4 Stars Out Of 5
Give this book a chance!
December 11, 2012
I just finished reading Joel Osteen's bestseller Your Best Life Now: 7 steps to living at your full potential. I have to admit that at the outset I was skeptical. After all, I was taught to be suspicious of faith teachers who have no formal theological education and yet amass widespread popularity. (Sometimes I wonder if that skepticism isn't fueled by a bit of jealousy (of a Christian kind, of course)). Having read the entire book (a feat that I doubt many of its harshest critics have accomplished) I can say that I was encouraged, inspired and challenged. Hopefully I am smiling more. I won't however, attempt to grow a cool mullet; only Joel can pull that off in 2012.
My first assumption that needed some correction concerned the title of the book. The whole notion of being able to live our best lives right now seems a bit heretical for a classic evangelical like myself. I firmly believe that our best life is still to come, in the perfection of the future fullness of the kingdom and presence of God (also called heaven). However, it is clear from reading the book that Joel is not downplaying heaven, but merely attempting to teach how to live the best life that is possible during this life, here and now, pre-heaven.
Many of Joel Osteen's critics label him as a "faith teacher," argue against the classic teachings of this movement, highlight the abuses, heresy, or outright sins of other similar teachers, and then declare them all guilty by association.
You may wonder what is a "faith teacher." So-called faith teachers focus their teaching on biblical themes and stories of blessings, healings, abundance, and prosperity. They regularly quote, and over-quote, Jesus' teaching on mustard-sized-faith that can move mountains. The key to the God-blessed life (the good life) is to develop faith, by which a person can ask God for anything and get it. God is then viewed as a genie, with faith as the golden lamp. The hypocrisy of such teaching is evidenced in the self-indulgent lifestyles of its preachers, including their private jets, sprawling mansions and air-conditioned dog houses.
Part of the problem is that by constantly teaching on these topics, preachers ignore other important issues and these topics are abused by over-use. This is true of any tradition, and the reality is that focusing on one aspect of theology, whether it is blessing, the sacraments, or even holiness, leads to misuse of other important aspects of the Christian faith.
This forms the basis of my thoughts: if Your Best Life Now is presented (by Rev. Osteen) or received (by his readers) as merely one aspect of Christian living, and not as an encyclopedic tome of all that is true, then there is tremendous value. For the person who claims to be a Christian, the book is a good kick-starter to living out what we claim to believe. Osteen encourages readers to expand their vision of God's power in their lives, to learn to see themselves as God sees them, to harness their thoughts and words and use them for good, to forgive others, to persevere, to give generously, live compassionately, and to always do what is right. He does not portray God as a mere distributor of blessings. He does not advocate living the good life while neglecting the poor. If we need to use formal theological terms, we could say that he encourages an emphasis on the nature and character of God, a godly self-consciousness, forgiveness, reconciliation, social justice, and holiness! Most theologians would agree that those might be pretty good themes to encourage a person to live in their daily lives!
Throughout the book I enjoyed Joel's honest use of personal stories. He regularly shares his own struggles and faults. He shares stories of personal victory and successes, including some of his giving, but there is never a hint of arrogance. He regularly honors both his mother and father and their influence in his life. He regularly refers to his own times of prayer and devotion, and the insights, guidance, and rebuke that he receives from God. He does not advocate a mere power-of-positive-thinking that excludes God.
I do have one big critique, though. I really wished Joel would have spent more time, or at least some time, describing the importance of the gospel of Jesus Christ revealed to us in his death and resurrection, and the sin that necessitates it. I know that Joel believes in the gospel and shares it at his church in Houston, so he is not heretical nor ignorant. I just didn't see it in the book. That makes me wonder who he believed his audience to be? Maybe he assumes that his readers know the gospel and believe they have accepted the gospel. (He does minister in Texas, after all.) I was really hoping that he would conclude with a telling of the centrality and necessity of the gospel. That didn't happen. I am not sure why, and I assume he had a good reason. It probably would have been helpful for that reader who once again needs to be confronted with the reality of Jesus.
In the end, though, the book is one helpful ingredient in growing as a follower of Jesus. I have purposefully chosen the word ingredient for what it implies. Recipes have multiple ingredients. A lifelong pursuit of following Jesus has multiple influences as well. For the person whose only exposure to the Christian life is Joel's book, they shouldn't expect a rich, lasting, growing faith. But when viewed as one helpful ingredient among many, this volume is helpful and encouraging!