The Power of Favor 6 | 1.5

by Glenn on March 23, 2020

The most obvious thing about Joel Osteen’s The Power of Favor is it’s conversational tone. The author is writing directly to you the reader. He uses simple words. The Power of Favor is no academic treatise. You don’t have to re-read paragraphs because you’re trying desperately to understand them. The overall tone is one of a pep talk. Hang on—good things are coming your way.

I am surprised by how good a writing prompt this book is, mostly because I seem to have some problems with the book beginning with the fact that neither the author nor the audience have been qualified in any way. It will be interesting to see if my problems are addressed along the way. [1] We just sort of started in with declarative statements about what God is going to do for the reader. We don’t know how the author knows what he knows. And we don’t know for whom these statements apply. It’s a bit like picking up a diet book that says, “You are about to lose weight. You may be heavy now, but weight loss is coming.” That’s great. But does the author know something about nutrition? And will there be something for me to do to make this happen? As a reader I am used to an if/then proposition when it comes to books. I’m used to statement like, “Based on my extensive study of human dietary patterns, I promise that if you will follow the plan I lay out in this book, you will lose weight.” There was no introduction for this book to lay out anything like that.

Is there an intended audience for this book? If I’m being hypercritical, the message of this book—God is about to put his favor on you—seems absurd without any conditions for that message. It seems like there must be some conditions, but perhaps not. At this point, though, the message feels like something you would read in a fortune cookie. Sounds great, but we’re not going to put much stock in it or make any decisions based on it. I’m not sure what decisions we could make at this point. We’re not really being asked to decide anything or to do much with what we’re being told.

*     *     *

On page 9, the focus shifts from Biblical illustrations to one involving Lakewood Church, where Osteen is the pastor. He tells the story of how until 2003 Lakewood Church met in an unglamorous building in a “more industrial” and “more rundown” part of town. Regarding the church at that time, Osteen says “We were second class.” (p. 10) That statement tripped me up. Does class matter in a church? He says “second class” and it feels like a kind of regret or shame about what was. And then his narrative becomes personal:

“When I became pastor there were certain people I saw during the week who weren’t a part of Lakewood and wouldn’t give me the time of day, They barely acknowledged that I was there. But in December 2003, the Houston City Council voted for us to have the former Compaq Center as our building. We went from being in the industrial part of town with small roads, back in a neighborhood where hardly anybody could find us, to being on the second-busiest freeway in the nation in one of the most well-known, prestigious buildings in our city. That one good break catapulted us to levels of influence and respect that we couldn’t have reached on our own in our whole lifetimes …” (p.10)

He goes on to say how people who wouldn’t give him the time of day now ask him to save them a seat. He makes a joke about saving one up “right up by the flag, ” (p. 10) which I assume means there is a flag up near the rafters somewhere. This is, of course, an example of the point Osteen is trying to make:

“God knows how to endorse you. … Don’t be discouraged by where you are. … He’s going to do things that are out of your league, things you couldn’t make happen. He’ll not only amaze you, but people around you are going to be amazed.” (pp. 10–11)

It sounds like the story of purchasing the Compaq Center was more dramatic than people realize. When he would receive congratulations for it from people, he would think, “If you only knew.” Osteen writes, “God turned council members who had been against us for years, and suddenly they were for us.” (p. 11) The decision was made in just a matter of minutes, but God had been working “behind the scenes.”

Osteen riffs a bit on time, which makes me wonder if this book is simply a transcript of his talk. Previously he had written about what God can do in an hour. Now, as he reflects on the speed of the Houston City Council decision, he says, “It’s amazing what God can do in ten minutes.” Those ten minutes changed Osteen’s life. And then he shifts back to the hour that he previously referenced with “Joseph meeting with the Pharaoh.” And then he talks about the overnight where God protected Daniel in the lions’ den. It’s not important, but I couldn’t tell if it was a mistake—“Oh, wait, I just said ‘See what God can do in an hour’ and now I said ‘See what God can do in ten minutes,’ I’m all over the place”—or if this was a way to bring some threads together. Hard to tell.

The next subheading in this chapter is “‘That Day’ for You Is Coming,” and now we get a condition for favor. I think previously, Osteen mentioned something about the necessity of faith and here, after telling us that God’s favor will catapult us ahead, he writes, “Yes, you have to be faithful.” But he doesn’t talk about what faithfulness would look like. He goes back to the Joseph narrative and writes,

“Joseph was in difficult places for thirteen years, but it only took him an hour to get out.” [2]

Not to be difficult, but when you tie in faithfulness, didn’t it actually take all 13 years for Joseph to get out? Was the faithfulness tied to that or not? If I recall the story correctly, Joseph actually became something of a head prisoner. He seemed to have a gift for authority wherever he landed. Osteen wants us to know that “What God has for you is going to happen unexpectedly,” which I think makes this message something like, “Expect the unexpected.” As I write, the U.S. stock market had it’s worst one-day sell-off in eleven years. The whole growing Corona Virus problem certainly wasn’t expected. The unexpected isn’t necessarily a good thing and it seems strange to imply [3] that good things that happen unexpectedly are from God and the other things are not.

Osteen asks us to imagine,

“What would happen if we’d get up each day and say, ‘Father, thank You for endorsing me today. Let people see that I am Your child’?”

Is that the most important thing I should ask God for today? Is the heart of the Christian message what God wants to do for me? Or is the heart of the Christian message what God has done for me and what I do in response? Being endorsed by God sounds good, but it strikes me that one of the messages of the Bible is that Christ has died for me and that fact, that good news, should change how I live in the world, especially what I do for others.

The fifth Biblical reference is to Joshua. [4] I’ve noticed that Osteen freely speaks for God. Regarding Joshua, he has God saying,

“‘Joshua, this is your moment. I’m about to endorse you. People are going to see the greatness I’ve put in you. You’ve been in the background serving Moses, being faithful, but today you’re coming into the foreground.’”

Again, here is that idea of faithfulness. It seems like he could (or should) make more of that. If Joshua had not been faithful, would God have brought him into the foreground? Osteen gives an illustration of someone in his congregation who had a school was named after her. The point Osteen made was that God will make you significant, but it’s not so that we can say, “Look how great we’ve become.” She hadn’t lived her life to get that kind of recognition. This is interesting. I don’t feel like Osteen has stressed the purpose of favor up to this point. It seems like it’s been “You are going to be favored just so you can be favored.” This is actually encouraging in a way. It answers one of the objections I have had.

Osteen now says God’s favor has conditions:

“[I]f you will walk in humility and always give God the credit, there’s no limit to how high He will take you.” (p. 13)

He quotes Romans 8:

“All creation is eagerly waiting for the day when God reveals who His children really are.”

He comments, “That’s talking about when we get to Heaven, but even now, God is going to show people that you belong to Him.” [5] This is an interesting thought: God wants to show people that I belong to him. A first question: What’s preventing Him? I also want to ask, Is it important that I show people that I belong to God? He must think so, because he writes that if “[y]ou keep honoring God,”  then “He’s going to show people who you really are.” This is another interesting point. What does this mean exactly that God will show people who we really are? This almost sounds threatening. To some extent we all pretend as the “real you” and the you that others see are not exactly the same thing. This could be ominous. But perhaps Osteen is saying that God will show the world the best part of who you are. It’s a little confusing, though.

To be fair, there is a record in the Bible of God blessing people. Abram/Abraham is an example of someone who became wealthy because God blessed him. Is that the only thing God does with people though? God’s own Son lived in poverty. The apostle Paul had moments of abundance and others of destitution. I can’t imagine a disciple who was more faithful to God and lived in more horrendous circumstances.

The last section of this first chapter is titled, “Favor Is Given to Fulfill Your Purpose.” We are given another Biblical reference, this time to “a young Jewish girl in the Scripture named Esther.” (p. 14) Osteen notes, “She didn’t come from a prominent family,” but “[w]hen God endorses you, it will cause you to stand out.” This is so difficult to process. God favored one person over all the others, but all the readers of this book are going to be favored? I come back to If everyone is favored, no one is favored. You can’t prefer everyone, can you? This feels really weird using stories of individuals who were favored over others to illustrate how God will favor all of Osteen’s readers. Why will Osteen’s readers be favored? Who will they be favored over?

Something left out of this story about Esther is how creepy the whole narrative is. My read of the story is that it was more than a beauty contest. It was more like, “The best prostitute gets to be the Queen.” It’s a complicated story where God is never mentioned. Yes, we assume that God must have placed Esther in this position of prominence, but it’s not explicitly stated. It’s ambiguous. The Jewish people suddenly find themselves in a difficult place and Esther’s position as queen is altogether precarious. (Reference the previous queen.) Esther’s uncle wonders aloud to Esther what her role in God’s purposes might be:

“And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14, NIV)

This is not just a story of how God will help you come first in the beauty pageant. It’s a story of how (among other things) we sometimes have to do things that aren’t exactly safe. I don’t want to be unfair to the author, but is what he is doing fair to Scripture? And Osteen downplays the importance of preparation here as he deals with a possible objection:

“‘Well, Joel, this sounds good, but I don’t have the training. I don’t have the experience.’ Neither did Esther. Favor is more powerful than your résumé.”

I want to push back here because my memory of the story of Esther is that there was some preparation. (Was it twelve months of at least cosmetic treatments, whatever that entailed?) She and all the other young women in “the contest” were being prepared on some level. Best not to think too much about that. But I feel like this is not a consistent message. You need faith. You need to be faithful. But you don’t need to be qualified. Just … know it’s coming. This is a hard message to process: “Favor will take you where you don’t have the qualifications.” Do you want to be some place where you aren’t qualified? I’m not talking about the fact that we need to stretch in life to grow. It’s when we pick up heavier and heavier weights that we get stronger. To be fair, perhaps Osteen is saying that perhaps there is a place where we will flourish and do well but that we don’t have the paper qualifications for it. We don’t have the résumé the organization wants, but we can actually do the job. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mention anything about the actual abilities of the person or the actual abilities required in the position. Osteen continues,

“Now you’ve worked hard, you’ve been faithful, you’ve honored God. Get ready, for the curtain is about to come up. God is about to show people who you really are. I believe and declare you are coming into a new level of prominence, a new level of influence, a new level of income. God is about to endorse you. People are going to see the greatness He put in you!”

And so we’ve arrive at the end of chapter one. It’s still difficult to work this out logically. I’m not trying to be facetious, but let’s say that everyone who reads this book suddenly gets a new level of income. Isn’t that going to cause some inflation because of rising wages? I feel like this is message for feeling and not thinking. Take the feeling that comes from knowing God is going to do something great in your life, but don’t overthink this message.

I don’t know if Osteen has addressed some of these issues in his other books. Perhaps he’s trying not to revisit ground he’s already covered.

I do know this book is written from cruising altitude. 30,000-50,000’—something like that. It’s not a long chapter, so to reference Noah, Daniel, David, Joseph, Joshua, and Esther is certainly possible, but there’s no way to address all of those stories in anything like depth. He did spend a little time with Joseph, which was good. It seems like he could address favor through any one of these characters and drill down into some details, but that didn’t seem to be the purpose. This opening chapter was a lesson in setting expectation. Believe that God is going to do something good. Reminds me of the song Oral Reports used to sing: “Something good is going to happen to you \ Happen to you, this very day / Something good is going to happen to you / Jesus of Nazareth is passing your way.”

It will be interesting to see where things go in Chapter 2.

*     *     *

I’ve read many books I wish I had written. So far, this is not one of them. There are books where I wished I had the knowledge that the author has or that there was a quality to the writing that I wished I had or where I was moved to feel certain things because of the writing. I’ve dreamed of having that kind of knowledge and that quality of writing and that ability in craft. Here I am struck by the size of this tremendous audience and this incredible bookselling machine that is the enterprise of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church, and not understanding how this book fits in there. What is it about this message, which I find inconsistent and illogical, can generate such a wide audience? Perhaps I should plan to make a trip to Lakewood Church and experience things for myself. I’ve read two books where the authors did just that and wrote about it. [6]

In an earlier post, I noted that this book nearly matches the opening moments of a talk Osteen gave. I didn’t listen far enough to see if that continues and for how long. It seems strange that the book and the talk are so closely matched [7] because one or the other could have been edited. I don’t know which came first, but which ever came last, couldn’t it have been improved? Perhaps the book was first and the talk might have addressed some of my objections. It would be interesting to understand the process of how this book became a book. If this book is atypical, at this point it is difficult to understand how it receives such a large audience.

____________________

[1] I am writing as I read rather than reading the book and then reviewing it. In one sense this isn’t very fair because I am not allowing the author to develop his ideas fully before I react to the things he says. But I am thinking that one of the things a writer should try to do is convey their ideas in such a way that the reader has no objections along the way. (Which is not to say that you like what is being said or agree with what is being said.) It’s a one-way conversation and so the writer must be concerned with how the message is received. They should be checking for understanding along the way. Am I being clear? Are there any possible objections to the things I am saying? There’s certainly no opportunity for the reader to interrupt and ask questions along the way. This series of blog post amounts to questions I wish I could ask.

[2] Hmmm. Back to the time thing again. Is he illustrating a principle like “God can do big things in a short amount of time”? Something like, “In ten minutes, the life of me and this church was changed. In an hour, Joseph went from prison to prime minister. In one night, Daniel was spared from the lions.” Otherwise, it sounds like he’s trying to reconcile the time frames for the different illustrations after the fact.

[3] The way I read this, it’s not an implication. It’s an outright declaration.

[4] If I’m keeping score accurately. We’ve had Noah, Daniel, David, and Joseph prior.

[5] This passage has an unfortunate effect of coming across like, “That scripture really has nothing to do with what I’m talking about, but it felt like a good time to throw in a scripture.”

[6] Jim Henderson and Matt Casper: Jim & Casper Go To Church and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.

[7] The book is formalized just slightly as I recall to take out, for example, contractions.

Leave your comment

Required.

Required. Not published.

If you have one.