THE BLOG
11/06/2013 01:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Self-Help and the Gospel

A Joel Osteen tweet crossed my Twitter feed the other day: "You were not created to be unhappy in order to keep everyone else happy. You've got to run your own race."

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I couldn't resist the temptation to reply: "That's fine self-help, but it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ."

When I read a Joel Osteen tweet, I assume it represents his public ministry, not his random musings. It may not be fair, but I hold his tweets to a higher standard than my own. Sometimes I tweet about golf or football, but I also post my professional thoughts concerning biblical studies, theology, or ministry. Joel Osteen's tweets all look like pastoral advice. In this case, he's missing the mark.

What's the Matter?

The problem with Joel Osteen's comment isn't that it's wrong. The problem is that it's awful Christian theology that has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Like many other preachers, Osteen proclaims the gospel of self-optimization: God loves you, and God wants you to thrive.

The self-optimization gospel sounds good on the surface. God loves us. Surely, then, God wants us to do well. Did not Jesus heal the sick, the lame, and the blind? Doesn't God want people to flourish? This way of seeing things sounds appealing, but it stands a long distance from the call to follow Jesus.

In this case, Osteen advises us that we shouldn't make unreasonable sacrifices to keep "everyone else" happy. We all know why that advice is necessary. Some people spend their whole lives trying to please others. In the process they lose their sense of their own identity and purpose. They exhaust even their friends. Surely wise friends would tell such people: "Don't run yourself to death just to please others. You have to take care of yourself." That's sound advice. I'd offer it myself in some circumstances. But it's not gospel.

A Deeper Calling

The problem with the self-help gospel is that it focuses on our own individual needs without recognizing that Christ calls people to follow him. Self-help preachers tell us how to be happy in marriage, how to be successful in work, how to cultivate peace in our spirits, and so forth. But what about Christ's call to "Take up your cross and follow me" (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27)? It's not entirely obvious what this saying means, but we find it precisely when disciples confront the implications of following Jesus.

It's a long trip from the self-help gospel to the sacrificial model of Jesus, who told his disciples we save our lives by losing them (Matthew 16:25; Mark 9:35; Luke 9:24). And what of the apostle Paul, who called believers to take on Christ's example by giving up their interests for the welfare of others (Philippians 2:4-11), who told them to bear one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2; Romans 15:1), and who regarded all of life's attainments as shit (his word) so that he might encounter Christ and share in Christ's sufferings (Philippians 3:7-11)?

The problem with the self-help gospel is that it expects nothing from us. In the end, it leaves us unfulfilled. And it stands far removed from what it means to live in Christ.

A Deeper Analysis

Self-help preaching rarely accounts for the real world we actually inhabit. Yes, we want resilient families. Yes, happiness at work provides security at home and a sense of purpose through our days. Yes, we want to love and be loved.

That's all fine, but our world is far more complicated than our individual and familial lives. The world we live in includes war -- not just war in far-off places, but a social order that depends upon military spending and military activity simply to sustain itself. Our world features crushing poverty, with disparities in housing, education, even health that seem intractable. We live in a world of great opportunities and profound injustice.

Jesus Christ entered such a complicated world. He brought blessing to individuals, yes, and he also confronted the wealthy and the powerful. His confrontations in Jerusalem led to his death -- and he called his disciples to follow his example. Jesus' gospel reflects a far deeper analysis of the world we inhabit, and a far more radical engagement with that world, than the self-centered, self-help gospel is willing to imagine.

True Joy

Consider this possibility: What if God does not want us to be happy?

I mean, what if God's call isn't about happiness in the ordinary sense? What if discipleship isn't about positive relationships, self-esteem, personal boundaries, and professional success? What if God calls us to something else?

I strongly doubt that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was happy that God called him to resist the Nazi regime. The calling cost him the chance to marry the love of his life, it cost him months in prison, and it eventually cut his life short. Yet Prisoner Bonhoeffer comforted his suffering neighbors, with many remembering his equanimity and joy.

I cannot imagine the civil right activist Fanny Lou Hamer feeling happy in that Mississippi jail. Beaten nearly to death, her body swollen from head to toe, having suffered injuries that would disable her for life, Fanny Lou Hamer somehow found the strength to sing, "Paul and Silas was bound in jail / Let my people go."

The gospel doesn't promise happiness in the ordinary sense. It gifts us with joy in a profound sense. When we follow Christ's path, we encounter Christ's Spirit among us. We nourish one another's spiritual vitality. Deep springs of living water bubble up within us (John 4:14).

Researchers have discovered that true happiness may not come from the sources we might think. Deep happiness requires meaningful relationships and a sense that our lives are contributing to something worthwhile. A happy family and successful career certainly help, but what about the joy that marks the ministries of people like Jesus and Paul, Bonhoeffer and Hamer? The self-help gospel knows nothing about that.