As you can imagine, Pastor John, emails flooded our inbox over the recent public words of Victoria Osteen, wife of Joel Osteen. Victoria attempted to explain how personal happiness and God’s glory interact. She said this: “I just want to encourage every one of us to realize that, when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God — I mean, that’s one way to look at it — we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning, just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, and when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”
Now, the Osteens are easy targets. You could pull a clip from just about anything they say and critique it. But this quote — when I first heard it — really hit home, because it seems to touch on so many things we are about at Desiring God. This explains all the emails, too. So, Pastor John, when you hear that clip, what comes to your mind?
Well, I would love to believe that what Victoria and Joel — who was standing right there beside her — mean by those words is what I would mean by them if I provocatively used them in a context. And I could use them. That may surprise some people. I could use those very words without changing a single word and mean, I think, biblical truth. But I don’t know her. I don’t watch their sermons. I haven’t read their books. I don’t know all that she or he would mean by them. And I doubt that they mean what I mean, given what I have heard and have seen.
Litmus Test for Joy
I would ask a kind of litmus test question that might go something like this: Is she willing to say to that church, “Yes, and if you don’t obey God for joy, you will go to hell?” First Corinthians 16:22 says, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” That is, if anyone does not delight in God above all things, they will perish. They will go to hell. Or, if anyone does not find supreme pleasure in giving God pleasure in their obedience, they will be destroyed. Will she quote Deuteronomy 28:47–48? It reads, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart” — which is what she said we should do — “therefore you shall serve your enemies.” In other words, is she blood earnest and God-centered about what she is saying? Or is it just kind of emotional mush that is hyping the congregation?
“If anyone does not find supreme pleasure in giving God pleasure in their obedience, they will be destroyed.”
I don’t want to pass judgment on her heart, because I don’t have the information I need in order to be sure what she really means. So maybe the most helpful thing I can do — since I have already said I could use these words — is to maybe take a couple of her statements and say what I would mean by them. And then people can judge: Okay, is that biblical, and is that something she might say?
So if I used the words, “When we obey God we are not doing it for God, we are doing it for ourselves,” and I wanted to go to the Bible and find that, I would go to Acts 17:25: “[God is not] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” In other words, when you obey God, you are not serving God as though he needed anything. That is the point of Acts 17:25. He is the benefactor. You are the beneficiary when you come to God.
That is basically what she said. That is basically what Acts 17:25 and Mark 10:45 say. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). So he is saying, “Don’t come to me to serve me. I didn’t come to be served. Your obedience is not meeting any of my needs. You are not keeping my business afloat by your employment. I came to serve you. I am going to die for you. I am going to save you. I am going to give you everlasting joy. Don’t turn that around and make me the beneficiary of your measly obedience. Your obedience is getting in sync with a life that will bring you everlasting pleasure at my right hand.” That is the way I would say it.
Always Recipients of God’s Grace
So, yes, we obey God, not for God in the Acts 17:25 sense, that is, not as though he needed anything. In all our obeying — this is another way I would say it — we are the receivers of help. First Peter 4:11 says, “Whoever serves, [let him serve] by the strength that God supplies.” So every step I take in obedience is a gift to me from God’s grace. “I worked harder than any of them” — so here is my obedience — “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). So God is giving John Piper grace, grace, grace, grace, grace with every act of obedience I am performing so that I am the recipient of grace at every moment. He is not the recipient of anything that meets his needs.
So, yes, we do our obedience for ourselves. The gospel is not a “help wanted” sign, but a “help available” sign. When Jesus calls sinners he calls them to a banquet of forgiveness and hope and help. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your labor on that which is not bread?” (Isaiah 55:1–2). That is the kind of invitation the gospel gives. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” That is what Paul says to the elders in Acts 20:35. So remember when you are about to do the obedience of giving, this is a great blessing to you. Remember that. You are being generous for your blessedness.
And I would say the same thing about worship that she did. She said, “When you worship him you are not doing it for God, really. You are doing it for yourself.” What else does “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4) mean, or “Rejoice in the Lord” (Psalm 97:12)? These are calls to worship. That is the heart of worship. The very meaning of worship is, find your supreme pleasure in God — to be satisfied in God above all things. And if that is what she meant, then I would agree that this is, indeed, what makes God happy.
Delighting in God Above All
Our delighting in God — here is the essence of Christian Hedonism — above all things, coming to him as our supreme satisfaction and turning away — and here’s a hook for the Osteens; I am not sure they would say this — from money and sex and food and family and power and career and approving of man and successes and ministry and business prosperity to the living God as our only and supreme treasure. That is what makes God happy, because that shows how valuable God is, and God loves to see God shown to be valuable. What pleases God is the glory of God reflected in our enjoying God. And the glory of God shines most brightly when we turn from all these other treasures to embrace him as our satisfying treasure. Is that what she meant? If so, amen. I am on board.
“Your obedience is getting in sync with a life that will bring you everlasting pleasure at God’s right hand.”
Does she mean that when she says, “Do it for yourself?” Does she mean, “Do it so that you are satisfied in God, not money; God, not prestige; God, not power; God, not health; God, not success?” That makes God look great. And when God is made to look glorious, he is glad indeed. In fact, here is a key verse for me: “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 147:10–11).
In other words, God delights in people who reverence him and delight in him, not in their legs. They are not delighting in their strong legs — “I have got beautiful legs” — or anything about their strength or beauty. That is why a healthy doctrine — now I don’t know what she thinks about this either — of self-denial has to be stirred in. God is glorified and happy when we deny ourselves the superior satisfaction of money over God, or sex over God, or health over God, or family over God. God is not happy when we are happiest in food or family or health or wealth over him. He is angry — really angry. It is called idolatry. And God is angry at people who are happy when they are happy in their sin.
Great Cost of Happiness
Here is a text that might be another litmus test to see whether the Osteens would be willing to quote this text:
I am about to act, [says the Lord] but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name . . . And I will deliver you from all your uncleanness . . . Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. (Ezekiel 36:22–23, 29, 31–32)
So the point of that text is that as long as we remember the mercies of God bought for us at the cost of Christ’s life — as long as we remember what it cost to save us — there is going to be a place for broken heartedness for our sin, and we will forever make the grace of God in the sacrifice of Jesus the supreme treasure of our lives. We will no longer say merely that our happiness makes God happy, which is what she said. We won’t say merely that. Our happiness makes God happy. We will remember that years and years of our sinful happiness in the things of this world belittled God and cost him the life of his Son to overcome. So we will rather say, “Our happiness in God, in God’s undeserved grace, is what makes God happy.” For our happiness in God over and above all things shows the supreme value of God in the world. And that is what makes God glad.