There are two reasons I try not to be dismissive of Joel Osteen: 1. I’m really trying to train my heart to assume people are well-intentioned (with a healthy dose of my trademark skepticism, of course). 2. We seem to be equally vain about our teeth and hair. I’m afraid it is a general conflation of all things religious, rather than that our similar vanity, that causes people to assume he and I share a Christian theology, and causes Twitter to suggest I might want to follow him. With all due respect, I’m not interested. I’m looking for something that promises more than happiness.
It’s not that I don’t like happiness, or prosperity, but that I refuse to make them idols. It’s not that I don’t enjoy happy-clappy, feel-good worship, but that I want to also worship in grueling, bitter times. it’s not that I don’t believe in blessings, but that I don’t believe they always take the forms we want or expect.
So Joel, and all you other prosperity Gospel types, I’m glad for you, with your perfect houses and spouses and ministries. I probably wouldn’t turn those things down either. But if I look critically at my own life, I have to recognize that prosperity might come at a cost, because there are things that I want more than wealth.
I want to give until I’m exhausted, then push myself to give more, training like a marathoner for acts of generosity. I want to be with those who suffer and be able to see that it is injustice or bad choices or just bad luck that has them down, not an absence of wishful thinking.
My faith has grown more in tear-soaked sorrow than in toothy-grinned happiness. I have cultivated hope – a conviction that even if things are bad, even if they could get worse, faith is worthwhile;that God is present, broken, with us; and that God’s ends ultimately prevail even if they are far out of our sight. I don’t see how any truly hopeful person, anyone who has hard-won faith, could fail to be enraged by optimism disguised as hope.
Today’s Gospel speaks of God’s favorite ‘little ones’. Jesus repeatedly took the side o the powerless and promised rest from burdens – not to bless with material prosperity or an easy life. I will keep working not to begrudge people their happiness or their optimism. I might even go in search of them myself. But if life presents me with a choice between contentment and discipleship, I pray I won’t choose happiness. I’ll choose salvation.