Ann Voskamp writes this bestselling book from an educational background in psychology and as a mother of six and farmer’s wife. But her life has been shaped largely by the accidental death of her sister when the author was four (pp. 10-13). Whether this tragedy was the main cause for Voskamp’s other emotional and spiritual problems can’t be determined, but we witness throughout One Thousand Gifts the tortured soul of one trying to find her way in life. She admits to periods of cutting herself, taking medication for depression, fear, anxiety attacks, and agoraphobia (pp. 144-149). As is often the case, such emotional struggles led her to explore psychological theories which show up in her belief that she has rejected herself (p. 205), and in numerous statements such as, “The only way to fight a feeling is with a feeling” (p. 136) and, “It’s impossible to give thanks and simultaneously feel fear” (p. 203).
Voskamp does not find what she is looking for in psychology and medication. She knows what she ultimately needs is found only in God but how does she reach God in the midst of the mundane and the everyday issues and struggles that she faces (pp. 124-125, 168, 174)? As she examines her life more closely she determines that what she lacks is the experience of joy, which she describes as her holy grail (p. 32). And joy is experienced, she decides, through learning to be thankful (p. 35). Toward this end Voskamp resolves to find joy, and overcome her sorrows, by becoming a grateful person through the means of a list containing 1000 things for which she is thankful (pp. 44-45, hence the title of the book).
On the positive side, Voskamp is on target in her recognition of the ingratitude that resides in the hearts of all of us. It is not our natural tendency to be appreciative although of course some are more sanguine than others. The overall theme of the book—that we learn to be more thankful—should be welcomed by all. One Thousand Gifts offers several helpful insights, for example: “The rent in the canvas of our life backdrop, the losses that puncture our world, our own emptiness, might actually become places to see. To see through to God” (p. 22) and, “Without God’s Word as a lens, the world warps” (p. 91) and, “Every time I surrender to stress, aren’t I advertising the unreliability of God?” (p. 151) and, “All God makes is good. Can it be that that which seems to oppose the will of God actually is used of Him to accomplish the will of God?” (p. 88). These thoughts are worth careful reflection.
However, Voskamp goes astray early in the book by redefining original sin as that of ingratitude (p. 15) rather than willful rebelliousness against the will of God as taught in Scripture. As a result salvation is obtained not by faith alone, as the Bible states (Eph 2:8-9), but by faith plus thanksgiving. “Jesus,” we are assured, “counts thanksgiving as integral in a faith that saves” (p. 39). The book virtually ends on this note. The author writes, “What that first and catastrophic sin of ingratitude ruptured…union…can be repaired by exact inverse of the Garden: lifestyle gratitude …” (p. 220). In the last quote Voskamp is not only speaking of salvation but mystical union as well, a subject I will return to in a moment.
The tragedy is that by missing the biblical truth concerning both original sin and personal sin Voskamp is askew on much of her approach to the Christian life. She sees the Christian life as chasing after joy through the means of thanksgiving. But the Christian life is that of following Christ, joy and thanksgiving are both by-products and steps of obedience. Whenever and whatever we center our lives around besides Christ leads us astray. Thanksgiving and joy are not big enough to sustain us. In addition, when they become ultimate in our lives they actually become idols in our hearts. Only Christ is to have that central place. Because Voskamp does not understand this she wraps her life around thanksgiving instead of Christ. Not only does she misunderstand the fall of man and salvation but she also sees thanksgiving as having the power to raise the dead (p. 35), as the key to unlocking the mystery of life (p. 47), as giving the ability to shut the mouth of lions (pp. 60-61), as the means of overcoming sin (pp. 126, 136), as the way we “enter into God” (p. 134), as the core of the faith (p. 153), and as the producer of trust (p. 153). She goes so far as to say several times that “eucharisteo [or thanksgiving] always, always precedes the miracle” (pp. 72-73). Biblically all of these gifts flow from Christ or the Holy Spirit, not from an act of gratefulness. Thanksgiving is a response to what Christ has done, not a means to the “Christ-life.”
Having missed the centrality of Christ, having replaced Him with the pursuit of joy through thanksgiving, Voskamp must next find an instrument capable of guiding her toward her goal. Scripture should be that instrument but while the author occasionally references the Bible she seldom exegetes it properly (e.g. pp. 76, 138, 196). Instead her guides are liberal theologians such as Albert Schweitzer (pp. 33-34), Roman Catholic scholars such as Thomas Aquinas (p. 99), G.K. Chesterton (p. 31), Erasmus (p. 49), and Alexander Schmemann (pp. 35, 39, 53), Jewish rabbis (p. 225), and C. S. Lewis (p. 55). But primarily she turns to Catholic and Orthodox mystics. She quotes a number of these:
Simone Weil (p. 9), Julian of Norwich (pp. 60-61, 89), John of Avila (p. 79), Teresa of Avila (pp. 98, 218), Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (p. 102), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pp. 122, 125), Brennan Manning (p. 153), Mother Teresa (p. 194), Rabindranath Tagore (p. 200), Henri Nouwen (p. 205), Brother Lawrence (p. 210), and Francis de Sales (p. 220).
It is obvious throughout the book that she has been influenced by the mystics as she references “thin places” (p. 22) which supposedly are localities where God is nearer than others, simplicity (pp. 67-69, 74, 77, 127), and smelling the scent of God (pp. 215, 219). Most disturbing of all is adopting the erotic/romantic language of the ancient mystics (pp. 119, 161, 201, 206, 211, 213, 216-218, 227). Some examples include: making love to God (pp. 201, 216) and, consummation with God (p. 211). Here is an extended quote:
This is what His love means. I want it: union…I want to touch the paint [referring to the painting “Supper at Emmaus” while visiting Paris]. I want to run my fingertips across oils, let the colors saturate my skin, let them run into my blood. I want to be in the painting…the painting to be in me. I want to be in God and God to be in me, to exchange love and blessings and caresses…I raise my hand slightly, finger imperceptibly the air before the canvas and this is intercourse disrobed of its connotations, pure and unadulterated: a passing between, a connection, a communicating, an exchange, between tender Bridegroom and His bride” (pp. 217-218).
The last line of the book is “I feel His caress” (p. 227). Reading about making love to God and feeling His caresses is inappropriate, even blasphemous. However, for those familiar with ancient mystical literature this is commonplace. Voskamp is steeped in the mystics and it shows throughout the book.
It is not until the last chapter that she actually reveals where her misunderstanding of thanksgiving has taken her. She writes, “Endless thanksgiving, eucharisteo, had opened me to this, the way of the fullest life” (p. 210). And what is the life she speaks of? It is full-blown Catholic mysticism complete with its three standard steps of purgation, illumination and union (pp. 208-210). It is this “mystical love union” (p. 213) that Voskamp seeks, and she believes the mystics have paved the way for her. One Thousand Gifts is an invitation for others to follow her into this world of mysticism.
It is sad and amazing how small errors can lead to catastrophic consequences. Voskamp begins with a misunderstanding of joy, seeking a childlike experience of happiness (p. 166), even an admiration for a Peter Pan existence (p. 165), twisting sin, salvation and Christian living around the wrong thing (thanksgiving instead of Christ), turning to false teachers (mystics and psychology) to learn the way forward and what you have is a bestseller that will lead its readers away from Christ and biblical Christianity. I feel compassion for Voskamp. I believe she truly wants to be right before God, but she is searching for answers in the wrong places. Additionally, she is making herself a teacher of others and that carries further repercussions (James 3:1).