Last week, a video clip of Victoria Osteen made its rounds on social media showing the megachurch co-pastor offering this bit of insight to her congregants:
“So, I want you to know this morning. Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”
At the risk of being labeled a heretic, I want to explain why Osteen is actually partially correct and how we can find the needle of truth in the enormous haystack of error to ultimately find a biblical motivation for obedience. So put your torches and pitchforks away for just a second and hear me out.
The Desire for Our Own Good Isn’t Bad
First, let’s state the obvious. Victoria Osteen is dead wrong when she asserts that our acts of obedience are “not for God really” and that “we’re doing it for ourselves”. As Pastor Steve Camp pointed out in his column, 1 Corinthians makes it clear that our chief aim in everything should be for “the glory of God.” Nothing could be more important than aligning our thoughts, attitudes, and actions with the aim of bringing glory to God. Anything less is sin.
But in defense of Osteen (that’s a phrase I’ve never said), she is attempting to motivate her hearers to do good by telling them that it’s for their own good. Surprisingly, if you take a look at the words of Jesus you will find a very similar line of logic.
Look at what Jesus said to the rich man who was anxious to know the way to eternal life:
“Go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” – Matthew 19:21
Look at what Jesus said to his disciples when they were clamoring to be head of the class:
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” – Matthew 20:26,27
And take a look at Jesus’ famous words from his Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” – Matthew 5:5
Each of these statements contains a special reward that is meant to entice the listener to obey the calling of Christ. Notice that Jesus never tells the rich man to “stop seeking treasure”. Instead, Jesus tells him where he can find a greater treasure. To his disciples, Jesus didn’t demand that they stop desiring greatness. Instead, He tells them how to garner true greatness. And to motivate His hearers into humility, Jesus promises them the world, literally. Let that sink in. Jesus, at least in part, motivates us into good works by promising us outrageously good gifts. So yes, our good works are partly for us and according to Jesus’s own words, it seems that God has no issue with us thinking in those terms.
Here’s the rub
That is where my defense of Osteen ends. After all, there is a fundamental difference underlying Osteen’s words with those of Jesus. It is a difference of such massive importance that it divides heaven-bound saints from hell-bound sinners.
The entirety of Joel and Victoria Osteen’s ministry is predicated on the notion that God’s promised rewards are realized through health and wealth in the here and now. In other words, do good, obey God so that good things will come to you now. But that isn’t Christianity, that’s idolatry. That’s not seeking God. That’s seeking God’s stuff. And that explains why Osteen would so foolishly say “you’re not doing it for God really.”
The Westminster Confession states it best with these words: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. You see, we don’t have to choose between our desires for enjoyment and God’s ultimate desire for His glory. They are parallel paths that run through the soul of every believer who obeys the calling of Christ. The life of the true believer is comprised of daily decisions to relinquish wealth, status, and pride to realize the greatest treasure of all, God Himself. Just as a loving father loves to hear his child delight in dad, so God is anxious to receive adoration from His children and pour out unspeakable gifts to us. So feel free to look forward to the Father’s rewards which far surpass the earthly treasures that Victoria Osteen promotes.
And put your pitchforks away.