REVIEW BY BOB JOHNSON: Detroit’s freeways are framed by dozens of billboards featuring happy, young, successful people enjoying a night of games and entertainment at one of the city’s casinos. The sleek, enticing images preach an alluring message: “Greatness awaits you in the casinos.” “You were born to be lucky.” On and on it goes. A closer look reveals the 1-800 number for Gambler’s Anonymous. And if you ever went to a casino, you would find that the reality does not quite match the billboard.
For years, potential casino operators attempted to get gambling legalized in Detroit. On three different occasions, they got an initiative on the ballot, but there was one pastor in the city who stood in their way. He knew what gambling would do to this city. He organized and educated, and each time the initiative was defeated. Then this pastor had a serious heart attack, and the initiative for casinos in Detroit was back in play. This time, the organizers did not have the pesky pastor to contend with. But they did something else. On this fourth attempt, the organizers gathered a number of pastors from Detroit together and offered them stock in the casinos in exchange for their support from the pulpits. They were told to sell this idea to the people as something that will be good for the economy and will save our city. The pastors did, and on the fourth try, the initiative passed.
Today you can visit the casinos. Go to the slot machines and watch the glazed-over faces of old people whose reverse mortgages freed up some money so they could buy tokens for the slot machines. Hour after hour, they pull the one-armed bandit, awaiting the glory the billboards promise. Fear sets in. They think, “If I get up from the machine, the next person will come and win.” So they sit, hour after hour, until their clothes are soiled and their tokens are gone. Next month, after the social security check arrives, some of them will be on the first bus back to try again.
And in case you haven’t heard, Detroit is bankrupt.
The promises of the prosperity gospel are like the billboards of Detroit’s casinos. It looks so good. It seems so appealing. One of its most influential voices is Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas who recently released a new book called Break Out! If Disneyworld was a church, Joel Osteen would be the pastor. Break Out! is basically a combination of “When You Wish upon a Star” and “A Whole New World.”
The problem is, Joel is a pastor, and his sermons and books are presented as truth, not fairy tales, and thousands of people really believe what he says. Some may be in our churches.
THE MAIN MESSAGE
Break Out! is a collection of twenty-five chapters (presumably sermons) organized into five sections. I could not discern much difference between the first four sections: (1) Believe Bigger; (2) Consider God, Not Circumstances; (3) Pray God-sized Prayers; 4) Keep the Right Perspective. The chapters basically follow the formula of stating the principle, supporting it with a story, inserting a vague reference to the Bible, and closing with a few more stories and exhortations.
Joel’s message is clear: God helps those who help themselves. “Right now, something is looking for you. Something already has your name on it. As long as you’re doing your best to honor God and you have a heart to help others, an explosive blessing will find its way into your hands” (Ch. 4). “If you stay on the high road and just keep being your best, you will see the hand of God at work in amazing ways” (Ch. 9). “But God is saying to you…If you only believe, I will turn the situation around. If you only believe, breakthroughs are headed your way. When you believe, the surpassing greatness of God’s power is released” (Ch. 13) “When God sees you do your part, He will do His part” (Ch. 16).
Faith is the dream in your heart. “God did not create you to be average….He created you to do something amazing. He’s put the seeds of greatness on the inside” (Ch. 25). But Osteen consistently portrays greatness as success in business, wealth, health, and overcoming addictions. Rarely, if ever, is “looking like Jesus” even mentioned.
If you listen carefully, Osteen is telling you that you can be your own Savior. Like the little engine that could, you can do it. You can do it. But the message of the Bible is that you cannot do it. That is why Christ came to this earth. He did what we could not do, dying on the cross to pay for your sins and rising from the grave to give you life if you repent and believe in him. If you keep telling people that they can do something they really can’t, you are not helping people. You are putting them in bondage.
In the fifth section, “Don’t Settle for Good Enough” there are some moments where Joel says some things that could have some value. The problem is that they not only sit in a context of other errors but they blatantly contradict what he says earlier in the book.
THE MAIN PROBLEMS
The chief problem of this book is that Osteen centers life on achieving the American Dream—success, prosperity and health. But the Bible never presents the Christian life like this. Instead, our lives are centered upon Christ and the gospel. This chief problem is reflected in these other serious problems.
1. Break Out! constantly distorts the Bible at a basic, factual level.
First, Break Out! constantly distorts the Bible at a basic, factual level. In chapter 7, Osteen recounts the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, through the desert, in order to get to the Promised Land. He claims that when Moses became discouraged along the way, God asked him what he was holding in his hand. He goes on to tell the story of how Moses threw down his rod, which God turned into a snake. The problem is, this did not happen when Moses was leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, but in Exodus 4 when Moses was at the burning bush.
Also in chapter 7, Osteen retells the story of the lepers who went in search of food from the Syrians in 2 Kings 7. He claims that the Bible says (and he puts this in quotes), “As they marched toward the enemy, God multiplied the sound of their footsteps and caused them to sound like a vast army.” The text simply does not say this. This twisting of the facts fits Joel’s point of believing in yourself and seeing God do amazing things. But how can you trust Osteen to interpret the text correctly if he cannot get the simple facts of the story right?
There’s plenty more of this, but one of the most egregious examples of twisting Scripture is in chapter 10. Osteen claims that when Job was in the midst of his adversity he said, “God, I know You have granted me favor.” He presents this as a bold declaration of faith in the favor of God upon his life in the midst of a trial. But in Job 10, Job is bitterly complaining to God. Yes, Job does say in verse 12 that, “You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit.” But Job was talking about what God had previously done for him, only to now crush him and destroy him. Job was not declaring a word of faith, he was screaming out at the seeming injustice of God for giving him life and blessing, only to take it all away. In verses 18-19 Job says, “Why did you bring me out from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave.” At that moment, Job was not exactly feeling the X-factor.
2. Break Out! is full of bad theology.
Second, Break Out! is full of bad theology. Osteen presents the stories in the Bible as being all about us, instead of about Christ. The great hope of the Bible is in what Christ has done, but in Break Out! the great hope is in all that we can do. If you speak it, it will happen. The still small voice in you is God giving you insider information (Ch. 10).
Additionally, problems are never in our hearts. Instead, our problems come from our failure to believe in ourselves (see Chs. 13 and 15). “You have the seeds of greatness on the inside” (Ch. 20). Fighting the good fight of faith is believing in yourself. Osteen claims in chapter 22 that “these present sufferings” that Paul speaks about in Romans 8:18 are not “accidents, tragedy, cancer, injustice or abuse.” He offers no support for this claim, but just says it. According to Osteen, the good work that God is doing in your life and has promised to complete is seeing your visions of greatness come true. However, in the Bible, God’s good work in us is progressively forming the character of Christ in the life of every one of his children.
Osteen’s theology has no room for sin. In fact, in twenty five chapters, the word “sin” is not even mentioned. Therefore, you should not be surprised that “the cross” of Christ, “gospel,” and “repent” are nowhere to be found either. At the very end of the book, Osteen does encourage his readers to pray a prayer of faith in order to establish a relationship with God through Christ. The prayer that he writes out does mention “sins” and does have the concept of repentance in it. The problem is that for twenty five chapters, we are led to believe that all our problems either are outside of us or result from our failure to believe in our own greatness.
3. Break Out! is marked by blatant contradictions.
Third, Break Out! is marked by blatant contradictions. In chapter 12, “Remind God of What He Said,” Osteen says that prayer is “Not nagging God, not begging God, but in faith going to God and reminding him over and over what He promised you.” But a few lines later, he says “You have to be a pest when it comes to reminding God what he promised you.” So, we are not supposed to be a nag, but we are supposed to be a pest?
In chapter 13, “Power of Believing,” Osteen talks about all of the great things that will happen if you only believe. According to Osteen, God says, “If you only believe I will turn the situation around. If you only believe, breakthroughs are headed your way.” But in chapter 24 Osteen claims that believing is not enough. You have to “put actions behind your faith.” For example, “…when He sees you bypass the cookie jar because you’ve been believing you’ll lose weight—that is when extraordinary things will happen.” But then in chapter 25 Osteen claims that if we give up on a dream, that does not mean God gives up on it. In fact, “You will not go to your grave without seeing your dreams come to pass—even the secret petitions of your heart.”
So let’s get this straight. All we have to do is believe. Everything happens when you believe. Except that you have to put action to your belief. But, don’t worry, if you stop believing, God won’t stop believing in you, and he will make it all happen anyway. So, does the “break out” happen because of my faith, my action, or neither, because God was going to do it anyway?
WHY THIS MATTERS
In Break Out!, God is not glorious in majesty; he is your personal genie and your voice inside. The real power belongs to you. When you speak, things happen. When you believe, things come true.
Osteen’s twisting of Scripture to encourage and inspire greatness comes at a great cost, the cost of truth. The truth is, I cannot be my best. If I cannot be my best, and therefore do my part, what hope can I have that God will do his part?
These present sufferings do include abuse, rape, terminal disease, tragedy, accidents, personal bankruptcy, miscarriages, corrupt officials, and being persecuted for the faith. Joel has no message of hope or comfort for people in these. His principles and exhortations create more laws and commands that are rooted in our determination, but have nothing to do with the gospel of grace. In the end, we are left to save ourselves from our unfulfilled dreams.
For the faithful pastor who does not have an audience the size of a stadium, or the believer who never makes it to CEO, Osteen’s message of “hope” is actually one of condemnation. Either you do not dream enough or something is wrong with your faith.
While his message is popular because you are your own savior, it simply is not true. Pastor, some of your people may like what he has to say and may feel that he is a nice guy with a positive message in a negative world. The problem is, when we accept his horrible theology, our entire understanding of Scripture is warped.
Joel probably is America’s pastor. Sadly, Break Out! pastors people to be narcissistic, biblically illiterate, and theologically confused. In other words, Break Out! tells you to suspend biblical discernment and enjoy your day at Disneyworld.
So just keep putting in your tokens. Keep believing and declaring that you have already won. The machine just hasn’t realized it yet.
Bob Johnson is senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan.