I confess: sometimes I feel like punching Joel Osteen right in the face.
It’s not personal. I kind of like the dude despite myself, sincere theological differences and personal style aside.
But my angst has to do with those theological differences and that incessant smiling.
Osteen’s is a Christian theology of prosperity (more or less) which is not quite the actual Gospel – God isn’t interested in making everyone materially well-to-do or “happy.” He kind of has a high opinion of this idea of sacrifice and carrying crosses.
[Not to be taken masochistically. Proper Christian theology certainly agrees with Osteen that God wants to bless us with peace and joy (and sometimes that extends to material), but those often come despite circumstances and are always secondary to God’s primary purpose, which is drawing us closer to Him in love and molding us into people who look like Christ.]
Primarily, though, I am irked by Osteen’s ever-present toothy grin, which makes him look like the cat that ate the canary.
Because that isn’t how I experience life. That isn’t how I understand Christianity. And in honesty I don’t think it’s how any of us truly feel as a default.
I am confident Christ knew how to laugh and have a good time (His first miracle was taking care of a wine shortage at a large party!), but we are also presented with the portrait of a man who was deeply in touch with pain. Isaiah 53 foreshadows the Messiah as a “man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief;” the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, states simply: “Jesus wept.”
This I can relate to. The Christianity of constant smiles, “aw, shucks, life is swell,” and “aren’t you so thrilled for what Jesus has done for you?!” I cannot. In fact, in my moments of despair, this Christianity repulses me.
Because it isn’t real to me. As I wrote in the last post, despite knowing all the right answers, I can’t feel it. Yes, I “know” I’m a sinner – I feel my depravity, the depravity that runs through the hearts of all men. And I “know” because of what Christ has done, I am free from all that.
The proper response from this seems to be for many Christians pure joy. I hate to admit it, but my heart response is more akin to, “Cool. Thanks.” At least I’m finally able to stop blaming myself for feeling this way.
Because what good is believing something here and now if it doesn’t change anything here and now? There is the promise of eternal difference, but how can my eternity be different when it already started, well, from the moment I was born?
And Scripture states we’re supposed to see this difference now – Psalm 27:13, as one example, compels us with the statement “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
It’s fair to ask, “What goodness? Where?” Sure, there is love, beauty, and joy from time to time, but entropy brings all things to dust, and tragedy all too often steals and destroys.
Paul himself understands the pointlessness of Christianity if it in fact isn’t true. “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
So what is one to believe and do for hope in the face of a reality too often filled with despair? A reality that isn’t fair; where loneliness and depression are real; where things don’t always seem to work out; where horror and loss are tangible?
First, as an extended aside, I feel compelled to note that I have to this point underestimated how vital community and acceptance are to each of us in forming our beliefs. I’ve written about this before but only recently experienced how drastically true it is.
There are a lot of lonely and hurting people in the world, desperate for interaction and love. I have largely taken this for granted as I come from a close-knit family, but as I find myself now several years removed from residence with them, and as increasing numbers of my friends either move to other states or are learning to navigate marriage and intimate relationships, I am able to relate (even as a loner): my God, it’s lonely in this world.
How can we fault anyone for accepting love wherever they can find it? It is to the Church’s shame that we aren’t more loving and open than we are, willing to begin new relationships with “weird” people. The Church as a whole is better at accepting people for who they are than in the past, but simple acceptance is a far cry from establishing intimate relationships, and that is what we all need.
It’s really hard for me to blame the Muslim, the Buddhist, the atheist, the agnostic, the Hindu, the Scientologist for believing what they do in large part because of who they want to identify with; where they receive love, acceptance, and intimate relationship.
Our ideas, thought processes, logic, rationality, and beliefs are morphed by the communities in which we receive affirmation. That doesn’t make all beliefs equally true, but it helps explain how we can all hold to such different ideas about life, the universe and everything.
Second, I am beginning to think that if you are Christian, and if your Christianity is to have any true depth to it, you have to experience God’s love and goodness here and now. And from what I’ve heard from the Christians I know, He is there to be experienced, miraculously and in the “mundane.”
I know Him pretty well in the mundane; it takes a perspective shift to recognize Him, and it’s a recognition that can be rationalized away, but He speaks in ways that hold consistency. And a decent part of me still thinks I’m bat-crazy when I say things like that.
But my experience and the consistent logic and reason constructed from that experience bear witness to its reality – something is communicating with me through a variety of cues, call it what you will; and others testify to the same.
But as far as experiencing deep healing within my soul and seeing God’s tangible Presence in the miraculous, I am left wanting. I have received a lot of healing; I have felt God’s Presence in and around me; but (as I wrote previously) there is something within me that hasn’t shifted, and I am at a loss to explain what it is or what needs to happen.
I know there is more to be experienced because I trust those who have witnessed more and am at pains to explain the miracles that have happened apart from divine intervention – the probability that so many healings and unexplainable events occurring in the name of Jesus throughout history and in the present are statistically impossible to explain away as coincidince, or placebo effect, or the power of the brain, or whatever other explanation can be offered.
So I think the answer for us all is to be like Jacob, who wrestled with God and refused to let Him go until He blessed him (Genesis 32). To be the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18); to knock and keep on knocking on God’s door (Matthew 7). Not demanding as our right that He answer us, but continuing to ask and seek: meet me.
Show Yourself to me. Heal my heart. Fill me with joy at what Jesus has done; reveal to me the depths of how much I need grace and how thankful I should be. I’m tired of being lonely in a crowd of people, not feeling understood – complete me.
I’m not letting You go until You bless me.