"Winning is in your DNA. The most high God breathed His life into you. You've got what it takes. This is your time. This is your moment. Shake off doubts, shake off fear and insecurity, and get ready for favor, get ready for increase, get ready for the fullness of your destiny. You can, you will!"-- Joel Osteen (https://www.joelosteen.com)
According to America's most popular preacher, God created each and every one of us to be successful. In his latest book You Can, You Will, he identifies eight characteristics that he claims are present in all successful people. Among these characteristics, two of them stood out to me as encapsulating this man's message and ministry: Positive thinking and An expectation that good things will happen.
Joel Osteen, however, is not the first pastor/evangelist to preach this kind of message. Some of my readers will remember Norman Vincent Peale and his The Power of Positive Thinking. Others will recall the ministry of Herbert W. Armstrong, and how he held up the growth and success of his church as evidence of God's favor. Like Osteen, Armstrong also published a booklet entitled The Seven Laws of Success in which he supposedly identified the laws that govern success. The clear implication being that unsuccessful people were not practicing those laws and were consequently not enjoying God's favor.
Nevertheless, religious folks are not the only ones who have suggested such a correlation between fame/fortune and being favored by the cosmos. Many folks have looked at Darwin's observations about the "survival of the fittest" and have attempted to apply them to human societies (especially in the realms of economics and politics). For many people, "the cream always rises to the top." The famous German sociologist, Max Weber, attempted to account for the success of the Western Capitalist countries by underscoring their adherence to the Protestant Work Ethic.
In all of these instances, the implication is that "success" in this life is a clear indication of God's favor. Likewise, an acceptance of this view also implies that those who are not experiencing that success are on the receiving end of God's indifference or displeasure. In short, those who are experiencing the good things in this life must be doing what is right in God's sight.
How do these views stack up against what is revealed in Scripture? In the final analysis, is fame and fortune evidence of God's favor?
The regular readers of this blog will recall that we have talked about the role of time and chance in human life in previous posts. In the book of Ecclesiastes, we read: "I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn't always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn't always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don't always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time." (Ecclesiastes 9:11) Let's think about this passage for a moment. Isn't that absolutely true? Don't we all know hard working, diligent, bright people who are not "successful" in this life? Haven't we all been in situations where someone of inferior talent, ability and/or character has been our boss or superior?
Did Jesus Christ promise his followers a life of moonlight and magnolias? Toward the end of his ministry, Christ said to his disciples: "I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) But didn't Christ also say, "My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life?" (John 10:10) Was he talking here about material success and wealth? Read the rest of the chapter. Wasn't Christ clearly talking about spiritual salvation in this passage?
What did Christ say about wealth? "I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I'll say it again - it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" (Matthew 19:23) Notice that this passage is the culmination of an encounter with a rich young man who had asked Christ "What good deed must I do to have eternal life?" (verse 16) Jesus had begun to answer him by instructing him to keep the Ten Commandments. (verses 17-18) To which, the young man replied that he had been obeying them all of his life. (verse 20) Then Jesus told him to "go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." (verse 21) The young man, however, was not prepared to give up his wealth. (verse 22)
In similar fashion, we are told that "Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, 'I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.'" (Mark 12:41-44) That sure sounds to me like material wealth was not an indication of Christ's favor!
What about social position? Did Christ give preferential treatment to those who belonged to the religious and political elite of his day? Didn't Christ keep company with the poor, sick, whores, Samaritans and tax collectors? Didn't James admonish the saints not to show preferential treatment to the elite members of society who worshiped with them? (James 2:1-7) Didn't God choose the weak and foolish people of this world to confound those who are mighty? (I Corinthians 1:27)
Hence, I would caution anyone against concluding that fame and fortune are evidence of God's favor. I'd say that being in the right place at the right time is probably a better explanation of this phenomenon. Although hard work and perseverance can certainly contribute to making the most of such opportunities, they are obviously not determinative in that respect. In short, the cream doesn't always rise to the top - sometimes other things float on the surface!