The Power of Favor 12 | Chapter 3.4

by Glenn on April 14, 2020

There’s an abrupt shift in The Power of Favor from the use of Ruth to explore “Favor Connections” to go back in time to Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first high priest. Joel Osteen writes,

“In the Scripture, when they poured oil on the head of Aaron, the high priest, it flowed down to the rest of his body. This is symbolic. Oil represents favor, and when you’re connected to people with favor, the more blessed they are, the more blessed you’ll be.”So we have a couple of things, here, that I react to. First is the symbolism of oil as favor. Coincidentally, I read the chapter on Psalm 133 from Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction just before I read this. Here’s what Peterson writes about this scene of oil being poured on Aaron’s head:

“Oil, throughout Scripture, is a sign of God’s presence, a symbol of the Spirit of God. The oil glistens, picks up the warmth of sunlight, softens the skin, perfumes the person. … But more particularly here the oil is an anointing oil, marking the person as a priest.”

That seems like a really different understanding. As high priest, Aaron was the anointed representative of the people of God by the Spirit of God before God. He represented the entire nation. There was only one high priest at a time in scripture. To me it appears Osteen is using this moment in Aaron’s life where he received this particular anointing as a lesson for us today on how to get ahead in life. The analogy doesn’t seem right. Osteen goes on to write,

“That oil will flow down to you, and when we understand this, it’s easy to celebrate those who are ahead.”

Here is where the analogy breaks down for me. It wasn’t like you could get close to Aaron and have some of that oil fall on you so that you could get ahead. He was anointed. You weren’t. End of story. In terms of the illustration used in this part of the chapter, what happened to Aaron was not favor as much as it was anointing. Am I being too picky about definitions? Or is he conflating ideas?

The second thing that comes to mind is the idea of levels of blessedness. I’ve come to understand the idea of “blessed” in the Bible as a binary thing. You either are or you are not. For example, Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is the one who …” and “Not so the wicked!” There’s no indication there of levels of blessedness. When Jesus gives the Beatitudes, he says “Blessed are the poor in spirit …” (and those who “mourn”, are “meek”, “hunger and thirst for righteousness”, etc. ). He doesn’t say, “The more poor in spirit you are, the more blessed you are.” In other words you are blessed or you’re not. You’re not more or less blessed.

Now maybe this is not what Osteen is saying. Perhaps it’s more along the lines of The better off someone is, the more they can help you. I believe that is true, but I don’t think it’s the point of the story of oil on Aaron. It may not actually be a Biblical point, although you certainly can prove it. [1]  For example, when Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt looking for food in a famine, it didn’t hurt that their brother was second-in-command. Who they knew was everything in that story. So, yes, the more “you’re connected to people with favor … the more blessed you’ll be.” Another place I think the Bible does approach this concept, but sort of in reverse, is with the idea of the blind leading the blind. There the idea would be: Be careful of the unfavorable connection. A variation of this might be something like, Make sure the people you are following are headed where you want to go.

There’s a lot more that could be said about Aaron and the idea of the high priest, but it turns out Osteen is ready to move on. Instead, Osteen talks about some insecurities he had when he first began ministering:

“I was very nervous and unsure of myself. I didn’t have the training or the experience, but there were several very prominent ministers whom I knew from my growing up years. I listened to their messages over and over. I would send them notes telling them how much they had helped me, and how much I admired and respected them. One man in particular was a legend to me. He was so far ahead of me. I was amazed by what he had accomplished and how respected he was. I say this with humility, but now, nearly twenty years later, God has taken me further than him.”

I’ll take the humility for granted, although my experience is that the more we have to tell someone that we are speaking humbly, the less likely anything like humility is involved.

I wish there was some defining of what it means that this particular minister, whoever he is, “was so far ahead of [him].” What does that mean, exactly? Is success in ministry an external thing that can be measured with numbers—the size of a congregation, television audience, payroll, paycheck, etc., or is it something that can’t be readily seen? It feels like Osteen is focused on externals. But he might not be. What if it was, “I so admired the way this minister could make God’s truth come alive for me. I longed to be able to do that for someone else.” That would feel very different from, “His ministry was so big, but mine, now, is bigger.” The former is admirable; the latter is sad.

Ironically perhaps, Osteen says we

“don’t have to compete with people. You don’t have to try to outperform them. You’re not in competition with anyone except yourself.”

He then goes on a bit of a lecture on how to treat people who are more successful than you. The main thing is not to criticize them. He writes,

“Pulling somebody else down will never make you rise higher. Trying to make them look bad, spreading rumors, and magnifying their faults may feel good, but it’s going to boomerang and come right back to us. If you sow disrespect, you’ll reap disrespect. If you sow spreading rumors and stirring up trouble, that’s what you’ll reap. A much better approach is to celebrate those who are ahead.”

I agree completely with not being a gossip. And I support the idea of being respectful. I hope I am being respectful even as I write critically. We live in a culture that is positively brutal right now. Peggy Noonan, who is among my favorite writers, posts her column at The Wall Street Journal on Thursday night and then the insults fly in the comments section. I don’t want to add to the polarization of the world. But is Osteen saying that because he is successful, he is beyond criticism? That doesn’t seem right. I mean no disrespect in having this dialogue with his book. If I aspire to write a New York Times Besteller, is it wrong to criticize a New York Times Bestseller? Success doesn’t move us beyond criticism if only for the simple, and I would think Osteen would have to agree is the obvious, fact that no one is perfect. We are all susceptible to making mistakes. Everything is subject to improvement. Just because a bestselling author puts something in print doesn’t, then, place those words beyond criticism. Is thinking critically about this book “trying to make [Osteen] look bad”? Perhaps that is there in my heart, but mostly I am trying to understand the connection between the words in this book to the phenomenal success of his books.

If Osteen is saying that people who are more successful than you are beyond criticism simply because they are more successful than you, then this seems rather self-serving. “I’m a successful preacher, therefore do not criticize me until you are more successful.” The other thing that strikes me is that if I’m defining who is ahead of me, how do I know that my definition of who is ahead of me is accurate and justifiable? How do we measure “aheadness” and is my thinking about what constitutes said “aheadness” a good one to have? Again, some guidance would be helpful to understand what favor means. And, in the context of the life of Aaron, if and how it is connected to the idea of being anointed by God.


[1] I’m pretty convinced anyone can prove anything from Scripture. Shakespeare’s Antonio in The Merchant of Venice reminds us, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”