The Power of Favor 14 | Chapter 4.1

by Glenn on April 28, 2020

I return, tentatively, to The Power of Favor by Joel Osteen. I’m finding it’s a book that is interesting to think about, but doesn’t relate well to life. It’s actually a little infuriating right now. Part of that may simply be the storm we are in right now. It’s hard to see the favor of God in this pandemic. Perhaps I am feeling more than usually gloomy as I write this particular morning but, in a way, the COVID-19 bug was the perfect way to inflict the most damage on this country. The United States was heavily in debt (both the collectively as a state and as individuals within that state) and we are going into deeper debt. (Isn’t there a cliff ahead somewhere?) And then even before this crisis began, a significant number of people were living paycheck to paycheck. Now, food supply chains may be disrupted. Like some medical treatments, the cure of social distancing comes with complicated and heavy side effects that could be with us for a long time.

All this to say that it didn’t feel like we were in great shape before any of this started and it’s hard to see how we simply bounce back to the way things were. And maybe that idea has gone away by now. Unlike waking up from a nightmare to find the world the way we remember it, we are experiencing a nightmare and have no way of knowing what life will be like on the other side.

More than 50,000 people have died from the Coronavirus in the United States, which is to say that more people have died in one month than the flu kills in a year. One of the crueler aspects of this pandemic is the way the elderly are so vulnerable. I think I read that 80% of the deaths are to those over 65. As the pastor of a congregation where a significant percentage are in that demographic, it’s worrisome. So far, though, the effects of the pandemic on lives in my community are along the lines of fear, inconvenience, and sadness. The way we help with the problem is to stay away from the problem, which feels strange. To come together we remain apart as we don’t know who may have the virus. Going to the grocery store feels like a major risk that we can’t really quantify. It seems to me that widespread and efficient testing would be a helpful step forward, but that’s another subject.

And so The Power of Favor seems largely irrelevant to present circumstances. Or, worse, it may actually make things worse. It’s slightly jarring to return to this book. Chapter 4 opens with these statements:

“The favor God puts on your life causes you to be different. It’s a favor that makes a distinction between you and those who don’t honor God. The Scripture speaks of how you’ve been called out, set apart.”

An ongoing problem in this text is the lack of qualifications. To whom is Osteen writing and to whom does the favor of God go? One of the distinctions of the novel Coronavirus is its apparent lack of discrimination between people of and without faith. I think about the North Carolina evangelist and musician who died from COVID-19 (see here and here). In a very real sense, we’re all the same and I wonder what the author would have said if he had written this book aware of the coming health crisis. Where I live in rural Oregon, we remain relatively untouched by the crisis. But I wouldn’t call it favor. And I wouldn’t say of those living in New York that they are receiving disfavor.

To leave the subject of COVID-19, though, Osteen suggests that favor is somehow earned, that because you honor God, you have favor that others don’t. There’s no explanation of how one honors God in such a way that you receive his favor. There’s no explanation of the irony that honoring God is depicted as a way of earning or, at least creating the conditions for, God’s favor. (Is God’s favor returning a favor for our honoring of Him? This seems rather transactional for actions that are described as favor.) He goes on to write,

“The Most High God has set you apart. He could have chosen anyone, but He handpicked you, called you out, and said, ‘That’s one of Mine.’”

I do believe that is what the Scripture (I’ve noticed the author seems to avoid the use of the word “Bible”) teaches, although I am in that stream of theological thought that says God’s choice is based on his foreknowledge not fiat. In other words, God knew who would choose him, so those He elected to be saved. It’s a really complicated thing to think about and whether you are on the more Calvinist/Reformed side of things or the Arminian/Wesleyan, there is no easy way to think all of this through. There are implications for however you think about this issue. The point, though, is that Osteen has made no distinction between those whom God has chosen/favored and those He has not. There is this assumption that the person reading the book is one of those people. Further, he has not explained how a person would know that they are one of these chosen people. It seems like part of the assumption here is that the person reading the book must be interested in the things of God (honors God?) and that is enough to make it possible that you will receive the favor.

Is there anything required of the human or is it all God? My tradition says that we must reach out to God in faith. We have the choice whether or not to receive him. But that is not to suggest that we are in some sense saving ourselves. Salvation is God’s doing. We are simply responding to the prevenient grace that God has sent our way. God sent his Son, Jesus, to die for the whole world, but only part of that world will respond to that love. So that if we want to speak of the favor of God, somewhere we would have to talk about our responsive role in the process.

In this book we don’t know who “you” is or how it happens that you are “you,” but it’s good news to be “you”:

“This distinctive favor causes you to prosper when others are struggling. You recover from a difficulty when others get stuck. You have protection when others face calamity. … You have an advantage. …”

This sounds so good, but isn’t the kind of thing that you should think about deeply because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. One of the things I am trying to think through in this book is what is true and what is not, what are provable claims and not, what is God’s doing and what is our responsibility, where science begins and ends. In other words, there is this thing called wisdom which teaches you how the world works. By following Wisdom, there are things that we can do to improve the quality of our lives. To what extent do good (favorable) things happen to us when we live wise lives versus God is doing things in our lives? Can favor be traced to doing wise things in life rather than God is simply orchestrating things so that I prosper when others struggle, I recover when others are stuck, I am protected when others face calamity? Are there principles we can follow in life to get the results we want in life. To what extent is God rendering those principles void by intervening in the world? And how can we measure any of this?

So what are the conditions under which all of this is true and when isn’t it? When does God act and when is it our responsibility? One of the things you notice in the world is this thing called critical mass. There are little things you can do day in and day over a long period of time that don’t look like much on any one particular day but will result in great things down the road. The thing about that process is that for a long time it looks like nothing is happening. You’re doing these little things and nothing seems to be going on. But then things build up quickly, all of a sudden. One example of this is that if you, over the course of many years, save money in a moderately aggressive portfolio, you can wind up with a lot of money. Should we be teaching that or encouraging people to think that God is going to do something miraculously and they don’t really need to worry about what they are doing day in and day out?

There is a reverse sort of this that relates to the Coronavirus. (One last time?) It’s the same principle so that not only can good things produce exponentially better things, the Coronavirus can spread death and destruction exponentially. For a long time—and one of the debates, now, is whether or not our government waited too long—we weren’t really concerned about the virus in this country. And then people started talking about the need to flatten the curve because of the exponential nature of what could happen over time.

Early in this crisis I was introduced to the thought experiment of the lake and the lily pads. This is what made me concerned. As the reporter, Megan McArdle, frames it,

“If it takes the lily pads 48 days to cover the pond completely, how long will it take for the pond to be covered halfway?”

The answer is it takes 47 days for the pond to be covered halfway. And the reporter notes, “Moreover, at day 40, you’ll barely know the lily pads are there.”

I’ve also seen a thirty-day variation on this story, where we imagine it’s a thirty-day month like June. If on June 1 there is one lily pad, on what day is the pond half covered? That would be June 29. On June 20, two thirds through the month, the lilies only cover .01% of the pond. From this blog post, here is how much the pond is covered toward the end:

Day 20:     .01%,
Day 21:     .02%
Day 22:     .04%
Day 23:     .078%
Day 24:   1.56%
Day 25:   3.125%
Day 26:   6.25%
Day 27:  12.5%
Day 28:  25%
Day 29:  50%
Day 30: 100%

The idea of these stories is that exponential growth is going along and we’re not even aware of it until it’s too late (for either good or ill). For me there’s this question of what is faith and what is wisdom and what is science. How all three of those come together is such a mystery. The discussion of favor in this book seems to suggest that we don’t need to worry about long-term actions that will produce good or bad things in our lives, because God will send favor to make long-term actions that will produce good unnecessary and mitigate against long-term actions that will produce misery.

For the favored ones, Osteen has this message:

“Don’t go through life thinking that you’re average, that you can never accomplish your dreams. Put your shoulders back. Hold your head high. You’re a part of the called-out group.”

At the risk of being hyper-critical:
1. You might actually be average. Most of us are, aren’t we? We’re in the bell of the curve. I suppose it’s how one defines average.
2. Accomplishing dreams often depends on what those dreams are. As a 56-year-old guy shouldn’t I place my dreams of playing in the NBA to the side?
3. Should God’s favor be a point of pride? This seems really strange to me. What should our response to God’s salvation be? Is it something like “Hey, look I’m chosen and you’re not”? The way I think of salvation is that there is nothing particularly good about us, but God is extraordinarily good and loving toward us. There’s really nothing to take pride in. Rejoice, sure. Gratitude, yes.

It feels like the narrative may be getting a little repetitive in this chapter. Osteen says,

“God has set you up for a distinctively favored life. That means He’s set you up for blessings you didn’t work for, for promotion you didn’t deserve.”

We’ve heard that before. And so I feel repetitive in saying there’s something that is actually not that encouraging about this. This feels like exactly the opposite of what we should say to people who are interested in quality of life. Instead, we say things like, “Work hard and you will achieve something in life.” This message of the author has this tone of “Don’t worry about working hard because good things are coming your way.” I wish there was a way to say both, here.

What makes this statement difficult to hear is that there are ultra-competitive arenas in life where it simply means you aren’t good enough to compete. Does the favor of God help us in those situations where we are simply out of our league? This is not areas where we can compete if we’re stretched, but areas where we simply cannot compete. We don’t have the intellect or the temperament to do well. That’s a little depressing, but what it means is that we need to find arenas where we can compete.

Osteen then introduces this cautionary note:

“I’m not saying negative things will never happen. That’s not reality. I’m saying you are protected by the One who controls it all. If God allows it to happen, He’s promised that He will turn it somehow and use it for your good.”

This feels so contradictory with the rest of the book so far. It feels like a disclaimer: “Individual results may vary.” What does protected mean if you aren’t actually protected? My understanding of the word in Biblical terms is that it means we are safe from evil. We would need to have that teased out a little bit. But it’s hard to reconcile this statement with all the assurances of promotion and greater income and success. It’s like, “God will bring you success, unless he doesn’t, which means that he will still use it for his good.” So is God interested in our material success or not? Or is God interested in something else that may or may not relate to success? Maybe it’s both or more. Then why all the unqualified assurances that material success will happen if this little bit of fine print is going to be tossed in here? This feels more and more like a treatise on how to say something without really saying anything. The tone of the text is decidedly upbeat, but I wonder about the substance, which really hasn’t asked much of me expect:

Chapter 1: Believe that good things are coming my way.

Chapter 2: I should declare that.

Chapter 3: In the meantime, I should associate with people for whom good things have happened (and stop associating with people at or below our level).

Chapter 4: The differentiation from God’s favor.

*    *    *

I believe in God’s grace in my life. That is based on faith in what God has promised. My only hope in life and death is that I belong to God (as one doctrinal statement frames it). I assume that the author would agree largely with that statement. But here are the questions that come out of this book:

1. To what extent is favor another term for God’s grace, which is a result of God’s love toward me, which I then respond to in faith?

2. To what extent does God’s desire to extend grace toward me include his desire to make my life comfortable and prosperous? Is that the extent of his purpose for me, and if not how do all those purposes come together?

3. To what extent does God’s grace circumvent the need to live wisely and exercise appropriate action in life?

4. To what extent does God’s grace make it so that I don’t experience bad things in life?

5. To what extent can the claims of this book be measured empirically? In other words, is there a way to figure out who the favored are and then measure their lives against the “unfavored” (?) and see the extent to which the claims of this book are true?

I want to take this book seriously, but I take both faith and science seriously (or at least want to). There is wisdom and foolishness. God’s favor certainly doesn’t discount the former and doesn’t necessarily counteract the latter. We live in the tension between God’s actions and human responsibility.