Victoria Osteen is Right, Your Worship Doesn’t Make God Happy

Jason Micheli —  September 18, 2014 — 10 Comments

joel-victoria-osteenjpg-0ed2c611ec193324-760x506Anyone who’s known me for about a fruit fly’s lifespan knows that I feel about Joel Osteen the way I do genocide, testicular cancer and Verizon wireless.

His toothy grin, his Dapper Dan hair, his swarmy, snake-oil salvation sales pitch repel me. His dilution of the cross to a gospel that might as well come with a ‘brought to you by the Pax Romana’ sponsorship announcement offends me.

Every summer several dozen people find one of his books in their beach rental, snap a picture and email it to me. Just this week that many people forwarded me the press release about Joel O’s new show on Sirius Radio (seriously? WTF?!).

My antipathy over Joel Osteen is no secret.

So for all the crap I dish out about Joel Osteen, it’s an odd Jesusy sort of joke that I find myself in complete agreement with Joel Osteen’s well-appointed wife, Victoria.

Victoria recently told worshippers at the Osteen’s Rhode Island-sized church:

“When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself…”

Christians and critics all over social media quickly piled on her comments, pointing out that Victoria Osteen’s understanding of God left little room for ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ One ‘defender’ of Victoria Osteen argued that her comments were simply missing a qualifer, that she should’ve just said ‘when you worship Him, you’re not [just] doing it for God.’

Nearly all the criticism of Victoria Osteen sees her as dispensing what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace,’ the promise of happiness rather than the call to holiness.

Likewise, all the criticism I’ve read of Victoria assumes the truth of the very premise Victoria upended with her comments:

that our worship, devotion, works, faithfulness etc please God.

The critics of Victoria Osteen- and they are legion- seem to believe that our worship of God makes God happy.

That is, Victoria’s critics imply that we, through our act of praise, effect God’s disposition, that our worship of God changes God.

Unwittingly (I imagine), Victoria Osteen was merely rephrasing (however clumsily) a very ancient and foundational Christian belief:

God, by definition, does not change.

Of course, our worship isn’t for God in the sense that our piety brings about a happy change in God because God doesn’t change.

‘Happy’ isn’t really a word that can do the heavy lifting when it comes to God, but, without change, God is eternally, ceaselessly loving towards us because God just is Love. It’s idolatrous to suppose that God is a god whose disposition changes like ours does; it’s even more grave an error to think we can bring about that change.

Victoria Osteen is absolutely right that our worship isn’t for God in the sense that it adds anything to God or changes God in any way.

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While many quickly denounced Victoria’s comments as antithetical to the Gospel, she has at least one esteemed ally; namely the most famous theologian of the Christian Church: St Thomas Aquinas.

In the Summa Theologica Thomas reasons his way through the question ‘Whether God changes?’

Thomas believed almost everything we say about God relies upon that God not to be a being bound in time, a being that changes.

For Aquinas God’s immutability is logically connected with God’s eternity.

Before Aquinas can establish that God is eternal, however, he must demonstrate that God is immutable for only if God is pure actuality- there is no potentiality in God- can God be considered eternal.

The implication of God’s immutability is a logical consequence of what Aquinas has already proved in Q’s 1-8:

God is pure actuality- all things are present and actual in God at all times.

God is the cause of all things and holds all things existence at every moment of existence.

God is not caused by any other being but is Being itself.

Anything that undergoes change is, by definition, moving from potentiality to actuality, for ‘change’ implies that is present now in something was previously missing or absent.

But no-thing can be missing or absent from God- in fact, God creates from no-thing.

Therefore:

God cannot undergo change.

To change is to acquire something new; but God has the fullness of perfection already and therefore cannot acquire anything new.

God is pure actuality and therefore He cannot change in any way; God is the fullness of perfection, so there is no way in which God could change. Loving us, for instance, does not change God, make God more loving, because God is LOVE.

Love is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

Or put Mrs Osteen’s way, our love and worship of God does not effect God because love (including love for us) is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

The irony is that those who accuse Mrs Osteen of violating the gospel themselves violate the first commandment.

They make God in our image or at least insist upon a god in our image: God must be like us so that we can love Him.

Her husband still makes me throw up a little in the back of my mouth every time I hear his voice, but his wife is absolutely right.

When you come to worship, don’t think you’re doing it for God.

Don’t think your praise pleases God.

Don’t think your devotion changes God’s mood towards you because God- literally and logically- cannot love you any more than God already does love you.

When we worship, we’re not making God happy. Rather in worship, prayer, faithfulness etc we’re participating in the eternal happiness of God called Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jason Micheli

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10 responses to Victoria Osteen is Right, Your Worship Doesn’t Make God Happy

  1. Hmmmm… So what am I to do with the lead article in my church newsletter this month? I begin….

    It can be very helpful if the pastor sits in the pew from time to time, for though we all started out there, it Is possible to forget. Fortunately, I do get that experience from time to time. And on a recent occasion, I remember this thought kept going through my mind: “This isn’t for me.”

    Now, don’t get ahead of me. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed and felt blessed by the service. As I sat there in God’s house, hearing his Word, singing his songs, I kept thinking, “This isn’t for me; it’s for God.”

    The problem is that it can so easily become something I do for me. Without realizing it, we can fall into the subtle trap of making worship for me or about me. We begin by asking for the music to entertain and inspire me. We pick hymns that talk about how God makes me feel. We seek sermons that focus almost entirely on me and my life.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. All of those things can be good in the proper perspective. There is no “I” in team, but there is definitely an “I” in worship. I want worship to be inspire and teach, and I suspect you do as well. It should affect how we feel. It should apply to our lives.

    But, really, worship isn’t about me.

    Worship is first and foremost about my God and Savior.

  2. I’m unsure whether I agree or disagree with you here Jason. So let me think out loud.

    I don’t think that our worship changes God, but I don’t think the point of criticism is to emphasize a Thomistic doctrine of immutability. If that is indeed what Osteen is inferring (which I have little doubt she is unconsciously), I disagree with both you and her. Rather, I think the point is to worship God rightly as the self-revealed in the Son regardless of the way we feel about it; which makes our worship about God in a non-meritorious sense because while worship of God is about God, it is about a God who is for us of the Son through the Holy Spirit. There is no worship of God without worship of God in the Son through the Holy Spirit; which is what is provided by God’s free decision to be for us.

    And so I disagree with Aquinas because I think he starts from a place of natural theology; as any doctrine of Thomistic immutability inevitably will.

    If you start with a prolegomenon that does not start with an immutable God behind the back of Jesus but with a Trinitarian dogmatic theology that suggests God has always been Father made known by the Son through the Holy Spirit, it exposes the incoherence of Aquinas’ doctrine of immutability. When you define God’s essence in terms of both *necessity* and *contingency*, of immutability and mutability, of absolute ness and concreteness, we allow these elements to cancel each other out (like Dr. Bruce McCormack has suggested). Thus, Aquinas is right in the sense that a Divine essence that is contingent, mutable, and concrete cannot be necessary, immutable, and absolute– that is, unless God is immutable and absolute *precisely* in his contingency, mutability, and concreteness. When Aquinas pulls them apart, he exposes the false theological controversy at the core of his doctrine of God. His natural theology projects the “necessity” of immutability onto his doctrine of God because his christology is not properly dogmatic or Trinitarian. When these polar elements are allowed to fall apart, you only get incoherence. Thus, Christians (and most Calvinists) have drifted toward a doctrine of God that is essentially a natural theology of one sort or another. At least Aquinas chose the better of the two poles; but his theology lacks a faithful christology of an ontological nature (think John 1) to make his doctrine of God coherent.

    Thus, I think I disagree with her in the sense that it underwrites a false theological controversy. I agree with her in the sense that our worship does not change God because how God chose to be for us has been decided and our failure to worship such a God is one act. Thus, when we worship God we worship the God who is for us by the Father of the Son through the Holy Spirit.

  3. So, I can’t let Osteen get away with saying worship is about us in the meritorious way she infers it to mean. What I hear is “do what is good for you because God wants you to be happy” which is more like Baalism than anything; Rather do what is worshipful regardless of the way you feel about it. Your happiness is not a criterion for worship. Don’t worship yourself then call it worship of God. Don’t discredit what lies beyond our capacities as obscurantist. Don’t spurn the divine will that lies beyond the metal-emotional construct of the worshiper.

  4. “What I hear is ‘do what is good for you because God wants you to be happy’ which is more like Baalism than anything; Rather do what is worshipful regardless of the way you feel about it.”

    That’s how I heard and would critique Victoria Osteen, as well, Bobby. Thanks for sharing.

    • Well, the contrarian in me wants to say that Victoria Osteen’s comments aren’t all that different from Irenaeus: ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ Of course God wants us to be happy and worship is the means by which we become fully human. God wants us to be happy wherein happiness means fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit.

      Obviously the mistake the Osteens make is that in thinking ‘happiness’ is a category of which the cruciform life is not constitutive. You can’t have happiness apart from imitation of the only true human. On the other hand, their critics in this case make the (equally bad imo) mistake in thinking that discipleship somehow makes God- who then would just be god- happy.

      I think pleasing and happy are fine categories, Gene, if understood through the lens that the Son and Father delight each other eternally and that’s what we’re joining when we worship.

      Longer post for another day, but I do believe Aquinas and the Fathers get their metaphysic from the Old Testament not from the Greeks- I think that’s a canard long past its sell-by date.

  5. You’re right, Aquinas does. What I brought to you works out of trying to give a more radical solution as opposed to making the lesser poor decision of choosing the better metaphysical pole and, rather, working out of the chalcedonian character of Barth and Torrance who extend mature chalcedonian theology into a doctrine of God that resists the natural theology (analogy of being) that still captivates Aquinas’ mature work by proposing an analogy of faith.

  6. wait…you dont like Joel Osteen?

  7. One more thing, Jason (then I’ll piss off)…

    The way you use “imitation” (a theologically loaded term I’m not necessarily opposed to) seems to offer a prolegomenon that infers the way to approach the holiness of Christian living is somehow meritorious. My problem with this is that it delimits the uniqueness of the incarnation.

    Thus, we may certainly do as we are called and submit to humble servanthood, self-offering, etc *like* Christ but to deduce a meritorious sense of holiness from the cruciform life seems to infer that such a thing (our works…our cross) is somehow redemptive.

    Nein! (Says Karl Barth in Oakleys, smoking a Cuban…*ashes cigar*…*drops mic*).

    *Our* cross does not reconcile others to God; only Christ’s cross is redemptive in this way. Denying this leads naturally to the ecclesio-centrism of the analogia entis (analogy of being…natural theology) I think, as an Evangelical Calvinist, we must always say no to.

    The cruciform shape of self-denial, humble service, and self-offering is participation in the hypostatic Union mediated by Christ as adopted ones who may do so not because of some meritorious sense of “imitation” but through a far more dynamic call to ministry (this, of course, includes “imitation” in a non-meritorious sense); one where we ourselves do not seek to participate in the economy of redemption through a meritorious “imitation of Christ” but because we have been united to Christ and, thus, an abstract model for ministry as “imitation” is redundant this side of the fall.

    Therefore, there will always be the need for Christians to act differently from Christ at times because our ministry cannot save on its own merits. Christian ministry always points beyond itself to a saving grace that is beyond the limits our depraved situation puts us in.

    Thus, I fear there is a subtle moralism in an abstract, meritorious sense of “imitation;” one where the trinitarian economy of redemption becomes a way we save ourselves through reducing Christian piety to merely aping Christ (as the analogia entis would lead us to a la Thomas a Kempis).

    Rather, I propose it’s better to think in a more dynamic sense of calling as per an analogy of faith where justification and sanctification, this side of the fall, are the double gift of grace made possible through the hypostatic Union mediated by uniqueness of Christ’s relationship to the Father…not just his works.

  8. Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.90

    THAT IN GOD THERE ARE DELIGHT AND JOY, BUT THEY ARE NOT OPPOSED TO THE DIVINE PERFECTION

    [6] Moreover, each thing takes joy in its like as in something agreeable, except by accident in so far as it may interfere with one’s own advantage: for example, “potters quarrel among themselves” because one interferes with the profit of the other. Now, every good is a likeness of the divine good, as was said above, nor does God lose any good because of some good. It remains, then, that God takes joy in every good.

    [7] joy and delight, then, are properly in God. Now, joy and delight differ in notion. For delight arises from a really conjoined good, whereas joy does not require this, but the resting of the will in the object willed suffices for the nature of joy. Hence, delight is only of the conjoined good if it be taken properly, whereas joy is of a non-conjoined good. From this it is apparent that God properly delights in Himself, but He takes joy both in Himself and in other things.

  9. All those other doctrines, you all mentioned above, are not found in the Bible. So the Bible is very clear, and she is clearly wrong in every sense. May God bless her & have mercy on her soul, and should she repent … like any other saved child of God (Romans 10:9-10), then be saved by grace though faith alone, not of works so no man may boast (Ephesians 2:8-10), then God bless her soul again. So far, the Osteen’s are their own self-blinded gods to themselves in self-righteous blindness (Matthew 7:22-23). Please pray for them for God to open their hearts to His Word, His Knowledge, His saving grace, and His glory because Osteen is leading many to the pits of Ghenna. Simply put in discerning & like all people have, Victoria & Joel can choose John 8:44 life or a John 3:16 life, and their lying, twisting, & self-proclaiming false Gospel makes them John 8:44 (their father is the devil). John 3:16 & in ALL things, do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). The End in Jesus’ name (Colossians 3:17), Amen. So be it.

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