It began with two devastating words: “tumor” and “incurable.” If they are not words you have ever heard, they are probably words heard by someone near you, someone you love or loved. They were words David McDonald heard as well.

McDonald had pastored for just about twenty years and by 2011 had decided to begin a new work. He and his family would leave Canberra, Australia, and move thousands of kilometers north to Darwin, a remote but needy city. They were going there to found a new church. They secured support, made the journey a couple of times, found a place to live, made all the necessary preparations, packed the truck, and sent it off. They were all ready to begin the next twenty years of ministry.

And then, just days before the big move, there was shortness of breath, numbness in the limbs. Something was wrong. Really wrong. There was a visit to the specialist and the terrible diagnosis: lung cancer. Incurable. Stage 4. Best-case scenario: he might live to see next Christmas.

In all the difficulty and in all the devastation, he needed to find hope. With the fatal diagnosis and with the best of modern medicine unable to offer the promise of health, he knew he had to look for hope beyond cure.

Hope Beyond Cure
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Hope Beyond Cure describes his search for hope. Yes, he was a pastor. Yes, he had walked with others through devastating and even terminal illness. But now it was him and now he was the one whose faith had been rocked and whose dreams had been shattered. He wasn’t ever tempted to throw away his Christian faith. Not at all. But he did realize the importance of deep and deeply satisfying answers.

Faith and reason have shaped this book. Together they have given me hope. I don’t know everything there is to know about cancer or God. I’ve studied them both, but my understanding is partial and limited. My ignorance outweighs my knowledge, even though I’m learning more day by day. But this knowledge of cancer and of God isn’t simply in my head—it’s deeply personal. I don’t just know about them—they are part of my life and my experience. I know cancer and I know God. And it’s because I know God that I believe there is real hope for those who have cancer, for those who are struggling, for those who have lost hope—for everyone.

The hope he describes is the best and truest hope because it is founded upon the best and truest reality—that God is real and that he has sent his Son into this world to redeem sinners. McDonald goes to the gospel, but he does it in such a faith-stirring and helpful way. These aren’t easy answers. These aren’t trite solutions to deep problems. These are truths drawn carefully and consistently from the Bible, and all the while combined with the strength of human experience.

Each of us knows someone who will suffer from cancer. Many who read these words will some day be diagnosed. Hope Beyond Cure is a book to read if you, like McDonald, are a Christian and suffering and need to be reminded of what is true. It is an appropriate book to hand to an unbeliever as well; it is written in a gentle and humble style that is not the least bit offensive.

As Christians, we have nothing better to offer than what the Bible tells us and no better hope than the hope it describes—a hope beyond cure. Here is a book that offers deep answers to deep questions, all the while tempered by deep wells of experience. It is powerful, it is helpful, and it comes highly recommended.

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a book that introduced many of us to one of this generation’s most popular preachers. The book is titled Your Best Life Now.

Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen

0978044653275_500X500Joel Osteen was born on March 5, 1963, the son of John and Dolores (known as “Dodie”) Osteen. John founded Lakewood Church in Houston Texas on May 10, 1959, and pastored the church until his death in 1999. While he began his career in ministry as a Baptist, he later experienced something he believed was the baptism of the Holy Spirit and founded Lakewood as a haven for charismatic Baptists. By the 1980s John and Dodie had become well-known among their fellow charismatics. The church had over 5,000 in attendance and their services were broadcast across the world. From a young age Joel was involved in this work, laboring behind the scenes in support of the family ministry.

When John Osteen died suddenly of a heart attack on January 23, 1999, Joel, who had preached his first sermon the week before, succeeded him as pastor with his wife, Victoria, serving as co-pastor. Very quickly, the church exploded in growth and Joel’s broadcasts become more popular than his father’s had ever been; his sermons, full of homespun wisdom and messages of self-empowerment, were heard all over the world and it was only a matter of time before he penned his first book.

In October 2004 FaithWords released Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The book is framed around seven steps meant to instruct the reader in living out God’s big dream for his life.

  1. Enlarge Your Vision. Osteen begins the book by teaching that God wants to make our lives easier and provide his people with special advantages and preferential treatment. We need to learn to expect good things from God so, for example, if we are in a crowded parking lot, we can pray, “Father, I thank you for leading and guiding me. Your favor will cause me to get a good spot.” Throughout the day we ought to declare “The favor of God is causing this company to want to hire me. The favor of God is causing me to stand out in the crowd.”
  2. Develop a Healthy Self-Image. In this section Osteen teaches that we are what we believe, that we need to think positive thoughts. “God sees you as strong and courageous, as a man or woman of great honor and value.” He bases much of this on the story of Abraham and Sarah, saying “I’m convinced that the key to the promise coming to pass was that Sarah had to conceive it in her heart before she was able to conceive it in her physical body.”
  3. Discover the Power of Your Thoughts and Words. Osteen wants us to believe that our thoughts and words have creative power. “Our words become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you allow your thoughts to defeat you and then give birth to negative ideas through your words, your actions will follow suit. That’s why we need to be extremely careful about what we think and especially careful about what we say. … Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it.”
  4. Let Go of the Past. We need to let go of past hurts and past failures, knowing that these will only keep us from the blessing and favor God wants to pour out upon us.
  5. Find Strength Through Adversity. Osteen wants his readers to know that we cannot allow adversity to stop or slow us. “God has promised that He will turn your challenges into stepping-stones for promotion.”
  6. Live to Give. In this section he calls for compassion and kindness, using the principle that in order to receive, we have to first give. “If you’re struggling financially, go out and help somebody who has less than you have. If you want to reap financial blessings, you must sow financial seeds in the lives of others. If you want to see healing and restoration come to your life, go out and help somebody else get well.”
  7. Choose to Be Happy. In this final section he calls the reader to a life of happiness and excellence. “If you will start taking care of what God has given you, He’ll be more likely to give you something better.”

The great promise at the end of it all, is that by following these seven simple principles, each of us can have our best life now.

Sales & Lasting Impact

Your Best Life Now quickly debuted on the New York Times list of best-sellers and remained there for more than two years. By December, just three months after its release, Your Best Life Now had tallied over 500,000 sales and was awarded the Gold Book Award. In May 2005 it achieved 1 million sales and received the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold over 4 million copies.

Osteen’s book was widely criticized by Christian leaders for ignoring the gospel of salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice in favor of a gospel of financial and life-wide prosperity. While Osteen claimed to be teaching biblical principles, he was instead picking and choosing isolated verses of the Bible to teach self-empowerment much as Norman Vincent Peale and so many others had done before him. In a helpful review of the book, Greg Gilbert summarizes it well: “Yes, Osteen talks about God throughout, but it is not the God of the Bible he has in mind. Osteen’s God is little more than the mechanism that gives the power to positive thinking. There is no cross. There is no sin. There is no redemption or salvation or eternity.” He continues: “If Joel Osteen wants to be the Norman Vincent Peale of the twenty-first century, he has every right to give it a shot. But he should stop marketing his message as Christianity, because it is not. You cannot simply make reference to God, quote some Scripture, call what you’re saying ‘spiritual principles’ and pass it off as Christianity. That’s the kind of thing that will have people ‘enlarging their vision’ and ‘choosing to be happy’ all the way to hell.”

Despite such critiques, the book proved extremely popular among Christians and non-Christians alike and was followed by a series of similar works.

Since the Award

Your Best Life Now catapulted Osteen to new heights of exposure and influence. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “10 Most Fascinating People of 2006” and in that same year readers of Church Report Magazine named him “Most Influential Christian in 2006.” He was invited to make many appearances on television programs including 60 Minutes, and he made much-publicized visits to Oprah Winfrey and Larry King. He also began to travel extensively and internationally for sold-out events called “A Night of Hope.”

Today Lakewood Church meets in what used to be the Compaq Center, the 16,000-seat former home of the Houston Rockets. Nearly 40,000 people attend each week, making Lakewood Church America’s largest congregation. Since Your Best Life Now, Osteen has authored several other books, most of which have appeared on the lists of bestsellers. They include Become a Better You, It’s Your Time, Every Day a Friday, I Declare, and Break Out.

A Personal Perspective

The very first time I saw Joel Osteen on television, he was speaking about the importance of a healthy diet, including the rejection of pork, shellfish, and other unhealthy foods. My son, who was probably five or six at the time, listened for a minute and said, “That’s not the gospel!” I learned that day that even a child can unmask his teaching as nothing more than a feel-good brand of self-empowerment. Shortly thereafter someone gave me a tongue-in-cheek gift: a copy of Your Best Life Now, the board game. It may well be one of the worst games ever created and includes looking in a mirror to say empowering and encouraging phrases to yourself.

I have written about Osteen and his books a few times over the years. He was the inspiration for an article I titled “Smilingly Leading You to Hell” in which I said, “Both the history of the church and contemporary Evangelical church are replete with nice people who are in complete rebellion against God. Is there anyone nicer than Joel Osteen? Yet is there anyone whose message has less of the gospel and more anti-biblical nonsense? You can watch him in this video, sitting with Oprah, receiving accolades, nicely, smilingly leading an eager crowd farther and farther from the cross. He is nice, but he, too, will nice you straight to the gates of hell, flashing that brilliant smile all the while.” I stand by those words.

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from Words of Wisdom, pages 64-65, Pilgrim Publications.

“The Lord of love bestows it; His tenderness rocks the cradle for us every night; His kindness draws the curtain of darkness about us, and bids the sun cover his blazing lamp.”  

How thankful should we be for sleep! Sleep is the best physician that I know of. Sleep hath healed more pains of wearied heads, and hearts, and bones than the most eminent physicians upon earth. It is the best medicine; the choicest thing of all the names which are written in all the lists of pharmacy.

No magic draught of the physician can match with sleep. What a mercy it is that it belongs alike to all! God does not make sleep the boon of the rich man; he does not give it merely to the noble, or the rich, so that they can monopolize it as a peculiar luxury for themselves; but he bestows it upon the poorest and most obscure.

Yea, if there be a difference, the sleep of the labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much. He who toils hardest sleeps all the sounder for his work.

While luxurious effeminacy cannot rest, tossing itself from side to side upon a bed of eiderdown, the hard-working labourer, with his strong and powerful limbs, worn out and tired, throws himself upon his hard couch and sleeps: and waking, thanks God that he has been refreshed.

Ye know not how much ye owe to God, that he gives you rest at night. If ye had sleepless nights, ye would then value the blessing. If for weeks ye lay tossing on your weary beds, ye then would thank God for this favour.

As sleep is the merciful appointment of God, it is a gift most precious, one that cannot be valued until it is taken away; yea, even then we cannot appreciate it as we ought.


Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, volume 34, sermon number 2,037 “The rule of the race.”

“The sight of the crown removes all weight from our crosses.”

Keep on looking and running till you are with him. Oh, I talk to you now about being with him, but how soon this may be realized in the most literal sense! During my ministry in this place it has occurred two or three times, that when the service has ended, dear friends have essayed to go to their
homes, but they have died in this House of Prayer.

What must it be to go from this congregation to the assembly above? What a change from the poor talk of the preacher to the voice of the Well-Beloved! We do not know how near to Jesus on the throne we may now be. The sea fog is around our vessel. Could we see before us, the white cliffs of our native shore are almost within touch. Think not that we are far out at sea. Within the next week, perhaps, some of us will see the King in his beauty.

We may spend next Sunday in heaven! Does anybody shrink from such a prospect? No: each heir of heaven says “Amen; so let it be.” Then the sweat of the race will be wiped away, and the sweet of the triumph will begin. Then the fatigue and distress will have ended, and the rest and the glory will have commenced.

I would cheer you with the thought that you are much nearer the winning-post than you think. How soon you may sit among the blood-washed throng! You older brethren and sisters in the course of nature must be there soon: be glad of it.

Do not talk about being on the wrong side of seventy: you are on the right side, for you are so much nearer heaven. Formerly when great ships went to the Indies, the passengers would for a while toast the friends they left behind. But when they were in the Indian Ocean, they began to drink the health of friends ahead.

Though comparatively young, I have many, many friends who are in the land beyond, to which I am making my way. I salute the glorified. Some of the dearest and best people that ever lived were members of this church, but they are now safely landed on the celestial shore. They are waiting and watching for us. We are coming, brethren! We will be with you soon. Best of all, our Lord is there.

Once crowned with thorns, his head is now radiant with the diadem of universal dominion. He will come to welcome us on that blessed shore. Hasten, O time! Be like a seraph with six wings and bear us swiftly to that golden strand where we shall see the face of him we love, and shall be

“Far from this world of grief and sin,
With God eternally shut in.”

I believe there is a Christian way to think about everything. Yes, everything. What the Bible does not address explicitly, it addresses implicitly; what it does not address directly, it address in principle. But in the end, the Bible has something to say about everything. One of the joys of reading Christian books is to see author after author address Christian thinking and Christian living in their area of passion of expertise. Over the past few years we’ve seen books on Christians and technology (by yours truly), Christians and work (by, among others, Greg Gilbert and Sebastian Traeger), Christians and marriage (Tim & Kathy Keller) and on and on.

What's Best Next
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New to the market is Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done. This is a book on productivity, on getting things done. But it’s more than that. It’s not only about getting things done, but about getting the best things done, and doing it all in the right way.

I have read widely in the area of productivity and best practices, and over the past years have developed systems that allow me to get a lot of things done without any part of my life crumbling under the pressure (so far, at least). Many of the systems I have adopted were inspired by the writings of unbelievers and I had to find ways of applying Christian thinking to them. And this is exactly what Perman does in What’s Best Next. Even though I have read many of these books and thought deeply about these issues, I still learned a lot from him. Perman takes the work of men like Peter Drucker, David Allen, Stephen Covey, Tim Ferris and many others, and examines them through the lens of Scripture. What is good he accepts, what is bad he rejects, and what is somewhere in-between he adapts.

At heart the book is about “getting things done and making ideas happen, with less friction and frustration, from a biblical perspective.” Perman aims to change the way we think about productivity and then to present a practical approach that will allow us to become more effective in life and to live with less stress and less frustration. This makes it a book for anyone who needs to get things done, but especially for those involved in knowledge work and the realm of ideas.

Perman begins by explaining that making God supreme in our productivity is of utmost importance. This is the foundation upon which everything else is built. He then introduces his concept of “gospel-driven productivity,” which is getting the right things done—the good works we are called to as believers.

The heart of the book is four parts, each composed of several chapters, in which Perman explains his DARE model of productivity: Define, Architect, Reduce, Execute. In the define step you will look at mission and vision to determine your roles and responsibilities and which should be prioritized. In the architect step you will create structure and routine that will allow you to properly balance each of these responsibilities. In the reduce step you will learn to get rid of those things that only distract from your core mission and will also learn the importance of delegation and automation. In the execute step you will learn the importance of planning your week, of managing workflow, and even of dealing with the never-ending deluge of email. The book closes with a couple of chapters on actually living out all of this.

On the negative side, the book is probably 60 or 80 pages longer than it needs to be, a fact that is tinged with irony since the book deals with productivity. Of course this length is a product of Perman’s logical step-by-step progression through the topic, something I find difficult to criticize. Still, I think the steps are a little bit smaller than they really need to be, making the book a little more intimidating and time-consuming than it ought to be.

On the plus side, there is nothing quite like this book. Perman teaches that true productivity is not getting more done, but getting the right things done—the things that serve others to the glory of God. He does not leave this as an idea for us to execute as we see fit, but provides a thoughtful, logical, do-able way of living so those first things really do remain first. This makes What’s Best Next a worthy investment of your money and, that most precious of resources, your time.

Responding to Criticism

Criticism is inevitable. At certain times we will all face another person’s analysis or rebuke of our behavior. The best kind of criticism comes from friends, from those who know us and love us best. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:5-6). In his little book True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts offers three tips for responding to criticism, and especially this kind of criticism—the kind that comes in the context of friendship, of iron sharpening iron.

Expect It

We should expect criticism. We should expect criticism because we are sinful, so far from the holiness God requires and so far from the holiness we desire. If anything we ought to be surprised that we receive so little criticism. We should also expect criticism because friendships—especially close friendships—invite it. Criticism may arise from a negative spirit, but it can also arise from love. Our best friends must have an open invitation to offer criticism of our lives. Is there no one in your life who offers you critical feedback? Then it may be that you have chased off your friends by responding poorly and pridefully in the past. Expect to be criticized from time to time, and give your friends an open invitation to do so.

Examine It

When we receive criticism, and especially when that criticism stings or seems outrageous, we need to examine it to see if it is true. It may be that our friends have a faulty perspective, but it may be that they have a better perspective that we do. George Orwell was right when he said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Humility admits that others may see what we cannot or will not see ourselves. Roberts says, “We should resist the instinctive temptation to defend ourselves or attack the critic, but rather consider whether there is truth in what is being said.” Prayerfully examine that criticism to see if it is true and fair.

Endure It

There will be times the criticism will be painful but true. In such times, we will need to endure that criticism as we respond to it by making changes to our lives. There are times the criticism will sting because we come to believe the criticism is unfair. In either case, we need to keep ourselves from responding in kind or lashing out at the one who criticized us. We must resist the temptation to gossip about that person or to sever the friendship. Far better, we must endure criticism just as Christ Jesus patiently endured all the criticism that was heaped upon him. As always, as ever, he is our model.

Series Introduction: I live in a small house. I work in a small office in a small church. For those reasons and others I will never have a huge library. When I add a book I almost always remove a book, a practice that allows me to focus on quality over quantity. Over the past couple of years I have focused on building a collection of commentaries that will include only the best volumes on each book of the Bible. I know when I’m in way over my head, so before I began I collected every good resource I could find that rated and reviewed commentaries. I studied them and then began my collection on the basis of what the experts told me. Since I did all of that work, and since I continue to keep up with the project, I thought it might be helpful to share the recommendations.

My focus is on newer commentaries (at least in part because most of the classics are now freely or cheaply available) and I am offering approximately 5 recommendations for each book of the Bible, alternating between the Old Testament and the New. Today I have turned to the experts to find what they say about Revelation.

Revelation

If ever there was a book whose commentaries will prove polarizing, Revelation must be the one. D.A. Carson says this in his commentaries on the commentaries: “Of the writing of books on Revelation there is no end: most generations produce far too many. It is a little-known fact that the Puritans, for instance, produced far more commentaries on Revelation than on any other book, most of them eminently forgettable and mercifully forgotten. Something similar could be said about most periods of church history, including our own, which seems to be particularly inventive.” Nevertheless, there are some great commentaries available.

BealeG.K. Beale – The Book of Revelation (New International Greek Testament Commentary). The consensus choice for the best commentary on the book of Revelation seems to be Beale’s. It is in the NIGTC series, so will require some knowledge of Greek. Carson says, “For students and well-trained pastors, the commentary that best combines comprehensiveness with biblical fidelity, exegesis with theology, and literary sensitivity with historical awareness, is that of G.K. Beale. While the prose can be dense, and while there are some areas the author could have explored in greater detail, his work is probably the best place to begin. (Amazon)

Grant R. Osborne – Revelation (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament). Osborne’s commentary is far simpler than Beale’s and his strength is in laying out the various interpretive options. Keith Mathison says, “he takes an eclectic approach with an emphasis on the futurist position. Osborne’s commentary is particularly helpful in providing historical background information on the people, places, and things mentioned in the biblical text. Like most commentators, Grant too easily dismisses the arguments for an early date of the book, but the commentary is still well worth consulting.” (Amazon)

Aune RevelationDavid E. Aune – Revelation 1-5; Revelation 6-16, and Revelation 17-22 (Word Biblical Commentary). Aune’s commentary is massive, coming in three volumes. Keith Mathison highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the work: “The strongest point of Aune’s commentary is the amount of information it contains regarding relevant extrabiblical literature that sheds light on the historical context. … The primary problem with this commentary, however, is that it loses sight of the forest for all the trees. Aune is very helpful with the details of the text and the details of extrabiblical literature. He is not as helpful when it comes to the point of understanding what the book means, its message and theology. He looks closely at the brush strokes, but he looks so closely that he can’t see the big picture.” (Amazon: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3)

Stephen S. Smalley – The Revelation to John. Stephen Smalley’s commentary receives high accolades from various commentators on the commentaries. Carson says it is “a competent piece of work, less daunting than Beale and less tendentious than Aune.” I had to look up “tendentious” and found he means it as a compliment: “expressing or intending to promote a particular cause or point of view, esp. a controversial one.” That makes it sound like quite a helpful work. (Amazon)

Mounce RevelationRobert Mounce – The Book of Revelation (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Mounce’s treatment of Revelation is now available in a revised edition (dated 2008). Carson praises his commentary as “a learned and well-written work that not only explains the text satisfactorily in most instances but also introduces the student to the best of the secondary literature” while saying that Mounce’s special strength is in “his appropriate and balanced use of both Jewish and Greco-Roman sources.” He also points out that this may be the best option for someone whose knowledge of Greek is minimal or nil. (Amazon)

James Hamilton’s contribution to the Preaching the Word series looks promising, but it has released too recently to have expert reviews (Amazon, Westminster Books).

Let me close with a couple of questions: Have you ever preached through Revelation? What are your preferred commentaries? Are there some you’ve found particularly helpful for preaching or devotional purposes?