Rev. Joel Osteen, senior pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston on April 6, 2009 visited the offices of The Wall Street Journal for an interview with Steven Waldman, Editor-in-Chief of Beliefnet & WSJ.com columnist. Osteen is preaching in Yankee Stadium on April 25.
BELIEFNET: What’s your core message [at Yankee Stadium] going to be?
OSTEEN: My core message is that God is good, that he’s on our side, and even though times are tough and a lot of people are suffering I believe God can still bring us through, and that he has good days in the days ahead. So it’s all about hope and believing for better days.
BELIEFNET: You’ve written quite a lot about how people should try to develop better attitudes and approaches in order to bring themselves success, good relationships, prosperity – and that having a good attitude can ultimately bring you prosperity. So if you’re not achieving prosperity right now, what does that tell you about your attitude?
OSTEEN: Well, I don’t know. People in tough times, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a great attitude. All through the scripture, there’s people like Joseph that was treated so unfairly, spent 13 years in prison for something he didn’t do. But he kept that good attitude and in the end he saw God’s blessing and favor. I wouldn’t ever say if you’re having tough times then there must be something wrong with you or your attitude. Life’s a fight. It’s a good fight of faith. I encourage people to stay up, stay hopeful, stay faith filled. I believe that when you think of the negative and you get up discouraged and there’s nothing good in my future, I really believe it almost ties the hands of God. God works where there’s an attitude of faith. I believe faith is all about hope.
BELIEFNET: What do you mean “it ties the hands of God?”
OSTEEN: I think back to the scripture where it says Jesus couldn’t do any miracles in his own home town because the people didn’t believe. I really believe that the scripture talks about, it’s our faith that pleases God. It’s our belief that “God, you’re for me, you’re on my side. Yes, it’s hard, but I trust you. You’re in control.” I believe that’s what allows God to work in our lives.
BELIEFNET: You’ve written that sometimes these hard times can be useful because it takes off “the rough edges.” If you look at the recession not in individual terms but as an entire economy, an entire country, what’s the message we should be taking from God about why we’re suffering as a nation?
OSTEEN: I don’t know if I know that exact message. I do think that the tough times help us to focus [on] our faith, maybe make some adjustments of what we could be doing better. I know in my own ministry we’ve made adjustments in terms of being more frugal. Probably stuff we should have made five years ago but we didn’t need to… even though it’s difficult some good can come out of it. I don’t think it’s God punishing us or anything like that. Sometimes people make some bad decisions when it comes to some of the fraud that’s taken place and you reap the consequences. But I just believe it’s another test. America’s always come through and it will come through again.
BELIEFNET: I want to read to you a prayer circle that was posted on Beliefnet. We’ve gotten a lot of prayer requests related to financial hard times. “I’m a very devout Christian who is losing his will to fight a condition of job loss. For the past six months I have been praying to God to help me secure suitable employment and have not been successful. Within a couple of days, I may have to go to jail due to mounting debts. I do not understand why God is so far away in answering prayer.”
OSTEEN: There are difficult times. In the scripture, there’s people just like that. They prayed to God and felt nothing. It’s difficult but my encouragement to that gentleman would be you know in these tough times when your faith is tested and you have to trust God. I keep going back to these Bible examples, but I think about Job. He lost his family, lost his business, lost his health, yet he said, “Though God slays me I will trust him.” He’s got to get back to that place where you know, ‘Even though I don’t understand; I’m going to still trust God.’ That’s what faith is all about.
I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s difficult. I feel like I’ve had a blessed life. I’m healthy, I’ve got good children. My heart breaks for people like that. But I know that to say, “Too bad, you were dealt a bad hand and God doesn’t care about you,” I don’t think that’s the right thing. I’d just encourage him to know that God’s in control. You don’t know. Tomorrow morning he might get the break that he needs. That’s my thing – keep filled with faith. Keep doing what you can do and I believe God will do what you can’t do.
BELIEFNET: You’ve said you don’t know what God’s timing is but do you think that it’s always in your lifetime that you get the payback?
OSTEEN: I believe that, in general, that is. Even in these tough times, a payback that God can give you peace when you shouldn’t have peace. I know when my father died he was my best friend; I thought why do I feel this peace? I was grieving but I thought, ‘you know, I think I can make it.’ I thought that was God being released in my lifetime. It may not have been money or a dream coming true but I do believe that in general you’ll see God’s goodness in your lifetime. I know that a lot of the blessings that I have in my life are because of my parents. My dad never saw his ministry grow like I have seen it. I believe that I’m reaping some of his rewards. I believe he’d be looking down today saying, “wow,” and saying, “I’m proud of my son but he had a big part of me seeing God’s blessings and favor because of the seeds they sewn.”
BELIEFNET: A recent survey found that the fastest growing group in America is people who say they have no religion at all. Why do you think that is?
OSTEEN: I don’t know that I know for sure. I think part of it may be that when we talk about being religious versus coming to church. Some people who come to my church say I’m not religious but I have a relationship with God. I grew up as a preacher’s kid and my dad is southern Baptist and certain denomination it’s a big big deal. Today, I don’t see people being nearly as concerned about denomination. I don’t know that I know that answer … In my own life I see faith at an all time high… we’re in a basketball arena holding services each weekend seeing thousands and thousands of people. This is an amazing day we’re living in, when we are seeing 45,000 people coming out to one church and friends in other parts of the country that have these large churches as well. So I don’t see if it corresponds in my mind that faith is going down. Seems to me faith is going up higher.
BELIEFNET: The two theories I’ve heard, one coming from the left one coming from the right…On the one hand, the one from the left, says Christianity has become so associated with politics and culture war issues that that’s turned people off. Do you think it’s possible that kind of engagement in culture war issues has driven people away from Christianity?
OSTEEN: I’m sure it could. I can’t say for sure if I believe it but I do agree with some of that philosophy because I feel myself many times in those same shoes in that there was a time where I thought I don’t want to be known as “an Evangelical” because at the time that meant you were a Republican that was against everything. I think that’s changed. That was a few years back.
I don’t want people to look at me as their minister and say, ‘he’s a Republican and he’s against this, that and the other,’ because my church is made up of all different types of people. In some ways I would agree with that. That’s again probably back to a belief my Dad had that he didn’t get political because he didn’t want to divide the audience. I feel that same way. I don’t want to be categorized. Our message is about spreading Christ’s love to everybody. If you look at somebody and say he’s against that or that or he’s on that side, to me people start turning you off because of that.
BELIEFNET: Do you get asked a lot to weigh in on different political issues?
OSTEEN: I do, a lot. People realize now that I don’t do it. It’s not that I don’t want to stand up for things but I just think certain people are called for different things. We all have our different gifts. I have friends who are fantastic debaters and good at things like that. Again I think my gift is bringing hope to everybody, and I don’t want someone to look at me and say, “I would listen to him, I like what he’s saying, but he’s this or that politically and that turns me off.”
BELIEFNET: I’ve heard other people write, “sure he’s full of hope, he’s had a relatively blessed life.” Obviously we don’t know what people’s life is on the inside. You made a reference in one of your books to the “dark nights of the soul.” Have you had any dark nights of the soul?
OSTEEN: I think we have and I have. In 1981, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was given a few weeks to live. I was away at college. I’d never seen my mother sick a day in her life. She was 48 years old. I thought this is astounding. It never happens to our family. You think that. That was certainly a dark time.
There’s been other things as well. I can’t apologize that I do feel like I have a blessed life. I grew up in America; I’ve spent a lot of time in India and just do feel very grateful that I was raised by great, loving parents.
On the flip side, my father, he was raised in extreme poverty, came out of the great depression, and he made something with his life. I think that’s part of the seeds inside of me to want to encourage people to know that you can rise higher. You can become all God created you to be even if you’ve had difficulties, even if you weren’t born into a good, loving family, God still has a plan for your life.
BELIEFNET: There’s about 10 million people in the world who die each year who die before they reach the age of one year old. These are obviously people who haven’t done anything wrong. They haven’t had the wrong attitude, they haven’t done bad deeds and yet they don’t even make it to their first year. How does that gibe with your message of hope? Part of why your message of hope is very appealing is that it’s very empowering; you can actually guide your own ship. When you see something like that where it seems so arbitrary, how do you gibe these two?
OSTEEN: I guess I go back to the belief that God is in complete control and he knows what’s best for us and there’s always going to be things we don’t understand. In Houston I bet every week, I pray for half dozen people there at the medical center, and many times children. I never have a good answer for them except I encourage them that God will give them the strength to make it through anything you come up against. The other thing is, I believe that if we put our lives in the hand of the Lord we’ll go to be with him at the exact right time. I pray for people whose teenage son is killed in an auto wreck. I don’t get hung up on trying to explain it. I just gotta go back to say “God you know I don’t understand it but I’m going to trust you.”
BELIEFNET: You’ve been called a prosperity gospel person. You’ve explained that that is not accurate. So why don’t you sort through for our listeners what is prosperity gospel and what is different about your message?
OSTEEN: I don’t know what exactly what… I’ve heard prosperity gospel defined as so many different things. I can just come back to what I believe and that’s yes God wants us to prosper but it’s never all about money. That’s just such a small portion of it being happy. Prospering is having peace of mind and making good decisions and having good relationships, and your health. Sometimes what I get criticized for is, I do believe God wants you to be blessed and happy and healthy and whole. I’m not saying you’re not going to have some of those dark nights and difficult times. Life can be tough but even in those tough times I believe God can give us strength and scripture says count it all joy if we stay full of faith that we can make through.
BELIEFNET: You have said, if I’m reading this right, that people would prosper financially…am I misunderstanding that or are you saying prosperity isn’t about financial prosperity?
OSTEEN: It’s part of it but I do think that we need money to pay our bills and I do think that God wants you to be blessed so you have enough money to send your kids to college and to take your family to the next level. The fact that’s how my father came out of the great depression, no money, no education, no future, but yet he believed, and it didn’t happen overnight, and that’s my belief, that God does want you to excel in your business. He wants you to be blessed not only to pay your bills but so you can help someone else.
How could I encourage our church to buy this new facility and I’m telling you to be poor and broke and you’re not supposed to have anything so you can look holy. I just don’t buy into that. We’re his children. He wants us to be blessed. It’s all an attitude of our heart. Where people get it wrong is well all he’s talking about is money. Gods not concerned just about our money. It’s an attitude of our heart. I want to be blessed so I can leave a legacy to my children. I want to be blessed so I can build orphanages. Blessed so I can build hospitals and do other things with our finances.
BELIEFNET: But money is part of it?
OSTEEN: I think it is part of it.
BELIEFNET: So, if God wants us to be blessed in that way, if we’re not succeeding at that moment, how can we interpret that? If God wants that for us, why isn’t it happening?
OSTEEN: There’s times and seasons. I don’t think you can look at a poor person and say you must not be holy; you must be doing something wrong. That’s not necessarily true. I have friends in India that live great, Godly lives helping people and they live on 40 dollars a month or something like that.
I do believe that if you’re on welfare today, God wants you to rise higher. My message is, don’t settle there. Don’t say you know this is my lot in life, I was born in the wrong family and I’ve had some bad breaks. Don’t settle there. Believe you can rise higher. I can tell story after story of people who have come out of not only depression and bad health but out of, what you call, out of the projects. They’ve risen up and done something great with their life.
BELIEFNET: You have spoken about the idea that if you lead a good life, a life of good deeds, you’ll be rewarded, that God is keeping scores. I just finished a book on the founding fathers, and the founders loved that idea because they thought one of the purposes of religion was to promote religion and if you had the sense that God was keeping score and watching your good deeds and that would create a virtuous citizenry. But what was interesting to me is that a lot of people disagree with them, including a lot of the Protestant clergy, and they would say so today – an emphasis on deeds, paying back, is against the notion of salvation through faith. This is one of the criticisms you get form other Christian leaders, how do you react to one point of criticism?
OSTEEN: They’re both right. We are saved through faith. There’s nothing we can do. We don’t have to work our way to heaven. I do think that when you become a believer in Christ, you should be doing good things for other people. A lot of time …God is a just God. He sees your acts of obedience and kindness and nobody else may be paying attention. You may be doing the right thing at work and not getting the credit you deserve. That’s why I believe God’s keeping the records and I believe you will be rewarded even in this life; somehow, some way God will make it up to you. It may be he protected you from accident you never knew. I just believe you can’t give God something without God giving you more in return, whether its peace or joy or satisfaction. I just think that’s the way our God is.
BELIEFNET: Would that be true if you haven’t accepted Christ?
OSTEEN: I believe the principles of the scripture are true. For instance, I believe if you don’t accept Christ but you’re a giver, I believe you’re going to receive. It’s just a principle, from the scripture, but I think it’s a law of God. I saw a report on a Saudi prince one time. This man is one of the richest men in the world. He would take a moth a year and give houses to the poor people and cars. I thought isn’t that interesting. And yet every year he’d just continue to flourish. I thought, ‘you know what when you take care of the poor when you help people that have less than you can’t help but be blessed.’
That’s just the law of God. I believe it is true.
BELIEFNET: Another interesting point that you’ve made is that you shouldn’t try to settle scores because God will do it for you.
OSTEEN: Yes. I talked about that Sunday. I just think that a lot of time human nature wants to pay people back to get revenge. To me it’s my reading of the scripture says don’t avenge yourself. Let God do it for you. I think when we spend our time trying to get even, trying to get people back, it’s the inside flesh part of us, if we just leave to God, it in the end, I say he’ll make our lives right, he’ll bring the justice into our lives. It’s a distraction to try to straighten everybody out. That’s why I never argue with our critics. I never even hear the criticism until I come to an interview. I know it’s out there but you know what I search my heart for every day, ‘God am I on the right course? Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?’ And I think as long as I know that, then I don’t have to worry about the critics, people trying to bring me down. I believe God will fight my battles for me.
BELIEFNET: I had a conversation with an evangelical book publisher and I mentioned that we on Beliefnet were having a video by Joel Osteen. And she said oh he’s not really Christian. Have you ever heard that?
OSTEEN: I’ve never heard that one. I’ve never heard that one. It’s certainly the foundation of my faith. I’d never heard that one. [laughs]
BELIEFNET: In “Become a Better You,” you wrote the scripture indicates that God has already approved and accepted you. If God approves you, why don’t you start approving yourself? You urge people to stop listening to accusing voices and learning to like yourself. I’ve had conversations with gay Christians who have said they’ve tried to do that but since the church’s position is that their essence, their relationships, is sinful how can they get to the point of loving themselves if the church doesn’t love them?
OSTEEN: It’s an interesting point of view. When I say God accepts and approves you, I think that he made you. You’ve got to feel good about yourself to begin with. I don’t know if I’m answering your question directly. I do think it is up to us to follow God’s word. So I’m sure there are plenty of people that are gay in my church and they know that I believe that that’s not God’s best. I think that a lot of time the church has been hard, picked out certain groups, and beat them down, and I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I can understand their point of view but I hope that we’re always changing and trying to grow, eve myself I’m certainly not perfect, in accordance to what the scripture says.
BELIEFNET: Does your church do reparative therapy to try to bring gays to heterosexual lifestyle?
OSTEEN: We help everyone. I don’t know that we have a program directly for that.
BELIEFNET: What do you think of that approach?
OSTEEN: Well, um, I believe that, we try to help anyone, we don’t try to push anything down people’s throats. But we would sit down in a loving way if somebody wanted help, saying I’m struggling with homosexual desire can you help me, sure we’ll pray with you and give you some scripture and stand with you. If somebody came and said ‘you know I have these desires, I’m practicing and I want to change,’ we’d help them but I don’t think I come to get up there… I mean same thing with alcohol and drugs and stuff like that. That would be our approach – to help anybody that we can to see God’s word.
BELIEFNET: What do you say if they come to you say, “this is who I am and I don’t want to change. What I want is to love myself.”
OSTEEN: I would encourage the person, I would pray with them, I’m not going to force anything down their throats. I would just tell them in a loving way, probably already know, that I believe God’s best is when you come in accordance with his word, that’s when you’ll be the most fulfilled.
BELIEFNET: Are there anyways in which your message has changed in the last 5 or 10 years as you’ve lived your life or seen things around you? Anything where you’ve adapted?
OSTEEN: I think so. I started 10 years ago. I started preaching like my father… I think 4, 5, 6 years ago I got my stride and this is what I’m good at, this is what I love doing, encouraging people, helping them to overcome their past. And I think I’ve grown
BELIEFNET: How so?
OSTEEN: I don’t know. Hate to use the word, deeper, but just more mature. You learn more. My first book I wrote I’d just been ministering for a few years. I’m proud of it but I think my second book is better. I have more understanding of the scripture and I realize that if I say that coming from a Christian background it didn’t mean the same thing to other people. I’ve got some good constructive criticism where I’ve been learning. I hope 10 years from now, that I can say the same thing, that I’ve grown, I’ve gotten better, I’ve learned some of the issues.
Not that I’ve wavered on my faith but you know what I realized that staying hopeful and positive doesn’t make everything perfect. I can’t promise you you’re not going to have an accident and I’m going to tell you God s going to protect you. but even if something happens he’ll be there to protect you. It’s taking a broader view of who God is.
BELIEFNET: It’s interesting to think you’ve only been doing this for 10 years. There are tens of thousands of preachers in America of different faiths getting up each weekend and preaching and yet here we are with you as one of the top one or two in the United States in terms of your reach and influence. And you’re about to do what from a long island boys point of view the ultimate venue -Yankee stadium. Why you? Why have you had this tremendous success?
OSTEEN: I get asked that. I don’t know that I know. I’ll come up with some things, and I don’t mean to sound arrogant…part of it is the seeds that my parents have sown. More practical, my message is always to lift people. I’m not saying other people don’t as well. That’s why I’m cautious about it. It’s always lifted people up. I’ve done my best to take it from a religious message to just, here’s a way to help lead your life according to scripture…I’ve tried to reach people from all walks of life, people that haven’t gone to church. I don’t know that I’m right. I don’t know what it is.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just God’s favor, he just happened to put me at the right place at the right time. I don’t know. I wish I did.