There was a time earlier on in my Christian life where I was quite the zealous little theology cop. I would blast Joel Osteen and the likes of him with their biblically deficient statements about God on my blog, twitter, Facebook — any outlet I could find. I thought it was my job to stand firm and "defend God's truth," calling out every bit of erroneous teaching I came across. I'm not that person anymore.
Don't get me wrong, I definitely think that there is a place for exposing false teaching (and to be clear, I think that most of what I've heard of Joel Osteen's teaching is false). But I think it needs to be done out of a love for Christ and a desire for people to know Him in truth, not out of a egocentric desire to just be "right."
So, before I go into Victoria Osteen's comments, I want to say that my intention is not to put her on blast or to publicly declare her a blasphemous bimbo. There's enough of that on the Internet already. My intention is to discuss the cheap view of God that fuels the kind of comments she made in that video.
"I just want to encourage every one of us to realize that 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 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. 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?"
Here's the link to short video clip.
There is an element of truth to her statements about God desiring us to be happy and Him taking pleasure in our happiness. The Lord does not want His people be a mopey, despairing, steel-faced, jaw-clenched, stick-up-butt bunch of folks. Throughout the entirety of the Bible you see The Lord repeatedly commanding people to take delight in The Lord. David said that at the right hand of God are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11)! Jesus said that He came and spoke truth to us that His joy may be in us and that our joy may be made full (John 15:11). When Paul wrote letters to the early Church, he did so for their progress and joy in the faith (Philippians 1:25). The concept of joy and the command to pursue it plagues the bible. You can't read it without realizing that the one true God is a happy God that desires his people to be happy as well.
So it's true — overwhelmingly true — that God wants us to be happy. But, the problem is that people like Victoria take this truth and slant it, ever so subtly, away from the God-centered-happiness that the Bible prescribes and toward a me-centered-happiness that the Bible condemns. God's greatest pleasure is not in our happiness (although He does desire that), but in His own glory. He wants His glory to be the fuel that our joy-appetites feed on. He wants His presence to be the longing of our souls. God wants us to be happy in Him.
"As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?" – Pslam 42:1-2
We were designed to be joy hungry creatures that fervently feast upon the glory of God. We were intended to be people that draw fresh life, day after day, from all the ways that God graciously manifests Himself to us. We were created to be people that are full out, head over heels obsessed with God. We were to seek Him constantly, pray to Him without ceasing, meditate on Him endlessly and do everything we do to see and experience more of His glory. And we were to enjoy living our lives this way.
But let's all be honest with ourselves, we naturally hate the idea of living our lives this way. Because sin has deformed our hearts. Before the fall, man had a heart that was outwardly directed toward God, but when sin entered in, our hearts folded inwardly and gazed upon ourselves. From the moment Adam's teeth sunk into the fruit of self-autonomy, the heart of mankind has sought happiness in and through himself, other people and everything around him. Anywhere but in God.
And I'm not just talking about meth addicts or porn addicts or prostitutes or crooked businessmen. Lots of people seek happiness apart from God but throw His name all over it. Using God for His this-side-of-glory gifts (aka the American Dream) without any real love for Him or desire to know Him doesn't count as seeking happiness in God. He takes no pleasure in that. But this is what I fear is happening in an incredibly large number of American Churches. This is what I fear is happening in the Osteen Church, based on the many things I have heard both Joel and Victoria say over the years. I won't pronounce judgment on them before the time (1 Corinthians 4:5), but I will say with certainty that taking the immutable, unstoppable and infinitely holy God of the Bible and reducing Him down to a three-wish celestial butler who is only here to make us happy — without us really having to surrender to, worship, adore or enjoy Him — is absolute heresy. There is a massive difference between enjoying God for who He is and "enjoying God" for what temporary or material blessings He can give you.
But this heresy is the 'gospel' of today's western spirituality. We refuse to worship a God who is opposed in any way to how we wish to live our lives. "God" is just this generic divine being who is here to affirm and bless whatever we feel like He should. We get to decide what we feel like is right or worthy of our worship, and then we yank the Holy One down off His throne and demand Him to bow at our feet and bless us our god-forsaken pursuits of purpose and joy.
A great example of this is this emergence of the idea that someone can be a "gay Christian"; a person who claims to worship Jesus Christ but refuses to actually worship Him by surrendering all that they are — like their fallen sexual impulses — to His authority and Lordship. But this kind of mentality goes far and beyond the same-sex attracted population. You'll find it among the dishonest business owners hustling for financial success, the twenty-something guidos pining after that GTL life, the straight guys manipulating girl after girl while trying to build up their 'I got some of that' trophy case — you'll find all walks and kinds of people living for godless pursuits, but still want a lil-bit-a Jesus on Sundays.
The cheap 'gospel' of western spirituality says that the path to happiness is accepting and loving yourself as you are, and believing that God wants to affirm you in whatever way that you choose to live out your life. But the real truth, the biblical truth, is that true joy is found not in self-acceptance, but self-denial. Not the insane, pleasure less I'm-gonna-beat-myself-with-a-stick-every-time-I-have-a-bad-thought kind self-denial, but the denial of sinful, me-centered thrills and spills for the sake of experiencing a better, pure, God-centered joy.
The reality is that if we're seeking happiness outside of God Himself, we're short changing ourselves. We're being cheap happiness chasers — living our lives for fleeting, momentary pleasures that can't satisfy our God-given capacities for God-centered joy. The void in our souls where true, God-centered joy was made to dwell is far too deep and wide for anything or anyone in this world to fill it. We will never be satisfied living our lives for ourselves. You will not be able to find contentment. We will always thirst for more. We were made to live for so much more than ourselves.
The Bible points us to a life of obsession with the beauty and glory of God because it's only when we lose ourselves in Him that we will ever actually find ourselves and, in turn, grasp true joy. Coming to God through the reconciling work of Jesus and feasting, day after day, upon all that He is for us — that will satisfy our souls. That will quench our thirst.
The call of the true gospel is not to be all that we can be and throw a little Jesus on it — it's to be reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ and to enjoy Him forever! God is the most valuable being in the universe. He's not boring or stiff or tame. He's outrageously interesting and the greatness of all that He is can (and will) be chased after for eternity. The best that He can give us is Himself, and that's exactly what He does in the gospel. If we want true satisfaction and lasting joy, we will not find it in going to church to "worship God for us" or in "doing good for ourselves." We won't find it in deciding for ourselves who and what we are. We will only find it in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.
True joy is wrapped up in knowing and savoring the Person of God. It can be found nowhere else.
I don't write this as someone who's got it all figured out. I love Jesus and have tasted of His goodness, but I still struggle to go to Him when my soul is dry. I still tend to so easily bend toward seeking out comfort for my heart in the cheap pleasures and pursuits of the world. But my hope is that this incredibly patient and merciful Source of all true joy will keep breathing fresh waves of mercy over my heart, re-shaping and re-creating me to be increasingly inclined to find all that I need and desire in the greatness of who He is.