When I first saw this video of Victoria Osteen’s comments, I thought this was too easy to poke fun at. The video (with or without the spliced-in scene from Bill Cosby’s old t.v. show) was its own best caricature. However, after reading Dr. Al Mohler’s excellent reflections on Mrs. Osteen’s faux pas (“The Osteen Predicament—Mere Happiness Cannot Bear the Weight of the Gospel,” Sept. 3), I gave the matter more thought.

I wince to say this, but I think I can partially defend Victoria Osteen (who, by the way, has—can you believe it?—2.5 million “likes” on her public Facebook page). It is true that “doing good” does benefit ourselves (in our “inner human”) and Jesus himself sometimes appeals to our self-interest in his teachings (the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of many examples).

Mrs. Osteen’s problem is that she didn’t insert the word “just” into the appropriate place in the statement: “When we obey God, we’re not doing it [just] for God. . . . When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it [just] for God really [strike ‘really’].” Unfortunately, she put the “just” where it does not belong: “Just do good for your own self.” No, our primary motive should be to do good for the sake of the one who loved us enough to die for us (Gal 2:20).

But at times when that motivation doesn’t suffice (and, if we were to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that it doesn’t always suffice, though it is to our discredit that it doesn’t always do so), it might help us to remember that it is in our own best interest to do good. For if we do not live holy lives for God as a manifestation of true faith, then we do not live by faith under the controlling influence of Christ’s Spirit (life “in Christ”) and so run the risk of exclusion from God’s kingdom. Our consciences and souls, if not already seared (a big “if”), will also experience grief. Moreover, we may destroy good relationships with others.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives a better formulation than Mrs. Osteen: Our “chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

Okay, I have to admit a second problem with her remarks. She erred in saying that our “happiness” is “the thing that gives [God] the greatest joy.” Reword to: “something that brings God joy, so long as it doesn’t conflict with kingdom interests.” I doubt whether we can say that Jesus was “happy” in the way that Mrs. Osteen meant during the hours in which he was suffering an excruciating death on the cross.

Our willing obedience and subjugation of our own desires to the interests of God, our acknowledgement that God is Lord (and not we), brings God the greatest joy. Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer do we pray, “Our Father who is in heaven, make us happy so that You will be happy.” Rather: “May your name be revered as holy, May your kingdom come, May your will be done, as in heaven, so also on earth.” Rather: “Do all things for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). Rather: “Whatever you do, work from the soul, as for God and not for people” (Col 3:23).

Pleasing God, not ourselves, is supposed to be the central motivation of Christians (John 8:29; 1 John 3:22; Rom 8:8; 15:1-3; 1 Thess 2:4, 15; 4:1; Gal 1:10; 1 Cor 7:32; Col 1:10). Obviously, then, God is most pleased by our obedience, as the roll call of faith in Hebrews 11 confirms. Enduring mockery, scourging, chains and imprisonment, or being stoned, sawed in two, killed by a sword (11:36-37) are not examples of personal happiness but of obedient faith.

And, okay, I am compelled to admit a third problem: People may hitch Mrs. Osteen’s statements to the Osteen Prosperity Gospel, which implies that our happiness is tied to our material prosperity and that God’s prime interest is to make us happy by causing us to prosper materially. Jesus, in whom God was “well pleased,” did not live a materially prosperous life for the most part (the Son of Man has no place to lay his head). Luke 15 (parables of loss sheep, coin, and son) tells us that heaven rejoices over the repentance (turning from evil) of sinners.

Paul experienced constant hardships: poorly clad, poorly sheltered, poorly fed, beaten by rods by Roman rulers and whipped in the synagogues 40 lashes minus one, shipwrecked, imprisoned, stoned (not drugs), inflicted with a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from exalting himself (2 Cor 11-12). Yet Paul talks about the joy of believers in the midst of affliction and great poverty (1 Cor 8:2), about delighting in various material/physical deprivations or rejoicing in the midst of sufferings (2 Cor 12:10; Col 1:24). In the context of a prosperity gospel, the exhortation to “do good for your own self” and the added remark that “your happiness is the thing that gives God the greatest joy” may take on the overtone of “make your material prosperity your chief motivation so that God can be really happy.”

So there is a little bit of truth in what Mrs. Osteen says. Be obedient to God, worship God, do what God wants, in part because it is in your own best interest to do so and will bring to you the kind of true happiness that lasts. But Mrs. Osteen’s message is so badly stated, so subject to misinterpretation (and possibly a form of misinterpretation of which the Osteens would approve) that it is best to throw the whole message out and start from scratch.

I’ll admit one last thing (sincerely, not sarcastically): Perhaps Mrs. Osteen would not want to have me appear as a witness in her defense.

Robert Gagnon is Associate Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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