The wife of famed televangelist Joel Osteen said something stupid the other day — so stupid there's now a YouTube meme about it, featuring Bill Cosby saying, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life."
In the original clip, Victoria Osteen says, "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." Osteen continues, "So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. 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?"
For Christian believers, this borders on idolatry. The notion here is that we are putting ourselves — our happiness — at the center of everything, and creating a sort of self-help God to serve our needs. What could be more un-Christian than that?
But look, let's be honest — it's not just this one statement that has turned so many Christians against the Osteens. This is merely the latest excuse to attack their brand of theology, which is often derided as the "prosperity gospel," and which is seen by the Christian cognoscenti as garish, a racket, and/or outright blasphemous.
But it's more complicated than all that. It would be a mistake to say the gospel is solely about sacrifice and persecution — just as it would be be a mistake to say it's all about blessings and being shown favor. It's both.
The former reading of Scripture allows for a more pious position, while the latter tradition is mocked by the religious intelligentsia as a gospel of con artists and rubes — where America's consumerist culture and "get rich quick" mentality serve as a sad backdrop for those seeking to worship a 21st-century American savior with a dash of Oprah-style aspirationalism.
The case for Christian suffering, of course, is easy to make. For evidence, one need look no further than the book of Job or the cross or to the fact that Jesus' closest apostles died painful deaths as martyrs. Through that prism, you might think the prosperity gospel is absurd.
But what about God's intent that Adam and Eve have dominion over the Earth? Or the Abrahamic covenant in which God promises to make Abraham "the father of many nations," promising to "bless those that bless [him]" and curse those who curse him? Heck, the Bible says we should pay tithes "and see if [God] will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it."
Still dismissing the prosperity gospel? Then read Joshua 1:8, which, were it not found in the Bible, you might assume came from Dale Carnegie: "Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful."
Now, these verses might not convince you to follow the prosperity gospel. (Maybe you think they were taken out of context, or that they were specifically intended for Israel, and don't apply to us.) But they should cause critics to admit that there are other plausible alternatives to poverty theology.
And what is prosperity in the Christian sense? Much of it boils down to semantics. I heard one preacher put it this way: "Prosperity is having enough of God's provisions to complete his mission for your life." Assuming this is true, then it doesn't mean one necessarily needs a mansion or a fancy car. Having food, health, and a home is prosperity. Or prosperity could mean affluence in the 21st-century American sense of the word.
The other big question is one of motive. Do you believe that prosperity will be a natural byproduct of a deep abiding faith (based on the promises of the aforementioned Scripture) — or do you "worship" God just to get the stuff? The former is perfectly defensible, while the latter is a sin to be avoided.
It's not as if the people criticizing the Osteens are living a life of asceticism. Many probably live in nice houses and drive nice cars. And money is not the root of all evil. The operative word is "love" — as in the love of money is the root of all evil. So yeah, if you love God to get money, that's a real problem. But if you love God no matter what, but also believe that loving God might somehow naturally lead you to attain a more prosperous life — what's wrong with that?
So let's be a little more forgiving toward Victoria Osteen, and a little more open to the notion that perhaps mainstream theology isn't nearly as antithetical to the so-called prosperity gospel as you might suppose.
While blessings may follow obedience, our highest priority in obedience should be love for God.