The Power of Favor 5 | 1.4

by Glenn on March 9, 2020

Joel Osteen is a New York Times Bestselling author, which means at least one of his books has sold really well. I was and am curious about this and so I’m reading The Power of Favor and engaging with it through a series of blog posts.

The author biography on the book cover says,

Joel Osteen is the author of ten New York Times bestsellers and the senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.

This seems factually true. I didn’t realize ten of his books had become bestsellers. That is impressive.

He has been named by numerous publications as one of the most influential Christian leaders in the world.

This may also be true, although I don’t know what it means for me. I don’t consider him a leader in my life. Why have I failed to see what “numerous publications” have seen? For whatever reason I have had a bias against him, [1] which is part of the reason I want to read this book.

His televised messages are seen by more than 10 million viewers each week in the United States and millions more in 100 nations around the world.

This is extraordinary. Isn’t this the dream of any sort of public speaker, particularly a pastor? He prepares a message [2] and millions of people hear that message. I, along with thousands of pastors around this country, have been working on a message this week to give on Sunday morning and won’t have anything like the size of Osteen’s audience. I expect somewhere between 65-75 people this Sunday. Is there any inherent meaning in the size of your audience? You certainly can’t or at least shouldn’t take any audience for granted. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the size of your audience is. You still need to be prepared.

Is there a direct connection between the size of your audience and the quality of your message? It’s not like they are unrelated facts. My 30-minute message this Sunday will be half the service. The quality of the service is, therefore, half my responsibility. It seems fair to say that to some degree the quality of my speaking will affect the number of people listening to me. A better version of me will attract more listeners than a worse version.

How much better a speaker is Osteen than me? If we just take the American numbers, his audience is 133,333 times bigger than mine will be this weekend. Is Osteen 133,333 times better a speaker than I am? (However we would try and measure that. Part of me says that can’t be true. It’s too big a difference. Another part of me says I’ve got a lot of work to do if it is. I can sort of imagine walking onto that stage at Lakewood Church even as I tell myself I’m not sure I would want to walk onto that stage. For one, my current level of ability wouldn’t be good enough. [3] But there’s also the issue that preparing his talk is not the only thing Osteen is doing during the course of his week. I don’t have any understanding of what the load of leading such a large enterprise is like.

Part of the issue is competitiveness. There’s got to be something in you that strives for a larger audience. I do want a bigger crowd, but I am also suspicious of crowds. Maybe that means I want a larger crowd but I want it for the right reasons, whatever those might be. And perhaps there is something in me that isn’t prepared to do the work that needs to be done to generate a larger audience. I do think there is a connection between the quality of the speaker and the size of the crowd. But it seems like you have to put an asterisk with that. President Trump talks to some really large crowds, but how much of that audience is based on the quality of his talk? [4] Isn’t it likely that other things are in play?

He has a following of over 40 million across his social media platforms and is also the host of Joel Osteen Radio, a 24-hour channel on SiriusXM satellite radio channel 128.

Here is another staggering number and one that raises all sorts of questions for me. What exactly does a following mean? Is that a good thing? I decided to do away with social media accounts. Was that short-sighted? You lost literally hours a week paying attention to them. And what does hosting a 24-hour radio channel entail? This seems like this isn’t possible for one person. The authors I admire have a writing process that is all-consuming. When I read this statement, I get the sense that “Joel Osteen” is as much a corporation/brand as a person.

He resides in Houston with his wife, Victoria, and their children. You can visit his website at JoelOsteen.com and stay connected with him through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, podcast, and YouTube.

This is all extraordinary as well. But I don’t know what it means to connect with him. You can’t have any sort of relationship with millions of people although technology certainly makes it possible to communicate directly to millions of people today. But how would “you” (as one person and not a group of people facilitating “you”) ever respond to, say, a million comments on Twitter. It’s impossible.

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Back to the text. Paragraph 14, which follows a subtitle, “The Seal of Approval.” Osteen writes about the “seal of approval” we see stamped on the box of a product “[n]obody’s ever heard of.” The endorsement of the larger company brings “notoriety and prominence” to the smaller (even unknown) company. Then there is this promise:

“The Creator of the universe is about to put His stamp on you. He’s already accepted and approved you, but He’s about to endorse you.”

Here’s my new thought. (And maybe this will be the reason I don’t spend a lot more time on this little writing project.) This sounds like nonsense. For one, I feel like there is a question of timing. Does it depend on when I read this book? Is it only true because I am reading this book? Is it true because he says it’s true? And what does God’s stamp look like? Is he onto something or is he selling something? It sounds really good, but I find myself wondering if there’s a catch. Shouldn’t there be a catch?

Our next (fourth) Biblical example is Joseph, whose brothers “sold him into slavery” and who was later “falsely accused of a crime, put in prison for something he didn’t do.” Osteen comments,

“All the odds were against him. But the Scripture says, ‘Joseph had favor in everything he did.’”

That is true, but it’s a more complicated story than that. [5] Coincidentally, the story of Joseph is part of the daily lectionary readings this week in the Book of Common Prayer. Osteen could spend more time on the story of Joseph. For one, there’s the fact that Joseph has this gift of interpreting dreams, which is true before he was sold into slavery. In a way it was the cause of his being sold into slavery. Lack of humility about that gift created a rift with his brothers. The story of Joseph is remarkable for how horrendous and unfair things happen to Joseph but they were part of God’s plan—or, at least God was able to use them for his plan. I don’t understand how the favor that God placed on Joseph, which included his ability to interpret dreams, had anything to do with the favor that Osteen says is coming my way. It was sort of an exclusive favor because there’s no report that any of his brothers had a similar sort of gift from God.

Alright, Osteen does return to the story:

“Joseph spent thirteen years in the background, being overlooked and mistreated. There were plenty of lonely nights. He didn’t get bitter. He kept doing the right thing. One day, Pharaoh had a dream that no one could interpret, so they brought Joseph out of prison and into Pharaoh’s presence. Now he was standing in front of one of the most powerful people of that day. Joseph interpreted the dream. Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Joseph the prime minister, second in command. I can imagine that meeting took no longer than an hour. Joseph walked in as an imprisoned slave. An hour later, he walked out as the prime minister.” [6]

Osteen tells us,

“You don’t know what God can do in an hour.”

Part of this feels exactly right. There are moments when things can change. Or there is an hour in life where everything changes. My objection would be that this is not always the way it goes. The plain observation of how life works is that changes are not always moving us forward. When a serviceman is killed in battle and the family receives the news, everything changes in that hour. When a person receives a medical diagnosis, everything changes in that hour. I want to think seriously about this book. So I am wondering if the statement “God is going to favor you” is just too general to be of any help. And unless this is for a specific audience, I don’t know how this works. Everyone can’t be prominent.

I can see an upside to the message. It creates an expectation in the hearts of the reader to look for the good of the Lord. But if Osteen is saying that we’re going to receive a lucky break and that it won’t be lucky because it’s coming from God, fine, but is that all? How are we to live in the meantime. I give Osteen credit for having a big idea that he keeps prominent. It’s hard to miss this idea that God is going to put his favor on me. But it’s an idea that I don’t know quite what to do with. It’s exciting and confusing all at the same time. It’s great that God’s favor is coming, but isn’t there something I should be doing? Perhaps Osteen will develop this idea.

Osteen returns to the story of Joseph to remind us that years later “Joseph’s brothers [would come] to the palace looking for food—the same ones who had thrown him into the pit.” And the lesson is that while “[t]he brothers had done their best to keep [Joseph] down . . . God knows how to endorse you. He knows how to put you in a position of prominence.” This is an awkward juxtaposition from Joseph to me (or any other listener/reader). And, again, I think there is more to this story than is being addressed. For example, it’s more than the idea that Joseph’s brothers wanted to keep Joseph “down.” Their thoughts and intentions had been murderous and only the intervention of one of Joseph’s brother’s (Reuben, as I recall) resulted in his mere enslavement rather than extinction. This is pure malevolence. And part of their fear about Joseph is the fact that he is in a position to execute (pun intended) the most delicious sort of revenge on them if he wanted to. Wouldn’t it be helpful to introduce the idea of evil into this narrative? It’s certainly part of the narrative of our lives. Part of the beauty of this story is that in spite of human malevolence, God works his good. And notice how Joseph later frames the actions of his brothers:

“And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance? So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45:5–8, NIV, emphasis added)

It’s not that God favored Joseph and things turned out great. It was that things sucked for a long time and yet God was with Joseph in the darkness. My understanding of the story is that God did something in the character of Joseph and used his circumstances to accomplish his purposes both to change Joseph as well as to further the redemption story God was telling in the lives of Abraham’s descendants. Years later Joseph’s brothers were worried about revenge, and Joseph’s response was one of the most beautiful lines in all of scripture:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20, NIV)

It’s a more complicated story than God was favoring Joseph. It’s that even tragedies and the malevolence of God can be used by God for his purposes. Somehow, improbably, they may even be part of his purposes. Part of my objection to what Osteen is saying so far is that it feels sort of selfish, like it’s all about and for me. God is going to do things that other people won’t understand for me. God will manipulate people who wouldn’t otherwise help me (or who would normally be opposed to me) to help me. But for what end? Joseph recognizes that the favor of God was not for him, it was for others and for other purposes. He had a remarkable way of re-framing his experience. Maybe that’s something missing in this book so far. Osteen wants to apply this story to the circumstance of the individual reader:

“You may feel like you’re in a pit today. Don’t get discouraged. We all have pit stops along the way in life. The good news is, that is not your final destination. [7] God has an endorsement coming, and I’ve learned that the greater the opposition, the greater the endorsement. Much as with a bow and arrow, the more the enemy tries to pull you back, the more you’re going to go forward. He thinks he’s pulling you back to hinder you. He doesn’t realize he’s setting you up to shoot farther than you’ve ever imagined.”

I have a growing love/hate relationship with this book so far. I love the tone of encouragement. We all need encouragement. This was a vivid simile. I struggle, though, with what feels like a distortion of reality. For some people, shouldn’t the message be “Cheer up, it’s going to get worse”? I don’t say that sarcastically, but it was true both in the story of Joseph and will be true for many people. And so the part I hate is the unqualified nature of all the promises that are being made—actually it’s just one promise, that God is going to put His favor on my life. This is all discussion of what God is going to do. Was there anything for Joseph to do?

Osteen has neglected my role in this. [8] But part of this discussion should be the fact that the first rule of pits is not to make them worse. We have as humans the capacity to make bad situation worse.  And isn’t there a message like “Try to avoid falling into pits,” which would be helpful here? Things can change in a moment. But we may also find ourselves lost in the woods and after a lengthy amount of time wandering, it may take us a while to find our way back out. How do these relate to God’s favor?

I admire the singular focus on a message. But maybe he’s reduced things so far that the message has actually become absurd.

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[1] Admittedly, I know next to nothing of the man. My bias is not so much against the person but against Christian television personalities in general. There was a time where I was drawn to them, but late in life I don’t find the idea of preaching on television appealing.

[2] Whatever that means. I assume that he probably has some assistance of some sort, which I don’t intend as criticism. I don’t know how you take on the responsibilities he has taken on and have the time for writing a sermon and then get the delivery in shape for weekend services. The little bit I watched of a message based on this book suggests he is speaking from memory, which is impressive. (Or perhaps there is some sort of teleprompter that I don’t see.)

[3] I haven’t really focused on improving as a communicator and there’s some good news there. If I make improvement as a communicator a priority, it’s likely that I won’t face the prospect of diminishing returns right away. For example, if I compare myself to a runner who is sub-4 minutes on the mile, I won’t look too good today. I’m not sure I could run a mile right now, particularly with the cold that I’m working through (and am assuming is not the Coronavirus). But I could certainly cut the gap dramatically. The sub-4-minute miler is trying to shave a second or two off his time and all of his efforts at training will only accomplish that. Meanwhile, any efforts of mine at improving would result in minutes coming off my time. The analogy works only if Osteen is the speaking equivalent of a sub-4-minute miler and I am a couch potato. In a sense I am already a runner of sorts, preparing and delivering a message most weeks, so perhaps my expectations of growth potential need to be tempered somewhat.

[4] However you would try to measure that.

[5] I’m always a little nervous about using Biblical characters as quick points of evidence. We want Biblical support for the things we say when we preach, but it feels unfair to the story when we don’t grab onto the details of the story.

[6] The story in the Bible continues to the point where Joseph created a highly centralized, what we might call totalitarian, economic system. That’s a problematic part of the story for those of us who like capitalism.

[7] The ornery part of me wants to interject here that in a way things got worse for Joseph. The “pit stop” turned into a prison sentence. His is a story of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

[8] So far—perhaps, ultimately, he won’t. I’m not that far into the book. One of the complicated aspects of this story is Joseph’s complicated character make-up. He was a bit of a show-off and a braggert with his brothers, which, in a way, is why he found himself in a pit. On the positive side, he appears to have been a person of integrity, but this resulted in his being put into prison. The former trait appears to go away over time, while Joseph appears never to have lost his integrity. Is part of the story the fact that there are parts of our character that absolutely need to change and there are aspects of our character that should never change?

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