The Power of Favor 7 | 2.1

by Glenn on March 23, 2020

So far, The Power of Favor by Joel Osteen is  a mixed bag. On the one hand, you can only marvel at the machinery of it all.  Joel Osteen isn’t an author so much as a brand and enterprise. He is the pastor of a giant church, a 24-hour satellite radio host, [1] a self-described Christian leader, a social media presence with a remarkably large following, and a family man. Somehow out of (or maybe in spite of) all of this activity a book was produced. Where some authors, perhaps, have their primary focus on the creation of a book, The Power of Favor is just one of many things emanating from Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. It’s not a singular accomplishment as much as it appears to be part of a critical mass of activity. It’s the chicken or the egg debate—which came first? And so does the book sell the television show or does the television show sell the book? Perhaps it’s both. But it doesn’t matter, in a way. The point is that there is an enviable PR machine that makes this book possible and, one imagines, profitable.

On the other hand, I have this working question: Is this a good book? Few people have the ability to devote the bulk of their time to writing and I don’t see how it is possible or likely that Osteen does. [2] That’s not a complaint, but it may say something about the possibility for quality with this book. [3] One would hope there would be a correlation between the amount of time someone spends on writing and the quality of that writing. Regardless of the writing process, I think we can agree that there is an ideal where the quality of the writing is excellent (however you would judge that) and the effect on the reader is profound.  For me, one chapter in I feel we are falling short of this ideal.

But maybe the goal is not to write a great book. There are many reasons for writing books. I remember hearing David Allen say that one of the reasons he wrote Getting Things Done was so that he could raise his hourly consulting and speaking fees. No complaint here about that. Meanwhile, his book was well done and has been immensely helpful to me. There’s nothing wrong with wanting an income either from or because of a book. You can overthink or judge improperly the motives of an author. The reality is that an author should feel free to say what they want to say, knowing that there is no guarantee that anyone will want to read what they say. A publishing company can be for profit or non-profit, but the bills need to be paid either way. Writing or publishing a book is not an act of charity, at least the way we think of that word today. You want to believe in what you publish, but you never know what will be a hit. The marvel of The Power of Favor is that it appears to follow a string of hits.

One of the weaknesses of this book is that it lacks an introduction. I didn’t mind that at first. Who says a book has to have an introduction? But the lack of one has created some problems for the author. Who is this book intended for? Where did this book come from? This is my first book by Osteen. Is this book a development of ideas from his other books? Would I feel differently about it if I had read his other books? So far, The Power of Favor creates more questions than it answers. It is a simplistic approach to faith. Following Jesus is something that even a child can do. Jesus commands his followers to have a childlike faith. But as we get older, our lives and awareness and questions become more complicated. The answers that satisfy children are often inadequate for adults. Some of this could have been addressed in the introduction. This does not appear to be a book that attempts to get into the nitty-gritty to resolve a major problem. Even the large size of the typeface suggests we are taking low-resolution images from high up. This book is written from some elevation. It is not a treatise. It is an encouragement. And, certainly, people need encouragement. What remains to be seen is if this simple message is, ultimately, encouraging.

Osteen is a pastor and one of the things a Christian minister does is to speak for God. That is a heavy task, to say the least. You have the Bible, “God’s word,” and you have an audience. And the Christian minister stands between them. The preacher attempts to speak for God in a way that their audience can and will hear. There’s so much to that, which must be for another time. But I am thinking about this book as a statement of what God is saying to a particular group of people. What is this God like? What is He saying to people?

One chapter in we’ve learned that people have a need for and will receive favor from God. There are places we want to go in life that we can’t get to on our own, but fortunately God will help us get there. Along the way we had referenced the stories of Noah, Daniel, David, Joseph, Joshua, and Esther. Each of these characters are examples of people who received the favor of God. They are offered as proof that God has favor in mind for the reader of this book. Left out of all of these Biblical stories is the basic fact that while each of these Biblical characters received favor, that favor was exceptional. The other characters in the story did not receive favor. There are countless examples of people who did not receive the favor of God—at least not how it is described here.

One of the things a preacher needs to do is to define and address the problem. For example, for the problem of sin, there is a Savior. This book suggests there really aren’t problems. Or maybe that our basic problems are lack of status, income, and quality of relationships. God’s favor will address all of them. What Osteen doesn’t address is the fact if we are promoted, the basic you will not have changed. Your income, job title, relationships will have changed, but you will not have changed. To take on a job for which you are unqualified, is it enough simply to be given the job? Shouldn’t you actually be able to do the job? There is the question of what our role in any of this is. One the one hand we’re told to be faithful. We’re told that hard work is good. Schooling is good. But then we are told that those things aren’t everything. In fact, they aren’t necessary at all because the favor of God will render all of that irrelevant. We will get promoted to jobs for which we are not qualified because of God. I could use more clarification. It seems to go against both the way things actually work and maybe even the way things should work.

*    *    *

As Chapter Two begins, we have another rather dynamic opening sentence:

“One way our faith is released is through our words, and there is a connection between speaking favor and receiving favor. It’s not enough to just believe you have favor. It’s not enough to just expect favor. You have to take it one step further and declare favor.”

This opening sentence (and salvo) has the same quality and effect that the first sentence of chapter 1 has—it’s as though you are jumping into a swift moving stream or tuning in to a radio program already in progress. There’s a discussion underway and you’re trying to make sense of it. Rather than say one thing, he says two. It’s a little tough to get your bearings. I don’t know about the word “released,” but I agree that faith can be expressed in words. But that isn’t an exclusive thing. My objection is that while speech is an expression of faith, [4] it’s not the only expression. We could use a definition of faith, here. Osteen is right in that you don’t possess faith, you express faith. The basic idea of Biblical faith as I understand it is that it is an action that demonstrates belief in God that is supported by the confidence that God will keep his word. Further, that definition should include a key idea in the nature of Biblical faith: It requires God as its object. You can only have faith in some One or some thing. (Lack of faith, then, means you don’t have faith in some One or some thing.) You don’t have Biblical faith without God as the object of that faith. Which means that the important part of our faith is not us, but who or what or faith is in. We need to express our faith, for sure. But it is not the expression of our faith that matters as much as what our faith is in.

I like the story I’ve heard Dr. Timothy Keller tell about the two guys who get on an airplane headed somewhere. One is an experienced traveler who gets in the plane and immediately falls asleep because he is so relaxed. The second traveler white knuckles the entire flight. He is an anxious mess. One traveler has great confidence in the plane. The other is quite anxious. But the point that Dr. Keller makes is that both guys get to their destination. But it’s not because of the quality of their faith, but the quality of the object of their faith.

So then there is this “connection between speaking favor and receiving favor.” I think about this because I am wondering if this is something I need to be saying to my congregation. As a pastor, I read books from time to time and think about how they could be useful in my work. Recently, a group of twenty or so of us completed a book study of Timothy Keller’s Prodigal God. It’s an excellent book. And it was fun to read and discuss it with a group of fellow believers. [5]

I’m not sure if and how I would use The Power of Favor with my congregation. I don’t find myself resonating with or convicted by it. I’ve picked up books and thought, “That’ll preach.” Obviously, this word of Osteen will preach because he has preached this message. But I don’t know how I would preach this, partly because I don’t understand it, partly because I am a little skeptical of it, and partly because the focus seems to be misplaced.

Osteen declares,

“When you speak something out, you give it the right to come to pass.”

How does that work, exactly? He goes on to write,

“When you face difficult situations, instead of being discouraged, thinking, Why did this happen? you need to declare, ‘The favor of God is turning this around. Favor is bringing healing, freedom, vindication, and victory into my life.’”

The obvious question is where was God’s favor when it happened in the first place? I am reading this book in the midst of this Covid-19 (Corona Virus) pandemic. The number of deaths appears to be doubling every five days or so. At some point, these exponentially-growing numbers are going to be overwhelming. The Power of Favor is a fascinating juxtaposition against our current circumstances. Where do we see God’s favor in this crisis? How would this be explained? A response might be ‘You weren’t speaking enough about God’s favor.” But it’s not an easy thing to explain.

In Chapter 2 we get into some qualifying of the audience: Not everyone receives favor because not everyone is speaking favor. Osteen writes,

“It’s one thing to think [favor], but when you declare it, angels go to work. In the unseen realm, things begin to change.”

This is another How does he know? moment I have in this book. Part of this feels exactly right. It’s just that it’s not that straightforward. Daniel, one of the characters Osteen referenced in the previous chapter, describes an incident when he prayed and there wasn’t an answer. (The story can be found in Daniel 10:2–14). Daniel fasted and prayed for three weeks before an angel appeared to him and explained how his words had been heard by God and he had come in response. There had been a delay, though.

“But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.”

This is an extraordinary moment in the Bible, where we get a behind-the-scenes view of what is going on in the spiritual realm. But the no small point I would make is that nowhere in this passage does it say that Daniel “declared favor.” He fasted and prayed. And then there wasn’t a response because there was spiritual warfare. This is way more complicated than how Osteen presents things. My mind goes to the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, where he instructs them not to declare favor but to pray,

“Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:10, NIV)

meaning things in God’s world are pretty dialed, but things in this sin-tainted world require His intervention. Our circumstances aren’t the way heaven is or the way God intends them. We are to pray that this world will be like heaven, but I don’t see any sort of guarantee in the Bible. Osteen anticipates criticism here:

“‘Joel, you say I have favor, but I never get good breaks. I never see anything unusual.’ Maybe it’s because you’re not declaring it. Why don’t you step it up a notch? All through the day say, ‘Father, thank You that Your favor is endorsing me. Thank You that Your favor is bringing me into prominence. Thank You that Your favor is taking me to new levels.’ That’s not just being positive. That’s releasing your faith for the favor of God.”

This seems tricky as there were times where Jesus could not perform miracles because of the unbelief of the people. Osteen returns to one of the Bible characters he has referenced, David, who Osteen maintains spoke favor over his life.

“[David] said, ‘Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.’ In one Bible translation, the word goodness is favor. David was saying, ‘Surely favor follows me all my life.’ [6]

Was David describing favor before or after the fact? In other words, was David speaking favor or was he acknowledging the favor of God? Osteen interprets it as the former.

“In effect [David] was saying, ‘Favor is keeping enemies from defeating me. Favor is making me attractive. Favor is bringing promotion and opportunity.’ He didn’t just think about it. He didn’t just hope it would work out. He spoke favor over his life.”

Osteen concludes,

“No wonder the prophet Samuel came to him and anointed him the next king. No wonder he defeated a giant twice his size. No wonder King Saul couldn’t kill him.”

Was David named king because he declared favor? Or did his longing for God make him “a man after God’s own heart”? And the defeat of Goliath—was that because of the favor of God or was David an expert marksman with a superior weapon. [7] One of the issues I am having with this book is the way Osteen uses Bible stories. I feel this book is a kind of cautionary tale for how not to do things. Based on what I am reading, here, I tell myself, Be careful how you use Bible stories. You can distort them. These stories communicate truth and you have a truth you are trying to convey. Accurate and faithful alignment between the two is essential.

We are introduced to another Bible character, Nehemiah. In Nehemiah it says,

“the gracious hand of God was upon me.”

The lesson is that we are to thank God for his favor:

“The favor of God will help you get the best deals. Favor will put you at the right place at the right time. You pull into a crowded parking lot. Right when you drive in, a car backs out. You get that up-front spot. That wasn’t a lucky break. That was the favor on your life.”

That’s a pretty jarring shift of gears, from Nehemiah who wanted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem to an American shopper looking or a good parking place. But now we are becoming aware of the audience for this book: It is the American middle class. Osteen tells the story of how his family went to purchase cell phones. They bought one and got three “for free.”

“We had gone in there to get one phone. We walked out with four, but we only paid for one. You may think that was good luck, but I know that’s the favor of God.”

As I read this story I felt like there were missing pieces, because there is no free in this world. Were those phones really free or was the cost built into the plan? Or perhaps there was some favor extended. But could this event be explained? Did the manager recognize Osteen and decided to intervene. Osteen is exactly the kind of person you would want saying good things about your business. My point is that the story is reduced to a point where I feel like key details are missing.

Osteen deals with another objection based on these two illustrations:

“‘Well, Joel, God’s got bigger things to deal with than me getting a cell phone or finding a good parking spot.’

That seems fair. Osteen goes on to say that these things are just one way that God expresses his love for us. He says,

“God is showering His favor like never before.”

Yet another question how do we know this? Especially in light of the Corona Virus. We return to a theme from the first chapter:

“When you declare God’s favor, He will move people out of the way to make room for you.”

There’s another way to approach this subject. Proverbs is not a book of promises, but it does say,

“A gift opens the way and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.” (Proverbs 18:16, NIV)

This is to say that the Bible presents another way we can get ahead in life. It’s not through an incantation, but through hard work. I think there is a tricky balance between God’s sovereign intervention in life and human responsibility. You need to talk about both. Osteen includes a story about a major league baseball player who was toiling away in the minor leagues. He couldn’t get into the pros. And then the star player who was in his way was traded to another team and room was cleared for this guy to move to the major leagues. It’s a great story that illustrates his point, but for every story like this, aren’t there dozens of heartbreaks—even believers who aren’t able to make the jump? We work hard and still there are no guarantees for extraordinary success.

With the return in this chapter to the character, Nehemiah, Osteen uses the story to ask if we will “activate this favor?” My problem with how he uses this story is that he immediately jumps to Nehemiah’s “dream to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem.” What he leaves out is the fact that Nehemiah doesn’t actually declare favor. He mourns and weeps and fasts and prays.

The prayer is worth quoting:

“Then I [Nehemiah] said: ‘Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

‘Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.”

‘They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.’

I was cupbearer to the king.” (Nehemiah 1:5–11)

Nehemiah prayed for favor. He wanted favor. To say the least, this prayer tells us that the favor of God is quite a bit more involved than simply declaring it.

 

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[1] Think about that one for a little bit. How is that even possible or desirable? At the very least it challenges the definition of what it means to be a host.

[2] Or perhaps Osteen possesses a remarkable sense of self-discipline of which I’m unaware and don’t appreciate.

[3] Although devoting the bulk of your time to writing is no guarantee of anything. There may be efficiencies in the writing process that I don’t understand, so that one person may write a terrific book in a fraction of the time that another person takes to write an awful book.

[4] For example, Romans 10:10: “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”

[5] The point of that book is that “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” is misnamed. It should be “The Parable of the Two Lost Sons.” Both are lost. The one son is obviously lost because he has taken his father’s inheritance and squandered it. We rejoice when he comes home and receives his father’s welcome. But the other son, the elder son, is also lost. He is estranged from his father by trying to be good. At the end of the story the father invites him into the feast that he is having for his formerly lost son and the parable ends without telling us whether or not the elder son is ever reconciled to his father. There’s a lot more to the story and the book brings it out. It’s an excellent study.

[6] One gets the sense that a concordance was used to find every story in the Bible where the word favor was used.

[7] I sure appreciate Malcolm Gladwell’s consideration of this story.

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