Hope Against Schope

Lakewood Church senior pastor Joel Osteen’s second book, Become a Better You, reportedly made him $13 million; his latest, I Declare (FaithWords, $22), is now on USA Today's best-seller list. Osteen came to lead the country’s most mega megachurch by selling a feel-good message about the relationship between positive thinking and a life well lived. “Explosive blessings,” Osteen tells his congregation, come to those who “speak victory.” Osteen fans, who include Oprah Winfrey, Hulk Hogan, and Cher, are instructed to “develop a habit of happiness.” And while some critics quibble with the pastor’s parroting of the prosperity gospel, and others question his rather sunny take on the Old Testament, you’re unlikely to find an Osteen contemporary who takes issue with the claim that people would do well to look on the bright side—a sign, perhaps, that Osteen’s injunction to “speak victory” has been successful, at least in his case. So for that elusive nay-saying perspective, we turn to the late German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, best known for the belief that it would have been better never to have been born. Below, an exchange of ideas between the best-selling optimist and history’s most accomplished philosopher-pessimist.

Osteen quotations taken, with minor alterations, from I Declare, Become a Better You, and sermons delivered at Lakewood Church on November 18 and 25, 2012. Schopenhauer quotations taken from The World as Will and Idea, Studies in Pessimism, and statements recounted by Jorge Luis Borges in The Total Library.

JOEL OSTEEN: Arthur, I’m so glad you came to join us at Lakewood Church today. We love you. You are one of a kind. You are a masterpiece. You are a prized possession. When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, instead of getting depressed, instead of saying, “Oh man. Look how old I look. Look at this gray hair. Look at these wrinkles,” you need to smile and say, “Good morning, you beautiful thing. Good morning, you blessed, prosperous, successful, strong, talented, creative, confident, secure, disciplined, focused, highly favored child of the most high God!”

ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER: This world is a scene of tormented and agonized beings, who only continue to exist by devouring each other, in which, therefore, every ravenous beast is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of painful deaths; and in which the capacity for feeling pain increases with knowledge.

OSTEEN: Arthur, I don’t know if there is anything weighing you down—sometimes it’s easy to worry about finances or health or even something in the past, maybe you’re upset because of what somebody did—but this is the perfect time to say, “God, I’m gonna turn it all over to you. Not gonna start the week out discouraged.” Shake it off. Reboot that computer! Start seeing yourself as winning, coming out on top. See your business as flourishing. See your children as enjoying the good things of God.

SCHOPENHAUER: Children are innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.

OSTEEN: Well, guess what, Arthur! Our life is a gift from God, and the appropriate response to His gift is joy.

SCHOPENHAUER: Human existence, far from bearing the character of a gift, has entirely the character of a debt that has been contracted. The calling in of this debt appears in the form of the pressing wants, tormenting desires, and endless misery established through this existence.

OSTEEN: Do you know the more we talk about something, the more we draw it in? Here is the key: You’ve got to send your words out in the direction you want your life to go. You cannot talk defeat and expect to have victory. You can’t talk lack and expect to have abundance. You will produce what you say.

There is a young lady on staff at Lakewood Church. She told our women’s group that every morning before she leaves the house, she looks in the mirror and says, “Girl, you are looking good today.” I saw her a while back and asked if she was still doing it. She said, “Yeah. In fact this morning, Joel, when I looked in the mirror I said, ‘Girl, some days you look good, but today you’re looking really good.’” I encourage you to be bold in the same way.

Arthur Schopenhauer.
Arthur Schopenhauer.

SCHOPENHAUER: Thus we are deluded now by hope, now by what was hoped for. If it has given, it did so in order to take. The enchantments of distance show us paradises which vanish like optical illusions when we have allowed ourselves to be mocked by them.

OSTEEN: Arthur, I want to talk to you about the power of “I am.” What follows these two words will determine what kind of life you live. “I am blessed,” “I am strong,” “I am healthy.” Or: “I am slow,” “I am unattractive,” “I am a terrible mother.” The “I am’s” that are coming out of your mouth will bring either success or failure. Many times we use the power of “I am” against us. We don’t realize how it’s affecting our future.

Here’s the principle. What follows the “I am” will always come looking for you. When you say, “I am so clumsy,” clumsiness comes looking for you. When you say, “I am so old,” wrinkles come looking for you. It’s just like you’re inviting them. Whatever you follow the “I am” with, you’re handing it an invitation, opening the door, giving it permission to be in your life. Now, the good news is, you get to choose what follows the “I am.”

SCHOPENHAUER: I am sometimes dissatisfied with you in your capacity as a philosopher.

OSTEEN: Ha-ha. Every time you laugh, it boosts your immune system.

SCHOPENHAUER: I am often surprised by the cleverness, and now and again the stupidity, of my dog; and I have similar experiences with mankind.

OSTEEN: Possibly you’ve inherited attitudes of defeat, mediocrity, and negativity. Negative things may have been in your bloodline. But Arthur, if you would just change the “I am’s,” you would go to a new level. Words have creative power. With your words you can either bless your future or you can curse your future. You should be saying, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am attractive. I’m getting younger. I am vibrant. I am radiant.”

SCHOPENHAUER: Who am I really, Joel? I am the author of The World as Will and Idea. I am the one who has given an answer to the mystery of Being that will occupy the thinkers of future centuries. That is what I am.

OSTEEN: You feel better.

Schopenhauer: Perhaps. But every happiness is but lent by chance for an uncertain time, and may therefore be demanded back the next hour.

OSTEEN: The Bible says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” One translation says, “Be happy all the time.”

SCHOPENHAUER: The inmost kernel of Christianity is the truth that suffering—the cross—is the real end and object of life. That in recent times Christianity has forgotten its true significance, and degenerated into dull optimism, does not concern us here.

OSTEEN: I’d like to tell you a story about focusing on the negative. When I was a boy, there was a gentleman who owned the company that took care of our church grounds. He was a very nice man, kind and friendly. But he always had a negative report. Every time I talked to him, he told me how hard life was and how business was slow and his equipment was breaking down. He was having problems at home. On and on. I’m not making light of his situation. The point is he was prophesying defeat. He was cursing his future. He didn’t realize he was being snared by the words of his mouth.

Sadly, he became sick. He ended up dying a very sad and lonely death. I couldn’t help but think that he had been predicting this sad end. He got what he was calling in.

Now, ask yourself again, Arthur. Do you feel better than you did when you came in here today?