I want to first state that this is not going to be a bashing of traditional, orthodox Christian theology. Orthodoxy certainly has its place, and has earned it over thousands of years. Lately it’s come under quite a bit of fire in spots, especially regarding such things as its view of homosexuality, penal substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of hell and so on. This is not about the merits or problems with conservative theology against progressive theology. Neither is this about defending “health-and-wealth” theology, which is an entirely different subject altogether I think. What I do want to do is give a (qualified) defense of what many call “feel good” theology, “me-ology” or “watered down” theology, which for the sake of discussion is teaching or theology that tends to favor the emotional over the intellectual, and minimize talk of God’s judgment (sin, hell and so on) in favor of God’s love (grace, forgiveness). It’s one of the most derided forms of faith, and often for good reason. However I am going to say that in some circumstances it’s not a bad thing.
It is quite true that “feel good” theology (let’s just call it FGT for now) does present a skewed picture of the nature of God and an incomplete, and sometimes erroneous, Christian theology. Joel Osteen is often seen as the modern poster-child for this kind of theology and preaching that is full of smiles, talk of self-fulfillment and success, and positive thinking. He never talks about hell or Satan, though he does talk about evil in sometimes vague terms. For this he has earned the ire of many Christian leaders and has become of meme for saccharine Christianity.
But while there is certainly a lot wrong with FGT, I think it has it’s place, including in the lives of those who are dying and their families and caregivers.
Many years ago I had a patient with COPD who lived in a personal care home. She was elderly and a chronic smoker – even with her COPD – and walked with a walker. She was chronically depressed and anxious, and had been for a good part of her life. The television was on the news continually in her room, constantly giving updates on horrible things happening around the world. This made her even more anxious and depressed. I would often talk with her about cutting down on the news, but it had become a habit for her, almost as bad as her smoking. She came out of her room only to smoke and for meals. When I talked with her about what kept her going and lifted her mood, she said it was watching Joel Osteen. She raved about him and talked about how good she felt after watching him. Whenever he was on she watched him, and she not only talked about how good it made her feel but how it reminded her of how much God loved her and cared for her.
Since then I’ve ran into many people, both patients and caregivers, who not only enjoy Joel Osteen and FGT but need it. They are often going through tremendously difficult and stressful circumstances. Either they are dying or someone they love is dying. Often they have other issues like other chronic illnesses, isolation, and loss of control. All of these things add up to a formula for depression and anxiety. But when they watch Osteen, they’re offered a reprieve from the world they’re in, if even for a brief time.
This is why many find FGT so compelling and enticing. Osteen said in an interview with Success magazine, “A lot of people, life’s beating them down enough. They could come in here, and I could say, ‘You know what? You’re all sinners. You probably haven’t lived right today.’ But they already know that. They don’t need to go to church to feel guilty.” It’s one thing to say that in reference to your typical white middle-class suburbanite, where the worst thing that happened to them today is that the barista didn’t leave room for cream. But many come to Osteen and other “feel-good” churches because life has beaten them down, and in some cases it’s also the church that has beat them down.
On the other end of the spectrum from FGT is preaching that focuses heavily not on our goodness, but rather our badness. It’s not just that we do bad things, it’s that we are bad people. We are bad through and through. Even the “good” things we do are bad because our intentions are bad, unless we are chosen by God and then only by His mercy, not because of us. How do I know this? I heard it on the radio this morning from one of the top radio ministers in my area.
Now is this bad theology? If you’re a good Calvinist you’d argue “no” and give a litany of chapters, verses, and John Piper quotes to back it up. And properly understood this is correct thinking and theology. The problem arises when those who suffer from depression and anxiety, which are both common at the end of life for the dying as well as for their caregivers, hear the “you are bad” over and over again and not the gospel. Part of that is due to the fact that our brains are wired to pay more attention to the negatives than the positives. We remember bad things much more quickly than good things, and remember more of them than the good as well.
Feel-good theology floods the gates with positive messages to those that need to hear them: you are not so bad, you’re more capable than you think, God loves you extravagantly. For these folks, the lack of the negatives in the message actually serve to balance the negatives that are bombarding them every day. They actually don’t need to be told that they’re sinful, bad people, because it’s likely that they tell themselves that over and over again every day. That’s not the voice of God, that’s the voice of the Accuser.
Going back to my COPD patient, when I at first heard how much she liked Osteen I had the same negative reaction that many have. I thought, “How can you like this nonsense? Can I get you some Charles Stanley tapes instead?” But it didn’t take long for me to see that this watered-down theology was precisely what this person needed. Like a sick person on a restricted diet, they were in no shape spiritually or emotionally for “that old time religion.”
I often find that my elderly patients as they decline lose their will to eat, except for the sweet stuff. The good, healthy stuff just won’t go down, but the ice cream will be eaten by the gallon. And on hospice we say “when you’re dying, eat whatever you want.” Healthy people need a balanced diet: meat, potatoes, maybe some peas, and dessert in moderation. Too much sweets and you’re dead. But when you’re already broken, your body doesn’t want the meat, potatoes, or even the peas. There’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just that the compromised body can’t handle it. The sweets do more for the wounded soul than the wounded body.
Maybe it’s like that.