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Victoria Osteen and the Evangelical confusion about Christian happiness

You’ve very likely seen this now viral video clip of Victoria Osteen proudly proclaiming that when we worship God, we’re not doing it for him, we’re doing it for our own happiness:

I’m not going to comment on her statements per se; others have adequately criticized her perspective as grossly unbiblical.

But what has interested me is some of the confusion and disagreement among conservative evangelicals over this matter. On the one hand, many evangelical leaders and bloggers have (rightly) come out strongly against this blatant expression of prosperity gospel, accurately labeling it as a false gospel and worthy of condemnation.

But on the other hand, some evangelicals have found themselves pausing for a moment. “Wait,” they wonder, “isn’t what she said actually pretty close to the what we’ve been saying for years, maybe just worded a little bit strangely? Doesn’t God want us to be happy in him? Haven’t we been teaching that God is most glorified in us when we enjoy him? Maybe she wasn’t too far off after all.”

These Christian hedonists are having a difficult time reconciling their criticisms of what she said with what they’ve written in popular books and blogs for many years.

Now, of course, everyone knows the underlying prosperity gospel presuppositions beneath Osteen’s comments, and so they know what she means. Yet some have difficulty criticizing her statements themselves.

Here’s the problem I think has lead to this confusion: most evangelicals don’t have the categories necessary to distinguish between the kind of happiness Osteen is talking about and the kind of happiness God does indeed want for us.

Here’s what I mean: most evangelicals think emotion (like happiness) is a neutral thing, and it’s all the same–happiness is happiness is happiness. We judge particular emotions, they believe, based only upon the object to which they are directed and the degree of that emotion compared to that same emotion directed at other objects.

So, in most evangelical thinking, happiness in personal prosperity is of the same kind as happiness in God. What is important for Christians is that we make sure that our happiness in God is simply of a higher degree than our happiness in personal prosperity or other earthly things. Our ultimate satisfaction (and remember, all satisfaction is the same) should be directed to God rather than to other things.

So when Victoria Osteen says, “Our happiness is what makes God happy,” she’s not wrong, they say, as long as what she means is that we’re talking about happiness in God. We are, then, worshiping for us in a way–it is Christian hedonism, after all! So, can we really criticize what she said at its face value?

One problem is that most evangelicals don’t have the categories, as Jonathan Edwards and most Christians before him did, to differentiate between religious affection and other kinds of emotion.

You see, happiness in God is different from other happiness, not just in degree or direction, but in kind.

Happiness in God is different from other happiness, not just in degree or direction, but in kind.
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There is a kind of joy that springs up quickly, but is choked away by the simplest of trials (Matt 13:20-21), and there is a “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Those joys are not only different because of the objects upon which they are placed; they are of a different kind. One is just garden variety joy, and the other is religious joy.

Certainly the object of our happiness and the degree of our happiness are essentially important, but it is important to consider also the nature of our joy.

This is important to recognize, because if when talking about happiness in God we only focus upon degree and direction, we could actually end up directing a high degree of a kind of happiness toward God that is simply unworthy of his glory, a kind of “strange fire” ill-fitted to his nature and character.

Rather, the kind of “happiness in God” is something that must be vigorously tested, as Edwards advocated, to distinguish whether it is truly a work of the Spirit of God. We must do this because, as Edwards insisted, truly religious affections are brought about by a gracious work of the Holy Spirit of God, and therefore they will be of a different character than other kinds of emotions and will be inherently God-centered.

And, having these distinct categories of “religious” affections and “carnal” affections would help us to easily address dangerous comments such as those made by Victoria Osteen. We’d be able to say with confidence, “No, she wasn’t close to the truth. Not close at all.”

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.