Joel Osteen: Become a Better You

Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day is the follow up book to, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, which has sold over 4 million copies.

Why Check Out Joel’s Writing?

Besides selling a ton of books, Joel’s decision not to shelter hurricane Harvey victims in Lakewood’s church brought national attention to the congregation in September of 2017.  This spotlight amplified the Osteen name, facing an onslaught of criticism for the decision.  I don’t want to dwell here, but I realized Joel Osteen might be the most recognizable Christian figure in the United States today.  This hunch was confirmed when I overheard two unchurched co-workers laughing at the memes circulating on the internet at the expense of Joel.  I wondered: What if someone decided to pick up one of Osteen’s books?  What would they find?  I’d never bothered to read him myself – the corny smile and power suits had driven him off my list.

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Recently Reverend Billy Graham passed and it added to my concern…Billy Graham is gone – is Joel Osteen now carrying the banner for the Christian church?  Some may shudder at the thought, but Joel Osteen may very well be the most well known pastor in the world today.  I should be aware of what he’s propagating around the globe.

Crunched for time I turned to an audio version of Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day.  For about two weeks Joel’s voice filled my car, it was like his luxury car was in the shop waiting for a rare part and I had to give him a lift everyday until the part arrived.  Joel talked and talked, rambled, repeated, digressed, diced and spliced Scripture into unrecognizable fragments and told me to ‘rise up’ multiple times.  A lot of the time I zoned out, wondering how much longer this rant was going to be.  His persistence would eventually bring me back in and I’d hear him mangle the meaning of Scripture or cram it into a teaching that was totally unrelated.  I’d wince, but wouldn’t be able to say anything before he was off on another anecdote.  I found myself increasingly perplexed by Joel’s message to me.  He’s a pastor right?  Why is Scripture after Scripture taken out of context?  I found myself impersonating Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Joel Doesn’t Understand the Adversary We Face

One of the more laughable moments is when Joel declares, “The devil wants you to live a mediocre life!”  This statement is deplorably off target.  The devil wants to “kill, steal, and destroy” and to teach that the devil is simply a speed bump on your path to a better you is reckless.  The devil is a foe we have no hope to defeat with sheer will power.  Joel never clearly advises us to assert the finished work of Christ crucified and risen, or justify this message by explaining the power of the Holy Spirit inside the believing Christian, we’re just supposed to ‘rise up’.

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  (ESV 1 Peter 5:8)

God Has a Plan Greater than Human Ambitions

Osteen recounts David’s delivery of food to his brothers on the battlefield (1 Samuel 17:17-18) and teaches that David made a decision to believe he was destined for greatness when his eldest brother accused David of coming to gawk at the battle (1 Samuel 17:28).  Instead, we know that God chose David prior to this moment when the prophet anointed David to be Israel’s next king.  It was God’s plan to promote David as the next king, not David’s ambition that propelled him forward.

12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.  Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”  13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.  (NIV 1 Samuel 16:12-13)

Positively Crazy Talk

Joel suggests escaping your negative environment because it is holding you back from a better you.  Get positive friends, change the negative soundtrack in your head to something positive, smile more, listen to uplifting music – do whatever it takes to think positive.  OK.  I guess you can teach on this – the Bible does warn against complaining and calls us to think about praise worthy things (Philippians 4:8) but our buddy abruptly leaps off the reservation.  Osteen claims Jesus left his hometown because he was held back by their negativity.  Right.  God incarnate was held back by his unfriendly neighborhood scoffers.  Here’s what the Bible says:

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him?  What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter?  Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.  Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.He was amazed at their lack of faith.  (NIV Mark 6:2-6)

The familiarity these hometown people had with Jesus hindered their faith in Christ’s identity as God.  They knew his parents, extended family, and watched Jesus grow up.  The circuit breakers in their minds were fried and couldn’t accept this extraordinary claim; even though Jesus healed the sick right in front of them, they still didn’t believe.  Jesus didn’t leave His hometown because He was being stifled by negative Nancy or Ned.  Jesus left because He was gathering other lost sheep.

Confession Leads to an Optimized You

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Joel advises his readers to confess their “faults” to a friend and pray.  Even in this recommendation, Osteen tap dances around sin, opting for “faults” or “failures” as his preferred verbiage.  Confession in Joel’s world is used to propel you towards a better you, the elusive promotion, or improved relationship that’s struggling.  Instead of confession that leads you out of the bondage of sin and death into eternal life, Joel’s followers escape a mediocre life on Earth.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.  (NIV 1 John 1:8-10)

Apostle Paul Worried About Bad Habits?

A fragment from 1 Cor 6:12, “I will not be mastered by anything,” is used by Osteen to speak about bad habits, such as tardiness and negative attitudes.  1 Corinthians 6:12-20 is about immorality.  Christians have freedom in Christ to live freely, but don’t have the right to do anything they please.  The Apostle Paul is not concerned with time management here, as Osteen has implied.  Joel avoids talk of sin like the plague and would rather teach about overcoming bad habits, bending scripture to meet his purposes.

Christian Karma Relationships

Google defines karma as:

the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.

A swell guy like Joel has lots of neat stories about being nice to people and having it circle back to bless him at just the right time, which he calls ‘sowing seeds’ (sounds like karma, right?):

  1. On a sweltering Houston day Joel saw his neighborhood garbage men toiling under the sun and brought water to them, thinking nothing of it.  Later, a day came when the Osteen family failed to get the garbage out for pick up on time, but don’t worry – the garbage men came back and picked the trash up.  Joel teaches that this happened because he ‘sowed a seed’ by faith and you should do the same so you can encounter similar blessings.
  2. Another testimony Joel shares is from his dining experience at his favorite restaurant.  Joel says he always asks the valet drivers how they are and thanks them for their work.  In return, the valets always seem to pull up his car first at the end of the night.  “It’s almost embarrassing!” a chagrined Joel exclaims.  This story IS embarrassing, because it has nothing to do with Christ.

Problem: None of this is leading to gospel proclaimed.  Never.  All this do good talk doesn’t even lead to Matt 5:14-16:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Rather, Osteen stands on another sliver of Biblical advice to “give encouragement” as mentioned in Romans 12:8.  This advice slides into a generic need to always be positive and helpful to others; to ‘sow a seed’ and wait for God to do something great in your life.  Our motive for living an exemplary life is not to be a light for Christ, but rather, to get future rewards from God.  ‘Christian’ Karma!

Mystery ‘Seed’ of Faith?

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Everyone reading Joel’s book has a ‘seed inside by faith’.  I don’t know what this means because Osteen NEVER defines what we have faith in!  Maybe we have this seed because we have the book?  The bad news…this ‘seed’ requires you to make good decisions.  That’s how Joel describes ‘working out your salvation with fear and trembling’.  Good seeds are inside us but we have to access them by faith and good works.  If you diligently do good works “God will make it up to you” declares Osteen.  Once again, ‘Christian’ karma rears it’s ugly head, marring the beautiful, unmerited salvation that comes from faith alone in the completed work of Christ .

Doing Your Best

As long as you’re doing your best and as long as you are keeping your heart pure before God, you are in the right place according to JoelIs that all?!  If you could keep your heart pure, that would make you Jesus – the spotless Lamb of God.  Osteen never communicates that Christ lived the perfect life, so the pressure is off mankind to live a perfect life.  Our hearts can be pure because of faith in Christ’s sacrifice, not our attempts at righteous living.

…we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 

(NIV Hebrews 10:19-22)

Trying your best is also the path to a clear conscience.  Living a clean life is the way to avoid that feeling of condemnation.  Sure, living a sin-free life would feel great, but this isn’t our cross to carry.  Let’s dismiss this nonsense too.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  (NIV Romans 8:1-4)

Mmmmmm, much better.  Christ did all the heavy lifting and fulfilled the law for us, which we were powerless to do.  In Christ, the Spirit gives life to believers.  A flawless life is an unattainable target used by the devil to condemn sinners.  You can see how troubling it is to have a ‘pastor’ such as Osteen running around advising people to try harder as the remedy to feeling condemnation, instead of turning to Christ for forgiveness.

It doesn’t end there, you must also do your best to remain at rest.  If you “get all upset, frustrated, bent out of shape,” Joel says that “God will back away and wait.”  Really?

What if some were unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar.  (NIV Romans 3:3-4)

God’s faithfulness is not dependent on our ability to remain at rest.  Praise God!  The Lord is good and when we fail to perform, God faithfully seeks us out.

Take a deep breath, I know all this works is stressing you out.  We’re almost done, but as you can see there are a ton of problems with the ‘theology’ Osteen lays out.

Self-Serving Worship

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Joel hasn’t done enough damage, it’s time to wreck worship.  Lakewood’s pastor advises worship because “singing fills us with the Spirit, it activates God’s power.”  Praise is offered because it replenishes us.  Is biblical worship praising God to get something?

If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours (NIV Luke 4:7)

Great!  We found a verse that supports this self serving worship, but wait…that’s the devil’s offer!  In context, Satan is offering Jesus all the world has to offer if Christ will bow down and worship him.

No, true worship is about recognizing God’s attributes and rightly lifting His name above every other name.

I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.  (NIV Psalm 7:17)

Altar Call?

Like any good evangelical preacher worth their salt, Osteen attempts an altar call.  Joel believes there is a “void” in every person that only a relationship with God can fill.  That sounds OK, but it doesn’t address the hopeless condition of sin.  Filthy sinners need to be washed clean by the blood of Jesus … but this isn’t offered.  A “void” implies that we simply lack something good, a better way to live.  This approach allows a person to say, “No, I’m good – I don’t mind the way things are.  It’s nice that God loves me, but I’m cool.”  By failing to define sin, the eternal consequences of sinning (hell), and not articulating salvation, it’s a meager call to live better.

He advises anyone still left reading to pray…

“Jesus, I believe you died for me and rose from the dead.  I want to live for you.  I’m turning away from my sins and putting my trust in you.”

In this prayer we don’t have a confession of sin or faith in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  A Christian could hear Joel’s call and impose meaning, but Osteen does not clearly teach either concept anywhere in this book.

Joel doesn’t want to get too preachy so he instantly follows up with some clarification saying ‘It’s not about finding religion.’  Immediately followed by a long laundry list of boxes to check:

  1. Read the Bible everyday.
  2. Talk to God in prayer.
  3. Get friends that lift you up, not drag you down.
  4. Keep God in 1st place.

What fantastic irony!  Instead of receiving the good news of Christ crucified for your sins and eternal life in God’s presence through faith, we get a long list of things to do.  Boo!  Hiss.

Recommendation

This IS NOT Christianity.  That’s a horrifying conclusion to draw when studying the material of America’s biggest church.  I would say you can use the book as a Bible study – look up every scripture Joel references, read it in full context, and then correct what Joel says.  That would teach you a lot, but I’ve already done that for you.  Simply reading it for encouragement – no way!  It’s one of the most depressing books you could ever read if you understand that getting  a long list of things to do better is not going to save you, but rather weigh you down.  You’ll be like Artax sinking in the Swamp of Sadness, with Joel trying to coax you out with sheer will power.

Instead of enjoying the forgiveness of sins, the love of God, and true peace, Osteen will have you slaving away to earn something that’s freely provided by Christ.

Skip it!