There is no crucifix in Lakewood, Joel Osteen’s church in Houston, Tex. Instead, the former basketball arena holds a monumental golden globe—appropriately sized for a church that can seat up to 16,000 people. As Osteen preaches, smiling brightly, the globe turns behind him, swiftly, as if to catch the light.
The globe is, in Osteen’s words, “symbolic of what Christ said: To go forth and preach hope to the world. We believe in the cross, but we just continued with the globe.”
That forward-looking theology, which appears to leave the suffering of the cross behind, is essential to Osteen’s ministry. Osteen is one of the most popular evangelists in the United States for a reason: He represents hope. Osteen tells us we have the power to obtain health and wealth if we believe enough, for long enough. “God’s got this!” he exclaims.
Osteen takes the idea that “nothing is impossible for God,” and runs with it. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, it suggests that since nothing is impossible for God, God will give health and wealth to those with the strongest faith in him. This line of thinking constitutes the prosperity gospel.
But the prosperity gospel is not limited to Osteen or the evangelical community. It pervades U.S. culture, and we are all susceptible to it. It is alive in almost any brand that promises edification. It lives as much, for instance, in wellness brands like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, as it does at Lakewood Church.
The sense of agency and justice that the prosperity gospel provides—whether offered by wellness advocates or preachers—is deeply attractive; it means that everything is within our control. But the implications of the prosperity gospel are less attractive: If the faithful are rewarded with health, are the terminally ill not faithful enough?
The Power of Positivity
The prosperity gospel offers an enticing invitation: If you work hard enough, if you have enough faith, you’ll get there. All the good things in your life, you earned. That sense of entitlement and longing is exploited by pretty much every brand on the market: This couch will bring your family together; this Big Mac will bring you unfettered joy; this car will make you sexy.
Goop, a lifestyle website and marketplace, sells itself as a feminist brand that addresses “the acute needs of modern women,” particularly in the realm of health and wellness. Goop approaches this mission with the belief that “the mind/body/spirit is inextricably linked and we have more control over how we express our health than we currently understand” (emphasis mine).
Tellingly, the awkward concept “how we express our health” is never clarified. But the implications are clear: We have power over our health that Goop can help us to harness.
Unlike Osteen, Paltrow does not promote a particular faith. Instead, Goop showcases thinkers who favor a vague spirituality, telling Goopies (yes, that’s what her followers call themselves): It is faith in yourself, in love and in positivity, that can cure.
Both Osteen’s and Paltrow’s brands favor positive thinking as a means of achieving self-rule. Goop publishes a large number of articles along these lines, which often aim to empower women in the workplace and in their relationships. “No Name-Calling or Self-Criticism,” a regular Goop contributor, Dr. Habib Sadeghi, writes. “Surround yourself with positive, uplifting words.... You have the power to change your world.”
“Dwell only on positive, empowering thoughts toward yourself,” Osteen writes in his book Become a Better You. “You will see God’s blessings and favor in a greater way.”
Maxims such as these can in some cases improve the lives of people who adopt them. But faith in positive thinking is taken to a frightening, dangerous extreme when it is applied to our physical health. To people experiencing illness, Osteen writes in his book Blessed in the Darkness (2017): “A cure may seem impossible, but God can do the impossible.... Quit worrying.... Every day that you stay in faith...you’re passing the test.... Suddenly your health turns around.”
Everything Happens for a Reason
Kate Bowler is a writer, professor, Christian, mother and wife living in Durham, N.C. Bowler also has, at age 35, incurable Stage 4 colon cancer. When her diagnosis came, she asked: Why? Why is this happening to me? What could I have done differently? Does everything actually happen for a reason?
Bowler critiques and studies prosperity gospel theology as a historian at Duke University. It is not a creed she thought she ascribed to, but when she received her cancer diagnosis, she became aware of how aspects of the prosperity gospel were ingrained in her own outlook on life. “No matter how many times I rolled my eyes at the creed’s outrageous certainties,” she writes, “I craved them just the same.”
When she was well, Bowler held the seemingly harmless view that “in this world, I deserve what I get. I earn my keep and keep my share.” So when she got sick, she naturally felt as though there must be something in her power to help her get well.
Sickness eventually undid that way of thinking. “I believed God would make a way.... I don’t believe that anymore,” she writes in her memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.
“Everything happens for a reason,” a well-meaning neighbor told Bowler and her husband following her diagnosis. “I would love to hear it,” her husband responded sadly, “the reason my wife is dying.”
Bowler came to believe that her suffering is tragic and unfair—and that is all.
The Price of Health
Both Osteen and Paltrow profit from their prosperity gospels. Goop sells products like “Wearable Stickers That Promote Healing (Really!),” which almost parody the prosperity gospel in their invitation to suspend disbelief, alongside conventional products like bath bombs and wildly popular healthy-eating cookbooks. (Some Goop-endorsed products, such as Yoni eggs, have also come under fire for actually endangering women’s health under the guise of improving it. I’ll let you Google that one.)
Osteen encourages hefty church donations as a means for his congregants to achieve health and wealth. “You can’t afford to not tithe,” he writes in Your Best Life Now. “If you will dare to take a step of faith and start honoring God in your finances, He’ll start increasing your supply in supernatural ways.... He’ll cause you to get the best deals in life. Sometimes, He’ll keep you from sickness, accidents, and harm that might cause other unnecessary expenses.” Although Osteen doesn’t take a salary from Lakewood Church, he is said to be worth over $40 million—a fortune amassed by selling books that promote his creed.
At In Goop Health, Goop’s most recent health conference, which took place in January in New York, B12 vitamin injections and meditation pods, along with panel discussions, were available to guests willing to pay between $650 and $4,500 for a ticket.
One of the panelists was Anita Moorjani, the author of Dying to Be Me. In her talk, she described how, in her view, her fear of cancer led her to develop the illness. Ms. Moorjani said that when she let go of that fear and believed she would get well, she experienced a miraculous recovery: “As soon as I saw myself [as] deserving and worthy of good health I started to see that transform, and in as short of a time as five weeks there was no trace of cancer in my body.”
Another panelist and frequent Goop contributor, Eben Alexander—author of A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the Afterlife—also talked about how fear inflicts illness and love cures it. On Twitter, he was forced to confront the implications of his particular form of the prosperity gospel for the deceased, sick and terminally ill.
“Can you explain how fear killed my son who died after 3 minutes of life?” wrote Dr. Jen Gunter, a gynecologist, blogger and vehement critic of Goop. “After hearing you speak at @goop I was left thinking his death was because I didn’t love him enough.”
Alexander responded: “There is absolutely NO possibility that you are responsible.... Explaining the deep truth concerning the healing power of love in your case CANNOT be handled via Twitter.”
Just as there is no cross and few reminders of suffering and sin in Osteen’s church, “wellness” advocates like Moorjani and Alexander do not acknowledge fear, pain or imperfection either, unless they are offering a cure for it.
But pain and suffering exist, and sometimes they are unresolvable. No matter the circumstances, there is no certainty, no failsafe cure that can emerge from willpower alone. We are not capable of that. And although anything may well be possible for God, experience tells us that God does not reward faith with health and wealth. If that type of earthly, divine justice existed, the world would look very different.
The Healing Power of Faith
The prosperity gospel persists so stubbornly because its core idea—that faith can heal—is true. Faith in God, as well as in humanity and in ourselves, has real value. That faith—that leap of the imagination, that burst of courage—can often show us how we, how life, can be different, can be better, can be more profound. For this reason, aspects of both Paltrow’s and Osteen’s ministries are inspiring and comforting.
But the good intentions that inspire the prosperity gospel make the creed that much more insidious. Claims that “good enough” faith cures cancer hurt more than they help, inflicting unnecessary guilt and pain on the sick and their loved ones. And that people like Osteen, Moorjani and Alexander are profiting from this falsehood is troubling, to say the least.
“What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American dream that says, ‘You are limitless’? Everything is not possible,” writes Bowler. “What if rich did not need to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of ‘the gospel’ meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”
The fact that our pain can be pointless and inexplicable is not easy to accept. But that sense of being loved that Bowler describes makes forbearance in the face of suffering possible. Perhaps for nonbelievers in Paltrow’s audience that sense of being loved simply comes from within and from one another. But believers in Osteen’s congregation and well beyond can know that they are loved, in their imperfect state, by God.
Love will not take away cancer; it will not make life predictable or fair; it will not explain suffering; it will not make us perfect. But sometimes, somehow, it helps. It is enough.