Victoria Osteen spoke and the world shook. Tremors have been felt across the nation in TV studios, talk radio programs, Bill Cosby’s living room and Al Mohler’s breakfast table. And it’s that upturned bowl of cornflakes that I’d like to pause and examine for a moment because Dr. Mohler has now written a response to Osteen’s comments that I do not entirely agree with.
What Victoria Osteen Got Right
Did I just write that? Yes, because although she got a lot wrong, she said some right and important things too. Here’s what she said:
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 to look at it–we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we are 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?
So what’s wrong and what’s right about this?
She was wrong in saying that when we obey or worship God “we are not doing it for God.” That’s so obviously unbiblical and ridiculously false. If she had inserted one extra word and said “we are not doing it only for God,” I doubt any of us would be thinking and writing about her. (And in her defense, she did go on to slightly qualify “we’re not doing it for God” by saying “I mean, that’s one way to look at it.”)
She was also wrong in her prioritizing of human happiness. She believes that you come to church worship for your own happiness first of all, which subsequently makes God happy. No, no, no. We come to church to glorify God, to make Him happy, as it were, which subsequently makes us happy.
But she was right in two important points. First, she was right in that obedience and worship do benefit and bless us. They do make us happy and they were meant to. Just this morning I was reading Psalm 135v5 which says:
Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good;
Sing praises to His name, for it is pleasant.
Charles Spurgeon comments on the second line of this verse:
Sing praises unto his name, for it is pleasant. The adjective may apply to the singing and to the name—they are both pleasant. The vocal expression of praise by sacred song is one of our greatest delights. We were created for this purpose, and hence it is a joy to us. It is a charming duty to praise the lovely name of our God. All pleasure is to be found in the joyful worship of Jehovah; all joys are in his sacred name as perfumes lie slumbering in a garden of flowers. The mind expands, the soul is lifted up, the heart warms, the whole being is filled with delight when we are engaged in singing the high praises of our Father, Redeemer, Comforter. When in any occupation goodness and pleasure unite, we do well to follow it up without stint: yet it is to be feared that few of us sing to the Lord at all in proportion as we talk to men.
Second, she was right to say that God wants us to be happy and that God is happy when we are happy, “that’s the thing that gives him greatest joy.”
I’m going to come back to this second point shortly, because a lot of the Reformers and Puritans actually agree with Victoria Osteen here and were not as reluctant as we often are to use the word “happy” or “happiness” to describe God or the Christian’s experience.
What Al Mohler Got Wrong
Did I just write that?
Yes, because although 90% of his article hit the target, he overshot the mark in a couple of important areas.
First, the title: “Mere happiness cannot bear the weight of the Gospel.” I get the point he’s trying to make but happiness per se is no trifling triviality. The adjective “mere” does not belong in the same company as “happiness.” It’s like saying “mere Everest” or the “mere Atlantic.” There’s nothing “mere” about either of these and there’s nothing “mere” about happiness.
Together with four research assistants I’ve spent the summer researching what the Reformed tradition has said about happiness – beginning with Calvin and Luther, through the Puritans, up to the Princeton era of Charles Hodge and Archibald Alexander.
It’s amazing how much they spoke and wrote about happiness (I’ve got over a thousand references), how they prioritized happiness for God and us, and how they gave many theological and practical helps to happiness. If they’d seen Dr. Mohler’s headline, they would have choked on their oatmeal and exploded, “Mere happiness? Mere happiness? Happiness is not “mere.” It’s massive and it’s massive to God.”
Many of them, like Victoria Osteen, also believed that God is happy, made us to be happy, and is most happy when we are happy. Sure, they wouldn’t have recognized the Osteen version of happiness, but neither would they have recognized the Mohler diminishing of happiness.
Second, they also would take issue with Dr. Mohler’s attempt to distinguish between happiness and joy. He wrote:
The divine-human relationship is just turned upside down, and God’s greatest desire is said to be our happiness. But what is happiness? It is a word that cannot bear much weight. As writers from C. S. Lewis to the Apostle Paul have made clear, happiness is no substitute for joy. Happiness, in the smiling version assured in the Age of Osteen doesn’t last, cannot satisfy, and often is not even real.
In response, how about this quote from Archibald Alexander that says God is a happiness promoter:
God is good. His goodness is manifest in every work of his wisdom, for he has so continued and arranged all things in the best manner, to promote the happiness of his creatures, according to their nature and capacity.
Or this from Jeremiah Burroughs where he “channels” Victoria Osteen in the last line:
God is the only source of real happiness. He does not need anything or anyone to make him happy: even before he made the world, the three persons of the Trinity were completely happy with each other. What God does for Christians is to make them as happy as he is.
Or what about this brief selection from the ultra-dour John Calvin:
If it is the very summit of happiness to enjoy the presence of God, is it not miserable to lack it?
It is, indeed…our only true happiness, to be received into God’s favor, so that we may be really united to him in Christ.
But the Spirit of God promises a happy life to none except to the meek, and those who endure evils; and we cannot be happy except God prospers our ways; and it is the good and the benevolent, and not the cruel and inhuman, that he will favor.
The beginning of our happiness is when God receives us into favor; so the more he confirms his love in our hearts, the richer blessing he confers on us, so that we become happy and prosperous in all things.
God is said to bless us, when he crowns our undertakings with success, and, in the exercise of his goodness, bestows upon us happiness and prosperity; and the reason is, that our enjoyments depend entirely upon his pleasure.
I could go on and on (and one day I will), but for further proof of the Reformed Traditions’ positive focus on happiness let me direct you to the stunningly beautiful first chapter of Dane Ortlund’s new book Jonathan Edwards on the Christian Life.
Edwards speaks of divine beauty not only in terms of holiness but also in terms of happiness. I call this striking because our instinct even as believers is to set holiness and happiness over against one another. For Edwards, it is both or neither. The two rise and fall together.
There’s one sermon in which Edwards said: “It is a thing truly happifying to the soul of men to see God.” And later on he refers to the “beatific, happifying sight of God.”
So God communicates to his people of his own happiness. They are partakers of that infinite fountain of joy and blessedness by which he himself is happy. God is infinitely happy in himself, and he gives his people to be happy in Him.
Reactionary or Reformed Theology
Whenever serious error arises, like the Osteens’ Prosperity Gospel message, we’re always at risk of framing our theology in opposition to the error rather than by taking it straight from the Bible. Reformed Theology re-forms the biblical message from the Bible; Reactionary Theology forms theology in opposition to an error. In doing so – whether it’s in reaction to secular psychology, moralistic preaching, legalism, antinomianism, or the prosperity gospel – we run the real risk of going too far the other way and losing biblical vocabulary and concepts.
I don’t want the Osteens’ happiness. But neither do I want to lose true biblical happiness. I steadfastly refuse to let the Osteens’ steal this beautiful biblical word from me or the Church. Instead, let’s reclaim it and fill it with biblical ballast. By doing so we can surely out-happify the Osteens. And yes, that kind of happiness will pass the Mosul test.
UPDATE: In response to a commenter looking for my definition of happiness, here are a few previous posts I’ve written on the subject.