Is Joel Osteen, Success Mag Cover Boy, Really “God’s Best”?

In the late 1990s while working at CNN Radio, I was moved to enter the seminary to train for a possible career change. Upon learning of my new endeavor, my boss shook his head and remarked, “From one low paying career to the next.”

His words were prophetic. Since leaving the media and entering the ministry, I have yet to again reach the pay level that I was receiving at CNN, despite actually working a second, secular, job to make ends meet. However, ministry is not a low paying career for some pastors. Some, like Rick Warren, Pat Robertson, and Joel Osteen are living fairly high on the hog for men of the cloth.

Osteen and his wife, in fact, recently appeared on the cover of Success Magazine—a glossy dedicated entirely to uplifting the world’s successful people. One gander at the magazine itself shows that the word success is decidedly defined as “people who have made a ton of money doing what they do.” The fact that they inspire folks like Osteen or Dr. Phil just makes the story that much more touchy-feely. They’re saying, “see, you can be a good person and be rich. Not all rich people are heartless bastards.”

Osteen’s Houston-based Lakewood (mega-)Church reaches about 40,000 people a week with Osteen’s folksy, feel-good, “God wants you to succeed, too” theology. Osteen took over the church from his father and more than quadrupled the 6,000 member church into what it is today.

Osteen told the magazine his success—multi-million dollar contracts for books, a nice home, national media attention—has taken him a bit by surprise:

“Ten years ago, I never dreamed that we’d be sitting here talking and we’d have the ‘success’ that we’ve had,” Osteen tells SUCCESS in an interview with his wife in the formal living room of their Houston home. “I believe every person has potential that is still waiting to be released, or you wouldn’t be alive. I tell people all the time, ‘If you woke up and God gave you breath to breathe, then you’ve got something else you need to do. Somebody needs what you have. You have an assignment. You have something to offer the world.’ ”

This quote is telling. Throughout the whole article, Osteen gushes his trademark gospel of positive thinking—a prosperity gospel of sorts that while it may leave people smiling at the end of the service, it has conveyed little to them about what God might define as true success. Even Barbara Ehrenreich in her new book Bright-Sided notes about Osteen’s message how, “God plays only a supporting role, and by no means an indispensible one, in the Osteen’s universe. Gone is the mystery and awe; he has been reduced to a kind of majordomo or personal assistant. He fixeth my parking tickets, he secureth me a good table in the restaurant, he leadeth me to book contracts. Even in these minor tasks, the invocation of God seems more of a courtesy than a necessity.”

Gone, too, from Osteen’s theology is any mention of topics that might intrude on happy thoughts:

Osteen avoids using current events in his messages so he doesn’t get sidetracked in controversy. Instead, he tells feel-good stories that help people relate to everyday trials. Some of the stories come from his life growing up, others from e-mail. He hears more stories after a worship service, where as many as 1,000 visitors are invited to meet him.

I apparently missed the seminary class that taught pastors not to get “sidetracked in controversy.” Instead, my classes taught me that it was theologian Karl Barth that counseled pastors to use both the Bible and the newspaper in their preaching, but Osteen will have none of that. Anything that might get in the way of a happy story, or a story about how God wants you to be happy and be the best “you” you can be, won’t make the cut in an Osteen sermon.

Outside of the walls of Lakewood, however, Osteen is not immune to controversy. Lately, he’s been asked about the issue of homosexuality. Surrounded on the couch by the women of “The View,” Osteen grinned nervously while Whoopi Goldberg asked him about homosexuality and whether or not he thought it was a choice. He squirmed at the question, but the dazzling smile never left his face as he proclaimed homosexuality to not be “God’s best” for people. Whoopi, sadly, let him off the hook, but it begs the question, “Does Osteen, the pastor of positive, even know what’ God’s best’ is?”

Jesus, the man Osteen claims to follow and preach about, was never one to avoid controversial topics. If Palestine had a daily paper in those days, you can see Jesus with it in his lap, preaching from the front page. It’s true that Jesus preached about God’s love and told his followers what God expected of them, but it had little to do with happy, feel-good stories, book contracts, and striving for worldly success. Instead, Jesus talked about selling possessions so the poor could eat, leaving behind family and worldly careers to dedicate one’s life to spreading the gospel, and giving up creature comforts like posh homes and brimming bank accounts. This is “God’s best”—giving sacrificially, loving God with all our heart, mind and soul, and our neighbor as ourselves. A life like this often results in worldly poverty—which is the definition of “failure” in the world’s eyes. Jesus would not recognize Osteen’s brand of preaching and most likely would denounce it as false—a whitewashed tomb.

Osteen, though, is no fool. He knows that preaching on controversial topics can get you into trouble. It cost Jesus his life, after all, and how can you enjoy all your wealth, formal living rooms, and book deals if you’re busy hanging on a cross? But, in his rush to assure folks of the “good news” that God wants you to be “God’s best,” Osteen misses a very important point.

Perhaps on his next long flight he can pull out his Bible and take a gander at Luke 16:19-31—the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Daily, the rich man ignored poor Lazarus, but when Lazarus died he was taken to “heaven” or a place of eternal comfort. The rich man’s fate in Hades was terrible, however, as he begged Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” Abraham reminds rich man of how he treated the poor in his lifetime: “you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” These are words that should make anyone living in comfort in this life tremble. Osteen has received, and is now enjoying, his good things. In his comfort, he encourages others to get theirs while they can, because he thinks this is “God’s best.” The rich man has a message for Osteen and other positive, prosperity, preachers, and their eager followers.

There’s a lot of talk these days about who’s going to hell and who will end up in heaven. Some are certain of who is going where. But, if we’re talking about what “God’s best” is really all about—I have a feeling that has little, if anything, to do with avoiding controversy, delivering folksy, God is my concierge, feel-good sermons, and getting rich off of a positive thinking message. If this were “God’s best,” I think Jesus would have modeled this in his own life.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Osteen, but I freely admit, I’m not living “God’s best” for my life, but it has nothing to do with being a lesbian. Instead, I’ve been selfish, slow to help the poor and needy around me, hesitant to give from my own abundance. If Joel Osteen is honest, he would see that while he is indeed living man’s best—and is a role model for worldly success—his ministry is woefully lacking when measured against “God’s best.”