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.”

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