With the holidays rolling around again, especially Thanksgiving, the topic of gratitude is a hot topic. My Facebook feed is already flooded by posts and book recommendations on gratitude. One book in particular took the market by storm three years ago and its author has continued to hold a steady and devout following ever since. That book is “One Thousand Gifts” by Ann Voskamp. I published a review of it here before my blog went public and I thought it would be an appropriate time to repost it.
Written in 2013
Even after over two years, I still don’t know how to rate this book. There were things I loved about the book and there were things that really disturbed me about the book. Even the writing style has a love/hate relationship with me. Her quasi-poetic style is unique, fresh, contemplative and often leaves you gasping at its beauty but at times borders upon the absurd and goes out of its way to be abstruse, frustrating my need for clarity and precision.
I appreciated Mrs. Voskamp’s focus on the glory of God and recognizing how everything in this world points to Him, and I commend her for her handling of God’s complete sovereignty in suffering. The book opens with the graphic death of her small sister, the beginning of the author’s wrestlings with the cause and purpose of evil.
In her years of a young mother, her son, Levi, caught his hand in a fan. Mrs. Voskamp’s mother, quick on the scene after hearing of the accident, was relieved when her daughter came home from the ER and told her that her grandson’s hand was whole.
Mrs. Voskamp writes:
“Her tension lines loosen, and she leans into me, laying her hand firm on my shoulder and she whispers it sure. “God’s grace,” she whispers. “God’s grace.” She pats my shoulder and I feel her relief…and something dark…angry…ugly.
I guide Levi into the house, one arm around, one shielding his wrappings. And a slippery question serpentines up me, nearly shakes my tongue with its words but I refuse it. Refuse the opening of lips to the wondering. But the words still come quiet, hard and black, squeezing me tight.
And if his hand had been right sheared off?
What of God’s grace then?
Can I ask that question?” [page 81]
In the closing pages of the book she comes to realize that her little sister’s death was not something God passively “allowed” but actually ordained (though He, of course, is never the author of sin) and that this realization is her only true source of comfort. Mrs. Voskamp took a lot of heat for that position but has stood by it and I feel “proud of her” for it. She called this the “hard eucharisteo”, difficult thanksgiving.
“…the moment opens unexpectedly.” Mrs. Voskamp writes, fingering a cd album her daughter left on the counter. “I’m in the cemetery kneeling, tracing the only five letters carved deep in that slab of granite laid down in the dirt.
“A-I-M-E-E.” Loved one.
I remember her silken hair. I still don’t know why He took her. I don’t know why her children don’t run free on spring days with mine, laugh with my sister’s. Don”t know why my parents’ hearts were left to weep, eroding all away. Though I cry, this I know: God is always good and I am always loved and eucharisteo has made me my truest self, “full of grace” Doesn’t eucharisteo rename all God’s children their truest name:
“Loved one.”” [pp. 225-226]
Reviews abound that extol the virtues of her book so I don’t feel the need to repeat them in-depth here. My purpose is to shed light on some issues that I’ve observed are being mostly overlooked. The handful of critical reviews I’ve read seem to miss the point, loudly condemning things which I think they’ve misunderstood and wrongly condemned, while overlooking the significant theological errors that do undergird the book.
Let me emphasize that I’ve no doubt that Mrs. Voskamp is a sister in Christ but that does not eliminate our need for discernment.
Here are the areas where I’m concerned:
A pan-theist believes nature is divine; a pan-en-theist believes the divine is omnisciently present IN NATURE, that somehow, God is in the moon, in the bubble–that these carry words from God. Both find their roots in New Age philosophy. God created nature, nature points to its creator but God is not “in” those things, they do not share his essence, God does not communicate through nature . Mrs. Voskamp is dead-on when she says that we must have “Scripture glasses, Biblical lens” to interpret nature but then she goes on to explain the Bible as a way to see God’s “heart” in nature rather than seeing nature as something that points us back to scripture where we see God’s heart in the living Word. (Page 86: “every moment is a message from the Word-God who can’t stop writing His heart.”) and most troubling is her encounter with God-in-the-moon. (Page 115, 118: “Has His love lured me out here to really save me? I sit up in the wheat stubble, drawn. That He would care to save. Moon face glows. We are head to head. I am bare; He is bare. All Eye sees me…It’s dawning, my full moon rising. I was lost but know I am found again” .)
The moon cannot save. The moon does not reveal God exhaustively. God’s “heart” is not revealed in the moon. The moon cannot communicate the salvation found in Christ, the WORD made flesh, revealed in “pages ink-brushed” to mimic Mrs. Voskamp’s style. The moon declares “God is there” and “He is a wonderful Creator” and even the curse of sin but nothing more.
For a deeper analysis of the panentheism and other New Age ideas throughout the book, I recommend this article. It is worth your time. It’s written by a reformed pastor (who actually READ the book), he goes line by line through some of the things Mrs. Voskamp says and explains its implications. This article helped me identify the strong New Age influence in the book and the implications of it.
Her error is not one of malice but one of confusion: she confuses special revelation with general revelation; saving knowledge with knowledge of God’s existence, minimizing God’s transcendence for the sake of His immanence.
ECCLESIOLOGY, (the doctrine of the church.)
Though again, I’ve no doubt that Mrs. Voskamp is a devoted and beloved church member her ideas are potentially harmful to the local church. In the “empty to fill” chapter she talks about the “cycle of grace”, we receive, therefore we give. This would be a great time to talk about how we are now adopted into the family of God and how we serve through the context of the home AND the local church.
But that’s not what Mrs. Voskamp does. She describes a gathering of women partaking in “holy communion” but she does not identify this meeting as a local CHURCH meeting (one of the women was her pastor’s wife, but that does not make it a church meeting). And if I can have complete union with Christ in an art museum why would I need to be in church with people who get on my nerves? Why would I need the church if I can have complete union with Christ every day on my own? (1 John 2:10-11) Mrs. Voskamp even seems to contradict her “beauty of everyday home-life” philosophy by emphasizing Para-church ministries at the end of her journey, failing to make any reference to her local church.
The local church is vital to our union with Christ and communion with Christ cannot be experienced apart from His body. Though all Christians are members of the greater, universal church, the universal church finds its expression in local bodies. (I highly recommend Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile’s book “What is a Healthy Church Member). Para-church ministries have their place but they should not substitute for involvement in the local church.
Also check out my review of “Denominations or Associations?”
SERVING GOD WHERE YOU ARE
In the book “God at Work”, Gene Edward Veith Jr. talks about the doctrine of vocation. God IS hidden in the sink filled with dirty dishes but not because he is somehow IN those dishes but because THROUGH those dirty dishes God fed His children and He did it through OUR hands-isn’t that amazing? There is great meaning and purpose in the everyday things that we do but not in the way Mrs. Voskamp explains it.
ALREADY BUT NOT YET
Where we have a problem is that Mrs. Voskamp acts like this perfect union with Christ is actually attainable here on earth if you just go to the right place, stand by the right painting and have the right feelings. I take my stand beside historic Christianity and all the Minor Prophets and say that the use of sexual imagery in and of itself to metaphorically describe union with Christ is profoundly biblical–to criticize the imagery off-hand is to be ignorant of the Bible’s own usage of sexual imagery to describe God’s union with Israel, the seed of the Church. It’s the context, the experiential drive, individualistic outlook and earthly finality of Ann Voskamp’s sexual imagery that is problematic.
Mrs. Voskamp seems to confuse the “already…and not yet” truth of the Christian life. Yes, we are unified with Christ the day our hearts are regenerated but we are not yet glorified. That union is incomplete. Though Mrs. Voskamp has said on her website that she’s not saying there are two types of Christians (the average Christians and the Super-Christians who have had this great, unifying experience) that is essentially what she is conveying, intentionally or not. On her flight to Paris, Mrs. Voskamp remarks on feeling incomplete. Something was still missing from her spiritual journey. An encounter with God in Paris gave her the missing piece, implying that the GOSPEL was insufficient, that she needed an experience to proceed. And furthermore, this mystical union with Christ was obtained OUTSIDE OF CHRIST’S BRIDE. It’s something she obtains by herself–literally, physically, removed from the body of Christ expressed in her local church.
“EUCHARISTEO ALWAYS PRECEDES THE MIRACLE”
I read an article on gratitude that uses the same parable of the 10 lepers as Mrs. Voskamp but there is a subtle difference in their interpretations.
Gratitude, “Eucharisteo” is evidence of a changed heart not the condition required for one. Yes, Christ gave thanks before performing miracles but that’s not a one-for-one correlation with us because WE are not Christ, displaying our divinity through miracles. All ten lepers received physical healing but only one received a new heart. Eucharisteo always FOLLOWS the miracle when it comes to sinful human beings.
The biggest miracle is that through Christ, we BECOME a grateful people–more every day, growing in grace. God both commands us to “be thankful always” and opens our eyes, changes our hearts so that we may say with the Psalmist “Your mercies are new every morning”, giving us the desires themselves. It’s not either/or–it’s ALL grace. Always “further up and further in”, gaining a greater love and appreciation for God’s character as we discover our own ingratitude, our own self-reliance. The command is not “work hard to be more grateful” but “meditate on Christ and God’s goodness” and then and only then will true gratitude follow.
GOD IS IN THE PRESENT
We usually think of “do this in remembrance of me” as a remembrance of a past event only (atonement) but it’s not only that, but a remembrance of Christ Past, Present AND Future. “To proclaim Christ’s death until He returns”. I am reminded of Mrs. Voskamp’s emphasis on “God is in the present”.
I have a New Age relative who told me about a study that was eerily similar to what Mrs. Voskamp said. According to this study a person is closest to God when they are living entirely in the present–when they’re so consumed with their present activities that they don’t have a thought for the future. This is a New Age concept.
The Bible tells us to engage the world around us and not to fret about the future but nowhere does the Bible tell us to “live” only in the present. We are to live with the ever-present reality of a savior who has not yet returned, of a kingdom that has not yet been fully established. Our eyes should be firmly set on the “glory that is to come”; it is only then that we can see clearly the meaning and purpose behind the things around us.
Raising children is significant not because God’s essence is somehow the essence of those present-focused moments but because God is working through the labors of a mother to accomplish something greater…in the future. In the kingdom that is to come.
We remember Christ. Past. Present. And Future. To Him be the glory.
FEELINGS AND TRUTH
The other point of contention with Mrs. Voskamp’s book is its high emotional appeal and experience-driven outlook. We are called to love and obey God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, that is with our whole person, with both our minds and emotions. Throughout “One Thousand Gifts”, Mrs. Voskamp wrestles with this, even the very type of writing she chooses reflects this, for “poetry is the language of experience”.
Theology is not meant to be only an intellectual exercise. What we believe should effect not only how we think but how we feel; joy is the fruit of loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. To fully obey the command, we’ve got to–I love her phrase–“put flesh on it.” In another place she writes: “I know the theological answers, but do my blood and my pulse?” If anything, that’s what would I say “One Thousand Gifts” is about.
This was probably the most striking paragraph in the book for me:
“I know all our days are struggle and warfare (Job 14:14) and that the spirit combat to spirit combat I endlessly wage with Satan in this ferocious thrash for joy. He sneers at all the things that have gone mad in this sin-drunk world, and I gasp to say God is good. The liar defiantly scrawls his graffiti across God’s glory, and I heave to enjoy God…and Satan strangles, and I whiten knuckles to grasp real truth and fix that beast to the floor.” [p.90]
This is the essence of the Christian walk: believing the truth about God even when what we see and what we feel contradicts that truth.
However, in another chapter Mrs. Voskamp tells her son that the only way to fight feelings is with feelings and the book is filled with her own attempts at fighting feelings with feelings as she chases the moon, revels in soap bubbles and flies off to Paris in the final, climatic chapter. I can’t help but find her inconsistency baffling. Our hearts will follow our minds, what we believe with our minds we will come to believe and love with our hearts. We don’t have to seek “mountain-top” experiences–we seek the truth that’s found in God’s Word. This is an unfortunate strain of anti-intellectualism.
For further study on the relationship of the mind and the emotions, I highly recommend “Feelings and Faith” by Brian Borgman.
I find much that is inconclusive. Though a skillful writer, Mrs. Voskamp appears to contradict herself many times throughout the book. Because the book is describing a journey, perhaps this depicts changing in her thinking but it is difficult to say with any certainty and if so, they don’t change in the right direction but lean heavier on romanticism and sensual experiences to reach God instead of mining the truth of God’s Word. I don’t condemn the book as many do (though they do so with good reason) because I see much that is true and lovely in it, but at the same time I strongly urge discernment.
I am convinced, and I say this often, that