Every once in a while somebody asks me about Joel Osteen. Osteen is the pastor of the largest of the megachurches, and the author of a runaway bestselling self-help book.
I’m not a student of Osteen. I haven’t read much of his book, nor have I seen him much on TV. I may have an incomplete view of what he teaches, but I have a problem with the things he does teach.The biggest problem is that Osteen teaches that if you’re a Christian, God rewards you materially. Even with the little things. Osteen says that it’s not just OK to want the best spot in a parking lot, or to be seated quickly at a busy restaurant, but to expect it.
Here’s the problem with that. What if somebody else genuinely needs that spot or that table more than I do? I don’t know what’s going on in everybody else’s day, but God does.
The Bible tells me to deny myself, pick up my cross and follow Jesus. It also tells me to love my neighbor as myself.
Sure, I’d like to have the best available parking spot. But if one of my coworkers has a blister on his foot or a sore knee and it hurts him to walk, and if God intervenes so that coworker arrives exactly 30 seconds before me and he gets the prime spot, I should be OK with that. Sometimes the next-closest spot really is half a mile away (the parking at my workplace is extremely messed up), but if me walking half a mile saves someone else some pain, I’m supposed to be OK with that.
And I’m not in a position to judge all of that. God is.
For that matter, maybe God making me walk that half mile and back is the bigger blessing. Maybe I need the exercise. God knows more about what I need than I do.
Sometimes we don’t recognize God’s blessing until much later, and Osteen’s teaching doesn’t leave a lot of room for that. I got married in 2005. It was a tough year. The marriage wasn’t the problem. The problem was that for the first time in my life, I couldn’t hold down a job. I worked for three different employers that year. (In my defense, I’m still working for that third employer.) I didn’t recognize it then, but that was a big blessing. The first job I lost that year was literally taking years off my life. The second job had much better pay and much better hours, but it was repetitive and boring. The third job never was my dream job by any stretch, but they pay me what the salary engines say I should make, and I’ve been able to solve some real problems and make myself and my coworkers more productive. We’ve had our differences in the past and we’ll have them again, but my boss is willing to tell the higher ups that it’s a better place for me being there.
But besides all that, I learned a lot in those weeks in between jobs, things that I will use for the rest of my life, and things that I probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Painful? Definitely. Blessing? Most definitely.
The danger is that if I’d been attending a church like Joel Osteen’s in 2005, it would have been very easy to come to the conclusion that God wasn’t blessing me, and something was wrong, even though I was doing all the things I was supposed to do. The danger there is walking away.
Indeed, it was when I was going through another one of life’s valleys, a little more than 10 years ago now, that I realized I needed to walk away from the church I was attending because they were saying a lot of these kinds of things. And there’s nothing wrong with that–but it’s really best that you go find someplace else that tells the truth. Otherwise there’s a great danger of walking away from God entirely.
There’s an acoustic duo called Lost and Found. They’ve been traveling the country for the last couple of decades, at least, singing mostly original Christian songs targeted at teenagers. There’s a lot to say for them, but the biggest compliment I can give them is that I’ve seen them reach people in ways nobody ever did before, and possibly nobody has done since.
In 1999, I went and saw them play at my old high school. I was one of the oldest people there but I didn’t care. About halfway through, they warned us that they were going to sing a couple of songs that were controversial. One was a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Used to Be,” complete with the line, “in a world where people gave a damn.” The other was a song one of them had written years earlier, after a breakup with a girlfriend.
After the concert, I talked to them about those two songs. They were used to that. But I thanked them for playing those songs, because they’re a reminder that being a Christian doesn’t mean everything’s going to go your way every time. That wasn’t the reaction they were used to getting–they were more used to saying what I said, not hearing someone else say it.
They stopped singing “Used to Be” soon afterward, because of the d-bomb. I wish they hadn’t. They could always sing “in a world where people gave a care” instead, and still get the point across. And if anything, the older that song gets, the more relevant it becomes.
The point that Lost and Found make, and that people like Joel Osteen would like to ignore, is that Christians can’t just have mountaintop experiences all the time. We spend time in the valleys too, because we’re flawed people living in a flawed world.
But God is great enough that He can turn even those times in the valley into blessings too, even though sometimes it takes us years to recognize it, and even then we may be reluctant to admit it (or maybe that’s just me). At best, ignoring it loses out on those blessings. At worst, it diminishes God and who He is. I don’t really want to do either of those two things.