Joel Osteen is Senior Pastor of the largest church in America: 30,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. His weekly television show airs on dozens of channels nationwide, and his optimistic message has made him one of the country's most popular preachers. He spoke with Beliefnet recently about his first book, "Your Best Life Now."
Your book speaks about living at your full potential and getting the most out of life, which is what you say God wants for us. How does God want us to live our lives?
He wants us to live our lives happy. He wants us not to endure them, but to enjoy them. The principle of the book is that you can be happy where you are. I know people have problems say, "Well, I’ve got a terrible marriage, I’ve got a sickness I’m dealing with," but the book is a lot about having an attitude to be grateful and just making that decision to enjoy the life God’s given us.
You talk about God’s favor a lot. What is God's favor?
I believe God’s favor is something intangible where you’ve got God’s blessings on your lives. I'm not saying it’s not a struggle, but you believe for good things.
There are so many people who don’t expect anything good in life. They don’t expect to get breaks, they don’t expect to get promoted, they don’t expect anything positive. So I just try to get people to say, I believe if we expect God’s favor, if we declare it, if we thank him when we do see good things happening, then we’re going to see more of that.
It almost seems like cognitive therapy: Think your way happy, be optimistic, and expect the best.
I think a lot of it is. A lot of psychological principles and even medical principles, you see them coming around to what the Bible said hundreds of years ago: a merry heart is good like a medicine. I’ve read many articles on how a positive attitude, laughing every day and being happy, does help people to recover and live longer.
Is this what you're hearing from your Lakewood church congregants—that they're not expecting the best?
No, I wouldn’t think it’s from the Lakewood people because they’re all fired up. But the message is so much bigger and goes out to so many more people.
It’s easy to get negative because you get beat down. You go through a few disappointments and it’s easy to stay in that negative frame of mind. Choosing to be positive and having a grateful attitude is a whole cliché, but your attitude is going to determine how you’re going to live your life.
Your book makes the case that if we confidently wait and work, God will make our wrongs right--we'll see God's justice. In parts of the book, it seems like God's justice is expressed in terms of prosperity.
I feel like that gives a bad rap because I don’t in the least bit consider myself a prosperity-type preacher. I don’t think I’ve ever preached a message on finances.
It’s just more an attitude of God wants to bless us where we are. When I say 'bless,' I don’t mean go drive 10 Mercedes and stuff like that. I’m talking about being happy and having good marriages and good relationships. I think sometimes I get grouped in with a prosperity-type... like that’s all I focus on, but I don’t mean it to come off like that.
I think God’s justice is making wrongs right.
We deal with a lot of people who have gone through relationship breakups. Somebody walked out on them or they weren’t being treated right. But God’s justice can be, he’s going to bring somebody great into your life at another time. You can't see it now, but you’re going to be happier than you’ve ever been before. It can be in the financial area too.
Your book mentions a man who financially wronged you and your wife Victoria. You say later he lost everything—he lost his money, his family—while God "prospered [you] through several real estate deals."
Exactly. That’s very clear in my mind. We could have sued him, we could have gotten very ugly. But we said we’re going to let God fight this battle. He was another Christian man; he just wasn’t living by Christian principles. I believe we kept a good attitude in the tough times when we weren’t getting our way.
I believe those are times of testing and I can tell you, God did prosper us more than we could ask or think. On some of these real estate deals, it’s just again, God’s favor and God’s blessing. I believe you’re sowing seeds for that when you’re doing the right thing when the wrong thing’s happening.
I don’t think it’s just snap your fingers. We’ve got to have an attitude of faith when things aren’t going our way.
Do you think that God ever shows his favor by presenting us with something difficult and not fun? Could it be God's will to give up everything and live in poverty, or help others in some way?
I think it is in some ways but God gives you grace to do that. If my dad was alive today and he had his way, he would live over there in India. That’s the way he felt prospered, to be with the people. He loved living in the Third World. I used to travel with him. We’ll go back into places that I, as a guy in my twenties, didn’t like.
Prospering just doesn’t have to do with money. God lets us go through difficult things. There’s not a person alive who can say, "You’re never going to have a tough time and God’s going to make your path easy." It’s in the difficult times that we’re growing and you can’t just rebuke everything hard. We’ve got to endure it and fight the good fight of faith and pass the test.
I think he always will, because he’s faithful. He may not make it up the way we want. But when I say God may make something up to us, maybe an example of a husband or wife, somebody walked out of a relationship, I’m not saying God’s going to make up something that next year or maybe your whole lifetime, but I believe God can make it up and give you a peace and a joy that you never had before. I don’t think it's "Joel said God’s going to bring me another husband in two years." I think it’s a peace, a joy, a happiness.
What are the biggest problems people come to you with?
I would say it’s relationships. People are discouraged, beaten down. Relationships, finances, health [are] probably the big categories.
Is there a certain message you give them that helps them most?
You’ve got to believe that God is in control of your life. It may be a tough time but you’ve got to believe that God has a reason for it and he’s going to make everything good. It’s up to us to stay in that attitude of faith.
God works where there’s faith. And faith to me is having a positive outlook, believing that things are going to get better, and expecting good things in life. God’s given you the strength to endure a tough time. God’s there for you. Call on him, believe in his strength.
The book’s title and subhead--Your Best Life Now: Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential--don’t include specific Christian terms. To whom are you marketing the book?
You’re exactly right. I don’t want to just preach to the church and I just feel like I have a broader message. I’d like to think that I can help everyday people who don’t necessarily go to church. I bet half the letters I get, the first line is "I’ve never been to church. I don’t watch a preacher on TV, but..."
When I first started, I played basketball down at the YMCA with a bunch of guys—I don’t know if they’re Christian, but they’re not living a Christian life. I always thought, when I speak, if they can’t understand what I’m saying, then I’m not doing the right thing. So I try to speak in everyday language. I feel like God has gifted me to take Bible principles and make them practical.
I'll give you my two cents, but I've never made political statements. I don't necessarily see the divide in what I'm doing because we see people that are happy and that are together. The congregation is very racially mixed and all that, so I don't see it. I've seen in the polls how Americans want to stand up for values. I think it reinforces the kind of the messages that we preach.
What moral values are important to focus on now?
I think most of it has to do with the family and the marriage situation and all that.
You mean same-sex marriage?
I'm sure that's part of it. I have not gotten very involved in any of that.
But I don't think people like in general what they see on TV.
But they like watching you on TV.
What's the most important thing to do to overcome guilt and shame?
We've got to forgive ourselves for mistakes we've made. A lot of people tell me, "I don't feel like God wants to bless me."
If we don't forgive ourselves for mistakes we've made-and everybody's made their choices, some worse than others--we'll never experience the good life God has in store.
It's just changing your attitude and knowing that God gives you your value. Even though somebody's tried to devalue you, you've just got to say, "I've gotta let that go and know who I am, who God made me to be."