Written by Gary Gilley
The New Age book and video by Rhonda Byrne, The Secret, which gained popularity recently due to Oprah Winfrey’s strong promotion, teaches that we can “create [our] own happiness through the law of attraction.” Whether it is cash, health, prosperity or happiness, all can be ours if we will just learn to use “the secret.” Byrne tells us, “Disease cannot live in a body that is in a healthy emotional state.” But be warned: “If you have a disease and you are focusing on it and talking to people about it, you are going to create more disease cells.”
Such rhetoric should sound familiar to anyone even faintly aware of the Word of Faith Movement, often termed “the prosperity gospel.” This group has been infiltrating evangelicalism for decades and is now the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the world. Some have estimated that up to 90 percent of those claiming to be Christians in Africa are of the prosperity gospel variety.
Well-known personalities within the movement include Kenneth Hagin (deceased), Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Paul Yonggi Cho, Benny Hinn, Marilyn Hickey, Frederick Price, John Avanzini, Charles Capps, Jerry Savelle, Morris Cerullo, Joyce Meyer and Paul and Jan Crouch.
As implied by the title “Word of Faith,” the supporters of this movement believe that faith works like a mighty power or force. Through faith we can obtain anything we want — health, wealth, success, or whatever we please. However, this force is released only through the spoken word. As we speak words of faith, power is discharged to accomplish our desires.
In Christianity in Crisis, Hank Hanegraaff summarizes the theology of Kenneth Hagin (considered by many to be the father of this movement) as found in his booklet How to Write Your Own Ticket with God:
In the opening chapter, titled “Jesus Appears to Me,” Hagin claims that while he was “in the Spirit,” Jesus told him to get a pencil and a piece of paper. He then instructed him to “write down: 1, 2, 3, 4.” Jesus then allegedly told Hagin that “if anybody, anywhere, will take these four steps or put these four principles into operation, he will always receive whatever he wants from Me or from God the Father.” That includes whatever you want financially. The formula is simply: “Say it, Do it, Receive it, and Tell it.”
- Step number one is “Say it.” “Positive or negative, it is up to the individual. According to what the individual says, that shall he receive.”
- Step number two is “Do it.” “Your action defeats you or puts you over. According to your action, you receive or you are kept from receiving.”
- Step number three is “Receive it.” We are to plug into the “powerhouse of heaven.” “Faith is the plug, praise God! Just plug in.”
- Step number four is, “Tell it so others may believe.” This final step might be considered the Faith movement’s outreach program.[
Kenneth Copeland states the faith formula this way: “All it takes is 1) seeing or visualizing whatever you need, whether physical or financial; 2) staking your claim on Scripture; and 3) speaking it into existence.”
Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church in South Korea , borrowing from the occult, has developed what he calls the “Law of Incubation.” Here is how it works: “First make a clear-cut goal, then draw a mental picture, vivid and graphic, to visualize success. Then incubate it into reality, and finally speak it into existence through the creative power of the spoken word.”
If a positive confession of faith releases good things, a negative confession can actually backfire. Capps says the tongue “can kill you, or it can release the life of God within you.” This is so because, “Faith is a seed . . . you plant it by speaking it.” There is power in “the evil fourth dimension” says Cho.
Hagin informs us that if you confess sickness you get sickness, if you confess health you get health; whatever you say you get. The spoken word releases power — power for good or power for evil is the commonly held view of the movement. It is easy to see why the title “positive confession” is often applied to this group.
As you might guess, the teachings of the “Word of Faith” movement are very attractive to some. If we can produce whatever our hearts desire by simply demanding what we want by faith, if we can manipulate the universe and perhaps even God, then we have our own personal genie just waiting to fulfill our wishes. The similarities between Word of Faith teachings and The Secret are unmistakable.
The New Look: Joel Osteen
Many Christians can discern the obvious error of New Age teachings behind The Secret and similar books such as Eckhart Tolle’s The New Earth (another Oprah favorite), as well as the over-the-top proclamations of many within the prosperity gospel movement. However when similar teachings are repackaged, reworded and presented in a winsome fashion, a larger number will fall prey. Enter Joel Osteen and his brand of the prosperity gospel-lite. As we will see, Osteen teaches essentially the same theology as his Word of Faith mentors, but he gives it an updated twist.
Joel Osteen has become a household name due to his incredible success. He “pastors” the largest church in America , Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which in 2008 boasted average weekend atten dance of 43,500, almost double that of its nearest competitor. Osteen took the helm of Lakewood Church in 1999 upon the death of his father, John. John Osteen was openly a prosperity gospel preacher who founded Lakewood in 1959 and had built it into a 6000 member church before his son replaced him. Joel, who until that point had given leadership to the television ministry of Lakewood and had preached only once before, was thrust into the pulpit and immediately the church began to explode. Today Lakewood services are broadcast in over 100 countries, Joel has written two multi-million seller books, and he, along with his wife, mother, and numerous musicians from Lakewood, travel throughout the world offering an event they call “A Night of Hope.” While most churches struggle to find and keep members, people are willing to purchase $15 tickets to attend “A Night of Hope” and the auditoriums are usually packed.
Osteen has no theological training and it is obvious from his books, sermons and interviews on television that he has little knowledge of the Scripture. Nevertheless, he has caught an unprecedented wave of popularity and could clearly claim the title as the most admired pastor in America . This popularity of course is due largely to his message. Eschewing anything controversial or negative (such as hell or judgment or even sin), Osteen proclaims a message of pure positivism. The title of his first book, Your Best Life Now, summarizes what Osteen has to offer his many audiences. If we will follow certain principles or steps (seven to be exact), so the storyline goes, our existence will be happy, healthy, and blessed with everything that would make this life wonderful. This is a message that appeals to the flesh of unbelievers and worldly- minded Christians and would account for the superstar status that Osteen now has. Of course this is a harsh accusation. I am charging Joel Osteen with being a false teacher: a man who has twisted the gospel to entice the fallen nature of people, who has turned God into a genie, and who has distorted Scripture to present a warm and fuzzy yet warped form of Christianity. In order to see if I am correct or just being mean-spirited, we need to turn to Osteen’s actual words as found in Your Best Life Now.
What the reader will find in this best selling book is a mixture of common sense, helpful practical advice, and a multitude of success stories interlaced with a heavy dose of deceitful teaching. Let’s begin with the gospel. It is not so much that Osteen presents a false gospel (which he seems to do in Your Best Life Now) but rather, no gospel at all. In a 300 page book which will be read by millions of unbelievers, the closest Osteen ever comes to the gospel is, “Work out your own salvation. Salvation is more than a onetime prayer. It is constantly working with God, dealing with the issues He brings up and keeping a good attitude, fighting through until you win the victory.” What Osteen believes concerning the gospel is uncertain, but what is undeniable is that the emphasis of his ministry is maintaining a positive outlook on life rather than a right relationship with God. Except for this one sentence, the entirety of the book is taken up with “seven steps to living at your full potential” as stated in the subtitle. This theme resonates with the thinking of those whose lives and minds are in conformity with this world system rather than being “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2).
It really should not surprise us that men like Osteen have caught the public’s eye since they are merely telling it what it wants to hear (2 Tim 4:3) which is: we need to make the best of this life, enjoy every minute we can, because this is the best it is ever going to be. This philosophy is the world’s, not God’s who consistently calls us to live for higher values than this world and self (1 John 2:15-17). As Paul wrote to the church at Colossae, “Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on the earth” ( Col 3:2). Paul did not mean by this, as conservative Christians are often accused, that we are to ignore life on this planet and go hide somewhere until the Lord returns. It means that we live for a higher purpose than personal pleasure and success “for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” ( Col 3:3). Osteen makes no attempt to draw his readers to this higher purpose, to a life lived for God. Instead God is to be manipulated for our own pleasure. I think Osteen would appreciate Eliphaz’s advice to Job (later condemned by God), “Yield now and be at peace with Him; thereby good will come to you” (Job 22:21).
Let’s take some looks at specifics:
Osteen’s attraction is found in what he is offering which is nothing less than a life of good health, abundance, wealth, prosperity and success, “If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you” (p. 5). Since these are the things most people treasure and, since Jesus informed us that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21), it is predictable that the seductive promise of a map leading to these treasures would find many adherents. And it certainly does. But what specifically is being offered?
If we follow the teachings of Osteen we can expect good health. His mother for example was diagnosed with terminal cancer twenty years ago, but because she confessed good health she is cancer free today (pp. 126-127). As a matter of fact, one of the highlights of the “A Night of Hope” events is the testimony by Osteen’s mother concerning her physical healing – implying of course, that those in the audience can also be healed if they will but do what Joel suggests.
Osteen, without qualification, declares that all of us are destined for greatness of every kind: “You were born to win; you were born for greatness, you were created to be a champion in life” (p. 35), and abundance, “He wants you to live in abundance. He wants to give you the desires of your heart…God is turning things around in your favor” (p. 78). As a matter of fact, apparently irrespective of our relationship with God, “Before we were ever formed, He programmed us to live abundant lives, to be happy, healthy, and whole. But when our thinking becomes contaminated it is no longer in line with God’s Word” (p. 114).
Two things should be noted at this juncture. First, the Scriptures teach no such thing. While eternal life with the Lord is the ultimate destiny of the redeemed, judgment and then the lake of fire is the ultimate destiny of the lost (2 Thess 1:9; Rev 20:14-15). In the meanwhile, in this life the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and Christians may suffer as many trials as unbelievers, perhaps more (Rom 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; 2 Cor 4:8-12, 11:23-29; Heb 11:35-40). It is true that Psalm 37:4 promises, “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart,” but upon a little reflection it will be seen that one who delights himself in the Lord desires God, not mere material blessings, good parking spots, success in business and a nice wardrobe. Osteen’s program trivializes the abundant life Jesus came to give His followers (John 10:10).
Secondly, when the prosperity teachers use the phrase “God’s Word,” the reader must carefully discern what is meant. Often, as in this case, “God’s Word” is not a reference to the Bible but to words spoken, supposedly by God, extrabiblically through the Word of Faith adherents. Osteen then is not accusing people of being out of step with the Scriptures, but being out of step with the teachings of men such as himself. This is nothing less than a claim that God has revealed His Word apart from Scripture and through prosperity leaders.
“God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas and creativity” (p. 5), or so Osteen promises. How does he know this since in biblical times promotions were not common practice, fresh ideas and creativity did not carry the value they do today and wealth was not necessarily seen as a sign of God’s pleasure? Someone might counter that David and Solomon were wealthy, but this was not the case for Jeremiah and Habakkuk, both godly men who lost everything. Job flourished for a time, lost it all, and then gained it back. Did one of Job’s “comforters” clue him in on prosperity philosophy? Was that the turning point? Hardly. It was when Job repented of his arrogance that God restored his former affluence, and God was under no obligation to do that. The scriptural principle is that the Lord is sovereignly at work in our lives. He can choose to bless us with riches, or He can choose to bless us by taking our riches away.
So where does Osteen come up with the idea that “God wants to increase us financially?” His basis is in his very limited and selective experience. He tells us, for example, that when his father was “willing to go beyond the barriers of the past [by applying the principles found in this book], he broke that curse of poverty in our family. Now, my siblings and I, and our children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, are all going to experience more of the goodness of God because of what one man did” (p. 25). Of course, millions of examples throughout the world and throughout history could be given of godly people living in poverty, and the children of the wealthy wasting their inheritance and privileges, but Osteen seems to conveniently ignore such examples. Instead he is convinced “God wants to give you your own house” (p. 35). The U.S. government and the banking system seemed to agree with Osteen until the recent economic crash. Now they’re taking away many of those houses. But this does not deter Osteen; he is persuaded that we will prosper.
Prosperity is more than health and wealth; it includes all the good things life can give. Apparently God is working extra hard to make life easy for us. Osteen promises, “It’s going to happen… Suddenly, your situation will change for the better…He will bring your dreams to pass” (pp. 196-198). Such statements leave no room for the cancer patient who does not get better, the factory worker who is laid off and never again finds a comparable job, the athlete who has a career-ending injury, or all those losers at the “American Idol” auditions (we can be thankful for this one at least). Such people would have reason to question Osteen’s pronouncement that, “God didn’t make you to be average. God created you to excel” (p. 82). Just two minutes of reflection would unveil the fallacy of this statement. By definition everyone cannot be above average – somebody has to be in the middle of the pack, and someone has to bring up the rear. This kind of idea sounds like the familiar grade inflation going on in many of our schools and universities today. If ninety percent of students all make an “A” average (which is not uncommon anymore) that does not mean that they are smarter than past students, it just means that the evaluation system has been changed so that more students (and potential employers) think they are successful. In addition, did not Paul tell us that of the ones God calls there are “not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise…” (1 Cor 1:27)? Our Lord seems to have standards and values that are out of alignment with Osteen’s.
Still Osteen insists, “You will often receive preferential treatment simply because your Father is the King of kings, and His glory and honor spill over onto you” (p. 40). Osteen prays, “Father, I thank you that I have Your favor” (p. 41). By God’s favor Osteen has in mind such earth shaking issues as finding the perfect parking spot in a crowded lot (pp. 41-42). Why a perfectly healthy middle-aged man would pray for the premier parking spot, knowing of course that someone with greater physical needs will be denied such a spot, is never explained. Osteen admits God sometimes refuses to answer his parking prayer, but this “doesn’t mean that I am going to quit believing in the favor of God” (p. 43). Osteen can’t lose. If he finds the best spot in the lot he has God’s favor; if he circles for 15 minutes and fails in this all-important task, it is not going to derail his theology.
“God wants you to go further than your parents” (p. 8). This statement is made without a speck of biblical evidence. On the contrary it was a rarity in Scripture to find a child who exceeded a godly or successful parent. Further, the same is often true in our own experience – some children go further than their parents, others do not. Osteen is making an unsupportable statement.
But not to be deterred we are told, “God wants you to live an overcoming life of victory. He doesn’t want you to barely get by. He’s called El Shaddai, ‘the God of more than enough’” (p. 33, emphasis his). On the contrary: El Shaddai is a title used for our Lord in the Old Testament which is often translated “God Almighty.” It speaks of the all sufficiency of God, and is a special title of reverence. Osteen has invented his own meaning and in the process turned God into our personal sugar daddy, ready to hand out the goodies to any who think they have discovered the secret to His heart.
“God wants us to have healthy, positive self-images, to see ourselves as priceless treasures. He wants us to feel good about ourselves… God sees you as a champion… He regards you as a strong, courageous, successful, overcoming person” (p. 57-58). Really? From what source does Osteen draw his view of self-image? Certainly not Scripture which never mentions such a thing. Rather than chase after good self-images Paul warns us “not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment” (Rom 12:3). But instead of taking seriously the instruction of Scripture, Osteen is happy to chase after the fads found in pop-psychology. He goes on, “When you are tempted to get discouraged, remind yourself that according to God’s Word, your future is getting brighter; you are on your way to a new level of glory” (p. 67). Eternally this is a true statement for the child of God, but to promise such will be the case in this life is pure deception. And since Osteen makes no distinction between the redeemed and the unregenerate in his book, he is offering a false and damning hope to most of his audience, those who do not know Christ as their Savior.
The Belief System
Upon what does Osteen base his belief system? It is certainly not Scripture for the Bible never teaches anything remotely similar to this prosperity brand of Christianity. That is not to say that Your Best Life Now is totally devoid of biblical references, but the few that are attempted are almost all hopelessly out of context or twisted beyond recognition (see pp. 10,14,18, 30-31, 33, 61, 76, 79-83, 87-89, 104, 115, 129-130, 134,164). Osteen gives notice early and often that his views are not drawn fundamentally from Scripture but from his experiences and those of others. Still, in the introduction Osteen writes, “Within these pages, you will find seven simple, yet profound, steps to improve your life, regardless of your current level of success or lack of it. I know these steps work, because they have worked in the lives of my family members, friends, and associates, as well as in my own life” (p. viii).
Osteen supports his thesis through the use of numerous success stories of one type or another. Some of his stories are impossible and/or at best incapable of being documented and therefore raise a red flag concerning his integrity (pp. 12, 23, 73, 122, 161, 167, 201-202, 229, 280-281, 292). Others are highly selective examples of happy endings (see pp. 4, 7-8, 27, 111-112, 125, 127, 199-200, 246). As a result of such stories Osteen can promise that, if his theories are embraced, “suddenly, things will change, suddenly, that business will take off. Suddenly, your husband will desire a relationship with God. Suddenly, that wayward child will come home. Suddenly, God will bring your hopes and dreams to pass” (p. 199). Or maybe not! Inexplicably (given his belief system and insistence that God will bring prosperity to our lives if we follow the formula) Osteen must admit that all things do not end in success. Both his sister and father experienced the failure of divorce (pp. 151, 176), some people are not healed (pp. 181-182), things don’t always work out the way we desire (pp. 207-209), his father suffered kidney failure and was on dialysis for years (p. 247) and died of a heart attack (p. 248). While Osteen declares “God does not send problems” he admits that “sometimes He allows us to go through them” (p. 205). But the fact is that even in Osteen’s story-theology world the people of God suffer the same ups and downs, successes and failures, health and sickness and so forth as the unbeliever. One has only to glance through the Psalms to realize that this is not our “best life now.” We live in a corrupt world and until the Lord returns our sin-tainted universe will often disappoint and grieve us. Stories of success (and failure) can be lined up from here to eternity, but such stories are not the basis of truth, or of life; the Word of God is.
Drawing, however, from many selective stories, and ignoring what God has to say, Osteen presents a methodology that he promises will produce a life of abundance, success, health and affluence. This system is not unique to Osteen, having come almost verbatim from the prosperity teachers mentioned above, but he has taken this false teaching to a new audience. Let’s examine how the program works.
There are three basic steps to “your best life now.”
The initial step in Osteen’s program is visualization: “The first step to living at your full potential is to enlarge your vision. To live your best life now, you must start looking at life through eyes of faith, seeing yourself rising to new levels. See your business taking off. See your marriage restored. See your family prospering. See your dreams coming to pass. You must conceive it and believe it is possible if you ever hope to experience it” (p. 4, emphasis his).
The reason why visualization is necessary is because it has the power to bring about what you envision. “You will produce what you’re continually seeing in your mind… If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you… Start anticipating promotions and supernatural increase. You must conceive it in your heart and mind before you can receive it… You must make room for increase in your own thinking, and then God will bring those things to pass” (pp. 5-6).
Apparently even God is at the mercy of that which we visualize; after all, “Thoughts [not God] determine destiny” (p. 101). “If you don’t think your body can be healed, it never will be… When you think positive, excellent thoughts, you will be propelled toward greatness, inevitably bound for increase, promotion, and God’s supernatural blessings” (p. 104).
It is not enough to think about and visualize what we want, we must also express faith. “God works by faith. You must believe first, and then you’ll receive” (p. 33). “We receive what we believe. Unfortunately, this principle works as strongly in the negative as it does in the positive” (p. 72). “Understand this: God will help you, but you cast the deciding vote… [we must] get into agreement with God” (p. 74). “It’s our faith that activates the power of God” (p. 306).
It is vital that we visualize what we want and to expect (“express faith”) because our faith attracts what we visualize. While Osteen never calls this the “law of attraction” notice its similarity to the same concept as taught by New Age teachers such as Eckhart Tolle, Rhonda Byrne and others. “Your life will follow your expectations. What you expect is what you will get” (p. 13). “Our thoughts contain tremendous power. Remember, we draw into our lives that which we constantly think about. If we’re always dwelling on the negative, we will attract negative people, experiences, and attitudes. If we’re always dwelling on our fears, we will draw in more fear. You are setting the direction of your life with your thoughts” (p. 109).
Still, it is not enough to think good thoughts and express faith in them; it is necessary to speak your desires out loud. This is why the prosperity gospel is often called the “Word of Faith” movement – for power lies in the spoken word. Follow Osteen’s thinking. “Our words have tremendous power, and whether we want to or not, we will give life to what we’re saying, either good or bad… Words are similar to seeds, by speaking them aloud, they are planted in our subconscious minds, and they take on a life of their own” (p. 122). Osteen suggests, “Get up each morning and look in the mirror and say, ‘I am valuable. I am loved. God has a great plan
for my life. I have favor wherever I go. God’s blessings are chasing me down and overtaking me. Everything I touch prospers and succeeds. I’m excited about my future!’ Start speaking those kinds of words, and before long, you will rise to a new level of well-being, success, and victory. There truly is power in your words” (p. 123).
But there is more. We must also speak to our problems, “Whatever your mountain is, you must do more than think about it, more than pray about it; you must speak to that obstacle… Start calling yourself healed, happy, whole, blessed, and prosperous. Stop talking to God about how big your mountains are, and start talking to your mountains about how big your God is” (p. 124). Osteen can confidently promise us, “Friend, there is a miracle in your mouth” (p. 125). How so? “The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it. This is a spiritual principle, and it works whether what you are saying is good or bad, positive or negative” (p. 129). Therefore, “You must start boldly confessing God’s Word, using your words to move forward in life, to bring to life the great things God has in store for you” (p. 130).
And it is totally up to us to pull this kind of life off. “God has already done everything He’s going to do. The ball is now in your court. If you want success, if you want wisdom, if you want to be prosperous and healthy, you’re going to have to do more than meditate and believe; you must boldly declare words of faith and victory over yourself and your family” (p. 132). Osteen is presenting a pure self-help program and baptizing it in the name of God. Those who fail to reach these promised benefits have only themselves to blame, since they apparently did not follow Osteen’s formula.
Whenever the supposed things of God and people of God become popular with the inhabitants of this fallen world we would be wise to walk softly and be extra discerning. The Jews persecuted and/or killed almost every one of their prophets (Acts 7:52); the apostles were despised by the world and Jesus was murdered by those He came to save. Jesus pronounced a blessing on those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matt 5:11) and warned, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Why? Because the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18). Therefore when we find a Christian message or ministry or man or woman being praised by unbelievers we can be assured that either unregenerate humanity has not yet caught on to what is being said, or that what they are saying is in line with what the unbeliever already believes. As we have demonstrated Osteen’s message is exactly what unbelievers and undiscerning Christians want to believe and they are thrilled to have someone who claims to be a reliable spokesperson for God agree with them. This would account for Osteen’s incredible success, but it does not account for, or excuse, the inconceivable gullibility and immaturity of professing Christians.