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.

Our Joy, God’s Joy, and Victoria Osteen

How to Not Take Bible Verses Out of Context

Context. Possibly the most important word in Biblical interpretation. Nearly anything in the Bible, if ripped from its proper context, can be used wrongly or just be perplexing. Imagine, for example, Elijah’s instructions to the rich leper Naaman being used to tell someone how to treat skin cancer. “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” Obviously, if you take into account the context of Elijah telling Naaman how God will heal him of leprosy, then you realize this has no relevance to how you should deal with skin cancer. But if you don’t know this context, and someone just quoted this to you, then by the way many people handle Scripture you probably would think that washing in the Jordan will cure skin cancer!

This is only the beginning. Missing context can lead to all sorts of nonsense, contradiction, and outright heresy. For this reason, all abuses of Scripture without context should be combated. Unfortunately, that means a lot of combat. For I have found this rule: The more quoted a verse is, the more likely the quote is being used out of context. So now I’ve made this guide to combat taking Bible verses out of context.

According to the Bible, washing in the Jordan will cure skin cancer!

See, all language needs contextual information to really communicate anything. For example, even if I said, “The sky is blue,” we need context to understand it. If we didn’t already know that I was speaking from the context of planet Earth, we might wonder whether this means all skies, the Martian sky, or something named Sky. Also, with the word “blue,” if we did not realize that this statement is usually used about the color of earth’s atmosphere, we might think “blue” refers to depression.

We see, then, that context is vital to meaningful language. But when you simply cite a single Bible verse, context is easy to miss. Several important levels of context—history-level, book-level, argument-level, and verse-level—can be far from obvious. So ask these questions before you cite a verse and interpret it:

  • Who? It matters who wrote the text, to whom the text was written, and (when applicable) who spoke the words quoted. If you’re citing a verse with the words of Satan, for example, they should obviously not be treated as the words of Jesus. If a promise or command was written to Israel, we cannot assume it applies to our lives without further examination. If there are any pronouns in the verse, check to whom they refer.
  • What? What is the topic of the passage in which the verse is found? If the topic of a psalm which speaks of God with nostrils isn’t about God’s anatomy but His wrath, we should recognize that and not assume God has a nose. If we’re dealing with a historical incident, we should not assume that whatever happens in it is something we ought to do.
  • When? When is the verse about? Was it before Israel? During the Old Covenant? While Jesus was on earth? After the arrival of the New Covenant? If we’re dealing with a verse from a historical part of the Bible, what century was it from? What happened before and after? All of these questions make a difference.
  • Where? Where the verse was written isn’t super important in most cases, but the location of a verse within the flow of a book matters greatly. This is where the structure of a book comes into play. If nothing else, see what the verses immediately before and after the verse in question say. Sometimes you’ll want need to go back and check out the flow of the argument or story, and the layout of the entire book.

  • Why? What is the purpose of this verse? Why was it written? Is it for encouragement, information, necessity, inspiration, etc? Why does it use the words it does? Sometimes it can help to understanding this by seeing what difference it would make if you took the verse out of the passage.

Now, often you don’t need to go through all of these questions to see if your interpretation of the verse is at least a decent fit in context. Here is an easy test to see if your interpretation is contextual: paraphrase it with what you think it means and see if it fits with the surrounding text. Don’t understand? I’ll lead by example. A commonly abused verse is Philippians 4:13, which says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Usually, this is quoted as encouragement that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to do with Jesus’ help. Is this what the verse means in context? Let’s test it. Here’s Philippians 4:10-13, using the interpretive paraphrase.

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do anything I set my mind to do as long as I have help from Christ who strengthens me.

This isn’t horrible, but doesn’t seem to fit quite right. So what is the real meaning? I think the new NIV does a good job at making it clear when it translates 4:13 this way: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” In this case, Paul is saying that he can endure and be content in any situation, however rough or posh, by Christ’s strength. Let’s try this paraphrase:

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can make it through any situation and be content with the help of Christ who strengthens me.

Here is an easy test to see if your interpretation is contextual: paraphrase it with what you think it means and see if it fits with the surrounding text.

It should be quite evident that this is a much better fit. The interpretation of this paraphrase fits better in the paragraph than that of the popular interpretation. This is a really easy way to test if an interpretation of a verse fits in context or takes the verse out of context. So when in doubt, just try that. While more work may be required to find the right interpretation and use of the verse, this method can easily eliminate many obviously wrong ones.

How to Not Take Bible Verses Out of Context

Stop Thinking Like a Gnostic

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

C. S. Lewis

Or not. The above quote was supposedly said by C. S. Lewis, one of our favorite theologians of the modern age. The sentiment is echoed all over the place in Christianity. People complain about their bodies and long for the day that they will be free of them in Heaven. When people sin, they excuse or minimize their sin by saying that they didn’t mean to do something, but their passions or instincts got the best of them. People who struggle with body image are always reassured that the body doesn’t matter, but what’s inside counts. The promoted idea is clear: your body is not really you, just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

This is not Biblical.

They say that your body is not really you, just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

While I could go on for a long time on why this is wrong, I’ll focus on two points: Gnosticism and resurrection. First off, such a strict division of body/soul does not come from the Bible, but from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a cult who came from the early church. They believed many problematic doctrines, but one of their core distinctives was their view of the physical and the spiritual, or the material and the immaterial. Matter and flesh, they believed, came from an inferior, perhaps evil, creator, whereas spirit and soul came from the true God. For this reason the body was seen as at best irrelevant and at worst an evil obstacle to salvation. The spirit, on the other hand, was considered the true and good self by which salvation could be attained through enlightenment. The difference between this Gnostic view and the “you are a soul and have a body” view is mostly only semantics.

The problems with this approach are numerous. For one, this kind of thinking is what led to the heresy that Jesus was not completely human, or only had the appearance of a body. Yet John calls them deceivers who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” or (as the NLT puts it) “deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body” (2 John 1:7). Jesus was God made flesh. Another problem is that this leads to one of two major moral errors in Gnosticism. On one hand, some felt that if the body was irrelevant to salvation, then we can do with it anything we please and not defile ourselves. Others, however, thought that if the body is so much less than spirit, then we should deprive and ignore our bodies, practicing strict asceticism at best or self-mutilation at worst. Yet these conclusions, as wrong as they are, follow rather naturally from such a deficient view of the body.

The difference between this Gnostic view and the “you are a soul and have a body” view is mostly only semantics.

The other main problem with the view that the body is secondary to the soul is resurrection. See, the resurrection is the hope of Christianity. Because Jesus died, but was raised to life everlasting, we also can be sure that we who trust in Him will be raised as well. This is not a mere spiritual restoration: it is the renewal and resurrection of our physical bodies. Paul explained well the importance of this. When there were some in the Corinthian church denying that we will be resurrected, Paul declared that if there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and if Christ was not raised we are doomed and lost in our sins. This shows that the resurrection of the body, which is supposedly just a container for the soul, is core to Christianity. And if the body’s resurrection is core to Christianity, then the body cannot be dismissed as “merely” anything. The beginning of the new creation in eternity will be the resurrection of the body, after which we live physically on a renewed creation forever.

There is one more issue I would like to raise about the importance of the body to human nature. When Jesus became a man, He took on a body, lived in a body, and died in a body. In fact, the death of Jesus’ physical body is the event which sealed our redemption. If the body is not essential to human nature, then Jesus could have incarnated without a body and done His mission in spirit. That Jesus took on flesh to become a human means that we need flesh to be human. In fact, Paul himself says as much when He writes of the hope of the resurrection body. He says that while we are in “this tent” (our mortal bodies suffering from the curse) we groan and are burdened, for we do not want to be “unclothed” (without a body) but be clothed with a “heavenly dwelling” (a resurrection body). For the problem with our bodies now is not that they are flesh, but that they are mortal and suffer the curse. Yet human nature is meant for a body, one which is immortal and free from sin. This is what is coming.

If the body is not essential to human nature, then Jesus could have incarnated without a body and done His mission in spirit.

Now I realize there are some who would object on the basis of the war between the spirit and the flesh. After all, Paul says this: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Doesn’t this mean that your physical body is corrupt and that your spirit/soul is pure? Not really. For the acts of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). While many of these are body with the body, they are all rooted in the heart, and some of these only take place within. Thus the flesh as Paul speaks of it against the Spirit is not the human body. What the flesh actually means is debatable, but it doesn’t mean human body by itself.

To conclude, let’s drop the Gnostic silliness. You are a body and a soul. Your body without your soul is dead, and your soul without your body is unclothed. God made us to be both. We cannot ignore the body, but must let our body and soul serve as instruments with which to glorify God. For we will be raised forever, to live bodily with Christ.

Oh, by the way, it is a myth that C. S. Lewis said the above quote. Thankfully.

Stop Thinking Like a Gnostic

Sexuality and Sin: Basic Facts

Sexuality is obvious a huge controversy. Homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexualism, and a host of other words fill blogs, newspapers, and airtime. Naturally, if something is so controversial and such a major part of human life, then consulting God about it is a reasonable decision.  I, of course, believe that the Bible is God’s Word, so I search there for answers.

The problem is that this issue is heated and home to many strong opinions, despite the abundance of ignorance and myths involved. In fact, there is quite a bit to say about it, but I would prefer to start with basics and then draw out implications. So, as humbly as I can, I present these truths from the Bible.

Fact 1: Homosexuality (and the like) is sin.

Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

Continue reading “Sexuality and Sin: Basic Facts”

Sexuality and Sin: Basic Facts

The Fast Track to Killing Calvinism

All around the world blogs, study groups, conferences, podcasts, and unusual little publishing houses are churning out material on election, justification, covenantalism, ammillennialism, postmillennialism, Christo-centric hermeneutics, Augustine, Calvin, Luther and, yes, even the differences between infra-, supra- and sub-lapsarianism. Frankly, it is indeed cool to be a Calvinist right now, and more resources are available to the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd than ever before. Don’t get me wrong: I celebrate this resurgence and hope to see it flourish. Yet we should be careful to make sure that we are not busy polishing windshields just to mutually admire each other’s techniques.

Loving Calvinism for its own sake, even with all of its rich internal language and traditions, is the fast track to killing it. There is a better way.

Greg Dutcher, Killing Calvinism


What If God Doesn’t Have a Wonderful Plan for My Life?

God has a wonderful plan. But it’s not for my life.

Well, to be more precise, the primary plan and purpose of God only includes me as a footnote. And I don’t know what my part in His plan actually is. In fact, to be honest, God’s plan for me might be, by all ordinary definitions, horrendous. Maybe in order to accomplish His ultimate plan God will send me to the jungles of Brazil, where I immediately contract a painful, paralyzing disease while my wife gets kidnapped in the woods, and then I die of torture at the hands of savage tribesmen before I even get to mention Jesus. No matter how much grace comes from that when I enter eternity, that is not what anyone would call a wonderful plan under normal circumstances.

This isn’t to say that things won’t work out right someday. After I die, and even more so after I am resurrected, life will be pretty sweet. I can’t wait to see what wonders of grace God has in store for me in the new creation. Even so, I must make a point.

Continue reading “What If God Doesn’t Have a Wonderful Plan for My Life?”

What If God Doesn’t Have a Wonderful Plan for My Life?