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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Sometimes there are no shortcuts

Yesterday at work I overheard a couple of women talking about great Joel Osteen’s latest book is supposed to be. They only spoke of him briefly, expressing how much they love Osteen, before moving on to other topics. Whenever I hear conversations like that, I want to jump in, but often hesitate. I find when people latch onto someone like Osteen, trying to convince them that maybe he isn’t the kind of person they should be listening to is a difficult task. People become defensive when you attack their favorite icon, and often they take your words as an attack on themselves.

Osteen’s goal is in “encouraging” people and making them feel good about themselves, and people are responding in droves. As I’ve alluded to before, this is the same phenomenon that we’re currently witnessing with Barack Obama. He’s an inspirational speaker. He’s a good rhetoritician who speaks of hope and change, and no matter how vacuous the terms are he’s using, people love it. Osteen’s speech is equally vacuous, but the thousands of people who worship him hardly notice.

People of every time period want to be encouraged and want to feel good about themselves, but there’s something in the air in our own time and place that is making more people in want of these things. I’m sure a number of factors have contributed to the current zeitgeist, such as the state of war we’ve been in the past few years, attended by the increase of government intrusion into our lives in the name of “protection”, all of which has generally failed to provide the promised results. The shows on TV are more fast paced, violent, and profane. Even the TV news shows, along with the “reality” shows, are more negative than positive, carrying a sense of power and vindictiveness about them. And so when someone like Osteen comes along, smiling really big, and says lots of feel-good sorts of things, it shouldn’t be a surprise that people attach themselves to him in a emotional way.

For a lot of people, though, I would expect that Osteen provides them with a way of feeling good about themselves without dealing with their guilt. We all sin, even Christians, on a regular basis, and unless we are of the most hard-hearted of individuals, we feel guilty for at least some of those sins. We know instinctively that we can’t just sin without something being done with that sin. And there is a solution, only one solution, to that problem, and that solution is the saving work of Jesus Christ. It is in trusting in Christ’s work that we are saved, whether we are trusting in him for the first time or for the five thousandth time. I think a lot of people turn to Osteen because they haven’t heard the gospel. This should give us an impetus for evangelism in making sure those that we know not only see Christ in us, but also in telling the gospel whenever an opportunity arises.

Part of the blame, then, can rightly be laid at the feet of the church. This is true of the church in regard to her individual members, but also the church as an institution. As I have said in criticizing the institutional church before, so long as the church doesn’t preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, people will look elsewhere for answers for their guilt.

In our part of the country, we also have the problem of people simply misunderstanding the gospel and the character of God. Thanks to various false teachings, such as Weslyan/Pentecostal Perfectionism and Baptistic legalism, people can come to a number of wrong conclusions. For instance, with the kind of teaching that goes on in some Fundamentalist churches, one can easily come to think that God is cranky and stingy and really doesn’t want to forgive anyone. Or one can believe that God is ready to throw off His relationship with them the first time that person commits a sin. It is important that we emphasize the character of God, especially as expressed in the Gospel. People need to know that God isn’t fickle and petty like we are, but instead He overflows with love and forgiveness freely, not only because He is able to do so, but because He wants to.

I think, however, that the followers of Osteen have their own responsibility in this as well. If they turn to God as He requires, many know what this means for them – they will have to be accountable to someone other than themselves, and that they will have to repent of their sins. But this is not only what God requires of us. It is also what is good and right for us. And there is no other way than this to deal with our guilt. Sometimes there are no shortcuts.

So we all need prayer. Those of us who seek to represent Jesus Christ aright need prayer that we might do as we should. Those who idolize Joel Osteen need prayer, that they might turn from worshipping him to worshipping Jesus Christ. And Joel Osteen himself needs prayer, that he might turn from preaching a false gospel, to embracing and preaching the true gospel, which is the only gospel that is.

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