Joel Osteen leads the United States’s largest growing “church” (if you can call it that), having over 38,000 attendees. Vast numbers of professing Christians love him and the way he makes them “feel good” about themselves. Indeed, there are many who wonder what could possibly be wrong with someone who has such a positive message as Joel Osteen’s message. After all, he makes so many people “feel good.” The fact of the matter is, however, Joel’s positivity is the problem, and his message of positive declaration about oneself is more akin to magic and superstition than it is to Holy Writ.
In fact, I am forced to call his teaching “philosophy” because I do not see in it any theology, completely man-centered rather than God-centered. For example, Joel writes in the opening paragraphs of his book, I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life, the following words which set up his philosophy perfectly:
Our words have creative power. Whenever we speak something, either good or bad, we give life to what we are saying. Too many people say negative things about themselves, about their families, and about their futures. They say things such as, “I’ll never be successful. This sickness will get the best of me. Business is so slow I don’t think I will make it. Flu season is coming, I’ll probably catch it.”
They don’t realize they are prophesying their futures. The Scripture says, “We will eat the fruit of our words.” That means we will get exactly what we’ve been saying.
Here is the key; you’ve got to send your words out in the direction you want your life to go. You cannot talk defeat and expect to have victory. You can’t talk lack and expect to have abundance. You will produce what you say. If you want to know what you will be like five years from now, just listen to what you are saying about yourself. With our words we can either bless our futures or we can curse our futures. That’s why we should never say, “I’m not a good parent. I’m unattractive. I’m clumsy. I can’t do anything right. I’ll probably get laid off.”
No, those thoughts may come to your mind, but don’t make the mistake of verbalizing them. The moment you speak them out, you allow them to take root. there have been plenty of times where I’ve thought something negative and I’m just about to say it, but I’ll catch myself and think, No. I’ll zip it up. I’m not speaking defeat into my future. I’m not speaking failure over my life. I will turn it around and speak favor into my future. I will declare, “I’m blessed. I’m strong. I’m healthy. This will be a great year.” When you do that, you are blessing your future.
According to Osteen, the mere verbalization of words about oneself has the power to alter reality either for the good or the bad. If you say something negative about yourself then your future will have negative outcomes; if you say positive things about yourself than your future will have positive outcomes. This is superstitious human philosophy and not what the Bible teaches, and it places innumerable people in bondage unable to verbalize to either themselves or their pastor when things are going badly in their lives. Rev. Robert Liichow, a former Word of Faith preacher and the founder of Discernment Ministries International, explains this well:
I learned I could not know how any member of the congregation was really doing by asking the members. Asking a [Pentecostal-Charismatic] person “how are you doing” will elicit a response of “oh Pastor, I am blessed in the city, blessed in the field, why I am the head and not the tail, blessed by Almighty God, filled with His Spirit, growing from faith to faith and glory to glory.” Joel, as a pastor, does not want to hear about how big your problems are, he wants to hear how big your God is (see p. 124 Your Best Life Now) and Joel’s people are afraid to confess the truth because then they will dig up and cancel out their (hopefully) sprouting faith-filled words by speaking negative (reality as it is) words.¹
The apostle Paul says in Romans 5:3-4, “we glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope…” Yet, the Christian is not a person who pretends everything is all right all the time, ignoring reality when it is painful to face. This verse does not say that we glory “in spite of” tribulations; rather, it says “in tribulations,” or “in the midst of” tribulations. The Christian may get discouraged and even wonder what God is doing; after all, we are even told in Genesis 17:17 that Abraham “laughed” at the thought that Almighty God was using a centenarian man with a nonagenarian wife to begin the Messianic lineage. Of course, this laughter was not the result of unbelief, for we are told by Paul that Abraham “being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead… staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief” (Romans 4:19-20); rather, he laughed at the situation itself, not understanding what God was doing and yet realistic that God was in control.
The Christian life is a life of realism, recognizing that everything that happens has a reason; it may be a trial from the Lord to increase our faith, it may be a temptation from Satan to try and make us fall, or it may be chastening from the Lord because of sin in our lives. We cannot simply ignore reality just because it is painful, but we must face it and consider whether it is a trial, a temptation, or chastening. According to Joel’s philosophy, however, when life is blowing up around you, business slow or you’re laid off from work or you catch the flu, you mustn’t verbalize the problem and instead speak only positive things about yourself to counter-weigh the negative outcomes.
Joel further, however, proof-texts his philosophy by saying, “The Scripture says, ‘We will eat the fruit of our words,'” a complete mismanaging of what the Word of God says. This particular reference that Joel makes is a paraphrase of Proverbs 18:21, a verse that has nothing to do with our words “creating our future.” Rather, the verse says:
Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.
It is in the context of the final judgment of humanity, and is in accordance with the Lord’s words in the New Testament that “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). Yet, Joel is not interested in engaging in sound exegesis – that is, pulling a message from the text – and instead, is only interested in imposing his message onto a verse that he can paraphrase and use as a proof-text. Rather than this verse from Proverbs teaching that we can create the life we want simply by speaking into the air good words about ourselves, the verse is actually a statement of the Law, saying that we will ultimately be judged for every word that passes through our mouths. This is not good since “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20); speaking good things about oneself will only create a false sense of security that everything is okay between themselves and God.
The problem with Joel Osteen is the tyranny of the positive caused by a magical worldview that holds people in bondage, unable to ever say, “I’m not feeling well,” or “I’m depressed,” or “I’m angry,” never actually working through problems through the counsel of God’s Word. In fact, in the Lord’s parable in Luke 18:9-14, the Pharisee said nothing but positive words about himself, saying:
God, I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
Yet, notice the negative words of the publican whom we read about:
And the publican, continuing to stand afar off, would not lift up so much his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me the sinner.
The publican spoke the truth, facing it in all its’ ugliness and ashamed to even approach the altar. Now, according to Joel’s philosophy, the Pharisee prophesied righteousness and justification over his future while the publican prophesied more sin and difficulty. Yet, the Lord says that it was the publican who “went down to his house justified” (V. 14), that is, positionally declared innocent and regarded as though he had never sinned. The Pharisee, on the other hand, remained in a false sense of security, believing everything was okay between him and God. Joel Osteen’s philosophy is dangerous because it can keep a Christian in bondage and will send a lost person to hell without even realizing they have a problem. Facing the truth can be the most difficult thing we do in life and it will not always be pretty; yet, our Lord says, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
- Robert S. Liichow, “A Cautionary Tale,” Truth Matters 16, no. 11 (November 2012). https://discernmentministriesinternational.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/gigo-garbage-in-garbage-out/