We laugh because we know that humor can sometimes be serious.
Service to a purposeful truth may be humor’s most eloquent contribution.
And often its most devastating.
So it seemed when someone recently sent me a YouTube video of Victoria Osteen. She’s the wife of Joel Osteen, pastor of America’s biggest congregation, Lakewood Church in Houston. Mrs. Osteen serves as the co-pastor of Lakewood.
On this particular Sunday morning, Mrs. Osteen, standing next to her husband, told the thousands gathered in rapt attention:
“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean that’s one way of looking 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. 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, 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?”
As the crowd begins to thunder its glowing approval, there is a cutaway to Bill Cosby, undoubtedly a clip from an episode of The Cosby Show, in which he is likely reacting to a child’s explanation of wrongdoing.
America’s favorite dad stands up, shakes his head, and proclaims in disgusted disbelief:
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”
Surprise always aids good humor, so I immediately laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it and meant no disrespect. It was just a spontaneous reaction.
Someone thought Victoria Osteen’s comments might have been that, and attached the surprise ending, but who would have picked Bill Cosby to make such a succinct theological reply?
I thought it was very funny and quite clever.
I must confess to having made my share of embarrassing comments in the presence of my long-suffering spouse – and even a church congregation. In this I sympathize with Mrs. Osteen.
She’s conceded “I could have been more articulate”, though that may not be the chief objection to her remarks.
And it’s true – and must be said – that Joel and Victoria Osteen, for all any of us know, are utterly sincere in their beliefs and their words. Their books, tapes and televised sermons have encouraged millions around the world. They believe, preach and practice a gospel of hope to those who are discouraged.
Who among us doesn’t subscribe to the amazing positive power of Christianity to heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, cheer the disheartened and otherwise miraculously transform desperate lives?
In all this there is truth – and important truth.
Insofar as what Mrs. Osteen said to her church that Sunday morning is what she believes – and even if it’s not – it deserves a response, in addition to Bill Cosby’s.
“Good philosophy must exist,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
God’s job is not to make us happy.
If the holiness God desires in us leads also to our happiness, it is a blessed result of our faith, but hardly the reason for it. Happiness may be an effect of our confidence in Jesus Christ; it is not the cause of it.
God does not exist to give us what we want. We exist to bring him glory.
God owes us nothing, least of all personal happiness – he will be a debtor to no man. You and I, as God’s children and as his creation, owe him everything. This includes our obedience and our worship.
We obey God and worship him not because it brings us happiness – though it should give us joy, even in the most difficult of circumstances. We obey and worship God because this is God’s command and because it brings him pleasure.
This isn’t about us – none of it – it’s about him.
Going to the cross didn’t make Jesus happy – though the Bible tells us he endured it for the joy that was set before him even while “despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2, KJV). The immeasurable love God showed us by denying his own Son’s desperate prayer for escape from the indescribable suffering of Calvary “demands my soul, my life, my all.”
When you and I look to the cross – when we realize – or try to – the great sacrifice of the Atonement, we don’t come to church figuring that God’s fortunate to have us there, or owes us anything. Instead we bow our heads, fall on our knees and seek not happiness but his forgiveness. With the songwriter, we count our richest gain but loss and pour contempt on all our pride.
In this we discover true joy.
Understanding God, Jesus and the Christian faith is to know that there is woven into the colorful fabric of every life the dark threads of pain and suffering that are needed for our growth and maturity. This is not intended by God as a curse but a blessing.
Throughout the scriptures, it’s discipleship that defines the Christian faith, not happiness. God’s people have always known that heaven awaits and this is hardly Your Best Life Now.
Sincerity never justifies error nor does hope alone define sound doctrine.
In speaking to her church that Sunday morning, Victoria Osteen wasn’t inarticulate. She was crystal clear. And therein lies the danger and the warning.
“We’re doing it for ourselves.”
May God bless you and your family.