This book is about Ann Voskamp’s quest for self-fulfillment.
Married, with six healthy children, and living on a farm, she is not happy. And she wants to be happy. She wants to feel loved, known and understood. She wants to feel the beauty of life and joy in every moment.
We might question whether she has the right to expect such total harmony on this side of heaven, imperfect sinner that she is. We might say that she put her shoulder to the harness long ago, through marriage and child-bearing, and she ought to plough the furrow she has chosen. But Ann Voskamp does not question her right to happiness. Indeed, she cannot question it because her salvation depends upon it.
Voskamp’s understanding of the Christian faith is entirely sensory. When she feels happy, she believes that she is experiencing spiritual joy and that therefore she is right with God. If something interrupts her feelings of happiness, she must do whatever it takes to make herself feel happy again.
She feels happy when she sees pretty soap bubbles in the sink and when she hears the sound of a seat-belt clicking into place. She regards these sensory reactions as worthy of record in her gratitude journal (a glorifed version of counting blessings). However, when her sons have a fight during breakfast, she proves ineffectual. She chooses to suppress the anger she feels. She ignores the injured son, as he leaves the room. She does not find out what caused the argument. She offers no parental disapproval or discipline for the outburst. Instead she first finds her “happy place” and then counsels the remaining son to find his.
Voskamp’s message to her son is the message to all her readers: you can choose to be happy; you just need to make that choice.
This is a lie. She tempts us to think that we can reach a plane of tranquility, so as to transcend the pain of this world. Worst still, she tells us that this is what God wants us to do.
The Blessed Way
Voskamp writes about things which are familiar to Christians (joy, blessings, thanksgiving, faith) but she gives to these words her own meaning. She quotes the Apostle Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5.20:
Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
She takes this word “thanks” as the vindication of her blessings journal. She makes it validate and spiritualise her entries, even if they are as trivial as “526. New toothbrushes”. What she does not do is draw our attention to the context of the Apostle Paul’s words. We read in the verse before:
Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord:
These two verses, these two thoughts, are inextricably linked. When we sing the Psalms, then we are giving thanks to God. In the appointed action of singing God’s praise there is the appointed effect of expressing our gratitude to him.
Why does Voskamp not see this? Perhaps because the consequences would undermine her view of God.
The God of the Psalms is a God to be feared: the Lord of Glory. We read in Psalm 24:
Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (v.3-5)
Contrast this with One Thousand Gifts. When Voskamp feels happy and goes into a trance of joy, she pronounces that she ought to take off her shoes because she is on holy ground. When her soul feels elevated she describes herself as being transfigured. When she wants to underline the power of being thankful, she likens herself to Christ and says that by giving thanks we too may perform miracles.
The Psalms leave us humbled by the Almighty power of God and allow us to praise him in an appropriate manner. This brazen woman not only touches the altar, but sits on it and swings her legs with a coy smile. Then she encourages others to do the same.
It is not as though the Scriptures are silent on what makes us truly blessed. We need look no further than Psalm 1:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. (v.1-2)
Likewise, in Psalm 119 we learn that the blessed man is the one who is undefiled in the way and walks in the law of the Lord. The 175 verses that follow in that Psalm elaborate on this theme: the Psalmist finds joy in keeping God’s commandments.
(The antinomian reader now raises a palm to say, “No!” which is ironic, since the same antinomian probably loves authors like Ann Voskamp who says, “Be happy,” and the Harris twins who say, “Do hard things,” thus proving that such a person is not against all laws, only against God’s laws.)
Voskamp never sets out obedience to God as the path of blessing and joy for Christians of every generation in history. (Note, not the path to happiness, for that is never promised in this life.) Neither does she see how the Psalmist’s words find fruition in the words of the Lord Jesus:
If ye love me, keep my commandments. (John 14.15)
If we love Jesus? If we love Jesus?
By the time we have finished One Thousand Gifts we are almost ready to believe that the whole world was created for the fulfillment and happiness of one woman, whom God loves. She does not need to keep commandments. She has her own unique way of showing her love to God - a God who does not judge, does not rule or command, a God to whom we, like Ann, may pay homage by photographing slices of mozarella cheese in a barn.
For Pity’s Sake
Voskamp could have written her book in a clear and coherent manner. She could have explained that she was a depressed, overworked mother who tried to shake herself awake to the beauty of life; that she set out to see the good things in life and to appreciate what she has. She could have given a few examples and concluded by recommending it to others who find themselves blue. That is the extent and limit of her theological reasoning for what she actually says and it is the sum total of what she does. It is harmless enough in such a guise.
The fact that she adopts another style, a style that is verbose and swamped in unnecessary descriptions, is no accident. Like the godless artists of the early 20th century, she uses her subjective experience as a means of determining objective truth. (She demonstrates her agreement with this in her Paris descriptions, finding religious certainty through works of art.) And she forces the reader to adopt the same attitude. Her book overloads the senses, making us see, smell, hear, taste and touch everything about her world. The portrait is not rich in detail, so much as deliberate in its strokes. She is trying to make the reader feel that he (or more likely she) is really there.
Why, I asked myself halfway through, does the reader not revolt against this “Miss Perfect” presentation? After all, in the midst of her many descriptions of meals, we are shown that she’s a confident cook. In between her expressions of humility as a mother, she lets us know that the children are not just being homeschooled but learning Latin. She seems to have everything and yet she does nothing but complain about her life! Why do we, the readers, not revolt against this?
She begins the book with three emotional scenes: the death of her sister, the deaths of her nephews and the fear of her own death.
The heavy introspection on these events disarms the reader right from the start. Voskamp parades herself in sackcloth and ashes in order to lay the burden of pity on our shoulders. We are made to feel that she really deserves happiness. God owes her.
It’s not subtle and, as an idea, it is never completed. At the end of her journey, she is not better able to cope with death than she was before. Consider how she copes with illness.
Ann Voskamp visits a hospital with her son. She spends the tedious and fretful sit in the waiting room trying to see the beauty in the ugly injuries around her.
This is sick. And I’ll say it again. Sick.
Our Saviour healed people. He did not say to them, “No, stay as you are. I find your blindness quite beguiling.” Or, “Lost a leg? Well, let’s be happy about that because I think you’re beautiful all mutilated like that.” Or, “I can see the beauty in you anyway. Hobble off.”
Voskamp’s need to feel happy has distorted any sense she had regarding how we - as humans - respond to other people’s problems and pain.
But didn’t she do this from the very first page, with her foul, ugly description of her own birth? Did she not do the same again by her continual blood-letting regarding her sister? Does she not keep picturing Christ not as the glorified King of Kings and Lord of Lords but as a mere man, with blood pouring from his punctured limbs?
It may seem a minor point of theology to assert that goodness and beauty belong together, and wickedness and ugliness likewise. But it is not minor when someone like Voskamp comes along and states that there is beauty in other people’s pain and she finds joy and spiritual fulfillment in the suffering of others.
Another example of her warped perspective would be the case of the mission trip to Canada, when she and the young people find themselves with a vocal homeless man, whose problems are legion. Voskamp does nothing. Perhaps it is as much as most could do for such a man, especially in the circumstances. But having done nothing, most of us would not leave the scene in ecstasy that we had imparted grace by our mere presence. Most of us would be disturbed by the man’s state and torn by questions as to how someone reaches that condition and how they can possibly recover. No. Ann Voskamp is thrilled.
This is not godliness. The woman has frozen her emotions in order to choose to be happy all the time. The effect is that she has completely lost touch with reality.
In the 17th century, some nuns wanted to sing the popular songs of the day. They were forbidden to do so, as the romantic lyrics were thought inappropriate to their condition in life. So a man called Francois Berthod republished the books, changing the lyrics to address the same romantic thoughts towards Jesus Christ. The books proved very popular and they tie up well with the Roman Catholic idea of each nun being married to Christ.
Several centuries earlier Europe was plagued by mystics, notably Catherine of Siena, a woman of considerable skill in getting men to do exactly what she wanted. She too had visions and sensory reactions. She used her prestige as a religious figure to rule men.
Ann Voskamp walks in the legacy of these relics. She combines an appearance of piety with a need to control. Consider this from page 130 of One Thousand Gifts:
If I am rejecting the joy that is hidden somewhere deep in this moment - am I not ultimately rejecting God? Whenever I am blind to joy’s well, isn’t it because I don’t believe in God’s care? That God cares enough about me to always offer me joy’s water, wherever I am, regardless of circumstance. But if I don’t believe God cares, if I don’t want or seek the joy He definitely offers somewhere in this moment - I don’t want God.
This is not a soliloquy. This is damnable manipulation. What sleight of hand it is to say to a weaker Christian: if you’re not looking for the joy in every moment (like Voskamp), then your profession of faith is meaningless.
She may call me blasphemer for disagreeing, but I call this cruel heresy. She lays a burden on others that God does not want to be there. God knows that 6 days out of 7 we are to work, and while our minds may turn to him during our work, few - very few - have the capacity to reflect upon him every moment. Does this make our faith void?
God knows that we have valleys and mountains in our daily walk. Did not James tell us what to do when we are afflicted as well as when we are merry? How dare Voskamp overturn this liberty? And what for? To unleash a world of affectation - false smiles to one another, false praise to ourselves, false thanks to God.
Voskamp’s idea of joy is to strain life through a sieve and, when reality has been trapped like sludge, to drink the clear water with a wide and greedy smile. That sludge includes other people’s problems - the sorts of things she has to find beautiful in order to live without pain.
This is not the Christian way.
If we care about other people’s problems then we will not be happy for long. We will have to weep with those who weep - not to feed on their suffering like a vampire, but to share problems in love and catch the hands of those who are falling.
How can we do this if we are all chasing the moon across a field of wheat to get drunk on beauty in order to feel alive and saved?
The answer is that we cannot.
Ann Voskamp falls into the habit of extrapolating from her own experience to God’s nature. This is as great as heresy as it is possible to imagine. But what if God was really like Ann Voskamp? What would he say to this world?
“Ah, bless. I know they’re dirty but I can see the beauty in them. Yes, there’s that little Kinsey chap buggering children in the name of science. Try to see the beauty, try to see the beauty. Naughty little doctors are injecting those children with radioactive material to see what happens - what will they think of next? Try to see the beauty, try to see the beauty. What’s that I hear? Another illegal war to make more money? Boys will be boys! Try to see the beauty, try to see the beauty.”
In order to achieve happiness through our senses, to see nothing but beauty in this life, we must first blind ourselves to the truth.