Our Joy, God's Joy, and Victoria Osteen

In case you missed it, here’s something Victoria Osteen said recently that got everyone into a tizzy:

I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God we’re not doing it for God — I mean that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for yourself, because God takes pleasure when were happy. That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy this morning…just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.

Naturally, this set off sparks. The reactions can be divided into three easy categories:

  • Osteen is right. Some people defend Victoria Osteen’s statements here by saying she is simply right. God’s intention for us is that we be happy. God has nothing to gain from our lives of worship but to see us become better and more joyful. He is a Father who simply wants His children to live good lives.
  • Osteen is (really, really) wrong. Many of the more conservative Christians in on this issue have responded loudly and aggressively against this supposed heresy. “She is preaching a false, man-centered Gospel!” they will often say. Worship and all of our lives are for God and for His glory. Any benefit we get ourselves is just because God is indeed gracious enough to make us happy along the way.
  • Osteen has (probably without realizing it) touched on a very orthodox truth. Some intellectuals counter both sides by saying that Victoria Osteen has perhaps stumbled upon the important theological point of what we call God’s aseity. This theological word means that God exists in, of, and for Himself completely. He needs nothing and no one can truly provide Him any benefit because He is altogether complete in Himself. So, in some way, all of God’s interactions with man are for man, not God, because God would be perfectly fine without man. His dealings with us, and the worship He prescribes for us, is so that we can enjoy Him, as He has no need for us in order to be satisfied Himself.

Some people fall somewhat outside of these neat categories, but for the most part all of the discussion has taken one of these three points (and really, the vast majority has simply been in the first two). But I think this is all very misguided. Why? Because the question on which this debate hinges, namely, “Do we live righteously and worship God for us or for Him?” is entirely the wrong question. It is utterly inappropriate to address the real issue here. What do I mean by this? Take a couple Scriptures first.

Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. Now as the church submits to Christ, so wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of His body.

For this reason a man will leave
his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two will become one flesh.

This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:22-32

Then the Lord said to me, “Go again; show love to a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the Israelites though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”

So I bought her for 15 shekels of silver and five bushels of barley. I said to her, “You must live with me many days. Don’t be promiscuous or belong to any man, and I will act the same way toward you.”

Hosea 3:1-3

This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant they broke even though I had married them”—the Lord’s declaration.

Jeremiah 31:32

The recurring theme I’m bringing up here is marriage. Marriage is one very special institution, one which in some very deep way represents God and His people. So I think marriage makes a great way to address the debate currently going on (well, mostly gone by the time I actually post this). What happens when marriage asks, “Is this for him or for her?”

Hopefully, when you saw that question, the absurdity should have struck you. It is ridiculous for someone to assert, “Marriage is for the husband,” or for someone to counter, “Marriage is for the wife.” The love and commitment that define marriage simply don’t roll that way. Marriage is a unique union of mutuality and special relationship that cannot be squished into a one-sided “for him” or “for her.”

Because of this, I think the debate Victoria Osteen sparked is altogether based on the wrong issue. We do not simply do Christian life “for God”, nor is it simply “for us.” We live out a marriage-like relationship with Jesus Christ, which detests such questions altogether and yet turns out to fill us with joy and orient our every act and thought towards God’s joy. So who needs all those “fors” anyway?

As a quick addendum, here’s what I think about what Victoria Osteen was saying. I honestly think she wasn’t completely bad or heretical here. In truth, John Piper says things that are very similar sometimes, but he does it with more theological density and orthodox language. While I don’t like the Osteen ministry or consider either of them good teachers or preachers, this wasn’t the worst offense.

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