When you take a human being who is acquisitive to begin with, and then take away all warnings about the dangers of wealth leading to idolatry, you are in trouble.
Someone should make a huge banner with this verse on it and hang it in front of the Compaq Center for all those entering to see. We could also hang up the Lukan beatitude "Blesssed are the poor" (Lk. 6.20). How about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16.19-31) which suggests that those who prosper in this life and do not help others will find the reverse is their condition in the life to come. So much for the slogan "he who dies with the most toys wins". We could also focus on Jesus' teaching about the fool who stockpiled his assests and of whom God required his life before he could get the full benefit from them. Have you notice that there is no theology of retirement, or pension accounts in the New Testament, no blessing of those who store things away just for themselves?
Jesus' brother James is equally insistent about the dangers of wealth. Read James 2.1-7 where we hear among other things "God chose the poor of the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom." He warns not to cozy up to the wealthy or give them preferential treatment not least because "Is it not the rich who oppress you?" You would have thought that after the Enron scandal the good Christian people of Houston would have become a little more wary of courting the rich and of lusting after the lifestyles of the rich.
Listen to what else James says "You covet something and cannot obtain it: so you engage in disputes and conflicts...You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God." (James 4.2-6).
Paul in 1 Tim. 6.6-10 puts it this way "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into this world, and we shall take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a rot of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains." There could hardly be a much sterner warning against believing in the health and wealth Gospel than this one.
We need to stop listening to the siren song of our culture about the goodness of personal wealth and material prosperity. We need to advocate a theology of stewardship which puts other people's necessities before our luxuries. We need to simplify our lifestyles and get a clear grasp on God's prioirties including God's especial concern for the poor and destitute of the world. We need to realize that what Jesus promised us if we seek the kingdom is not prosperity,but rather 'just enough' to take care of our basic needs. We need to remember that the Lord's prayer teaches us to pray for daily bread, not for resources today that I could not possibly use in 10,000 lifetimes. We need to heed all the warnings about how wealth can destroy the soul of an inherently self centered and acquistive creature-- namely any human being. We need to renounce the false gospel of wealth and health--- it is a disease of our American culture, it is not a solution or answer to life's problems.
Sometime ago when Donald Trump was riding high, he was interviewed on the subject of "how much is enough?" This was after he had assets totaling in the millions. His answer was very revealing--- "a little bit more." This is the truth about human nature, and what Paul says about that nature is that it needs to be crucified, not indulged, it needs to die not be pampered. The goal is this "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I wholive, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved mne and gave himsellf for me." (Gal. 2.19-20). The model for the Christian life is not Donald Trump, it is that man who made the ultimate self-sacrifice, the man who lived simply, fed the hungry, hung out with the poor, and renounced conspicuous consumption--- Jesus himself.