Over the past few months two different friends, both of whom I respect dearly, both theologically informed, liberal-minded folks, suggested I read Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. Osteen is kind of our generation’s answer to Norman Vincent Peale, a wildly successful prosperity gospel preacher based in Texas. He’s the pastor of what I understand is America’s largest congregation, has his own TV show, etc. and this book has sold upwards of four million copies.
So I gave it a whirl. I will admit that I liked it better than I thought I would; Osteen has a sweet and engaging style and, as befits his theological niche, is relentlessly positive and encouraging. He does say some good things not only about positive thinking and remaining hopeful even when life appears to be going down the tubes, but he also has a clear sense that when we pray for (and receive) material blessings, the ultimate purpose is to give them away, to share them with others.
Still, it’s a troubling book, because of the subtle message that God’s purpose is to shower us with blessings, and that we are in charge of whether those blessings flow or not. Here it is in a nutshell: on page 269, Osteen says:
You might as well choose to be happy and enjoy your life! When you do that, not only will you feel better, but your faith will cause God to show up and work wonders in your life.
Friend, I don’t know about you, but the God I worship is a whole lot bigger than that. I believe that God will work wonders in our lives, but we don’t have to do anything to make God “show up.” God is already here. And if the wonders we are currently receiving don’t look like wonders — well, maybe it isn’t God who needs to change.
I’m all for prosperity thinking and believing in blessings. But there’s a way in which Osteen and his ilk can help us see why Augustine wasn’t entirely wrong when he attacked Pelagius.