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.”

Ortlund concludes:

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.

40 Joys Through Jesus

The Happiest People in the World

What is Christian Happiness?

Why is happiness such hard work?

A Very Different and Unexpected Happiness

  • Barry York

    Thank you for the clarity here, David.

  • John Koopman

    David I actually think that Al Mohler’s joy=your happiness. When Mohler is talking about ‘happiness’ he is talking about Osteen’s ‘happiness’ which is largely the world’s ‘happiness’. He could have defined his terms better but what I appreciate about Mohler’s comments is that there is no joy/happiness (in a biblical sense) without the gospel. I do agree that we shouldn’t let the world (or heretics!) define our terms. So perhaps Mohler is guilty of letting Oosteen’s highjack the meaning of this word happiness.

  • Bill Noonkesser

    Great stuff David, I cannot agree more wholeheartedly. There is a lot of truth in Piper’s statement that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” I have been thinking about the first question of the Westminster Catechism lately and I think I would reword the answer to read “To glorify God by enjoying him forever.” We tend to disconnect the two thoughts and I don’t think we should.

    • Ian

      Born a Scot’s Presbyterian, my stomach churns when WSC 1 is reframed. Leaving that natural bias aside, I would still disagree with Piper’s replacing “and” with “by” (I believe this is originally Piper’s?). In my estimation this impoverishes the answer. Experientially, I ought to and can still glorify God when I do not have a felt sense of the enjoyment of His presence. One thinks of the language of Job – “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (13:15), or even of Christ’s cry of dereliction (Ps. 22:1, Matt. 27:46), where there is manifestly a sense of the LORD’s absence and yet there is a beautiful glorifying of His name. So, while agreeing that one of the ways we glorify God is by enjoying Him forever, and that these thoughts have an intimate relation, yet I’d leave the answer the way it is! :)

      • Bill Noonkesser

        Ian, I’m not Presbyterian at all so I have a stronger stomach when it comes to changing the wording. :) If I took Piper’s words I must be thinking his thoughts after him. I was only recently made aware of the quote that I quoted. I have not read or listened to many (maybe a handful) of his articles and sermons. In any event, I agree that we do not have to be enjoying God to be glorifying him. The souls in Hell bring glory to God but they most certainly do not enjoy his presence there. But the question is not “For what ends did God create man” but rather “What is the chief (primary or highest) end of man?” And I would still say that the highest most God honoring and intended way is that we would glorify him by enjoying him. Would it not be more glorious and God honoring to be able to enjoy God even when his providence seems to be against us? And will it not be the state of believers in Glory to enjoy God endlessly? Is that not our CHIEF end? It’s not just one of the ways God is glorified but rather it is the chief, the highest, the most glorious way. Good thoughts brother.

        • Ian

          Thanks for your post, I appreciate your thoughts.

          If we say that an aspect of the chief end (ultimate reason for existence) of man is to glorify God, without the predication of “by enjoying Him,” then it seems to me that we include much more of what we need to. Supremely, this would include the sufferings of Christ. I don’t think humanity ever has or ever will glorify God more than in the suffering unto death of the Person of the Son in our nature. Yet, can we say here that Christ was enjoying God? Obeying, submitting, loving? Yes. But enjoying? Would that not stretch the meaning of the word beyond what is proper? And otherwise, would we not have to conclude that Christ was not fulfilling the chief end of man when he suffered unto death?

          I suppose therefore, also thinking pastorally, I would not want to, and don’t see the need to restrict man’s chief end to “glorifying God by enjoying Him.” WSC1, as it stands, relates to what is often now experienced in the church militant. I would think that it is as much the chief end of man to glorify God by unconditionally obeying, submitting, vindicating God’s name, in spite of difficult circumstances (which may include a lack of a sense of enjoyment), as is the sense of enjoying Him.

          Can we not say that our chief end is sustained when we glorify God by lovingly obeying Him even when we have no sense of the enjoyment of His presence?

          Thanks for the helpful discussion brother.

          • Bill Noonkesser

            I am sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

            I think we can agree for the most part. I have no problem whatsoever with the statement that we exist for the Glory of God, period. In that sense even the wrath of man praises him. My concern is simply over the seeming disconnectedness of the “and” as if it is one or the other or could be in reality. God made man in his image and likeness and only the entrance of sin has marred the original enjoyment of his creator. But the entire course of history has been a long march back to that enjoyment, the apex (of history) being the suffering Savior restoring to us the access and confidence before the Throne of Grace that was lost to us in the fall. Even bringing us closer and into a more fuller enjoyment than was possible before the fall!

            The way I think we sometimes take it is that we must grit our teeth and Glorify God through suffering or hardship. This is not so. Even your statement about “loving” submission would indicate some sense of enjoyment in the person loved would it not? I do not think we are disagreeing fundamentally, I only wished to make the connection between the “Chief end” and “enjoyment of God” stronger. I realize that sin mars that enjoyment but it does not change the end in view does it?

            I get what you are saying about Christ in his suffering and I would not dare to enter into the mind of my Savior on that Cross, in those hours of Darkness or even in the Garden beyond what is revealed but it was for the JOY set before him that endured the cross and can we not say that the purpose of it all was to bring us back into the conscious and eternal enjoyment of the Father that he came and died? Could the Son have ceased to enjoy the Father? Could the sinless one have ceased to love and enjoy the thought of his Father even as his Father was pouring out his wrath and JUST indignation on our sins? These are mysteries too deep for me.

            Again, I think we are of one heart my brother, I hope this helps to clarify where I am coming from.

            Perhaps I would just have broken the question into parts. The first being What is the Chief end of Man. To Glorify God. The second, How is this most beautifully and fully expressed? In the enjoyment of what God is in all his attributes.

            I understand that we must submit unconditionally to the Fathers will in our lives but is it not better kiss the rod and not let go of the enjoyment of the Father even when difficulty comes?

            So I would ask, why do we feel the need to disconnect the two thoughts is it just too hard for our sinful flesh and contrary to our thinking to imagine that our Savior could actually have been “enjoying God” while suffering for our sins? Would anything less not have been sin?

  • Todd Pruitt

    David – Thanks for helping us think through this. My two pushbacks would be:
    1. I actually don’t think you and Mohler disagree. I believe he’s using the word happiness differently than you.
    2. It seems to me that Victoria’s statement is so fundamentally flawed from the beginning that to find what she gets right is not really possible. Once the bread is poisoned the whole thing is fouled.

  • Tom Ascol

    I contemplated writing a blog post entitled, “What Victoria Osteen Got Right.” I am glad I didn’t because you said what I would have wanted to say in a far better way than I could have said it! Thanks!

    • RStarke

      Not to mention that anyone who dares to say it out loud is getting Twitterbombed for being digitally nigh unto a heretic…. sigh…

      So thank you times two, David, for once again going where others a reluctant. Helpful words. :)

  • Brian Borgman

    David, will the research be reflected in an upcoming book? I hope so. Where was the Burrough’s quote from?

    • David Murray

      Yes, Brian, Feb 2015. The Burroughs quote was from “Learning to be Happy” an abridgment of The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.

  • Bill Godfrey

    I very much appreciate your insights on the whole issue. I think your second to last paragraph regarding the difference between reformed theology and reactionary theology was an outstanding distinction. Concisely but powerfully put. Thanks.

  • Todd Pruitt

    Incidentally, I wholeheartedly agree with your closing paragraph. We ought to rehearse that truth over and over again.

  • Bob Cleveland

    I think maybe we try to differentiate joy and happiness because we don’t see a lot of happiness or joy, so we define joy as being some sort of assurance or confidence, or knowledge that God is in control, we’re saved, etc. The same way we re-define agape love as something other than love, like maybe a willingness to sacrifice in some way or another.

  • Michael

    David, you admit that the Osteen’s type of happiness is not what Reformed theology had in mind when speaking on happiness. Yet, you fail to show how they defined happiness. Could it be Mohler is using their definition of happiness when he speaks of it? Could it be that Christians today have split the word “joy” away from “happiness” because the latter has been used to justify all kinds of sin and sinful desires? As any good theologian should do, you must define biblical happiness, define the Reformers/Puritans happiness, Osteen’s form of happiness, and so on.

  • Phil Weingart

    I am SO sick of this!!!

    “She was wrong in saying that when we obey or worship God “we are notdoing it for God.” That’s so obviously unbiblical and ridiculously false.”

    Give. It. A. Rest!!!

    No, you damned Pharisees, she did NOT get this wrong. She was using a perfectly ordinary English construction that says only “Think about this differently” to the casual listener. She was not writing a theological treatise; she was offering encouragement during an emotional altar call. The way she chose to say it is completely acceptable in English speech, and can only be misunderstood if the hearer is eager to misunderstand.

    And that is what is wrong here; Evangelicals are incredibly, grotesquely, demonically eager to misunderstand. You all are so very eager to find fault that you can’t find grace enough to allow a human being to be a human being.

    People are assuming that the Osteen’s happiness is the culture’s hedonism. I have seen exactly zero evidence supporting this assertion. Until I see it, I’m calling every single one of the Osteen’s critics liars, even David Murray and Al Mohler.

    I have always recognized myself to be a Protestant Evangelical, albeit not a very good one because my theology is eclectic. Today, I am ashamed even to be a bad Evangelical.

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  • Jennifer

    I feel like the only way to come to agreement on this subject is to 1) clearly define what people mean by joy and happiness, and honestly, while I appreciate all the scholarly quotes, I’d really just like to see the actual scriptures that support your thesis than quotes-from-the-people-who-read-the-scriptures in your thesis. Isn’t that how all this began anyway? Ms. Osteen spouted a bunch of scripturally, unsupported fluff; in a way (without meaning to I’m sure), this article sounds that way also, even though I think I get the direction you’re coming from. Bottom line, my opinion (for what it’s worth, probably not much), anyone, everyone, preachers, bloggers alike, need to stop preaching what they think the Bible is saying based on a verse here or a verse there, but start explaining the Bible in it’s context–the context of the passage, the culture, etc–and in light of it’s entirety–its entire story that it’s revealing, verse by verse, piecing the meaning together through the revelation of the Holy Spirit. That’s how it was written; that’s the only way it will ever be truthfully interpreted; That’s the only way people will ever here the real truth from anyone here on earth.

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  • Mark

    Dr. Murray: perhaps all the furor over this controversy is now yesterday’s news (as I see no one is commenting upon your article any longer). But since I respect your work so much, I thought I’d at
    least offer a few thoughts in response to your post.
    First, I sincerely believe you could have made your same points without having to have set yourself over against Dr. Mohler in such sharp terms as you did. A more nuanced disagreement would have
    been more irenic and helpful to your readership. To have said, “What Al Mohler got wrong” immediate sets yourself off in a triangular relationship from him and the Osteens, which creates the suspicion of division and dissent, which I believe doesn’t actually exist between Dr. Mohler and you.
    Second, I trust you are familiar enough with Dr. Mohler’s theological commitments to know that in responsibly commenting on the unvarnished and consistent heart-spewings of a heretic such as Mrs.
    Osteen recently made does in no way, shape or form make him guilty of fashioning a “reactionary theology”! There is a profound difference between reacting to heresy and building a “reactionary theology” over against the heresies of our age. Dr. Mohler is a solidly committed, consistent Reformed
    Baptistic theologian. I believe you know this, and thus challenge your characterization of him as building a theology over against a heretic.
    His helpful commentary throughout the years of our age and its sociolgoical, economic, and theological influences—let alone the many books he’s written—surely are enough to demonstrate to anyone (let alone another brother such as yourself with Reformed commitments) that Al Mohler is not a reactionary, but a stalwart for orthodoxy. I would therefore humbly encourage you to stand more with than against a brother who is on the side of Reformational truth and whose broader audience he seeks to instruct to discern the anti-Christian spirits of our age such as was demonstrated in the Prosperity Theology of the Osteens.

    • David Murray

      Mark, thanks for your comment which I take in the charitable spirit in which you gave it. As none of us are above correction, I will certainly carefully weigh what you’ve written. I think I’ve probably linked to the majority of posts Dr. Mohler has ever written, favorably reviewed his books, linked to his addresses multiple time, etc. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever written anything critical of his theology. I believe I’ve demonstrated my love and support for Dr. Mohler over many years, so I’m not motivated by animus here. I agree with your characterization of him as a stalwart for orthodoxy and not a reactionary. I think we can make a distinction between reactionary theology (which we are all liable to especially in controversry) and being a reactionary (which I hope we all avoid). I do not know Dr. Mohler personally, having only met him briefly once, but from what I know about humble men of God like him, I know he would not regard himself as above criticism. I expect to continue to link to almost everything he writes!

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  • Clark E. Dunlap

    I haven’t seen quite so much wrangling over the definition of a word since trying to decide was is, is. But let me just say, that happiness is a warm puppy, a funny movie, buttery popcorn, a sweet kiss at the end of a long hard day. Oh sure its also experiencing God but hey, how often does THAT happen? Especially for the people who were in attendance with Vicky said those crazy words. They may actually experience God from time to time-in His word, but do they discern the difference between true happiness and a happy song from Hillsong? I think you made a couple valid points. I don’t care that you ‘triangulated yourself’ from Mohler and the Osteens. Its not like your life will be judged on one article.
    But I will say, it seemed like you had to wade through some significant nasty rotten garbage to get to the ‘good things’. Which makes me wonder if you like to go over the garbage one- more- time- for a little juicy tidbit before dumping it in the compost pile. No, I’m sure you don’t. That’s ridiculous and you are an intelligent person. But that’s what you’re article seems like you did with the quote in question.