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“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 8:11)
Last week, I read a lengthy article on the Financial Times website about Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and the prosperity gospel (you have to Google “Financial Times Joel Osteen” in order to access it). In case you’re unaware, Lakewood Church is the largest church in America, and millions more watch Joel Osteen every week on TV or online. Early on in the article is a paragraph that sums up very well Lakewood’s approach to the Christian faith:
“Optimism, hope, destiny, harvest, bounty – these are Lakewood’s buzzwords. Prosperity too. Words that are rarely heard include guilt, shame, sin, penance and hell. Lakewood is not the kind of church that troubles your conscience. ‘If you want to feel bad, Lakewood is not the place for you,’ said Rollo (a church member and ministry leader). ‘Most people want to leave church feeling better than when they went in.’”
That last line is undoubtedly true. And it is also clearly true that Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen succeed in leaving many people feeling better, more hopeful, and most positive than when they came in (or when they started listening). So what’s the problem???
One day, my 95 year-old grandmother went to see a doctor. She was filled with anxiety and depression upon arrival, because she had been experiencing some real difficult health issues that had her concerned. After running some tests on her, the doctor came back into the room and told my grandmother that she was in perfect physical condition. He told her that as long as she could get up in the morning, look herself in the mirror, and proclaim that she was healthy and strong, that she would be fine and her problems would go away. My grandmother was ecastatic. She left that doctor’s office encouraged and inspired. Her anxiety had been replaced by peace, and her depression and turned to joy. She had a smile on her face and a spring in her step.
The one who has ears to hear, let them hear…
What’s the problem with the prosperity gospel and with preaching a message that avoids words like “sin” and “hell,” a message whose goal is to help people feel better about themselves and to “sleep well at night,” as Joel Osteen says in the article? It’s the same problem we would have with a doctor who avoided saying words like “cancer” or “heart failure” because life is hard enough and people need to hear some good news. The problem is that it is a lie. A good doctor would not encourage you to “pretend” the cancer away through positive self-talk. A good doctor would say “here is the bad news – you have cancer… but here is the good news – we can treat it.” In the same way, the good preacher says “here is the bad news – your sin has separated you from a holy God… but here is the good news – Jesus paid the penalty for your sin through His perfect life and sacrificial death, and if you turn from your sins and trust in Jesus, you will be saved.”
And that good news – the gospel of Jesus Christ – will help you do more than just sleep well at night. It will give you eternal joy.
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