Downfall of a hope merchant

Dear M,

$600,000 was found in the bathroom walls of Lakewood Church this week.  Seven years ago they filed an insurance claim for the same amount getting stolen and this year a plumber found it in the wall.  This doesn't mean Joel Osteen did it; but even if he did, it isn't the largest scam in the history of the church itself, and from my view it may even be the smallest.

After all, how did he get the $600,000 in the first place?  By making promises to the anxious, to the sick, to the bankrupt, the dying, the destitute, and the buyer of multi-level marketing schemes -- in short, to either the idiot or the hail-Mary desperado: people who haven't been able to hack it in the real world, and are banking everything on Someone from the next.  Joel promises them God's favor and they pay Joel and wait for it.

It sounds horrible on paper, but is it really so bad in reality?  Those of us who really study ourselves know we don't run on what we have but on what we dream, and that anyone dumb enough to give to Joel Osteen would be dumb enough to invest in the lottery, or in Pet Rocks.  The spiritual reality is that Osteen is a fraud because he can't deliver.  But the actual effect?  That hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of people all over the world can throw him $5 or $20 and feel like God is going to rescue them.  

Which is better than the lottery for several reasons.  The first of these is that most people's troubles are imaginary, which a belief in God's favor can sometimes calm.  The second is that most of our problems will go away anyway.  I'm not talking about terminal diseases here, but little fears that plague us throughout the day, fought by little prayers for minor "s" salvation -- for an interview to go well, or a car to start one more time.  The chance that life will swing your way is high, actually, when you think about it; and when you've paid your $20 and it goes your way you can "know why."  So you tell yourself it's because you believe in God and you have His favor, and that you're part of the bringing of good news -- that as Joel Osteen has blessed you, you've been able to bless him, and through him you've blessed others.  

The downside to this outlook is obvious.  Luck is on our side for most of the little things, and "my will be done" happens so often that things not going our way, even missing the shot into the garbage can, feels like a conspiracy against us.  But when you believe that you've given and believed and that's what God wants of you, that He somehow owes you, that somehow the reciprocal process of you sending to God and Him sending back is mechanical, then God eventually turns on you, abandons you, forgets about you -- that your luck and your favor are the same thing, and to fall out of one is to fall out of the other.

A strange thing nobody in Paul's time would have believed when they were being thrown to lions, or in Theodosius' day when they were locked up for saying three isn't one, or in Zwingli's time for trying to read the Bible, or in our own time for going to church when China tells you not to.  In truth Joel's philosophy is a philosophy of decadence -- not like the Puritans, who knew favor plus morality was the way to prosperity; but like the Mayans, who sacrificed their neighbors and expected God to send them rain.  

Have I gotten too pointed here?  Too bombastic?  No -- because there are two ways to sacrifice your neighbor, one of them positive and one of them negative.  The former means you tie him to a rock and you cut out his heart.  The second is you tie up his funds and you cheapen his soul.  Osteen wasn't a moral preacher and he wasn't a theologian.  He didn't tell men to clean up their acts and that there was a coming judgment.  He didn't tell them how to clean up their acts or teach them how to judge rightly.  I don't even remember him teaching about heaven.  What he did was take money from simpletons and illiterates, bleeding grandmothers slowly out of their grandchildrens' inheritance, taking food off of families' tables, or jackets off kids' backs, or money to pay hospital bills.  He channeled a hundred-thousand rivulets into a single stream -- his stream, of unfulfilled dreams that none of us could see or even really imagine, but which could have been real, and because of him will never be.  According to, this preacher of Christ is worth 100 million dollars.   And I remind you, this is what he and the church haven't spent.   

I said that these people are simpletons, and we know that a fool and his money are soon parted.  And I said that people need hope, and that maybe the small price of hope, even if it is cheap hope that eventually runs out, is $20.  And maybe Joel was thinking that if he didn't do it somebody else would, and that the ocean of blab it and grab it televangelists was already swallowing seafarers by the boatload.  Maybe he thought this, maybe he didn't, and maybe people who think Jesus means a successful business deserve it.  But if I was Joel, I would have thought again, and realized that like them my luck was going to run out too, and that when it did, no money in the world would be able to buy it back.  And at this point, which all of us reach sooner or later, a plumber would be less dangerous to me than The Carpenter.



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  1. True, that -- and well put. Only I wouldn't let my fellow grandmothers off so easily.
    To paraphrase Jeremiah, the hope merchants and blessing scammers keep feeding the same lines to their audience, and God's people love it that way!


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