One Thousand Gifts: a dare to live fully right where you are by Ann Voskamp“I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.”
At Christmastime, many people become consumed with gifts. The typical process begins with the creation of a list, whether mental or physical, of people we want (or are obligated) to give gifts to, along with perhaps gift ideas for those individuals. Then we strategize about when and where we will obtain said gifts and how much we intend to spend. Those of us who aren’t the shopper-types will probably take the easy way and do our shopping online and/or buy gift cards. There are always those one or more people on our list whom we either don’t spend much time around to know what they would like or need, or whom we can’t decide what to get because we assess he or she “already has everything they need.” Along with considering who we will give gifts to, while we may not admit it out loud, we look forward to whatever gifts we think we may receive when the time comes for exchanges.
The Scriptures tell us that every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Lights (James 1). God is the greatest gift-giver. He never stresses about what to give us, is never short on resources, and always gives us just what we need, even if we don’t realize it at the time. And He never gives out of duty or obligation, but of His own good pleasure and free will, with grace and love. In fact, every day all year long we receive gifts from God, many of which we never notice, acknowledge, or thank Him for.
When we recognize simple every day blessings as gifts from God, we are expressing our thanks to the source, the Giver of all good gifts. Rather than expecting, demanding, and reaching for what we think we want and need from God, Ann Voskamp explains that joy comes when we allow ourselves to be surprised by whatever He gives and to humbly accept whatever comes from His hand as a gift. “Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what He gives. We hunger for something more, something other,” says Voskamp.
I have a confession to make – I have somewhat mixed feelings about Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts. It has raised a bit of a stir and has been rather controversial, in spite of its popularity in some circles. I originally had intended to discuss it in my series on books I think everyone would be better off not reading, but that was before I read it and I decided it deserved an article to itself. I still can’t say that I recommend it, but there’s actually some good to be carefully filtered out of Voskamp’s book. However, her book takes some effort to push through, at least it did for me, and requires discernment.
In One Thousand Gifts, Voskamp explores the concept of eucharisteo, which means thanksgiving, a term which she uses over and over, ad nauseum, throughout the book. She describes how she came to realize that in order to live out her salvation and faith more fully, she needed to see God in everything and to express her gratitude to Him every day in everything. Based on a number of examples she saw in Scripture, she observes, “Eucharisteo – thanksgiving—always precedes the miracle.”
Voskamp observes that joy and contentment are derived through thanksgiving. She makes the connection between gratitude, grace, and joy, reminding us that the best way to defeat fear, guilt, worry, or a critical or complaining spirit is to give thanks. “As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible,” she says. Of course this isn’t a new concept, but it is one which many of us need to be reminded of often. Voskamp acknowledges that gratitude often doesn’t come naturally but is a learned habit that takes work to develop. “The habit of discontentment can only be driven out by hammering in one iron sharper. The sleek pin of gratitude.” And to combat her own negative attitudes and replace ingratitude with gratitude, Voskamp decided to start making a list of things she saw as “gifts,” – simple, common everyday things she already has as gifts from God that show His love.” She keeps a notebook in which she records things like:
Brown eggs fresh from the henhouse
Hair bows holding back curls
Boys jiggling blue Jell-O
The practice becomes almost an obsession for Ann, as she notices things she never had before, because, she explains, “that list of one thousand gifts has me always on the hunt for one more…and one more—to behold one more moment pregnant with wonder.” Before long, writing a list evolves into taking photos as well.
But how do we see the wonder and the beauty in the world here and now amidst our tedium, struggles, disappointments, even grief? How do we live fully and in the moment? Voskamp believes that the answer is giving thanks. And what about the hard, difficult, painful things that come into our lives? When tragedy strikes, the natural human reaction is to ask the questions, “Where was God?” and “Is He good?” Ann Voskamp observes that trouble started in the Garden of Eden as a result of Adam and Eve’s doubt of God’s good intentions and their discontent with what He had provided. As Voskamp explains it,
We look at the fruit and see only the material means to fill our emptiness. We don’t see the material world for what it is meant to be: as a means to communion with God…That which tears open our souls, those holes that splatter our sight, may actually become the thin, open places to see through the mess of this place to the heart-aching beauty beyond. To Him. To the God whom we endlessly crave.
While Voskamp quotes scripture throughout her book, she also quotes a lot of other sources, not all of which I would recommend or agree with. For example, Voskamp shares the following statement from the 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich:
The highest form of prayer is to the goodness of God…God only desires that our soul cling to him with all of its strength, in particular, that it clings to his goodness. For of all the things our minds can think about God, it is thinking upon his goodness that pleases him most and brings the most profit to our soul.
Ann seems to buy into this statement whole-heartedly, while I have to disagree. While thinking on God’s goodness may certainly encourage us and make us feel good and secure, I believe God’s preeminent attribute is His holiness. It’s the quality of God that is most emphasized in Scripture and it’s by reflecting on the holiness of God that we see who we truly are as sinners, and are humbled and brought to repentance.
Ann’s writings are much more mystical and experiential in tone than theological, and I believe this always requires handling with caution. The name of her blog is “A Holy Experience.” I have other concerns regarding One Thousand Gifts as well, which other reviewers have discussed (see below). For example, the last chapter opens with the statement, “I fly to Paris and discover how to make love to God.” In this final chapter, Voskamp explores the idea of knowing and communing intimately with God, and she uses sexual language and imagery in doing so. I found it rather disturbing and it made me very uncomfortable. On the No Compromise Radio program, Pastor Mike Abendroth briefly explains that loving God is not an erotic love, as Voskamp sometimes describes it. Yes, the Bible talks about the Church as the Bride of Christ, but Jesus is not my personal lover, and I agree with Pastor Abendroth that it’s inappropriate to present our relationship to God in those terms.
Content aside, I have to say I don’t enjoy Ann Voskamp’s style of writing – in fact, it downright got on my nerves at times (especially since I tend to be a grammar nazi), and I would just have to set the book aside. She likes to leave out articles (“dishes in sink”), use sentence fragments and run-ons, place adjectives after nouns (“plate of cheese grated”), and use adverbs incorrectly (“I brush his cheek soft”). Throughout the book, Voskamp uses odd metaphors and analogies (“I hang the socks. Across the rack, white flags of surrender.”) She insists on referring to her husband and children using cutesy epithets (“The Farmer”, “Little-One”, “Hope-Girl”, “Boy-Man”). One reviewer begins his discussion of Voskamp’s book by saying that if he were to write like her, it would sound something like this:
Sunlight streams through window. Shadows on keyboard. I sit here. I want to separate substance from style and deal only with substance as I contemplate a book. Before me lies One Thousand Gifts, a book written by Ann Voskamp, farmer’s wife, Canadian. Ann writes in person first, tense present, style poetic. Two hundred thirty-seven pages speak of angst personal and thankfulness God-given and quote Julian of Norwich, Annie Dillard, Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, Teilard de Chardin and others. The style I find difficult. Of that I will not speak. The substance is of concern. Of that I will speak. (Bob DeWaay, CIC Ministry)
Voskamp’s writing, in my opinion, is over-the-top and pretentious. It’s as though she’s trying really hard to be poetic and creative in the way she says things, and she goes on and on describing a single incident that I found myself just skimming to get through some passages. For example, she spends 17 pages – most of one chapter – describing an incident where she chases the moon in an effort to not only see and capture the beauty of it, but to see and worship the One who created it:
The moon has all my gaze, God-glory heavy and mounting. I kneel here, needing to know how a hung rock radiates – ethereal? This beauty is not natural, not of nature. This beauty is not merely form and color but God’s “shining garment’s hem”…Beauty Himself completes.
A little later she continues,
Whether I am conscious of it or not, any created thing of which I am amazed, it is the glimpse of His face to which I bow down. Do I have eyes to see it’s Him and not the thing?…A pantheist’s god is a passive god, but omnipresent God is Beauty who demands worship, passion, and the sacrifice of a life, for He owns it. Do I have eyes to see His face in all things so I’m not merely dazzled by the trinket…?
So this gives you a little taste of what her writing style is like – not really my cup of tea.
I’m sure there are people who were inspired by reading One Thousand Gifts, have decided to follow Ann’s example of recording “God’s gifts”, and that’s great for them. Keeping a gratitude journal isn’t a new concept; I’ve done it to some extent myself off and on over the years, but I’ve never really taken to the habit of writing in a journal on a daily or regular basis. But, forgive me if I sound cynical, it seems to me that stopping in the middle of activities throughout one’s day to write down the most trivial of things for which to thank God is a bit unrealistic and impractical. Starting or ending the day by adding to an ongoing list of things for which one is thankful seems to be a reasonable alternative to Ann’s moment-by-moment approach.
Now I’d like to offer some other options that I believe would be more profitable reading than One Thousand Gifts.
- If you want to read a book to help you learn to be more content and grateful, consider The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs.
- If you’re looking for something to help increase your passion for God and take pleasure in His ways and His Word, try Taste and See: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life by John Piper
- If you like reading religious poetry, pick up the poetry of George Herbert, or try The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions by Arthur Bennett.
I also encourage you to read some of the articles listed below which further address the concerns related to One Thousand Gifts.
- Romantic Panentheism: A Review of One Thousand Gifts (cicministry.org)
- A Commentary on One Thousand Gifts (www.solasisters.com)
- What Do Ann Voskamp, Beth Moore and Sarah Young Have In Common? (www.sunnyshell.org)
- Loving God is not Erotic (www.youtube.com)
- Ann Voskamp’s site (www.aholyexperience.com)