On Sunday night, 41,000 fans packed Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., to hear a message of hope, inspiration, and encouragement from Joel Osteen. Most paid about $20 (including fees) for the privilege.
Osteen sold out the stadium — a feat the Nationals rarely accomplish. But did he have to sell out to do so?
Osteen is the latest embodiment of the American Religion — Revivalism. For centuries now, preachers have known how to fill stadiums or circus tents and send people home with hope in their heart and a skip in their step. Osteen promises you will leave a transformed person — at least until his tour comes around again next year, when you can be transformed again.
Osteen’s message is a positive one for a difficult time. Every one of us has seeds of greatness inside, potential that has not yet been released, buried treasure waiting to be discovered. If you were a car, you would be the fully loaded and totally equipped model — “with pin stripes,” he says, gesturing to his suit.
Before God created you, he planned great things for you. As you stretch your faith, “God is going to show up, and show out, in tremendous ways. … If you don’t step into your destiny and release your gift, then this world will not be as bright as it should be.”
That’s a pretty positive message. What could be wrong with that?
The biggest problem with Osteen’s message about God is that it is really a message about me. God is a potential, a force, a co-pilot, waiting to be tapped and deployed. I may have a net below me, but I am the one that has to take the first steps on the wire:
Taking steps of faith is imperative to fulfilling your destiny. When I make a move, God will make a move. When I stretch my faith, God will release more of his favor. When I think bigger, God will act bigger.
God is as big as I think him to be.
Yes, this is the American Religion: a program, a plan, five simple steps to help me be all that I can be. This is the religion of the bootstraps, where “God helps those who help themselves.”
By the way, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that is a quote from the Bible. It’s not.
And that’s the second problem. Osteen’s message is not biblical. His promise that his audience will be taught the Bible — from a preacher who has admitted that teaching the Bible isn’t his strength — is fulfilled with a smattering of verses. These snippets are at best torn out of their context, at worst fabricated.
There’s this stretch: “God is saying to you what He said to Lot, ‘Hurry up and get there, so I can show you my favor in a greater way.’” In Genesis 19:22, the Angel does tell Lot “Get there quickly, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” God waiting on Lot to step out in faith so he can bless him? Not exactly. It is God telling Lot to flee to Zoar, a city of safety, so he can rain down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Osteen bolsters his bootstrap religion by quoting Jesus: “Roll away the stone, and I’ll raise Lazarus.” This, Osteen says, is a “principle,” “God expects us to do what we can, and He will do what we can’t. If you will do the natural, God will do the supernatural.”
One problem. Jesus does command them to roll away the stone, but no such quid pro quo is found in holy writ. This foundational principle is one of Osteen’s own making.
It is not primarily the details of Osteen’s biblical sunbeams that are problematic. It’s the overall message. What’s missing is any sense of human sin. Osteen leads his crowd in a mantra at the opening of his performance: “This is my Bible. Tonight I will be taught the word of God. I can do what it says I can do.” Again, bootstraps.
What does the Bible say we can do for ourselves? Our best works are like filthy rags, the prophet Isaiah teaches (Isaiah 64:6); we are like sheep gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). Paul says “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and includes himself in this “all” as “the chief of all sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The big problem is that we don’t want what’s good for us, and when we do, Paul says, “The good that I want to do, I do not do” (Romans 7:19).
Ring true? It does for me. That’s why the stadium will be full next year. Self-esteem doesn’t help me, it just leaves me with more me, digging deeper within.
How about Jesus? Surely he’s more upbeat than Paul or the prophets? Well, he does offer this simple recipe to happiness: “Sell all you possess, give it away to the poor, and follow me.” You done that yet? Yes, he does say that our faith makes us well, but he is the healer our faith looks to. He also tells the paralytic to take up his bed and walk, but only after he has healed him.
What we want is the excitement and encouragement and affirmation of the stadium — “God is waiting for you to act.” What we need is the truth and compassion of Jesus — “Come to me you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”
After the adrenaline boost, I hope some of those 41,000 find their way through the desert to some place where they can get a drink of water.
Earlier Sunday, 45 worshipers (about 0.1% of Osteen’s crowd) gathered at Christ Reformed Church in Logan Circle — and other churches in this city — to hear a message of sin and salvation, the Good News of a God who loves those who are his sworn enemies. They responded to God’s word with prayer, song, and confession, and received the benediction of a God who pardons sin full and free.
There was hope and inspiration too, but of an entirely different sort. Admittance was free.
[Note: The author didn’t make it to Nationals Stadium on Sunday; he caught the previous “Night of Hope Event” at Yankee Stadium online.]
Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.