In a video clip that has been making the rounds on social media, prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen’s wife Victoria goes on a rant about worship that has gotten many Christians up in arms. She said that worship is about making us happy more than it’s about pleasing God. While I would say what Victoria Osteen said differently, I absolutely affirm the basic insight that worshiping God is not supposed to be moralistic drudgery but actually a genuine source of deep joy.
Here’s the full text of what Victoria Osteen said in the controversial clip:
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,” she continued. “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?
Now I wouldn’t say what Victoria said exactly the way she said it, but there’s a very unhealthy attitude about worship in the middle-class American church that her rant pushes back against. Many middle-class American Christians think of worship as a moralistic duty. We worship God because it’s the right thing to do, just like paying your taxes on time, staying caught up on the dishes, keeping organized files of all your financial paperwork, and registering your son for the soccer team three months in advance instead of at the last minute.
The hamster wheel that drives middle-class existence is striving always to be right, always doing the right thing for the right reason. The only way we can feel secure that we’re doing something for the right reason is if we’re not doing it for our own benefit. It needs to be a sacrifice for the good of society or for our children or for God’s sake himself. If it makes us happy to worship God, that means that we’re probably not worshiping him in the “right way,” but doing it in the way that “feels good” to us instead. If we enjoy worshiping God, then we can no longer feel like we’re “paying our dues” by doing it.
The benefit that we gain from pretending that we don’t benefit is the sense of moral superiority to other people that we feel. People who don’t do the right thing like us (e.g. poor people) don’t deserve to have the comfortable existence that we have. Doing the right thing at all times is the key to a life of perpetual self-justification. Paradoxically, one of the ways that Christians self-justify is to say all the right things about God which includes talking about how we can’t earn our salvation by doing the right thing (though we apparently can earn it by always saying the right thing).
Now if it’s the case that worshiping God can actually make us happy, then we lose the hidden currency of self-righteousness we gain from the “sacrifice” of worshiping God. In Matthew 6, Jesus exhorts his audience not to do their acts of piety like alms-giving, fasting, or prayer flamboyantly to be seen by others because people who do that “have had their reward in full.” I would extend Jesus’ exhortation to those of us who always do the right thing and say all the right things about God in order to feel superior inside our own heads even if our self-righteousness is a secret between us and God.
Jesus says in Matthew 6 that God gives a “secret reward” to those who forget themselves in their good deeds. Now it’s only my speculation, but I think the “secret reward” Jesus is talking about is to share in God’s joy, which is greater than any trivial happiness we could ever have without it. Victoria Osteen is absolutely right if what she’s saying is that God doesn’t need us to worship him for himself, but he wants us to worship him for our sake. God doesn’t have such a fragile ego that he needs our worship; we need to worship him so that we won’t worship ourselves or other idols that make us ultimately unhappy.
I would revise Victoria Osteen’s words to point out that the way we gain true happiness is to forget ourselves because of our delight in God. It may be the case that when we worship, we’re honestly doing it “for ourselves,” but we’re also doing it in order to lose ourselves. People who worship as a moralistic duty are actually more focused on themselves in the self-justification they secretly covet than those who worship as a “selfish” act of hunger. So don’t be ashamed to admit that you’re pursuing your own happiness by worshiping God. Just understand that the best way to be happy is to forget yourself in God’s beauty.