The Power of Favor 9 | 3.1 An Abrupt Shift

by Glenn on March 27, 2020

Chapter 3 opens with a story of when Joel Osteen in his teenage years was pulled over by the police “for driving too fast.” When the officer saw Osteen’s name on the license,

“he asked if I was related to the pastor that he watched on television each week.”

Osteen told him it was his father. The response of the officer:

“He returned my license, told me to slow down, and said I could go.”

Osteen’s lesson:

“I received favor because of who I was connected to … because I was in relationship with him, his favor spilled over onto me.”

I believe this story is true. But I’ve heard and read of incidents where exactly the opposite thing happened. (Or stories where someone was pulled over not because they had done something wrong but because of the color of their skin.) Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Favor 8 | 2.2 Where are we?

by Glenn on March 24, 2020

In his most recent podcast, a “12 Rules for Life Lecture” from Australia, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson talked about how his Biblical lectures had been received. He reflected on spending three hours talking about just the first line of the Bible (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”) and made a joke about how long it takes to read through the Bible when you spend three hours on each sentence. And then he talked about Christians:

 “Orthodox Christians in particular seem to be happy with me which is quite a strange thing, although I kind of like their doctrine, and Catholics think that I would be a good Catholic if I just smartened up a little bit. Protestants—they’ve pretty much completely decided that it isn’t necessary to believe in God, so (laughs) they’re ignoring me completely and that’s fine.”

I was struck by that line that “Protestants … [have] pretty much completely decided that it isn’t necessary to believe in God.” I think most Protestants would say in response, “No we haven’t,” but it’s interesting to think about this in relation to The Power of Favor. This is a book written by a pastor to, one imagines, speak for God. What is God like according to Osteen after two chapters?

In Chapter 1 we’re told that God favors people. By favor, he means that God is going to push them to the front of the line, he is going to give them new levels of income and promotions for which they aren’t qualified, he is going to help them find the best deals. In Chapter 2, Osteen suggests that God wants to provide parking spots close to the shopping mall and free phones.

There are a few odd things about this. First, there aren’t really any conditions around this. For whom is this true? Is it necessary to read the book? [1] One of the things that would have helped this book is any kind of introduction to explain who the book is for, how this insight was discovered, and to let us know upfront what, if anything, is required of the reader. In Chapter 1 there are some vague references to needing to work hard or to have faith, but those aren’t really explained and they certainly aren’t emphasized to any extent. In fact, it’s suggested that God will actually work around them. The point is that God is going to give favor. But then Chapter 2 comes along and now there is a condition—Favor must be declared, rendering Chapter 1 sort of meaningless or at least incomplete.

Second, the claims sound universal, but certainly the way we understand them isn’t. When you look at the world, it’s hard to see how it’s at all true. There are Christians around the world who are being persecuted for their faith or live in impoverished places. How does favor apply there? They aren’t really interested in parking spots or free phones, are they? This feels like a book for American Christians.

Third, the way Osteen uses Biblical stories doesn’t seem fair. A character will say they received favor from God and that is used as evidence for how God is going to give favor to me the reader. The problem is that for each story that Osteen references, where a character receives favor, literally everyone else in the story did not receive the favor of God. [2] In the parking spot example, if I get the best spot in the parking lot, literally everyone else in the mall has a worse spot. God can’t favor everyone, can He? Or what does it mean that everyone is going to be sent to the front of the line? Or does favor get spread around and we take turns? Sometimes we get the good spot and sometimes we don’t. In which case, how is God’s favor anything different than just luck or random circumstances? Further, there is a context for each character who received favor from God. Sometimes, as in the case of Daniel, favor is preceded by weeks of fasting and prayer. It doesn’t seem like you can isolate favor in the way he is.

To read this book in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis is just strange. What world is he talking about? He is writing about being pushed forward even as we are headed toward the possibility of 20% unemployment (or worse). A win right now is simply having or keeping your job. [3] In one sense, this isn’t fair to write about this book in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. But the Gospel—the good news about Jesus—is meant to be true in all times in all places and for all people. The fact that this book doesn’t really apply right now suggests that maybe we aren’t dealing with the Gospel at all.

And everything is focused on externals—status, income, etc. There doesn’t appear to be much of any sort of demand on our inner lives as we relate to God.

Chapter 2 is about declaring favor and, finally, we discover some demands. But they aren’t really demands. God wants to favor you and the reason you aren’t receiving that favor is because you aren’t doing your part, which is declaring it. It’s interesting that Osteen doesn’t really bring God into this. Osteen makes this sound very mechanistic. Declare favor, then God can favor you. Missing in that formula is help with how this mechanism works or the reason God needs us to speak these words. Faith certainly is part of this, but it’s not discussed too much. Faith is essential. There are stories in the gospels where Jesus was prevented from healing because of unbelief. What’s different here is that the person who is declaring favor is expressing faith. So, once we’re speaking it, what is preventing things from happening. Where is the resistance?

The end result of this is that declaring favor sounds like an incantation. It sounds like magic: “Declare favor, and favor will come one you.” Sort of like how “Wingardium leviosa” will help a first-year Hogwarts student float a feather. [4]

I am not making fun, because I want to take faith seriously. Faith in God is what saves. The message of this book feels like a distortion of faith. What Hebrews 11 says it that when we trust God, we’re not guaranteed results. Sure, faith produced many good things in the lives of God’s followers—God delivered on his promises. But it also says that there were many people who died without obtaining what God had promised. These people are commended as well for their faith (in spite of the lack of results). My understanding is that an eternal God is able to deliver on his promises before or after this life. God may choose to heal in this life, but if we are trusting God for healing, even if we die that faith will produce an eternal healing. The point is to trust and leave the results to God. This book makes it seem as though it depends on me. We need to be chanting certain words throughout the day so that can (?) will (?) work.

What I think the actual message of this book should be is something like, “There are things that God wants to do in your life that you need to trust him for. But radical trust is no guarantee of anything. The circumstances of your life may or may not look like God has his hand on you. In fact, your circumstances may not say much about your relationship to God. Don’t worry about that. Your number one job is to trust God.”

 

____________________

[1] Following the “If a tree falls in the wood and no one around is to hear it, does it still make a noise?” conundrum, what is the relationship of this book to an individual receiving favor? If you didn’t read the book, could you still experience good things from God?

[2] I suppose an argument could be made that the result of God favoring one person was that God was able to bless others through them. So, for example, God favoring David and making him king resulted in good things for the nation of Israel. This goes along with the idea that we are blessed to be a blessing. Osteen does hint at some responsibilities that come with God’s favor, but for the most part the idea of favor seems to be a rather selfish pursuit, if we can call it a pursuit. So far, it’s not clear that we actually can pursue it. We’re simply to know that it is coming. We help it along by declaring it.

[3] I suppose there are many books that seem largely irrelevant right now. Who wants to be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The issue I have with this book is that it promises so much in the temporal realm. When the temporal realm is in disarray, the whole foundation of this book is gone.

[4] Noting that it’s important how you pronounce “leviosa.” As I recall, it’s “Leh-vee-OH-suh” and not “Leh-vee-oh-SUH.”

The Power of Favor 7 | 2.1

by Glenn on March 23, 2020

So far, The Power of Favor by Joel Osteen is  a mixed bag. On the one hand, you can only marvel at the machinery of it all.  Joel Osteen isn’t an author so much as a brand and enterprise. He is the pastor of a giant church, a 24-hour satellite radio host, [1] a self-described Christian leader, a social media presence with a remarkably large following, and a family man. Somehow out of (or maybe in spite of) all of this activity a book was produced. Where some authors, perhaps, have their primary focus on the creation of a book, The Power of Favor is just one of many things emanating from Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. It’s not a singular accomplishment as much as it appears to be part of a critical mass of activity. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily Goodness for Monday, March 23, 2020

by Glenn on March 23, 2020

In Philippians 4:8, the apostle Paul tells believers,

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Among the challenges for the coming days is the need to feed our souls. When we’re cooped up, sometimes the temptation is to go for what’s easy—you know, a bag of chips and something forgettable on television. My dream for each of us is that in spite of present and coming difficulties, in real ways we will emerge from this experience better than when we went in. Well, what’s the other option? All of us coming through this bitter and angry and falling apart? That wouldn’t be good. Let’s put that option aside.

Will you join me in looking for good things over this next season. In addition to our Sunday morning email with video, I plan to send out something every morning that reflects something good that I discovered the previous day. So here’s a start:

Yesterday I tuned into Washington National Cathedral to see their service. It’s a very traditional sort of service and I guess I was looking for that. As a church, they are having the same problem we are—How do you meet and not meet? So some of their leaders came together and led an online service as though the cathedral was full.

Near the end I heard this song:

It’s called Taste and See, by James E. Moore. Something about the singer and the accompaniment and the text really touched me. I hope you enjoy it.

Refrain | Taste and see, taste and see
the goodness of the Lord.
Oh, taste and see, taste and see
the goodness of the Lord, of the Lord.

1 | I will bless the Lord at all times.
Praise shall always be on my lips;
my soul shall glory in the Lord;
for God has been so good to me. (Refrain)

2 | Glorify the Lord with me.
Together let us all praise God’s name.
I called the Lord, who answered me;
from all my troubles I was set free. (Refrain)

3 | Worship the Lord, all you people.
You’ll want for nothing if you ask.
Taste and see that the Lord is good;
in God we need put all our trust. (Refrain)

If you are interested, the whole service can be found here:

Blessings on your Monday!

The Power of Favor 6 | 1.5

by Glenn on March 23, 2020

The most obvious thing about Joel Osteen’s The Power of Favor is it’s conversational tone. The author is writing directly to you the reader. He uses simple words. The Power of Favor is no academic treatise. You don’t have to re-read paragraphs because you’re trying desperately to understand them. The overall tone is one of a pep talk. Hang on—good things are coming your way.

I am surprised by how good a writing prompt this book is, Read the rest of this entry »

Some Meaningful Songs in a Difficult Time

by Glenn on March 15, 2020

(From a post I sent to my congregation on Sunday, March 15, 2020.)

Good songs for an anxious morning. If you have a few minutes for worship, here are some favorites, old and new.

I just heard this arrangement of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which was referenced in an article by David French. This is outstanding.

“God I Look to You” I learned a few years ago and really like the chorus.

One of my favorites things about “King of My Heart” is all the metaphors the writer has for God.

I remember the first time I heard “Ain’t No Grave” in a worship service. I thought, This is pretty strange to be singing this. As a Christian, it isn’t so strange.

And for those of you who like something traditional, here is my favorite hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer.”

Blessings on you all this morning and this week.

The Power of Favor 5 | 1.4

by Glenn on March 9, 2020

Joel Osteen is a New York Times Bestselling author, which means at least one of his books has sold really well. I was and am curious about this and so I’m reading The Power of Favor and engaging with it through a series of blog posts.

The author biography on the book cover says,

Joel Osteen is the author of ten New York Times bestsellers and the senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.

This seems factually true. I didn’t realize ten of his books had become bestsellers. That is impressive.

He has been named by numerous publications as one of the most influential Christian leaders in the world.

This may also be true, although I don’t know what it means for me. I don’t consider him a leader in my life. Why have I failed to see what “numerous publications” have seen? For whatever reason I have had a bias against him, [1] which is part of the reason I want to read this book.

His televised messages are seen by more than 10 million viewers each week in the United States and millions more in 100 nations around the world.

This is extraordinary. Isn’t this the dream of any sort of public speaker, particularly a pastor? He prepares a message [2] and millions of people hear that message. I, along with thousands of pastors around this country, have been working on a message this week to give on Sunday morning and won’t have anything like the size of Osteen’s audience. I expect somewhere between 65-75 people this Sunday. Is there any inherent meaning in the size of your audience? You certainly can’t or at least shouldn’t take any audience for granted. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the size of your audience is. You still need to be prepared.

Is there a direct connection between the size of your audience and the quality of your message? It’s not like they are unrelated facts. My 30-minute message this Sunday will be half the service. The quality of the service is, therefore, half my responsibility. It seems fair to say that to some degree the quality of my speaking will affect the number of people listening to me. A better version of me will attract more listeners than a worse version.

How much better a speaker is Osteen than me? If we just take the American numbers, his audience is 133,333 times bigger than mine will be this weekend. Is Osteen 133,333 times better a speaker than I am? (However we would try and measure that. Part of me says that can’t be true. It’s too big a difference. Another part of me says I’ve got a lot of work to do if it is. I can sort of imagine walking onto that stage at Lakewood Church even as I tell myself I’m not sure I would want to walk onto that stage. For one, my current level of ability wouldn’t be good enough. [3] But there’s also the issue that preparing his talk is not the only thing Osteen is doing during the course of his week. I don’t have any understanding of what the load of leading such a large enterprise is like.

Part of the issue is competitiveness. There’s got to be something in you that strives for a larger audience. I do want a bigger crowd, but I am also suspicious of crowds. Maybe that means I want a larger crowd but I want it for the right reasons, whatever those might be. And perhaps there is something in me that isn’t prepared to do the work that needs to be done to generate a larger audience. I do think there is a connection between the quality of the speaker and the size of the crowd. But it seems like you have to put an asterisk with that. President Trump talks to some really large crowds, but how much of that audience is based on the quality of his talk? [4] Isn’t it likely that other things are in play?

He has a following of over 40 million across his social media platforms and is also the host of Joel Osteen Radio, a 24-hour channel on SiriusXM satellite radio channel 128.

Here is another staggering number and one that raises all sorts of questions for me. What exactly does a following mean? Is that a good thing? I decided to do away with social media accounts. Was that short-sighted? You lost literally hours a week paying attention to them. And what does hosting a 24-hour radio channel entail? This seems like this isn’t possible for one person. The authors I admire have a writing process that is all-consuming. When I read this statement, I get the sense that “Joel Osteen” is as much a corporation/brand as a person.

He resides in Houston with his wife, Victoria, and their children. You can visit his website at JoelOsteen.com and stay connected with him through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, podcast, and YouTube.

This is all extraordinary as well. But I don’t know what it means to connect with him. You can’t have any sort of relationship with millions of people although technology certainly makes it possible to communicate directly to millions of people today. But how would “you” (as one person and not a group of people facilitating “you”) ever respond to, say, a million comments on Twitter. It’s impossible.

*     *     *

Back to the text. Paragraph 14, which follows a subtitle, “The Seal of Approval.” Osteen writes about the “seal of approval” we see stamped on the box of a product “[n]obody’s ever heard of.” The endorsement of the larger company brings “notoriety and prominence” to the smaller (even unknown) company. Then there is this promise:

“The Creator of the universe is about to put His stamp on you. He’s already accepted and approved you, but He’s about to endorse you.”

Here’s my new thought. (And maybe this will be the reason I don’t spend a lot more time on this little writing project.) This sounds like nonsense. For one, I feel like there is a question of timing. Does it depend on when I read this book? Is it only true because I am reading this book? Is it true because he says it’s true? And what does God’s stamp look like? Is he onto something or is he selling something? It sounds really good, but I find myself wondering if there’s a catch. Shouldn’t there be a catch?

Our next (fourth) Biblical example is Joseph, whose brothers “sold him into slavery” and who was later “falsely accused of a crime, put in prison for something he didn’t do.” Osteen comments,

“All the odds were against him. But the Scripture says, ‘Joseph had favor in everything he did.’”

That is true, but it’s a more complicated story than that. [5] Coincidentally, the story of Joseph is part of the daily lectionary readings this week in the Book of Common Prayer. Osteen could spend more time on the story of Joseph. For one, there’s the fact that Joseph has this gift of interpreting dreams, which is true before he was sold into slavery. In a way it was the cause of his being sold into slavery. Lack of humility about that gift created a rift with his brothers. The story of Joseph is remarkable for how horrendous and unfair things happen to Joseph but they were part of God’s plan—or, at least God was able to use them for his plan. I don’t understand how the favor that God placed on Joseph, which included his ability to interpret dreams, had anything to do with the favor that Osteen says is coming my way. It was sort of an exclusive favor because there’s no report that any of his brothers had a similar sort of gift from God.

Alright, Osteen does return to the story:

“Joseph spent thirteen years in the background, being overlooked and mistreated. There were plenty of lonely nights. He didn’t get bitter. He kept doing the right thing. One day, Pharaoh had a dream that no one could interpret, so they brought Joseph out of prison and into Pharaoh’s presence. Now he was standing in front of one of the most powerful people of that day. Joseph interpreted the dream. Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Joseph the prime minister, second in command. I can imagine that meeting took no longer than an hour. Joseph walked in as an imprisoned slave. An hour later, he walked out as the prime minister.” [6]

Osteen tells us,

“You don’t know what God can do in an hour.”

Part of this feels exactly right. There are moments when things can change. Or there is an hour in life where everything changes. My objection would be that this is not always the way it goes. The plain observation of how life works is that changes are not always moving us forward. When a serviceman is killed in battle and the family receives the news, everything changes in that hour. When a person receives a medical diagnosis, everything changes in that hour. I want to think seriously about this book. So I am wondering if the statement “God is going to favor you” is just too general to be of any help. And unless this is for a specific audience, I don’t know how this works. Everyone can’t be prominent.

I can see an upside to the message. It creates an expectation in the hearts of the reader to look for the good of the Lord. But if Osteen is saying that we’re going to receive a lucky break and that it won’t be lucky because it’s coming from God, fine, but is that all? How are we to live in the meantime. I give Osteen credit for having a big idea that he keeps prominent. It’s hard to miss this idea that God is going to put his favor on me. But it’s an idea that I don’t know quite what to do with. It’s exciting and confusing all at the same time. It’s great that God’s favor is coming, but isn’t there something I should be doing? Perhaps Osteen will develop this idea.

Osteen returns to the story of Joseph to remind us that years later “Joseph’s brothers [would come] to the palace looking for food—the same ones who had thrown him into the pit.” And the lesson is that while “[t]he brothers had done their best to keep [Joseph] down . . . God knows how to endorse you. He knows how to put you in a position of prominence.” This is an awkward juxtaposition from Joseph to me (or any other listener/reader). And, again, I think there is more to this story than is being addressed. For example, it’s more than the idea that Joseph’s brothers wanted to keep Joseph “down.” Their thoughts and intentions had been murderous and only the intervention of one of Joseph’s brother’s (Reuben, as I recall) resulted in his mere enslavement rather than extinction. This is pure malevolence. And part of their fear about Joseph is the fact that he is in a position to execute (pun intended) the most delicious sort of revenge on them if he wanted to. Wouldn’t it be helpful to introduce the idea of evil into this narrative? It’s certainly part of the narrative of our lives. Part of the beauty of this story is that in spite of human malevolence, God works his good. And notice how Joseph later frames the actions of his brothers:

“And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance? So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45:5–8, NIV, emphasis added)

It’s not that God favored Joseph and things turned out great. It was that things sucked for a long time and yet God was with Joseph in the darkness. My understanding of the story is that God did something in the character of Joseph and used his circumstances to accomplish his purposes both to change Joseph as well as to further the redemption story God was telling in the lives of Abraham’s descendants. Years later Joseph’s brothers were worried about revenge, and Joseph’s response was one of the most beautiful lines in all of scripture:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20, NIV)

It’s a more complicated story than God was favoring Joseph. It’s that even tragedies and the malevolence of God can be used by God for his purposes. Somehow, improbably, they may even be part of his purposes. Part of my objection to what Osteen is saying so far is that it feels sort of selfish, like it’s all about and for me. God is going to do things that other people won’t understand for me. God will manipulate people who wouldn’t otherwise help me (or who would normally be opposed to me) to help me. But for what end? Joseph recognizes that the favor of God was not for him, it was for others and for other purposes. He had a remarkable way of re-framing his experience. Maybe that’s something missing in this book so far. Osteen wants to apply this story to the circumstance of the individual reader:

“You may feel like you’re in a pit today. Don’t get discouraged. We all have pit stops along the way in life. The good news is, that is not your final destination. [7] God has an endorsement coming, and I’ve learned that the greater the opposition, the greater the endorsement. Much as with a bow and arrow, the more the enemy tries to pull you back, the more you’re going to go forward. He thinks he’s pulling you back to hinder you. He doesn’t realize he’s setting you up to shoot farther than you’ve ever imagined.”

I have a growing love/hate relationship with this book so far. I love the tone of encouragement. We all need encouragement. This was a vivid simile. I struggle, though, with what feels like a distortion of reality. For some people, shouldn’t the message be “Cheer up, it’s going to get worse”? I don’t say that sarcastically, but it was true both in the story of Joseph and will be true for many people. And so the part I hate is the unqualified nature of all the promises that are being made—actually it’s just one promise, that God is going to put His favor on my life. This is all discussion of what God is going to do. Was there anything for Joseph to do?

Osteen has neglected my role in this. [8] But part of this discussion should be the fact that the first rule of pits is not to make them worse. We have as humans the capacity to make bad situation worse.  And isn’t there a message like “Try to avoid falling into pits,” which would be helpful here? Things can change in a moment. But we may also find ourselves lost in the woods and after a lengthy amount of time wandering, it may take us a while to find our way back out. How do these relate to God’s favor?

I admire the singular focus on a message. But maybe he’s reduced things so far that the message has actually become absurd.

____________________

[1] Admittedly, I know next to nothing of the man. My bias is not so much against the person but against Christian television personalities in general. There was a time where I was drawn to them, but late in life I don’t find the idea of preaching on television appealing.

[2] Whatever that means. I assume that he probably has some assistance of some sort, which I don’t intend as criticism. I don’t know how you take on the responsibilities he has taken on and have the time for writing a sermon and then get the delivery in shape for weekend services. The little bit I watched of a message based on this book suggests he is speaking from memory, which is impressive. (Or perhaps there is some sort of teleprompter that I don’t see.)

[3] I haven’t really focused on improving as a communicator and there’s some good news there. If I make improvement as a communicator a priority, it’s likely that I won’t face the prospect of diminishing returns right away. For example, if I compare myself to a runner who is sub-4 minutes on the mile, I won’t look too good today. I’m not sure I could run a mile right now, particularly with the cold that I’m working through (and am assuming is not the Coronavirus). But I could certainly cut the gap dramatically. The sub-4-minute miler is trying to shave a second or two off his time and all of his efforts at training will only accomplish that. Meanwhile, any efforts of mine at improving would result in minutes coming off my time. The analogy works only if Osteen is the speaking equivalent of a sub-4-minute miler and I am a couch potato. In a sense I am already a runner of sorts, preparing and delivering a message most weeks, so perhaps my expectations of growth potential need to be tempered somewhat.

[4] However you would try to measure that.

[5] I’m always a little nervous about using Biblical characters as quick points of evidence. We want Biblical support for the things we say when we preach, but it feels unfair to the story when we don’t grab onto the details of the story.

[6] The story in the Bible continues to the point where Joseph created a highly centralized, what we might call totalitarian, economic system. That’s a problematic part of the story for those of us who like capitalism.

[7] The ornery part of me wants to interject here that in a way things got worse for Joseph. The “pit stop” turned into a prison sentence. His is a story of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

[8] So far—perhaps, ultimately, he won’t. I’m not that far into the book. One of the complicated aspects of this story is Joseph’s complicated character make-up. He was a bit of a show-off and a braggert with his brothers, which, in a way, is why he found himself in a pit. On the positive side, he appears to have been a person of integrity, but this resulted in his being put into prison. The former trait appears to go away over time, while Joseph appears never to have lost his integrity. Is part of the story the fact that there are parts of our character that absolutely need to change and there are aspects of our character that should never change?

The Power of Favor 4 | 1.3

by Glenn on March 4, 2020

This is a continuing engagement with The Power of Favor by Joel Osteen.

The first Biblical illustration in this book was Noah. He was a person who “found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The trick is that literally no one outside Noah’s family received the favor of God. Quite the opposite—they were destroyed by God. So, clearly the message of the book wasn’t for them. The story of Noah has always been a tough one for me. We tend to talk about it as an example of the love of God saving humanity in spite of all its wickedness, but there is that really difficult piece in there of God’s judgment. If we are talking about the story of Noah, it seems we should be talking as much about God’s judgment as God’s favor. If you pick up this book and read that “God has put something on you … called ‘favor,’” how are we to know if we are Noah or the rest of the world? Is it just because I picked up the book? If I hadn’t picked up the book, would there still be the possibility of favor? A recurring question in the early part of this book is To whom is this book being written? Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Favor 3 | 1.2

by Glenn on March 3, 2020

A few weeks ago I began writing a dialogue with Joel Osteen’s The Power of Favor. Osteen is a “#1 New York Times Bestselling Author.” I was curious about his books. His church is incredibly well-attended. He is on television. And all of that becomes a machine for selling books. I haven’t read any of them, so I decided to read this one to try and understand what’s going on there. Read the rest of this entry »

“The Appropriation of Cultures” by Percival Everett

by Glenn on March 3, 2020

Someone asked me if I had a favorite collection of short stories and I had to admit I was not much of a short story person. But I did tell them I have a favorite short story, “The Appropriation of Cultures” by Percival Everett. A quick search found it online. It can be heard below and read here.

I remember driving home from work years ago when this came on Oregon Public Radio. I was floored by how affecting it was. The story is a based on a context that I don’t understand very well. I’m a West coast kid and  dynamics of the South are hard to understand. Additionally, symbols of the antebellum South, like “Dixie” and the Confederate flag, which make appearances in this story, don’t have strong emotions tied to them. The genius of this story is how quickly I empathize with the protagonist.

The Power of Favor 2 | 1.1

by Glenn on February 19, 2020

Joel Osteen’s The Power of Favor: The Force That Takes You Where You Can’t Go On Your Own (New York: Faith Words, 2019) opens with this statement:

“What God has in your future you can’t accomplish on your own.” (p. 1)

I get stuck there because I don’t understand what that means. It could be something that sounds a lot like wisdom, or it could be essentially meaningless. A book needs to start someplace. This line has us starting in two places—with God and us. It’s hard to be both here and there. There is no pause in the explication to frame anything, though. It’s true of the book and it’s true of a sermon Osteen gave that follows almost exactly the opening of the book.[1]

This opening sentence is confusing. God wants to do something that I can’t do by myself. I understand the idea that there are things that God wants to do. But the whole idea of God means that he can do whatever he wants—it’s sort of the definition of God—although we do run into philosophical problems such as whether he can create a rock so big he can’t move it. Leaving that aside, God can do what he wants to do. And then there’s the second half of the sentence, which says there are things that I “can’t accomplish on my own.” Well, that’s true. Life is about collaboration. We can’t achieve without others. We can’t achieve without God. But I put the two ideas together and I find myself scratching my head. If God has things in my future, then he’s got things in my future. What do my accomplishments have to do with that?

I take it to mean that God has a plan that I can’t accomplish on my own. And so the trouble must be with me, or at least there is something that I need to do. Otherwise is God not powerful enough to accomplish what he wants with me? There is this mystery of what God has in our future. To what extent does that future require my participation? I’m not sure how much of anything in life can be accomplished on our own. Cooperation seems to be an essential part of being alive. I’m not sure what point the author is making, though, as this book begins. To what extent does God impose his will versus allowing humans to make their choices? It’s a confusing opening line that leaves me thinking, “Huh?”.

The second sentence is a variation on the theme:

“There are place He’s going to take you that you can’t get to by yourself.” (p. 1)

So, if there are places that I can’t get to by myself that God needs to take me, isn’t that the same thing as saying, “God is going to take you someplace.” Or, “There are places you can’t get to on your own.”

I feel bad. On the one hand I see that perhaps I am overly critical. On the other hand, I see all the books by Osteen that I assume are selling well enough to warrant more books to be written by him, but are these good books? I jumped into this wondering what I was missing. I want to begin with the assumption that I’ve been missing out, but one title and two sentences in I’m wondering what I am missing that others are seeing.

I know people who believe Osteen has something to say to them—that he is speaking truth to their hearts. I have friends and family who are complimentary of him.[2] So there is a curiosity for me, here. Part of it is the question, How do you write the book that sells well? But it seems like there are other questions that may not be related to the first one. How do you write a book worth writing? How do you have something to say? Is is possible to write a popular book where you don’t have something worth saying?

The next lines lead me to believe Osteen is trying to encourage his readers:

“There will be obstacles that look too big, dreams that seem impossible. You’re going to need assistance for where you’re going.” (p. 1)

This last sentence might have been a better place to start. This line is something like, “You want to go places in life, but you’re going to need help getting there. You’re going to need the help of God.” Isn’t that more clear? But is that what he is saying? And is this a book about God or a book about me? (I’m assuming it’s about both, but focus would be helpful.) How big is God in this book? And is it possible that there is at least a tension if not an outright contradiction between my dreams and God’s plans? It seems like one of us needs to get on board with the other. Otherwise it sounds like I have impossible dreams and God has some place he wants to take me. What we haven’t established is where or not we are going the same place.

“The good news is, God has put something on you that gives you an advantage, something that will open doors that you can’t open, something that will make you stand out in the crowd.” (p. 1)

Okay, I need to stop there because I had this thought when I saw the title, but now it becomes pressing: The idea of favor means preference. Who is the “you” that God has put something on? Is it everyone who opens the book? What is it about opening the book that moves God to put something on me? Can I have favor and not open the book? It doesn’t seem possible that favor can be on everyone. If everyone is favored, is anyone actually favored? It’s like elementary school growing up—the class was so good today that everyone got a gold star. Well, if everyone gets a point, the score is still the same. But maybe it’s not about keeping score. And maybe there will be some clarification about who “you” is. Are there any conditions for favor? If there aren’t, then this a work of information, which seems dull. (“Hey, everybody, you need to know you have something that keeps your organs from falling out. It’s called skin.” Where’s the so what?) But perhaps Osteen is trying to persuade us of something or to call us to action. It seems like it would be helpful to qualify who the favored are.

There’s also in here the idea that God exists to do for us. Some of this rings true. It’s the nature of God to love in a way that is not just feeling but is actually giving. But it also feels presumptuous. And God’s love is not always easy to understand. That love doesn’t always look like favor in an obvious sort of way. For example, it’s hard to look at some of the prophets in the Old Testament scriptures and see their lives as “advantaged.” I think about God’s demands on Ezekiel, for example[3], or his request to Hosea to marry a prostitute, so that his life would be a metaphor for God’s relationship to the nation of Israel. That sort of favor has a hard edge to it. Like the song says, “Love’s like a hurricane / I am a tree.”

There is an idea of favor as preference in the Bible. Abel’s sacrifice was favored by God over Cain’s. Abram (later Abraham) received a promise from God. That was favor. The Hebrew people were favored while the Egyptians were not. It would be great to have some of these issues clarified. I go back to whether I am being overly critical or is all of this just not thought through well enough so that the presentation raises all sorts of objections right out of the gate. Are there simply some terms we need to understand? I think it’s fair to say this could be framed a little better.

Osteen continues. The something that God has put on us:

“It’s called ‘favor.’ Favor will cause good breaks to come to you. Favor will take you from the background to the foreground. Favor will give you preferential treatment, things you don’t deserve. You weren’t next in line, but you got the promotion. On paper it didn’t make sense, but the loan went through. That person who was so against you—for some reason they’ve changed. Now they’re for you. That wasn’t a coincidence. That was the favor of God.” (p. 1)

I find myself with all sorts of questions reading this. Does God not like lines? Is skipping ahead in line okay if God is orchestrating it? What about “the last will be first”? As far as a loan, if it didn’t make sense, why was there a loan application? Isn’t an explanation for at least part of the 2009 financial crisis the fact that there were loans that didn’t make sense? [4]

I say the following not intending any sarcasm or irony. It must be nice to know God’s dealings so well—to know what God is and isn’t doing in this world. This places the author ahead of, say, Job, who had no idea what was going on his life. Job certainly wasn’t in the front of the line. Awful circumstances were poured on him because God allowed them to happen. The author, though, claims to have the inside track on the workings of God. But he is only mentioning what me might call good things. Is the opposite true and to what extent is God involved there?

There is an obvious thing, too, which is that favoring one person is dis-favoring someone else. What do we say to the person was first in line and then someone was promoted ahead of them? What about “no’s”. What do they mean? To the person whose loan application was a pipe dream and it was not approved, perhaps even appropriately? The loan office might have been doing the person a favor. Finally, it seems problematic to be declaring that things that we might consider good happened because God (or, at least, favor) made them happen and not take into consideration the evil in the world. There may be enemies who, years later, are still enemies.

Paragraph 2 begins,

“We can work hard, be faithful, be diligent, and that’s important, but that will only take us to a certain level.” (pp. 1–2)

There’s an unpleasant reality: You can only go so far in life. You need something else. Part of this actually rings true. That’s something worth pondering. Hard work, faithfulness, and diligence aren’t everything, but they are necessary. This does not appear to be a book about sitting around on the couch and waiting for God to land good things on you. You have work to do. The world responds to effort and consistency. I notice, though, he hasn’t mentioned ability, here. Work hard faithfully and consistently, but what about actually having the skill set to do things? Does that play in? Is that an oversight or part of what Osteen is saying. It feels as though Osteen is going to make a promise to us. Since we can only get “to a certain level,” we’re going to need favor (I assume) to take us farther, but part of me is deeply suspicious of whatever promises he might make, particularly because they raise so many questions that don’t have easy answers. How do we deal with tragedy in life? The medical illness that takes a family to bankruptcy? The tragedy that takes out a child? Where is the favor there?

Education and background can only take us so far. But,

“You’ve worked hard. You’ve been faithful. You’ve honored God. Now get ready for favor. Get ready for God to show out. He’s about to do something unusual, something that you haven’t seen, good breaks that you didn’t work for, a promotion that you didn’t deserve. You can’t explain it. You can’t take credit for it. It’s the favor of God.” (p. 2)

This is encouraging. But does the bit about “a promotion that you didn’t deserve” seem inconsistent? If Osteen is saying we need to work hard and be faithful, isn’t that a big part of “deserve”? Again, wanting to avoid needless criticism, but this is a big claim he is making and big claims require a certain amount of clarity. To what extent do we want to live in a world where people get promotions they don’t deserve? Obviously, the whole Christian message is based on the idea that undeserving humans receive the unmerited favor of God in their lives. That is the essence of grace. To what extent should that run the world, though?

It seems like Osteen is setting up a pretty big and difficult to resolve problem for himself. He’s got two messages, here: One, show up, work hard, be diligent, do everything you know to do to be successful. In other words—be deserving. Two, be prepared for success that is undeserved—that has nothing to do with you and your abilities. A problem that arises in the meantime is that not everybody succeeds. What does that mean?

I don’t know where the book is going, but I would say that the resolution to the problem is more like trust. Do everything you know to do and then leave it in God’s hands. Make your plans but then let God establish your steps. Work hard, be diligent, and see what happens. Don’t be too quick to think you know what a blessing is. Don’t be too quick to blame God if nothing happens. Don’t be too quick say how God is and is not working in your life. That’s how I would explain it.

The one thing I do like so far is this idea of expectancy. The idea that God is working. God is not, like the old song, “watching us, from a distance.” He is working. The thing that I find alarming, though, is the kind of specificity about it and the implications that come from assuming one knows what is the action of God. Only two paragraphs in. We’ll see where this goes.

____________________

[1] The text of The Power of Favor is either a lightly edited transcript of his writing, or he wrote—I assume—and presented a book. That only matters, though, because I am curious about process. I watched the video only through the first paragraph.

[2] Or perhaps they just like the show. There is something awe-inspiring about seeing a crowd like that gathered for any purpose. There’s an energy that comes from the spectacle that creates an expectation—”This is going to be good.” We know, instinctively, that you can’t assemble a crowd like this unless you are good.As a Christian, it’s exciting so see so many people gathered to hear teaching from the Bible.

[3] See Ezekiel 4.

[4] The so-called “NINJA” loans—”No Income, No Job, no Assets.”

The Power of Favor 1 | Pre-Thinking

by Glenn on February 18, 2020

I saw a book the other day and I was intrigued. I picked it up and thought I would engage with it, as though I was having a conversation with it. In other words, I would write as I read, rather than read and then review. The book is called The Power of Favor: The Force That Takes You Where You Can’t Go On Your Own (New York: Faith Words, 2019) by Joel Osteen.

Warning: This series of posts (depending on how much of this I do) may be unnecessarily critical. Read the rest of this entry »