Part 5: Progressive Reflections on Traditional Christian Themes
Joel Osteen has been deemed by many as America's pastor. He is pastor of the largest church in America, and his books have sold in the millions.
I scanned Joel Osteen's book, Your Best Life Now, in search of any serious reflection or discussion on the life, teaching, and death of Jesus and his call to discipleship as presented in the Gospels. It's not there.
That's not to imply that Osteen doesn't have some good things to say. For example, he talks about developing a healthy self-image, cultivating a positive outlook, and claiming one's worth and value as a child of God-all very good things. But his emphasis on personal success seems to fly in the face of the gospel of Jesus.
"If you will keep the right attitude, God will take all your disappointments, broken dreams, the hurts and pains, and He'll add up all the trouble and sorrow that's been inflicted upon you, and He will pay you back with twice as much peace, joy, happiness, and success . . . If you just believe, if you'll put your trust and confidence in God, He will give you double for your trouble."
Really, brother Joel, double for my trouble? Is that what Jesus says?
Jesus turns the values of the world on their head when he says,
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:11).
He tells his disciples that because he was persecuted they can expect to be persecuted too, since the servant is not greater than the master (John 15:20). "But take courage," he admonishes, "I have conquered the world!" (John 16:33).
Jesus overcomes the world, not through worldly success, but through worldly defeat, through the suffering love endured on the cross, through bearing the hate and violence of the world without returning that hate and violence.
Jesus rebuked his disciples for desiring upward mobility and worldly versions of success,
"You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant . . . For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:42-44).
In Luke's Gospel, Jesus repeatedly warns about the dangers of wealth and even pronounces this woe,
"Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets" (6:24-26).
How do these words of woe on the wealthy and comfortable fit a gospel of success?
Please don't misunderstand me: I am not knocking anyone's desire to be successful in work, career, education, or any other endeavor. As far as I am concerned, the desire to be successful within the boundaries of an honest, humble, caring, compassionate, and generous life is a noble aspiration. But let's be clear: It is not the gospel of Jesus.
"Think big. Think increase. Think abundance. Think more than enough."
Osteen tells this story,
Years ago, a famous golfer was invited by the king of Saudi Arabia to play in a golf tournament. He accepted the invitation, and the king flew his private jet in to pick him up. After the event, as the golfer was getting on the plane to return to the United States, the king told him that he would like to give him a gift for making this time so special. The golfer told the king that a gift was not necessary, but the king insisted. So the golfer said, "Well, I collect golf clubs. Why don't you get me a golf club?"
On his flight back, the golfer wondered what sort of golf club the king might get him. A few weeks later a certified letter came in the mail from the king of Saudi Arabia. The golfer at first wondered what this had to do with a golf club. When he opened the envelope, to his great surprise, he discovered a deed to a five-hundred acre golf course in America.
"We serve the Most High God, and His dream for your life is so much bigger and better than you can even imagine. It's time to enlarge your vision!"
Certainly Jesus challenges us to enlarge our vision, but is that Jesus' vision? A five-hundred acre golf course? Personal success and fulfillment? Is that the greater story and larger vision Jesus intended through his proclamation of the "the kingdom of God"?
Jesus tells his disciples on three different occasions that he, the Son of Man, is going to be rejected, suffer many things, and be killed. On the first occasion when Jesus breaks the news, he then declares,
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:34-35).
This call to take up one's cross and lose one's life for Christ's sake sets the pattern for a life of discipleship to Jesus.
I'm not suggesting that God calls us to be poor. Perhaps some individuals and communities, like the Franciscans, are called to such a lifestyle. Generally speaking, though, I believe God wants all of God's children to have enough-not only to survive, but also to thrive-to live flourishing lives. I can't imagine how Osteen's emphasis on pursuing our personal best will do much of anything to remedy the injustices of the world and liberate the downtrodden from the oppressive forces that diminish life.
Jesus' call to discipleship is not about gain and glory, or personal success and self-fulfillment. It's about self-denial and taking up one's cross in order to follow Jesus in the way of self-giving love.
That doesn't mean there is no joy. There's plenty of joy, real joy, but not the kind of joy money and power can buy. Not the kind of joy that comes through being successful and happy by American standards.
Here is the paradox of the gospel: Deep inner joy is not dependent on personal success. Authentic spiritual well-being does not rely on good fortune. No matter how turbulent the circumstances on the surface of our lives, disciples of Jesus are sustained by a deeper peace and strength.
These gifts of inner joy, well-being, and peace are not acquired by pursuing them. They are the natural consequences of following Jesus in the way of the cross.
(The reflection above was adapted from chapter 5, "Walking the Talk (Discipleship)" of my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith.