Suffering and a Theology of Glory
Jesus knew why he came. It was not to help people find a little more happiness and success in life. In fact, his life was filled with suffering, under the long shadow of Calvary. “For this purpose I have come,” he said, referring to the cross (Jn 12:27). “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk 19:10). The disciples thought that the road to Jerusalem led to victory. Entering as conquerors at the side of the Messiah, they would drive out the Romans and usher in the everlasting reign of God. Each time he reminded them that he was going to Jerusalem to die on a cross and be raised on the third day, they either didn’t respond or (especially in Peter’s case) reprimanded Jesus for his “negative thinking” (Mk 8:31-38; 10:2-5; Mt 16:21-23). Ever since his temptation by Satan, Jesus had been offered glory without a cross, but it was a false promise, and that’s why Jesus rebuked Peter’s attempt to dissuade him from the cross by saying, “Get behind me, Satan. For your thoughts are the thoughts of men, not of God” (Mt 16:23). We can be grateful that Jesus embraced the cross and then entered his glory, instead of demanding glory first.
Paul regularly picks up on this theme. Familiar to suffering himself, Paul was always joyful not because of his circumstances but because of the gospel’s promise that after we suffer for a little while we will share in Christ’s resurrection glory. He warned the church of false teachers who deceive “by smooth talk and flattery.”
The “health-and-wealth” gospel that Osteen preaches cannot deal with suffering. It is a theology of glory: the offer of the kingdoms of the world here and now. For those who take this path, it may well be that they will have their best life now. But even now, there is no place for suffering in this quintessentially American religion. Not Christ’s suffering for our sins or our suffering for being united to Christ. In a New York Times interview, Osteen was asked why there is suffering. Although he is correct that we cannot solve this dilemma philosophically, he offered no suggestion that it is solved in historical terms by Christ’s resurrection as the first-fruits of the new creation. “‘The answer is I don’t know,’ Mr. Osteen said. “‘We deal every week with someone whose child got killed, or they lost their job. I don’t understand it. All you can do is let God comfort you and move on. Part of faith is not understanding.’” (1)
How can God comfort those who mourn apart from the gospel? Even here, Osteen easily skirts the tragic dimension of our existence by burdening believers once again with their duty to “name and claim” prosperity in their life. So much for the more “positive” message of Joel Osteen. He has nothing to say to people who are at the end of their rope except, “It will get better.” But what if it will not, at least in this life? Can his message reach someone who is in the final throes of AIDS? Could his message provoke anything but cynicism for a mother holding her dead infant?
At the end of the day, God’s favor—measured in temporal terms—depends entirely on our obedience:
I believe one of the main ways that we grow in favor is by declaring…And some of you are doing your best to please the Lord. You are living a holy, consecrated life, but you’re not really experiencing God’s supernatural favor. And it’s simply because you’re not declaring it. You’ve got to give life to your faith by speaking it out. (2)
Thus, to those who are burned out on trying to merit God’s favor, Osteen’s only answer—though said with a smile, is, “Do more.” “Believe more for your miracle and God will turn it around.” Is this a kinder, gentler God or a more than slightly sinister tyrant who keeps raising the hoops for us to jump through before he gives us what we want?
Christianity announces the good news that God in Christ has saved us now from the condemnation of the law, dethroned the tyranny of sin, and delivered us from Satan’s oppressive regime. But it gets even better: One day, this salvation will be consummated in the gift of resurrection, glorification, and everlasting life, free of the very presence of sin, pain, evil, and violence. According to America’s pop religion, we save ourselves with God’s help from feeling guilty and unhappy. Osteen has at least helped us to see just how stark the contrast is between the gospel of Christ and the motivational hype of popular American culture.
2 Audio clip on “The Bible Answer Man” radio broadcast, April 26, 2004 [back to text]
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This article is a part of a collection of essays written recently by Dr. Horton after his interview on 60 Minutes which aired on October 14, 2007.
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