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. The title grabbed me with its promise of a “force that will take [me] where [I] can’t go on my own.” I was curious. I am curious. It sounds like a promise is being extended or at least some explanations are going to be given. Rather than read and review, I thought I would read and write.

What I learned in the opening sentence is that God has things for me in the future that I can’t accomplish on my own. Without quibbling too much, this was a confusing start as it’s hard to know how the two elements of that sentence work together. God can do what he wants with my future. I see that almost as a definition of what it means to be God. And then there are things that I can’t accomplish on my own. That’s certainly true and perhaps goes without saying. Any achievement in life requires the help of others. This opening sentence has the effect of raising questions. Are we talking about God or about me? Maybe we are talking about both, but it’s hard to do both in one sentence. And it’s a difficult way to enter this book.

The problems continue with an uncertain sort of framing of what the book is about.The first two paragraphs say basically three things:
1. God has plans for me.
2. There are things I want to do that I can’t accomplish on my own.
3. Good news: God has given me favor that will help me accomplish those dreams.

What isn’t clear, yet, is the relationship of what God has in my future and what I want for my future. Are those the same thing? Is God going to give me what I want? At the outset, I don’t know what this book is about or why the author has written it and to whom it was written. There is no introduction. It just begins with that opening declaration that sounds puzzling and not in the way that makes you want to dig in an unravel the mystery. You’re trying to understand if the author knows anything, although there is this sense that the author is onto something and can’t wait to share it with his readers.

What kind of writing is this? Information? Persuasion? Am I going to learn about God’s purposes for my life? Or am I going to find out how God’s favor will help me accomplish my purposes? Whose dreams are we talking about?  One thing that is both comforting and unsettling is that Osteen suggests he has a kind of omniscience that is tough to explain. He knows that good things are coming my way and he knows that God is behind them. These lucky breaks are examples of God’s favor. How does he know?

Perhaps the least confusing aspect to the beginning of the book is the tone, which is decidedly upbeat, what with all the promises of favor coming my way. That is good news. We can expect good things from God. A break is coming. Great! That’s comforting. But another question comes to mind: What are we to think about tough breaks? For example, as I write this, there are growing concerns about the spread of the Coronavirus. If you have the Coronavirus, where does the favor of God fit in? Again, to whom is this book being written? Does this principle of God’s favor apply to everyone? If it does, it’s a little hard to understand how God’s preference for one person doesn’t demonstrate his non-preference for someone else.

Is this a universal principle? The good news of Jesus must be true for all people in all times in every place. There are times—particularly the 20th century—where it is hard to see the favor of God in the historical reacord. For the tens of millions killed during the World Wars, for those who died of Spanish Flu after World War 1, for the millions who died at the hands of Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot, it’s hard to see how this book applies and to know for whom it applies. And there are places around the world where life is a struggle for survival. Dreams don’t seem possible there. How does favor apply? So perhaps there is an audience—Northern Americans or others who live in a land of possibility.

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I pick up reading at the third paragraph where Osteen provides a Biblical illustration as support for what he is saying. He refers to the story of Noah. “God told Noah to build an ark” but “Noah wasn’t a builder.” Do we know that Noah wasn’t a builder? My memory of the story is that there is no indication of what skills Noah did or did not have. Then Osteen makes this statement:

“It seemed impossible, but God will never ask you to do something and not give you the favor to do it. You have favor.”

If Osteen was writing this book during the time of Noah, an objection might be, what about literally everyone else in the world? Only Noah had favor, while the rest of the world was condemned to judgment. So, again, who is the you to whom this book is written? If it was written to Noah, then, yes, he had favor. But if it was written to anyone else in the time of Noah, isn’t it true that they had the opposite of God’s favor? So audience seems to be a confusing issue, here.

The judgment of God, it seems to me, is sort of the essence of the Noah story. God was going to start again with one family. But Osteen makes this story an example of how God is going to help you—whoever “you” is. Osteen asks a question: “Do you have the faith?” Well, there’s an interesting concept to throw into the mix. What is the relationship of faith to God’s favor? Osteen tells us that if we say something like, “I don’t have the resources. I don’t know the right people. I don’t have talent,” we are not to worry “because you have something that makes up for all of that: Favor is on your life.” Osteen is not down on education “but education is not enough.” He doesn’t downplay talent, but he says, “Talent alone is not enough.” We may not know the people we need to know for things to happen, but we are not to worry because

“God does. He has already lined up divine connections, people who will come into your life and use their influence to open doors, to give you opportunity that will push you forward. You don’t have to manipulate people, try to convince them to like you, or compromise to get your way. If someone is not for you, you don’t need them. Don’t waste time trying to win them over. The people whom God has lined up for you don’t have a choice.”

So, things get a little problematic here. First, they seem contradictory. In the opening paragraph Osteen talks about how favor will change people who were once against you. It won’t make any sense that they are now for you, but it won’t be “coincidence.” Here we learn that not everyone who is against us will be changed by favor to be for us. How do we explain God’s inability to demonstrate his favor through the behavioral change of an enemy? In other words, why does he change some enemies and not others. We are not offered an explanation of why God does this with some people and not others.

A second issue is related: What does it mean that God has lined up people for me and that they have no choice but to help me? I think Osteen is saying that God may overrule human will at times so that he can show favor to me. And while it is good news for us that God will change the heart of another person to be inclined to help us, we don’t know how that relates to favor in that person’s life. What does this mean about me? Will God be overruling my will so that I help others so that they see God’s favor? If my actions are being changed literally against my will, what does this mean in terms of my dreams.

Aside: My sense so far is that this is a book you shouldn’t overthink. Perhaps things will become more clear as we move along. At this point it feels like I am being invited to share a secret, but the secret seems self-contradictory on the one hand, and on the other it’s hard to know how life would be any different without this knowledge or insight or whatever it is that the author is putting forward. If, for example, good things are no coincidence, should I be doing something different with that knowledge? Are good things happening to people who are not reading this book? Perhaps this is meant to be a book on gratitude. Something like, Begin to see the good things that happen to you as gifts from God.

Osteen continues with the Noah narrative:

“The people in Noah’s day didn’t care anything about God. They were living wildly, partying, and worshipping idols. God was so upset that He was about to destroy the Earth through a great flood. He could have wiped everyone out and started over, but the Scripture says, ‘Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.’”

Now we’re learning there are some conditions for favor. Favor is not for everyone. Should that have been stated up front? Noah received favor because

“he made the choice to walk in obedience. When you honor God when you keep Him first place, you will find favor in the eyes of the Lord. There is a blessing on your life that will push you up when others are going down.”

More questions. Is it fair to say that God’s desire to bless us is conditional? In the beginning it was said that I the reader was going to receive favor. Now there is a “but.” And if God’s favor is conditional, is it really favor? What conclusions are we to draw from the circumstances of our lives. If good things happen to us, does that mean we have the favor of God? If we “are going down,” does that mean we are not walking in obedience and haven’t found favor in the eyes of the Lord?

Five paragraphs in I am thinking it may turn out that this book isn’t really worth the time to engage with it. There are books and then there are books. Hard to know where this one fits. Does the author know something? Does he know what he is doing? We have a number of things out there: God’s purposes, my dreams, God’s favor, the need for faith, the conditional nature of God’s favor, and a story about how one person was good enough to deserve God’s favor and how the rest of the entire world was not receiving God’s favor.

The unequivocal declarations of God’s favor up front seem a little unwarranted now. It’s like those prescription drug commercials that take 10 seconds to tell you that there is a prescription that will help your condition, but then the rest of the commercial is the aural fine print, where we learn the prescription is not for everyone and the side effects may be worse than the cure. My sense is that Osteen wants to buoy the spirits of his readers. But perhaps it’s more like this:

While you are living your life, know that there is a God who wants His best for you. You need God to accomplish the things you want to accomplish. And you need to know that God has plans for you. Not everyone is on God’s side. And for that reason God is not on everyone’s side. But for those who are following God, obediently following his commands, they are invited to receive the gift of God’s favor on their life.

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It will be interesting to see where this goes. One of the problems is that Osteen is ostensibly a preacher of the gospel—the “good news”—of Jesus. The essence of that good news is the grace that comes from faith in God. Grace is often defined as “unmerited favor.” But he is writing a book that now claims that favor from God is something we earn by our behavior. That is not the gospel message.