A Q and A between On Faith’s Sally Quinn and Joel Osteen, the bestelling Christian author and pastor of Lakewood Church.
Quinn: Where were you when you found out about 9/11?
Osteen: Well I was at my house, and I was getting prepared to work on my message for that weekend and my brother called and said to turn on the news, that something was happening. I walked out of my study and turned it on and that’s when I saw the building was on fire and Victoria [Osteen’s wife], she immediately went down to the school and picked up our son. Something said to her, “You know, go get yours kids.” We had one son in school at that point, our daughter was still very small but she went and got them out of the school and just --really before anybody else. She just said “We gotta go.” Anyway, that’s where I was.
Quinn: What were your first reactions to it? First, as a person and then as a pastor?
Osteen: You know my first reaction was shock and disbelief that somebody would do something like that. It seemed surreal. I just … of course I was younger obviously… I don’t know. I think it was probably just disbelief.
As a pastor, I was just getting started and it just you know, it was hard to explain. It still is today. I think God gives every one of us our own will and unfortunately some people choose to do evil things with it. So, there’s a lot of things that don’t make sense but we just continue to give people faith.
Quinn: But you know, in your role as a pastor, obliviously people were coming to you and asking you for comfort and solace. And of course everybody wants explanations --why did God let this happen? How did you respond to that then and how do you respond to that now?
Osteen: Well, I respond to it now with something like this: We don’t understand everything that happens. Faith is about trusting God when you have unanswered questions. It doesn’t take a lot of faith if you have everything figured out. So it’s just one of those things that you can’t explain but we can come back to the bigger picture of who God is, what I believe anyway: that God is good, God is for us, and that even in the difficult times God gives us the strength to make it through. And that’s probably how I comforted most people because we knew people that were affected by it with loss and we just say, “God’s got you in the palm of his hand.” You gotta believe and trust.
Quinn: What do you think the impact of 9/11 was on this country? In many ways --spiritually, psychologically, emotionally?
Osteen: I saw how it drew us closer together as a nation. I saw how it drew people to their faith, it turned people to their faith I think is a better word. Our crowds were immediately bigger. People realized that when there’s something devastating like that you have to have somewhere to turn to. You can’t necessarily turn to your job or your friends. You need to something higher. So I think it drew us closer together.
I think it helped prioritize things for people in their lives in terms of people who were just working to make a living at all costs and not taking time for what’s really important --their family, and so on. It taught me to value each day as a gift, more. You don’t know that you’re going to have tomorrow. I feel like that’s what it taught us as a nation.
Quinn: Do you think that we have changed for the better or did it diminish us in some way?
Osteen: It’s a hard thing because I don’t want anything like that to happen again but I think it, again, when something shocks you to your core you figure out what’s important. A lot of people did turn to their faith. They got their priorities in order, it seemed to me. In New York --and I don’t live there but when I went back --it was kinder, it was warmer, there weren’t as many horns honking. I mean, that was my opinion. We prioritized things.
Quinn: For you in your own personal faith, how did 9/11 affect that? Did you feel somehow more questioning or did you feel stronger?
Osteen: It gave me a greater resolve. It also gave me a bigger understanding of how much I don’t know about God. It let me know that there’s a lot of things that we don’t understand and I think the way that I’ve evolved as I’ve done this for the last twelve years since my dad died is. I’ve learned to trust a whole lot more. I believe that God’s directing our steps, that he has us in the palm of his hand.
The Scriptures say “Nothing can snatch us away before our time.” So you know, in dealing with people that, you know, someone lost a 16 year old son. I mean, that’s all you can tell them. “You know what, I don’t have the answer but I believe that nothing snatched him out of God’s hand. I believe he fulfilled his purpose.” So it’s a deeper sense of trust and again to have a resolve to say no matter what happens, nothing’s going to shake my faith. I’m going to stay strong and I’m going to believe.
Quinn : Obviously the terrorists were Muslim and then a lot of people sort of became anti-Muslim in this country because of that. You know, there are over a billion Muslims in the world and most of them are peace-loving. What do you say to your parishioners and people you speak to when they try to blame Islam for this and focus in on that as sort of the source of evil?
Osteen: I always encourage them that this is a small group of people that are way off base. It’s not one religion; you can’t define them all as a whole.
As you said, there’s so many kind loving people in every faith and every different religion so [my message has been] just been real strong and real broad. I sold millions of book over in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country. The people are hungry, we may not see eye to eye on everything. I a very strong about “You can’t look at one group and say something about everybody in that group.” I’ve spent too much time in India with my father and the Hindus and the Muslims were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Again, our faith is not the same but I could tell you they would do anything in the world for me.
Sally: You’ve said your ministry is really about focusing on the goodness of God instead of sin. Where would you put this incident -9/11-in terms of focusing on the goodness of God?
Osteen: Well, I’d come back to seeing this in a positive light in that God gives us strength to get us through. God is always in our most difficult times. You know when you’re in those tragedies we should not run from God --you run to God. Even when you don’t understand it, God is in control.
A big part of my message is that I always believe that God will bring you out better than you were before. Obviously some people were killed and hopefully they went to heaven to be with the Lord but even for us behind I do think you’ll come through it stronger, with a greater sense of confidence if you trust God. He’ll bring you out better.
Osteen’s upcoming book is Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week.
More On Faith and 9/11:
Desmond Tutu: Our post-9/11 failures
Tony Blair: Remaking the world after 9/11
Sam Harris: 9/11 demands intellectual honesty
Joel Osteen: Faith is trusting God
Thomas Monson: Rebuilding our souls
T.D. Jakes: Spirituality after the attack
Feisal Abdul Rauf: Radical Islam on its way out
Donald Wuerl: Peace begins internally
Katharine Jefferts Schori: Live the memorial
Mark Driscoll: Death and the hope of resurrection
Karen Armstrong: Unite through compassion
Deepak Chopra: Divided hearts, divided world
Yasir Qadhi: Americans still don’t know Islam