The Power of Favor 13 | Chapter 3.5

by Glenn on April 20, 2020

I pick up in Joel Osteen’s The Power of Favor on page 43 of Chapter 3, a section titled “Vertical Favor.” Osteen presents another quick outline of a Biblical narrative, the story of Elijah meeting Elisha. The idea is that Elijah was a guy who had favor. He asked Elisha to come and be his servant, which on one level wasn’t appealing because Elisha came from some wealth. To be the servant of Elijah was a step down. But Osteen writes that Elisha “recognized the favor on Elijah’s life” and served him “with honor.” Osteen says there is a principle there:

“When you honor someone who has more influence, some of that influence is going to come back to you.”

The end of the story is that when Elijah was taken to heaven, Elisha “received a double portion of Elijah’s anointing.”

This contradicts some assumptions I’ve had about blessings in the Bible. In my last post I said that the blessing of God was binary—you either have it or you don’t. But here is this story that says Elisha received a double portion of what Elijah had. So maybe there are degrees? But we aren’t exactly precise in our definitions, here, jumping between blessing and favor and anointing. They may all be synonyms or they may be different concepts. That’s something I need to think about.

For Osteen, the story of Elisha confirms the principle that you honor people who are ahead of you in life:

“[I]f you’re only sowing into horizontal relationships, into people who are at your level, then you’re going to see horizontal favor. When you’re secure enough in who you are to sow into vertical relationships, into people who are ahead of you, you’re doing to reap some of this vertical favor.”

I take this to mean that if you want to move ahead in life you need to be around and learn from people who are ahead of you. A more cynical view might be Be nice to rich people because some of their riches may fall onto you. I bristle a little bit about this. On the one hand there’s truth to the idea that we become like the people we are around. If we want to develop and grow it’s good to be around people who are better than us. Iron does sharpen iron. We certainly don’t want to hang out with the wrong crowd. But this utilitarian idea of people doesn’t feel right, somehow. Shouldn’t we be helping the people around us to grow rather than looking for different people to be around?

This seems tricky. There are colleges like Stanford where the elite of the elite in our country go to study. Stanford would not be Stanford if they just took a random sampling of whoever applied. They are actively seeking and promoting the best of the best. To what extent should the Church be an elite institution like that? In a sense, the Church is whoever God has called. Should we divide the Body of Christ and be choosing which Church members we hang around? How do we pursue growth in our lives without being dismissive of others? This is not an issue that gets addressed.

Osteen assures us that when we honor these people who are ahead of us,

“As with Elisha, you’re not just going to go to the level where they are. You’re going to go further and have double the influence, double the favor, double the resources.”

This is quite a promise. I feel skeptical. Does my skepticism negate this promise? How would we measure this claim to verify that it is true. Or perhaps it’s meant more metaphorical. In the Scripture, the promise to Elisha was literally true—God worked twice as many miracles through him.

Osteen relates how there are pastors who support his ministry. And what he hears from these pastors is that because they support Osteen, their own ministries are growing. Osteen visits the story of Peter who fished all night and at the word of Jesus, went to fish again and caught so much that it almost sunk his boat. He had to get help from other fishermen. The principle is that because Peter was increased so were the people around him.

“Who you’re connected to is extremely important. There are blessings that belong to you that are attached to the people God has place in your life, and if you’re not seeing any fish, you need to evaluate who you’re connected to. You may need to disconnect from relationships that aren’t producing any increase and connect with people who are blessed, people who are seeing favor. “

What Osteen is telling us is that we are to look at the people around us and see who is heading somewhere and get on their train.

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I don’t want to be dismissive of Joel Osteen and his accomplishments at Lakewood Church. And I certainly don’t envy what he is going through in light of the COVID-19 crisis. There are television contracts and staff salaries and bills to pay. It’s got to be a complicated organization to begin with and these times don’t make it any easier. There is something odd, though, about reading this book in the time of the Corona Virus. It’s a message that sounds good when your life is going reasonably well. But right now this book is either Bizzaro World or this is just some bad timing for the book.

Osteen has been making some claims about favor. And if I have any issues with this book, I think they would all fall under my wish that there be more specificity about the things he is saying, especially defining favor and establishing the claims of who receives favor and how that process works. There are numerous statements about how God is going to “show out” and place favor on people’s lives without saying what, if any, conditions were attached to it. Everything is so general that it is hard to take what is said seriously. It’s like a series of fortune cookie messages. Nice thoughts, but we don’t spend too much time thinking about them.

If I say, “Something good is going to happen to you,” what is that good thing that is going to happen? The author isn’t really clear. There is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy that may be part of this. If you tell me that something good is going to happen to me, then perhaps I am now looking for good things. Nothing wrong with expectations. But it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s snake oil about this. You tell me, “Something good is going to happen to you,” well, how do we define something good? We meet again in a week and you say, “Well, what happened?” I can’t really say, “Nothing happened.” So now I am looking for something that will fit into that category of “something good,” which could be anything, from a sunset to not getting in a car accident to getting a thoughtful card in the mail. Did something good happen because we were looking for something good or because someone told us something good was going to happen? Can’t we just be looking for good in a spirit of gratitude rather than making claims about favor? It feels like this isn’t really a coherent philosophical system.

Most of us, I think, can look back at life and see both lucky breaks and unfortunate occurrences. There are plenty of good things and trouble in our lives that we can take responsibility for. Often life seems to follow a natural consequences model where when you do this thing and then this other thing happens. So, for example, you show up on time to work every day and you get to keep your job while someone else doesn’t and they get fired. You ate a salad for lunch every day while your buddy had fast food so that years later you feel great at your ideal weight and he’s got heart disease. Sometimes we can see the results of our own actions.

There are other times, though, where you can’t explain things so easily. You find $20 on the ground. Is that favor? A passing bird leaves a deposit on your shoulder. Is that some sort of curse? What it seems like Osteen is doing is claiming that good things that happen in life are favor. I haven’t done a lot of thinking about this, but maybe he is talking about Providence. And so the central claim of this book is that we should either trust Providence to work directly in our lives or to place ourselves around people whose lives seem to reflect the workings of Providence (as opposed to being around people who are some form of a train wreck) so that we can enjoy Providence indirectly. I can make sense of and support that.

Perhaps Osteen is calling his readers to look for the good in life—to be expectant for good things. Maybe this falls under the message, Be grateful, which I also believe and support. Osteen is calling us to understand that God is a good God who wants to do good things in our lives. And, in fact, the Bible says that the good things in life come from God. For those of us who feel negative emotions more easily, I think there is some wisdom here. It’s difficult to work around “negative people” who always want to say why things will not work (which is to say that if you are a negative person, you need to understand it’s not always easy to work around you). Life is challenging. It’s hard to make things happen. And you want to be around people with a “Can do” sort of attitude when you need to make things happen under challenging circumstances, although you are crazy if you don’t ever want to know what could go wrong with your plans and consider unintended consequences.

But there hasn’t been a lot of comfort in this book for those whose lives have not gone well. If you are a Stage 4 Cancer patient, you need medicine to work or a miracle. And if you don’t get those things, then it’s hard to see how you are being favored, at least in terms of this world. I haven’t heard much, yet, about this lack of favor. Maybe that’s good. There have been times where bad things have happened that couldn’t be explained and so we beat up the people who experienced the bad things. We told them that their faith must not have been good enough. We said that God must really be trying to teach them a lesson. We suggested there was sin in their lives for which they were paying a price.

*   *   *

The one thing that needs to be said about the idea of favor is that we desperately need it. For one, the whole Christian enterprise depends on the favor of God. We tend to call it grace, but that can be defined as “unlimited favor.” Depending upon your view of people and what happened to them after the fall and the implications of original sin for humans, the prospect of favor is a lovely thing. It’s not just a good thing, but essential/required for life with God. Favor in these terms would not simply be something that God does for us, but the basis of our relating to God. Because of the favor of God, we can relate to God.

One of the things left out of this book, at least so far, is that behind the statement that God will favor you is an answer to a question embedded in that statement: Why will God will send favor to us? And in terms of favor from God, are there any pre-conditions? As soon as you ask that question, of course, you run into the problem that it can’t be favor if there is something you are doing to warrant the favor of God. Then it’s just a reward. The whole point of favor is that it is unearned. In theological circles there is the idea of prevenient grace—that before we go looking for God, he actually is looking for us. The ones who receive favor from God are those who trust God in response.

Another thing unclear in this book is who is receiving the favor of God. As you read, the author maintains that the reader of the book is going to receive the favor of God. My head spins a little bit thinking about that one, though. Did something actually change about the future because he wrote that God will be sending favor my way? Is favor now coming because he said it was coming? What would happen if this book hadn’t been written or if I were not reading it? To what extent do my expectations factor in?

A second thing to be said about favor is that material life and human relationships depend on it. We need others to do things for us. Perhaps, in a way, we need to do things for others as well. Like God does for us with grace, favor is not earned. We can’t really call it favor if we’re getting what we deserve. There is a basic “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch my back” functioning to our economy. We serve others and they serve us. But this isn’t really what I would define as favor. And serving someone so that they will serve us isn’t really the idea behind service, is it? The idea of favor is where we do something for someone else that they can’t do for themself.

Osteen tells us that because God is favoring us, people will do things for us that they actually don’t want to do. God will, in some way, compel them to send favor to us. It’s really strange to think about this. Is it favor if someone is being compelled to do something?

We are also told in this book that we will be promoted beyond our abilities and ahead of those whose abilities are ahead of us. The favor won’t have anything to do with our current level of ability. I find promises of this kind both inspiring and troubling. It’s inspiring to think or know there’s a lucky break coming my way. We need lucky breaks to get ahead. The world consists of these pyramids of power that are difficult to climb and the idea that you don’t need to kick and strive, that you will be placed on a new level because of God’s favor, sounds wonderful.

But then it’s troubling, too. Let’s say you have been striving. For years you have worked hard trying to get a promotion and then someone “below you” is promoted “ahead of you”. What are we to make of that? Their promotion is, in a way, a failure of the rewards system of work hard to make your way in life. How do things normally work? Well, if you want to do well on the test, study. Want to get a pay increase? Make yourself so valuable that your employer worries about losing you. Want to know some vibrant and attractive people? Be an attractive and vibrant person. While the author will say you need to work hard, this doesn’t take into consideration the fact that others have worked hard, perhaps harder than us, and it’s presented almost as an afterthought.

A missing piece in this discussion is what happens when you are promoted beyond your skill level? I see a couple of different ways of thinking about this. One is that there are areas of life for which we don’t have the proper qualifications or resume but in which we could rise to the occasion. Stretch goals are good. But there are limits as well. There are jobs for which we are not suited. And just because we are promoted to a job doesn’t mean we can do the job. To what extent should we count on this?

So far, The Power of Favor is an encouragement to be ready to receive the favor of God or find the favor of God in people who are favored by God. The one thing is an expectant attitude. There seems no harm there. In fact, that may be solid advice. Attitude is important. The latter, though, is a prescription to look carefully at the people in our circles and to look for favored ones. We are to honor and serve them and leave behind the people who are at or below our level. Perhaps I’m thinking of this as an either/or proposition where the author actually means both. We care for the people around us as we look for people who are better than us. But like so many things in this book, it’s not clear.