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.
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.
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.