Nothing stirs up fundamentalist hornets’ nests like the positive thinking ‘Christianity-lite’ of Joel and Victoria Osteen. This past week, she outdid herself with the video below, saying:
“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 are happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know…just do good for your own self. Do good ’cause 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. Let’s open our hearts to Him today.”
Now I must confess, there are times when I really like Joel’s preaching, even if, as many claim, it’s ‘devoid of the cross.’ But in this case, I think that Victoria has made one of the biggest mistakes a Bible teacher can make – that of ignoring one side of a paradoxical truth, and in so doing, creating a heresy. 1 2
As I mentioned in Orthodox Heresies – 7 false doctrines of the Church, this error is not only committed by liberal pastors, but by fundamentalists as well. Victoria Osteen’s proclamation and the fundamentalist/evangelical response to it shows the two sides of the balanced truth that both are trying to express, from the opposite sides of the paradox.
1. What Victoria is right about
When we worship, are we doing it only to please God, or to bring ourselves into the peace and joy of a right posture towards God? Well, both. Is that a ‘selfish’ motivation? Sort of, but it’s not a bad motivation at all.
In fact, our initial conversion is about being drawn to God by His goodness:
Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? ~ Romans 2:4 (NKJV)
Of course, conviction of sin and awareness of our need for God is part of the calculus, but even then, are we not repenting because it is good for us and we know it? If it were not so, then we would be actually under compulsion, which the scriptures reject:
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. ~ 2 Corinthians 9:7 (ESV)
So then both our own good and conviction of what is right before God are involved. And these are the two sides of the paradox of obedience.
The Role of Desire in the Christian Life
Does God want us to be motivated by our current desires, or are we to wait for entirely pure desires before we act?
I have argued 3 that God wants us to live from the heart from where we are AT, and that He is a fulfiller of desire.
As for our impure motives, he is purifying them as we navigate life, by resisting us as we move. God purifies our desires through difficulty and correction by the word and spirit, but he still works IN us to WILL and to DO (that is, to desire, choose from our wills, and then DO) for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
Does God want to give us the desires of our heart?
Yes, not just the desires he gives us in Christ, but the ones he gives us in creation – our interests, proclivities, and natural talents. And He burns out selfish motives as we go. (He also purifies our desires by making us wait, but we are still to ask, seek, and knock, not just wait for some mythical point of purity to make attempts 4).
Are happiness and desire ALL God uses to guide us? Does God just want us to follow what makes us happy, or what compassion and conviction tell us, even when those involve denying our flesh, ungodliness and worldliness?
2. What Fundamentalists are Wrong About
Since traditional fundamentalism typically denies all that comes from the created self as ‘selfish’ or ‘not in Christ,’ they miss the fact that God also leads through who He has created us to be, and that being led by desire and what makes us ‘happy’ is part of His guidance for us. 5 6
3. What Fundamentalists are Right About
Victoria Osteen’s teaching on God merely wanting us to be happy over reaches the precept of God working in us, transforming and meeting our desires, and leading us via the created self. Making this the primary, if not only motive and guide to God’s will ignores the struggle to reject worldliness and sin, following Christ in spreading the gospel with our person and resources rather than only doing good when it makes us happy.
Out of the context of devotion to God, and the limits to God’s affirmation of our desires can lead to an affirmation of our worldly and fleshly lusts. (cf. James 4:2-3)
The two principles we must keep in balance are
- God’s love for, restoration of, and use of the created self and our desires in guiding us
- God’s call to forsake selfishness and follow Him because He is God, not just because it is ‘good for us’
Certainly, Victoria is attempting to communicate the old adage:
Virtue is it’s own reward
But sometimes faith requires us to forego any immediate rewards out of love for God. Even if there were NO future reward, it would be right for us to obey God.
Thankfully, there is not only a heavenly reward for every good work done in faith and love, there is an inheritance which all of God’s children get, one that never fades and has NOTHING to do with our works. Reflect on these:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. ~ 1 Peter 1:3-5
[God] will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life. ~ Romans 2:6-7
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one of us may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” ~ 2 Corinthians 5:10