I was talking with a fellow evangelical Christian, an older woman whose circumstances required that she live with her aging and abusive father. To say the least, this was a trial, but she said she had recently had a breakthrough.
"I was watching Joel Osteen, and he was saying that we should not whine about our circumstances, but accept them as God's way of strengthening us, and use them to love those who make our lives hard. That really helped."
This made me curious: Exactly what was Osteen preaching? I had heard mostly scathing critiques of the best-selling author and Houston pastor. So I listened to a few of his sermons. It's been said that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Osteen is right more frequently than that. As I flipped though the channels and caught messages by other so-called prosperity preachers, I found the same thing. They regularly offered wise counsel on how to strengthen marriage, raise kids, handle suffering, and so forth. They often talked about how trusting God can offer calm and hope in the face of adversity.
Yes, I cringed at the occasional allusions to faith and financial prosperity. But that was rare. Most of what I heard was a combination of biblical and psychological wisdom shaped for an audience that knew hardship. Or, as historian Kate Bowler put it in Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, the prosperity preachers offer "a comprehensive approach to the human condition"—one that gives hope to desperate people.
So what's the problem?
If we look at the preaching and teaching in mainstream evangelical churches, apparently not much. Tune in to many a church website, and you'll find comparable sermon series on improving relationships, raising kids, practicing faith in the workplace, and, in general, living successfully. You'll find lots of good, practical advice, much of it grounded in Scripture, very often the Book of Proverbs. No wonder people flock to such churches; they are some of the few places where they can hear commonsense wisdom about daily life.
But if you think about it, you'll realize that most of that advice can be found in pop psychology books, self-help conferences, and other religions. That's not to slam this content as much as it is to point out that God in his grace has made such principles available far and wide. You don't have to be a Christian to raise good kids or succeed in business or learn from suffering. A little philosophy here and psychology there, and you can construct a life that "works."
The problem is that preachers and teachers of such messages are not telling us the whole truth. They are not giving us a full understanding of the Good News.
Proverbs is only half of wisdom. The other half is found in the Book of Job. And Ecclesiastes. And Jesus at Golgotha. The other part of wisdom—the deeper wisdom—centers on the folly of the Cross.
Not the Cross as a mere rest stop on the way to Resurrection. Not suffering as a means to an end. Not hardship that builds character and makes us better. That's more Proverbs wisdom and is true as far as it goes. That's the theology of glory—if we do this and that, and endure this and that with the right attitude, all will be well.
The theology of the Cross says that God is most deeply met in the suffering itself, not just on the other side of it. Forgiveness of sins is not found after the Cross, but in, with, and under the Cross. This is the "wisdom of the cross" (1 Cor. 1–2) that is folly to the world.
The question, then, is this: When we Christian leaders have this astounding message, one that transcends run-of-the-mill wisdom, that grounds us in unshakable reality, that shows Christ as the end itself, that invites us to meet God in the darkest places, that shows us where God's glory is revealed (John 12)—why do we spend so much time doling out wisdom that is merely helpful?
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