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?

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I am back to the text with paragraph six, which is preceded by a chapter subtitle: “Favor Brings You Into Prominence.” Joel Osteen (I assume) addresses an objection:

“‘Well, if I have favor, why am I having these difficulties? Why did these people come against me? Why did business slow down?’ Having favor doesn’t mean you won’t have challenges, but favor is what’s going to keep the challenges from defeating you, and sometimes God will put you in a situation so He can show you His favor.”

Here is what I think Osteen is saying: Everything that is happening to you is because God is showing or will show you his favor. What we might call the good things of life he has already addressed—they are more obviously examples of God’s favor. It’s easy to see things we like as examples of God’s blessings or favor. But what about the things we don’t like? How about human suffering and the malevolence of other people? Now Osteen is saying that “difficulties” are places where God “can show you His favor.” I’m trying to think this through. We live in a cause and effect sort of world. But I see this as an open world where God has and does insert his will. Osteen suggests that everything that comes into our lives is because God is orchestrating it. And now I’m flashing back to that film The Truman Show, where the one character thought he was living his life and everyone else was doing the same, but it turned out the other members of his world were a cast who were orchestrated by a producer to bring things into the life of the main character. The lead character, Truman, was living life in a world where events were controlled by someone else. If I am in my own version of The Truman Show, where God is orchestrating all the events of my life (not for television ratings as per the film, but to show his favor), what are the implications for everyone else in the world. Are they being manipulated by God for my experience? And what about me? Am I being manipulated by God to shape the experience of other people? There are some really thorny philosophical issues here and I am hampered by the fact that I have no background in that. I’m beginning to suspect that the author has the same problem.

Is Osteen simply saying “Everything happens for a reason”? I’ve never quite understood what that means or what the consolation is there. (I suppose the simplified variation of that is “‘Stuff’ happens.”) If it means simply that everything is a result of something else, then true enough. That is the world we understand. You get drunk and then you get into a car accident. You can see the cause and effect. If you are the family of the person who died in the other car, they can say the reason their person died is because that other person drank and got behind the wheel of a car. We understand the cause and effect that goes on in the world. It’s explaining and living with the cause and effect that is so tough.

I don’t mean to be unkind to the author. As a pastor, I have the same obligation he does of explaining the things that happen in the world. I tend to say “I don’t know” a lot, which has the benefit of being true. How do you explain why one person has cancer and another person doesn’t? How does one drunk person get behind the wheel of a car and nothing happens while another produces a tragedy? Osteen’s perspective is that everything is God’s will. (Assuming I am understanding him correctly and presenting fairly his view.) Or at least everything is God’s “favor” (or will result in God’s favor). My own view is that there is a tension between the will of God and the will of humans that means we can’t explain everything that happens so easily. God can work his will. But we have choices we make (or at the very least it feels like we have choices we make.) Certainly there is no situation that is beyond God’s ability to work good [1] and I believe we are called to celebrate the goodness of the Lord, but we often say that through tears. In the midst of tragedy, you wouldn’t think of glibly saying, “Look how God is favoring you.” This is a world where the will of humans and the will of God are co-mingling. And it’s tough to sort all that out.

I’ve gone far afield. Back to the text. Osteen defines favor as “to endorse, to bring to prominence, to give notoriety.” He refers to writers who seek the endorsement of a more prominent writer to gain “more credibility.” He mentions the value of having an Oprah Winfrey choose your book for her book club. This is true. It’s hard to see how this relates to the difficulties of life, but Osteen continues,

“It’s great to have people’s endorsement, but you need to get ready. The Creator of the universe is about to endorse you. God is going to make things happen that are so big, so amazing, that people will know it couldn’t have been just you.”

This sounds good. It’s great to read this. But I find myself just a little bit skeptical. It sounds implausible that he knows what God is going to do in the lives of every person who reads this book. He gives some examples,

“The medical report said you were done. ‘How’d you get well?’ God endorsed you. His favor caused you to overcome what looked impossible. ‘How’d your business get so successful? How’d you get so far ahead? We went to the same school?’ God endorsed you. He showed His favor so people would know that you belong to Him.”

So, a couple of reactions. First, what do we say to those who get sick and die? “Sorry, God must not be favoring you?” Second, what about the secular world? Is business success the result of God’s favor? Does that mean Apple, Disney, Microsoft, Google are prospering because of God’s favor? What about the best-selling author who is far from God? It sounds like Osteen is trying to give me hope. And I need hope. It’s hard to get out of the bed in the morning if there isn’t something calling you into the future. Lack of hope is a problem. But Osteen is giving me as many problems as he is solving.

The second Biblical allusion in the book is to Daniel. He refers to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. Osteen’s summation: “Favor doesn’t keep you out of the lions’ den, but favor will keep the lions from harming you.” Well, the first part is certainly true. We know from history that many Christians were thrown in the lions’ den. It’s hard to even contemplate that. But we know that not every Christian for whom that happened had Daniel’s experience. Many Christians were killed in the lions’ den. Osteen seems to run right past that.

I’m thinking that for me this book has a couple of problems. First, we have cherry-picked examples of the favor of God. For every person in the Bible who received the favor of God, we have people who did not, with varying consequences. Second, this book has a this-world focus, which is strange considering that Osteen is a pastor. The Biblical perspective is that there is a world beyond this world to which we need to pay attention. Success in this world is one sense is not really the measure of anything. We do need some form of success in life. Some money certainly makes life bearable. We need enough. But we certainly don’t need riches to be happy. And Hebrews 11 tells us that for every person who received what God had promised, there were many believers who did not. It’s up to an eternal God who keeps his word to settle some things beyond this world. I think that’s the nature of faith. Trust God and don’t worry about the results is how I think of it. Do what you know to do and don’t read too much into the results. Some people experience fantastic success. Some don’t. Is it as simple as God is favoring one person over the other? And how can God favor one person over another and be favoring both? It’s hard to know what God’s role is in any of that. Success is too limited a measurement tool. Additionally, health is a wonderful thing, but the Biblical record is that even in suffering we are not beyond the purposes of God. (I have not had that belief tested much in my life. I hope I will have the courage of my convictions if and when it happens.) Osteen continues,

“God is going to do some things that bring you into prominence, into new levels of influence and credibility. People can debate what you say, but they can’t debate what they see. When they see you running the company, paying your house off, and graduating with honors, they’ll know God is endorsing you. When they see you breaking the addiction, beating the cancer, coming out of the lions’ den unharmed, and accomplishing dreams way over your head, they will know God’s hand is on your life and He’s about to bring you into greater prominence. You’ve been in the background long enough, serving faithfully, helping others with no recognition. Your time is coming.”

I don’t recall the last time I read a book and found myself with so many objections and questions. There is an omniscience assumed by the author that is all at once inspiring and confusing. Part of my problem with what Osteen has just said is that it undermines the value of things we sort of take for granted in life, like hard work. We say, “Hard work pays off.” Work hard and maybe you can run the company. Be diligent and live wisely and you can pay off the mortgage early. Study hard and you can graduate with honors. Is Osteen discounting the importance of human responsibility and effort? Imagine giving a graduation speech. In front of you is a sea of black robes—young people about to receive diplomas. Do you say, “Congratulations, God has favored you?” In a sense they have received some favor. But it wasn’t in that moment. That moment is the end result of a long series of good favor moments. They are part of the population that has enough intelligence to do well in school. They are part of the population that has or has learned the ability to show up and do what they’re supposed to—they are finishers. Not everyone is. They had financial resources. And they didn’t do this by themselves. They likely had family members that fostered things like reading. They had adequate food growing up. Graduating with honors may be evidence of the favor of God, but we’re talking years of effort and environments that nurtured the success of this moment. And I wonder if this book is discounting actual effort in its appeal to look for God’s favor.

A third Biblical reference comes next. It’s the story of David who “spent years in the shepherds’ fields taking care of his father’s sheep.” Osteen imagines what David was thinking: “I don’t have favor. I’ll never do anything great. I’m stuck out here. Nobody believes in me.” Osteen has more confidence than I do in imagining the thoughts of Biblical characters. My sense is that there was a part of David that was quite content with God no matter his circumstance. He wasn’t sitting around waiting for his time to come. David was a poet who knew God as his shepherd. But David was also a warrior who had trained on his weapon of choice. When David defeated Goliath, sure God had chosen him to be the next king of Israel, but I don’t see his defeat of Goliath as a miraculous event. He didn’t just pick up a slingshot and God took over. He had trained seriously to handle a lethal weapon. I wonder if the message here should not be so much “Look at what God’s going to do” as “What are you doing in the situation you are in to better yourself and become more than you are.” Again, don’t worry about the results. It’s too easy to sit around and say, “I’ll work really hard if somebody gives me a chance—if God grants me favor.” But sometimes it’s easier to receive favor when we are already working hard.

Osteen concludes this section with the observation,

“What God can do for you in one moment will put you fifty years down the road. That’s the power of God endorsing you.”

That’s nice to imagine, but is this true? Measurably true? Have I become too scientific in my way of thinking? And am I taking this too literally? There’s a palpable feeling when you’re 56 that you don’t want to be any farther down the road than you already are. Earlier in the book, Osteen made the favor of God a conditional sort of thing. Now it appears to be unconditional, again. It’s coming. And it’s coming for everyone.

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I am still struggling to identify the audience for this book, which is strange because he has already identified people who didn’t receive God’s favor, for example, the people in Noah’s time. So it seems we could at least exclude some people from the discussion. As Osteen speaks of favor, it is undiscriminating. The Biblical record often shows God preferring one person over another—preferring David over his brothers, for example—preferring one nation over another—Israel over Egypt.

A good thing this book does is give us language to talk about our experience. When good things happen we can notice the favor of God. When we experience difficulties we remember that we are not beyond God’s favor. But I wonder if this is an oversimplication. The Biblical record suggests there is a kind of person who is successful in life—they are wise. They do well because they’ve figured out how life works. The favor of God is good, but it helps to not be foolish.

And the message is a little confused or at least confusing. 13 paragraphs in, the overall message seems to be, “Cheer up. Great things are coming.” I find the lack of conditions around that to be in a way disheartening. If things are going well, then the message is unnecessary. If things are not going well, the message is incomplete. I want to be open to learning something new. What I know today is that we should “Trust God and Buy Broccoli” as one person put it or “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” as the Dixie Chicks sang.

 

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[1] “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

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