There’s been a wave of controversy surrounding a video that’s been circulating on the internet of Victoria Osteen making this statement:
“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize that, when we obey God—we’re not doing it for God, I mean that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy this morning. 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 and 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.” (Watch it here)
On the surface, this seems exactly like something we would expect coming out of Lakewood Church. Osteen has practically become the poster boy for the “prosperity gospel,” and certainly no one is shocked to hear this coming from his wife, Victoria. However, before we raise our torches and grab our pitchforks, let’s take a closer look at the statement that Victoria is actually making.
“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize that, when we obey God—we’re not doing it for God, I mean that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.”
The impetus of John Piper’s ministry, Desiring God, is in this phrase: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Piper calls this “Christian Hedonism” because it’s centered on the pleasure of the Christian. The concept is very simple: God is our ultimate joy and happiness. We receive pleasure by being in a close relationship with him, and because of this, he receives pleasure and glory from us. Like any love relationship, you are the happiest when the object of your affection is the happiest in you. Simple.
Victoria is right when she says that “God takes pleasure when we’re happy.” This is true when our happiness is in him. That’s the key. She also says that “when we obey God, we’re doing it for ourselves.” Again, answer is yes and no. We obey God because we want to please him, and because the benefits are incredible. What are the benefits? The benefit is God himself. The greatest reward or benefit we could have is more of God.
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
“So I want you to know this morning, just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy.”
We should always do good because it is good to do good. However, we should also do good because Christ is good, and our desire is to be more like him. I don’t think Victoria is saying “do good for yourself,” because that would imply solipsism, and rule out altruism. I hardly think the Osteens would agree with this. The line of thinking goes like this: “Do good because you benefit from doing good.” However, going back to Christian hedonism, we do good most importantly because it pleases our Father. And when he is pleased, we are pleased as well. Christianity is always other oriented, which is why the two greatest commandments are to 1) Love God, 2) Love people. But the personal benefits from this are tremendous. This is why Christ says that “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” (Acts 20:35) because we are happier when we are less consumed with ourselves. And we are happiest when we are pleasing God.
“When you come to church and 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.”
This is the one statement that I believe is the most difficult. Piper says that “Worship is a way of gladly reflecting back to God the radiance of His worth.” Another definition of worship by William Temple says that “Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.” So first and foremost, all worship is an expression of the joy and beauty of God through the outlet of praise. Of course, the worshiper benefits from the worship—but they are merely a conduit of praise to the one worthy of being praised. The worship is not about them, it’s about God. But the idea being Christian hedonism is that we are so pleased by God, that worship naturally ensues. And when worship naturally ensues, God is pleased by us, which is followed by us being pleased in God, and so on.
I think on the surface, it’s very easy to dismantle Victoria’s statement and label it bad theology. But my first reaction to the video was that not all of what she’s saying is totally wrong. It’s poorly stated, yes. In fact, the most important pieces of the equation are left out. Thousands of people are going to walk away thinking that God wants them to be happy in material things, or that worship is first about them. These are both dangerous conclusions. We should be happy that God has blessed us with material things, while remembering that these material blessings are meant to point us back to God. We should enjoy worshiping God, while not forgetting that the very nature of worship is centered on the joy of who God is.
The fact of the matter is this: If we all were diligent in our theological studies, there would be no Lakewood Church (the way it is now). But before we pat ourselves on the back, remember that most of us are still participating in the prosperity gospel, because we use God as a means to an end all the time. We think that by serving him in church, or by tithing, that God is going to bless us materially. This is the prosperity gospel. Service to the church and giving tithes is a form of worship. It is not a way to receive material blessings. It is a way of reflecting the beauty and glory of God’s worth back to him. The fact of the matter is that God says that he will provide for us what we need (Matthew 6:25-26). Nothing more and nothing less is promised. And what we need is him. His kingdom is not of this world, and ours shouldn’t be either.