The latest catalogue from Koorong just arrived in the mail. It’s not my most eagerly anticipated postal item. I’m trying to down-size my library and the last thing I need is yet more books. However I do take a passing interest in what is being read by Christians and sometimes in a moment of weakness I succumb to the temptation to add yet another volume to my library.
Sadly, I confess that I often open the Koorong catalogue with a sense of dismay. There are items that appear for sale there that grieve me. Do people really read this stuff? And Christian people…?
A case in point in this catalogue is the latest offering from American televangelist Joel Osteen. The book is titled, “The power of I AM – Two Words that will Change your Life Today.” Osteen also has a video sermon by that title on the Internet – you can find it on YouTube.
A problem we so often face is that we are reading something that is not obviously false and misleading. Often there is an element of truth, maybe even a truth that resonates with us and that draws us in. And that’s the problem.
In the case of this book Osteen highlights an issue that is very common. He tells us that we often put ourselves down. “I am so stupid!” “I am unattractive!” He claims that these negative “I AM” statements about ourselves are inevitably self-fulfilling. If only we would tell ourselves a different story. “I am clever!” “I am pretty!” According to Osteen these positive “I AM” statements too are self-fulfilling. Osteen has a point. Our actions flow out of our thinking. What is in our minds directs our actions and our behaviour. And we can find Bible teaching that backs that up. Recently I’ve been preaching through Paul’s letter to the Philippians and it’s rather surprising how often Paul deals with our mental attitude. He tells us in chapter 2 that we need to have the same mental attitude that Jesus had. I have often said to the congregation that our behaviour begins between our ears.
So what’s my beef with Joel Osteen? This… that from my reading of Osteen he infers that the power is in those words “I AM”. He states in his book: Whatever follows the words “I am” will always come looking for you. Television superstar Oprah Winfrey has embraced Osteen’s philosophy. Oprah said people can become what they believe by using the phrase. An endorsement from Oprah with her New Age philosophies is hardly a recommendation for Christians.
It’s not that Osteen leaves God out of the picture. He has a lot to say about God. But Osteen’s God is a God who apparently works in this “magic” way by working through the words we use. And that’s my problem. It’s not true. This is simply a newer form of Norman Vincent Peal’s popular philosophy from forty years ago: The Power of Positive Thinking. The reality is that we don’t change by just mouthing the words “I AM”. We change as Jesus transforms us by the renewing work of His Holy Spirit as we live by faith in His finished work.
Even more serious is that Osteen’s use of the words “I AM” has been labelled as blasphemous by many of his critics. “I AM” is the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush in the book of Exodus. In the gospel of John, when Jesus wants to stress His own divinity He too takes the sacred name “I AM” on his lips. “Before Abraham was I am” (John 8:58). Osteen suggests that Jesus made His many I AM statements (I am the light of the world… I am the Good Shepherd) to take a positive rather than a negative outlook on life. No! They are pointers to His claims to be God.
If we turn the name of God, the eternal I AM, into a formula for successful living are we not misusing the Lord’s name? That may well fit in with New Age thinking but it is not in harmony with the big picture of Bible teaching.