Your Best Life

Those who know of Joel Osteen may be surprised to hear that I’m reading his #1 New York Times bestseller Your Best Life Now and trying to figure out what speaks to me and what doesn’t. For those unfamiliar with the famous smile pictured here, Osteen is the pastor of Lakewood Church, said to be the largest and fastest growing church in the US with a weekly attendance around 38,000. An additional 20 million people per month view his weekly sermon on television, which is what publishers call “a platform,” the kind that helped his first book sell over 4 million copies. So, when I saw Your Best Life Now available for a quarter at a used book sale, I was curious. 

In some ways, Osteen’s core message is not that different than mine: God is good, and life goes better when we trust that. Many of his stories of faith are inspiring examples of what Quakers call “way opening,” moments when we get aligned with our purpose, and God opens doors for us. Osteen encourages gratitude, trust, and optimism and says that holding onto resentment and fear can block blessings in our lives. On a very basic level, I agree with him.

My disagreement starts with his understanding of how blessings work. He uses the word “favor” a lot, arguing that God will give us “an edge,” presumably because God likes us (Osteen’s readers?) better than all the other people “He” created. Obviously there is a particularly narrow version of Christianity at work here, even though it is never articulated. It reminds me of Peterson Toscano’s recent Facebook wall post: “Jesus Loves You! But he seems to love you more if you are healthy, white, male, American or European, middle/upper class, in a monogamous heterosexual marriage and able to reproduce.”

The assumption that material prosperity is a sign of God’s favor is the second problem that I have with Osteen’s approach. Although he acknowledges that blessings can come in many forms, so many of his stories involve people getting rich that I started to wonder if he reads the same Gospel I do. While I don’t believe that money itself is evil (as some Quakers seem to), Osteen makes buying a mansion sound like a spiritual practice. I’m sure this is part of what is so appealing about his message, as well as books like The Secret, which says a lot of the same things without the Christian veneer.

My third objection is that the first two approaches can lead to a total lack of compassion for people who are poor or suffering. Taken to its logical conclusion, his philosophy seems to imply that if you are sick it’s because you didn’t have the faith to be healed; if you are poor, it’s because you were blocking God’s blessings or didn’t have God’s favor. I think of the many people who have been starving and dying of poverty related diseases in Zimbabwe, and I wonder if their problem is a lack of faith or a history of colonialism followed by dictatorship. Somehow I think Jesus would judge the people who got rich exploiting Zimbabwe’s wealth, not the people who are suffering because of it.

Despite my discomfort with so much of Osteen’s philosophy, I find myself wanting to finish the book. I feel like I am still recovering from the opposite religious message, that God wants us to suffer all the time, which can be equally harmful. There is something in Osteen’s message of hope that speaks to me, even though I have to constantly edit and translate it into my own spiritual language. In the end, I wonder if this book is spiritual junk food, something people crave, even though it is really bad for them, or if it’s more like fruit, sweet and good for us, but needing to be eaten in balance with other types of food. Either way, many people are clearly hungry for it.

2019-01-29T17:55:47+00:00June 3rd, 2010|Uncategorized|

4 Comments

  1. Sharon June 3, 2010 at 9:29 pm - Reply

    *Lovely* reflection on Joel’s book… I am grateful for it because I am unable to read these kinds of books… I cringe and shrink inside, yet I want to understand the spiritual "draw". Thanks for this share!

  2. Lone Star Ma June 16, 2010 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    You are way nicer than I am in your evaluation of Osteen. I find the whole "abundance" theology thing to be evil indeed. I like money pretty well but I think Osteen’s sort of rich can’t be achieved without the suffering of millions – heck: my kind of U.S. middle class struggling school teacher rich can’t be reached without the suffering of many people probably and I’m just trying to be able to support and care for my kids as a working person. If everyone was "Godly" enough to have his sort of "abundance", we’d just be stressing the planet out even faster. I am nowhere near reaching the standard of simplicity and compassion that Jesus taught, but I don’t pretend that my greed is Christian – even if I never meet it, Jesus’ standard was clear: if you have two coats and all of that.

  3. Eileen Flanagan June 18, 2010 at 11:12 am - Reply

    Lone Star Ma, you’re right that much wealth is gained through exploitation and that materialism is stressing the earth. Those are among the things that trouble me about Osteen’s message. I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to be "nice" to Osteen, but to understand what it is in his message that seems to speak to so many people. Is it the positive message about trusting God, or the selfish message that feels like greed? Since I can’t read the hearts of all the people who follow him, I’m trying to understand what speaks to me.

  4. Lone Star Ma June 21, 2010 at 2:36 am - Reply

    I don’t know. We cannot read hearts but we can read actions and I don’t like the actions i see in that movement.

Leave A Comment