Motivational speaker and best-selling author Joel Osteen (also pastor of Lakewood Church if you feel that title fits) recently released a new book called The Power of I Am. I haven’t read the book, and won’t, but from what I’ve gathered from a couple interviews and reviews, the gist of the book is pretty simple: Our use of the words “I AM” can literally change our lives.
I agree with him. So far.
In The Power of I Am, Osteen talks about the profound influence of making declarative statements about ourselves, and especially the hazardous impact of speaking negative things out, such as “I am ugly,” or, “I am sad,” or “I am hurt.” Osteen remarks, “Whatever follows the words ‘I am’ will always come looking for you.” In Osteen’s mind, the best way to counter these negative feelings and emotions about ourselves is to just pronounce the opposite. “I am pretty,” “I am happy,” “I am healed.” After our brief game of reverse psychology and mantra-reciting in the mirror, Osteen argues, those things — happiness, health, positivity, success — are sure to follow. Here’s what he had to say about the book in an interview with Fox and Friends:
“See, the Scripture says, ‘Let the weak say I am strong,’ so you’re not supposed to describe how you feel, you’re supposed to say what you want.
Joel, citing Joel 3:10 ironically enough (or maybe he got the Don Moen classic confused with Scripture) is communicating that if we want to be a blessed people, we’ve got to be a positive, declarative, and an “I AM” people. If we are living paycheck to paycheck and trying to make ends meet, our problem is ultimately that we need to start declaring, “I am rich,” and waiting for the paydays sure to come (and in the meantime buy Osteen’s book to learn more about that).
Osteen’s argument is simple: “I AM” is the gateway to a life of prosperity. Again, I agree, but definitely not in the same way he would explain it. We are on polar opposites of the spectrum when it comes to the real power of “I AM.”
Let me tell you a story about two people. The first person’s name is “Eve.” Eve was the first woman to have ever lived on Earth. She was the wife of Adam, a caretaker of God’s beautiful creation, and lived in the tranquil and phenomenal paradise of Eden. She had it all.
Or so she thought.
One day, a wise serpent approached Eve. Being an expert in deception, the serpent devised a diabolical plan to draw Eve into disobedience. All he had to do was convince her to do one thing, the very one thing she had been permitted not to do by her Master. The serpent engages:
“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Eve has reached a pivotal moment. After seeming to stifle the serpent’s questioning of God’s wording, the serpent fires back with pure deception. “He’s lying, Eve. He said that because if you do eat it, he fears that you will become as powerful and wise as him!” Eve looks at the fruit on the tree with a new shimmer in her eye. No longer is the fruit mysterious and forbidden; now it is within reach. Now it is harnessing powers Eve doesn’t have, powers she’s growing to crave. “What if the serpent is right?” Eve speculates. “What would it be like to have the same wisdom as God Himself?”
Eve makes a decision.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Gen 3:6)
Notice the progression of the justifying factors Eve considers for her actions. They increase in measure. One, the fruit is a health benefit. Two, it looks appetizing. Three, “I could be sovereign.” The bait worked, and she bit down hard on the false hook of human sovereignty.
I have wondered for so long why people have put up with and fall for the teachings and “ministry” of Joel Osteen. But in spending time in Genesis 3, it finally clicked for me recently. People will devour books like The Power of I Am (and pay outrageous prices for Osteen’s shallow self-help material) because sovereignty is promised. Just think about the book. Osteen is doing the same thing the serpent did for Eve. “Don’t hold yourself back from greatness anymore. Be sovereign. Speak out what you want. Take the fruit and eat. Take the next step toward a new level of destiny.” These are sin’s marching orders, and we salute them out of habit, oftentimes with gladness. We all take “the fruit” in our lives because we are wired to pursue sovereignty over God and autonomy from God. What we don’t realize is, striving for such things is ultimately futile. When we choose to say “I AM,” our nakedness will be exposed (3:7), we will try to escape God’s sight (3:8), the Lord will find us and ask us, “What is this that you have done?” (3:13), and we will be stuck, paralyzed by utter despair (3:14).
Eve never got the wisdom she was promised. She followed the serpent’s directions to no avail. She got a lot of things — banished from Eden, promised pain in childbirth, and a whole lot of amazing grace — but no “success” was found here. Here is historical proof that Osteen’s message is rubbish. In the same way that I cannot jump from a bridge, yelling “I’m a falcon!” and successfully fly to safety, our hopes of self-giving “I AM” statements will ultimately prove futile. We are mere clay, and can never become our own potter.
Let me tell you a story about another person. His name is “Jesus.” Jesus was born of a virgin, grew up and worked as a carpenter, wasn’t in the “in crowd,” but frequently surrounded by dirty, whorish, insane people (I’m talking about folks who had oozing sores or who were spit on). He didn’t have a consistent place to sleep, he ate when he could, and people wanted to kill him. So they did.
Or so they thought.
Much of Jesus’s ministry, oddly enough, was based on a similar refrain we have already heard from Osteen. “I AM” are two words that are life-changing. But here marks the difference between the two; where Osteen uses “I AM” as a means to our end (prosperity), Jesus thinks “I AM” is the end for all our means. Jesus also acts as he is sovereign, similar to the way Eve did. Yet again, the two differ. Eve found futility in her quest for sovereignty, and ultimately her declarative statement was, “I want to be.” But Jesus did not express futile desires. He is. Sovereignty comes naturally to someone who in his essence is fully what he declares.
Let’s weigh the power of Osteen’s “I AM” statements with the power of Jesus’s “I AM” statements:
I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst (John 6:35).
Can prosperity promise this? Prosperity makes a terrible Savior because it cannot fully satisfy you. Stories of rich athletes and celebrities struggling with depression, even caving to suicide, flood our newsfeed on a daily basis. People are starving for attention, dying to be loved deeply and known fully, and most of them live in Hollywood. Jesus makes a great Savior because there is always room at his table for famished sinners, popular or unpopular.
I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life (John 8:12).
Can prosperity promise this? Prosperity makes a terrible Savior because it cannot keep you from darkness. Extortion, money laundering, tax fraud, illegal gambling, hostage ransoms, bank robberies, counterfeiting…do I need to keep listing crimes that are explicitly connected to financial gain? Darkness is not thwarted by your net worth. Happiness and positivity are not eternal, and darkness is sure to squash them out sometimes. Jesus makes a great Savior because he is the only thing that can be, as Lady Galadriel said well, “a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture (John 10:9).
Can prosperity promise this? Prosperity makes a terrible Savior because it has zero saving power. You can save money, but it can never save you. A positive outlook and happiness are too fleeting to save our souls. They fly out the window when we face family illness, job loss, or other inevitable circumstances of life. Money doesn’t stick around and sympathize with us when the mortgage is due in a week and we’re trying to make ends meet.Jesus makes a great Savior, because he is powerful enough to give you rest and an inheritance money couldn’t think to buy.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Can prosperity promise this? Prosperity makes a terrible Savior because it has no life to give for you. The penalty is too costly! Eve couldn’t buy her way out of her sin. Neither can you or I. What will money itself do for my soul? What will positive words themselves do to save my Hell-bound self? Nothing. Fortunately, there’s good news for us. All the money in the world was chump change compared to the payment made on the cross. Jesus makes a great Savior because he can take all your pains, all your sins, and pay the price demanded, in full.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).
Can prosperity promise this? Prosperity makes a terrible Savior because it cannot bring to life what is dead. I think about marriages that have been leveled. I think about miscarriages. Positive mindsets and happy faces don’t fix these. The wounds are too deep. But when Jesus rose from the tomb, he proved his ability to restore the deadest of dead. Jesus makes a great Savior because he has unmatched resurrection power.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
Can prosperity promise this? Prosperity makes a terrible Savior because it is not the way. God’s chosen people were not selected for their prominence, or their cheerfulness, or their positive outlook. Quite the opposite. They were a bunch of slaves to Pharaoh, and after their deliverance, they proved to be only more grumbling, stubborn, and unappreciative. Jesus didn’t hang out with the tax collectors because they had money, but rather because they were despised, wicked, and broken people who needed a better way. Jesus makes a great Savior because he made a sufficient way.
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1).
Can prosperity promise this? Prosperity makes a terrible Savior because it cares more about appearance than product. Proponents of the prosperity gospel will do everything in their power to have the biggest church/stadium, the biggest jet plane, the biggest book tour, and the biggest paycheck. What they care about is becoming a tall tree. Jesus and the Father disagreed with such thinking. In fact, the Father is the “vinedresser,” in charge of diminishing, making cuts, in order that the tree may bear fruit ripe for the picking. Jesus makes a great Savior because he cares about a full tree, not a tall one.
“I AM” can literally change your life. The question is, is our “I AM” going to be a means to an end, or the end? I want to be happy. I want to be comfortable financially. But I don’t want these insufficient, fleeting, temporary, unfulfilling things to be my God. If they were, my God would let me down quite a bit. I’ve had difficult arguments with my wife. I’ve been unemployed. “I AM” is indeed the gateway to a life of prosperity, but that’s not material or emotional prosperity. It’s something entirely different.
When “I AM” becomes our end, grace comes alive. Mercy is here. God’s power shines brilliantly. I can feel hungry, and look to Jesus for sustenance. I can feel restless, and look to Jesus for rest. I can feel wayward, and look to Jesus for guidance. I can feel dead, and look to Jesus for life. These are things money can’t buy. These are things happiness can’t bring. Playing reverse psychology with my true, sin-filled, weak self will only aid the serpent in his crafty deception. Only Jesus could look at my nakedness and knit skins together to sufficiently clothe me. Only Jesus would invite me in for a feast at the cost of his life. There is power in the true “I AM.”