a preacher, a prisoner, and the desires of the heart

Prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen.

After last Saturday’s rally (sidenote: go check out my friend Ryan’s take on the rally and see some video), I’ve spent a lot of time this week reading about the West Memphis 3, particularly Damien Echols’s letters.  Damien compares himself to a monk a few times, and in a way I can totally see it– his letters are full of spiritual wisdom and contemplation, and he spends a lot of time in meditation.  Of course, he’s also completely different than a monk, because they freely choose their seclusion from the world, and Damien has been locked away for 17 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.  Still, his writing is beautiful and I encourage you to check out his letters if you’re interested in the case.

Something that completely struck me by surprise were the positive mentions of Joel Osteen.  I spent a summer working in the Family Christian Bookstore, and during that time, I familiarized myself with the works of Joel Osteen because I wanted to know what I was talking about with customers.  My basic impression was that Osteen is in the vein of the “prosperity gospel,” and the general gist is that God wants to give you “the desires of your heart,” usually interpreted to be material goods and wealth and power.  This theology hinges upon Psalm 37:4, which says “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

Osteen, in my mind, is in the same camp as Joyce Meyer, who I read quoted in TIME magazine as saying:

“Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.”

Really? I seem to recall something about a rich man and a camel, and the eye of a needle…

From the same TIME piece:

[Osteen] and [his wife] Victoria meet with TIME in their pastoral suite, once the Houston Rockets’ locker and shower area but now a zone of overstuffed sofas and imposing oak bookcases. “Does God want us to be rich?” he asks. “When I hear that word rich, I think people say, ‘Well, he’s preaching that everybody’s going to be a millionaire.’ I don’t think that’s it.” Rather, he explains, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?” The room’s warm lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile shoes.

It always seemed to me that folks like Osteen and Meyer get it backwards, saying that what you want, God will give you, if you just have enough faith, no matter what it is that you want.  I fail to see what a call to take up our cross and follow Jesus has to do with being “happy.”  To me, the point of the Psalm is that when you delight yourself in God, you begin to want Godly things as you are transformed into a Godly person, and then God will happily grant your Godly requests.

And yet, here is Damien Echols’s take on Joel Osteen:

I’m a huge fan of a minister named Joel Olsteen. I think he’s a genius–not a genius of the mind, but a genius of the spirit. I listened to a speech he gave about not being critical, about letting God fight your battles instead of striking out at those who try to hurt you. As I listened to it I could feel everything inside me saying he’s right. I’m trying to look at this situation and see it as the Divine sees it instead of the way an angry man sees it. I’m trying really hard to be thankful for what the pain has taught me, instead of being bitter about the pain itself. Sometimes it’s hard, though. Right now I’m working on trust–trust that one day I’ll be thankful even for the vampires in my life. –February 18, 2010

When I got up this morning I wasn’t feeling all that well. It was more emotional than physical, but I felt tired and worn down. Then I turned on the television just in time to catch Joel Osteen’s latest message. I can’t even describe what a huge difference it made in my day. He was talking about what he called the “trial of faith” ~ the time between when you ask for something and when you receive it. It was all about not getting discouraged when it feels like nothing is happening, because the Divine Mind is still at work behind the scenes even if you can’t see it. It felt like he was speaking directly to me, and I was hearing with my heart. I went from a state of feeling beaten down, to a state of joyous excitement. I fully realize that televangelists are a big turn off for many people, but this guy is different. I’m about as far from being a fundamentalist as you can get, yet Osteen has never said anything I’ve been remotely offended by. In fact, I always come away from hearing him with a little more strength than I had before. If you set aside preconceived notions and really listen, you can hear pure magick in his words. Or at least I do. –March 15, 2010

It seems to me that Echols hears Osteen’s message in a completely different way than I read it in his books in the Family Christian Bookstore, and I guess it’s because the desire of his heart is pure, a desire for freedom from the injustice of his imprisonment, rather than the typical American desire for wealth and material things. And you know, I truly believe that God wants to grant Echols the desires of his heart, to give him his freedom.

And I guess this is where I have to admit: my husband was right, and I was wrong.  When we drive past billboards that essentially say “TURN OR BURN!” I tend to go on a rant, wishing those billboards weren’t there, thinking they tend to do more harm than good, and that a relationship with God based on fear of punishment is far less desirable than one based on love and gratitude.  Jon, however, usually tells me that if even one person’s life is changed by that billboard, then it’s worth it.  I guess I have to concede the same point about Osteen.  If, seen through the eyes of someone with a pure, godly desire, his message can be one of hope and freedom to a man like Damien Echols, wrongly in prison, well then, I’m glad he’s out there preaching it.

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