Your Best Life Now: a review of Joel Osteen's best-seller
In my Sunday School class, we finished Exodus last week. Between books, I often do miscellaneous lessons or a topical study. So, before we start Numbers next week, I did the only thing on my miscellaneous docket: a book review of Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now.
Now, why would I bother to read Osteen's book (I already have, more or less, my best life now!)—and why would I devote the time to talk about it in my class? First, a dear friend of mine gave it to me and my wife for Christmas. That's probably not an uncommon gift to receive, but it is noteworthy because he's a Southern Baptist minister (not exactly Joel's usual audience). Moreover, he credits Osteen's ministry with important changes in his own preaching—in terms of both style and substance.
Second, Hank Hanegraaff is not a big fan of Joel's, strongly critiquing him on the handful of occasions when I've heard him speak on the topic. In particular, he's labeled him as a "Word of Faith" (WoF) minister who preaches a "prosperity (health & wealth) gospel". I have tremendous respect for Hank's ministry through the Christian Research Institute. (CRI’s review of Osteen’s book is not a hatchet job by any means, but I disagree with some of the conclusions.)
So, how do I resolve the views of these two men? Well, for starters, I decided to read Osteen for myself!
My general/overview thoughts (Keep in mind that I have never seen/heard Joel in action. For better and for worse, this is only a book report!)
-The book is an easy read. It is quite redundant, but perhaps this is necessary given the themes. If one is having trouble in the areas that Osteen addresses, "saying it once" is unlikely to be sufficient.
-The book is Proverbs-like in that he is largely communicating principles, not laws of nature or of human behavior. If one wants to consider them rules, then there are clearly exceptions. In any case, the context of his remarks is relevant—and implied as one goes along. For example, he uses one example where a lady should remain in her job instead of taking an undesirable promotion (p. 96). But at other times, he encourages people to avidly pursue job promotions—if their reluctance has been a function of a negative attitude like fear or self-loathing.
-Likewise, in a sense, the book is sloppy—if one wants to read it closely/narrowly. This is not an academic work; he's speaking/appealing to a popular audience. And he’s depending on the audience to understand the context of his remarks. (Ironically, those who are more academic may be least able to read the book in this manner!)
In terms of my conclusions about the book:
-Most of the book is fine—if combined with already solid theology and practice. Even if one doesn't have a solid background, the book could still be helpful if one is recovering from some forms of bad theology.
-Likewise, how one reads/sees this will depend on their religious background and personal circumstances/background—whether Charismatic or Reformed, whether successful and confident or struggling and fearful.
-At least in terms of the book, Hanegraaff/CRI's critique misses the mark. Other critiques are (quite) valid, but Osteen (at least here) is at most a first cousin to WoF .
-Osteen points to (and pounds) the importance of hope, vision, and faith. As such, his (best) audience seems to be broken people and broken communities—whom Jesus describes in Mt 5:3 as "the poor in Spirit".
-The title of the book is descriptive. “Your best” implies the context-specific nature of what "best" means to each individual (vs. the usual WoF message of general health and wealth for the faithful). “Life now” speaks to the fact that the Gospel is meant to have a tremendous impact on our life on earth (not just fire insurance to get to Heaven)—and the need to take steps now, rather than procrastinating. These are themes developed by writers for whom I have tremendous respect: In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard talks about a “gospel for living not just dying” (as is often the case in Evangelical circles). And in The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis talks about the need to focus on the present and eternity and not so much on the past and future.
-The biggie: the need to transform one’s mind and attitude (Rom 12:2). There is a considerable "focus on self" here. But the changes are accomplished with God’s help and ultimately directed for greater/godly ends. In addition, Osteen may have in mind a corrective to the standard Charismatic emphasis on the devil’s power. If so, Osteen is urging his audience to avoid blaming external factors and deal with internal aspects of the sin nature.
-Related to that: we need to believe in a big, involved, benevolent God (Jer 29:11, Heb 11:6)—and we need to go to Him with big dreams/goals (Eph ; Mt 7:7-11).
-There is some emphasis on material prosperity, but it is reasonable/balanced. All things equal, “God takes pleasure in prospering His children” (p. 87a)—although, often, not all other things are equal! But Osteen has much more on spiritual prosperity and abundant life properly defined. (For example, later on p. 87, he identifies “a poverty mentality [that]…is not glorifying to God”.)
-Even within his discussions of material prosperity, all of Part 6 (50 pages) is devoted to giving and serving of all sorts. “We should concentrate more on being a blessing than trying to be blessed.” (p. 226) “Somebody needs what you have to give.” (p. 230) He challenges people to start sowing and planting—rather than waiting until things get better. And there is only one reference to church giving (encouraging people to stretch from 10-11%). Finally, it is evident that it is more important to Osteen that his audience would live a life of integrity and excellence vs. mediocrity—than a concern about material prosperity (ch. 31).
-Osteen repeatedly talks about adversity coming to us—and the importance of our response to it. In fact, all of part 5 (50 pages) is devoted to this topic, including chapters on “standing up on the inside”, trust God’s timing, and the purpose of trials (p. 206’s “God is more interested in changing me than my circumstances”). My favorite point here was his distinction between a “delivering faith” (where one has faith and God delivers you quickly from a trial) and a much more laudable “sustaining faith” (where one’s faith sustains you through a trial). This is good stuff in any case—but especially in contrast the WoF teachers to whom he is being compared!
-Likewise, Osteen talks (pointedly and at length) about taking ownership and action vs. blaming circumstance and others. “Quit complaining and start rejoicing” (p. 278). Chapter themes? Move on with life vs. getting stuck in paralysis (Jn 5:6’s “do you want to get well?”; II Sam 12:13-23). Be quick to forgive; don’t let bitterness take root. Let God take care of justice (David with Saul). Osteen also points to the need to overcome the crippling power of guilt and self-condemnation. In a word, choose life and blessing today (part 7); live with enthusiasm and passion; and “bloom where you are planted” (p. 273).
-Osteen devotes part 3 to the power of our thoughts and words. This is as close as he comes to standard WoF teaching. He might be a little hyperbolic or overstated at times, but the points are still legitimate. Our words and thoughts matter—a lot! In particular, he recommends searching the Scriptures for relevant verses and saying them out loud—for ourselves and for others. At times, he leaves the reader with the impression that words alone will get the job done (p. 140). But elsewhere (and often), he talks about the importance of habits, disciplines, and choices. I especially enjoyed his “remote control” analogy (p. 144-145)—where we make conscious decisions to change from a bad [mental/spiritual] channel or to stay there and even pull up a chair and grab a bag of popcorn to enjoy the “show”! This is similar to John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” who talks about the need to have a “diet of the mind” to avoid a mental spiral into the depths of his schizophrenia.
-His misunderstanding and misapplication of Abraham/Sarah’s (lack of) faith is brutal (p. 79-80, 82-83).
-He is not clear enough in identifying his audience. It seems like he’s addressing Christians mostly (but that’s a problem given some of the critiques to follow). In any case, it would have been helpful/clearer to make this explicit.
-At times, he has too much emphasis on pop psychology—or at least, its lingo (e.g., p. 61’s self-esteem, p. 62’s self-image, 72’s negative attitude). At the least, it’s an unnecessary stumbling block for some in his audience. At worst, it is a stumbling block! As such, I could easily imagine a critique for Osteen being too much like Robert Schuller, Zig Ziglar, and Norman Vincent Peale. (That said, I don’t know enough about any of these four to say for sure.)
-Oddly, there is little reference to Jesus and nothing on the Spirit explicitly. It’s all about God. He does use references to the teachings of Jesus to help him illustrate his points. And he does have the equivalent of the sinner’s prayer—with Jesus as Lord and Savior—at the very end. He has an appropriate emphasis on “God’s provision and our participation”. And he talks about the related concepts quite often: “depending on God”, “empowerment by God”, etc.—but without any mention of the Spirit’s role in this. A few thoughts on this: First, it is certainly strange, given the usual WoF emphasis on being “Spirit-filled”. Again, this points to the fallacy in labeling him WoF. OK, so why does he do it? It could be a stunning lack of theology, but it’s difficult to imagine him being that deficient. More likely: he wants to avoid any connection (or wants to extend a corrective) to standard WoF excesses. Or most likely, I think: for better and for worse, a “seeker-sensitive” concern for his primary audience, wanting to avoid spiritual jargon.
Wrap-up: At the end of the day: I can’t speak for Osteen’s ministry. But his book (as a stand-alone) has some value, especially for those who struggle with the (wrong-headed) mindsets he critiques.