It’s been said that a person who laughs easily has learned to not take herself too seriously. I can only assume that a person who makes others laugh easily too has gotten a double portion of this gift. Jen Hatmaker, a writer and speaker, carries the double portion. In her new book, Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life, Hatmaker masterfully wields her trademark deprecating humor to help her readers take both themselves and her less seriously.
Hatmaker invites us into the mess of her life and the moxie, as she calls it, of finding delight in the midst of the mess. She introduces moxie:
We will endure discouragement, heartbreak, failure, and suffering. All of us. And more than once. And in more than one category. And in more than one season. But we are the very same folks who can experience triumph, perseverance, joy, and rebirth. More than once. And in more than one category. And in more than one season. And that? That is moxie.
The book is a compilation of short chapters, how-tos, and been-there-done-thats. You cannot not chuckle along with her stories about grocery shopping for five kids, dinner conversations at the Hatmaker house, and her thoughts on exercise:
The problem is, I prefer watching Netflix and eating snacks. This is fundamentally superior to sweating and breathing hard. You get to watch shows and arrange your remote controls on one side and your chips and dips on the others. If your cell phone is within reach, you don’t even have to get up to parent. You can call your kids from the couch like a true modern mom. This is one million times better than getting a side stitch during Body Pump while breathing in everyone’s crotch sweat. I don’t even know why I have to explain this.
Hatmaker explains the ins and outs and ups and downs of life, saying the things everyone else is thinking. She points at the elephant in the room and asks if it can do tricks too. Can we take the awkward, difficult, messy things in life and make something good out of them? The answer, curious reader, is yes. Hatmaker says yes we can.
Scripture and Experience
In her chapter “Sanctuary,” Hatmaker explores the mess we often experience in the life of the church. She confesses her “history with the church is complicated,” citing her family’s experiences, her friends’, and her own:
Most ministries and sermons and language and structures revolve around the 1950s family model. Obviously, there is a place for this work, as large segments of the population are indeed married with children. But sanctuary means all are safe, equally valued, everyone ministered to and included.
She goes on to write:
We must ask who is invited, who is asked to teach, who is asked to contribute, who is called into leadership. It is one thing to “feel nice feelings” toward the minority voice; it is something else entirely to challenge existing power structures to include the whole variety of God’s people.
Hatmaker is arguing not for an invitation to all to gather in the sanctuary (which is right and good—all should be welcome), but for inclusivity to do battle against existing structures. It would seem Hatmaker would say that a person’s experience of church, the gospel, and the Bible matters more to God than the truth about the church, the gospel, and the Bible. She seems to want the experience itself to be affirming, even if it’s based on what Scripture can’t affirm.
Hatmaker’s theology flows out of this experiential ideal. Inclusivity becomes the theological compass in Of Mess and Moxie. It doesn’t seem to matter that people are in direct rebellion against God as defined by his Word, so long as we’re all sharing our experiences with one another.
Sovereign over Suffering?
In her chapter “Rewoven,” Hatmaker wrestles with the sovereignty of God amid suffering. “I have a thorny relationship with the concept of God’s sovereignty,” she admits,
This spiritual idea that God is entirely controlling all things at all times in all circumstances, that nothing happens without his say-so, nothing occurs outside of his decree. This discussion in spiritual circles often confuses me. Maybe it is just the semantics, primarily a function of the language used or perhaps the words left out. It probably has something to do with living longer, seeing more, and diversifying my exposure, which challenges my doctrine.
Which comes first in the forming of our doctrine: our experience or Scripture? Do we bring our experiences to the Word of God and let that history be the lens through which we interpret Scripture? Or do we make Scripture the lens through which we interpret our experience?
It’s easy to say we want to do the latter, but most often it’s our history, experience, and the circumstances of our lives that bring us to the rock-bottom truths of Scripture. We can say suffering is ordained by God, but when we truly suffer we learn what we actually believe. Experience reveals our belief in Scripture—whether we want it to or not. But experience—“living longer, seeing more, and diversifying [our] exposure”—shouldn’t dictate our belief in Scripture or our belief about suffering.
The Christian learns to take the lemons of experience and still make lemonade, but our aim isn’t to search for good within the experience itself. We must search for the God who brings his children through these sour experiences, showing more of himself in the process (Ps. 73:28). Otherwise we’ll become misguided seekers looking only for the best experiences life can give us.
Hatmaker is right about this: there’s an aspect of sharing our experiences that’s pivotal to the gospel. Where she veers wrong, though, is that it can’t simply be humans sharing the human experience, but Christ sharing in ours (Phil. 3:7–10).
Wonderful and Wild Goodness of God
Of Mess and Moxie made me feel normal for hating to sweat, struggling to find something to wear, and having an awkward family, but it didn’t lead me to the purpose for those struggles. It didn’t have to in some ways. Its point, after all, is to see delight in this “wild and glorious life.”
But, for the Christian, the delight in this wild and glorious life is in the reality of Christ—his life, his death, and his resurrection (Ps. 16:11). The Christian life isn’t primarily about the life of the Christian but about the life of Christ. Hatmaker writes,
The church has a history of formulizing suffering, giving it tidier origins and endings, and whitewashing the debilitating middle. We assess the complicated nuances of sorrow and assign it categories, roots, principles. Or, uncertain, we default to sovereignty in a way that feels so lonely and cold, it makes God out to be a heartless pursuer of his own fame at any human cost. That just feels gross.
I agree with her in some ways—the way we handle the messiness of life within the church can feel reductionist and sterile. But I disagree with her that the answer is to make the experience of living easier or more delightful, to “be radically human with one another.” That is reductionist and just as whitewashed as her complaint about the church above. Our hope isn’t in sharing experiences with one another, but in the reality that Christ has shared in our experiences, and we will share in his.
Comfort for the Christian is threefold:
First, there is no human experience that God himself in the form of Jesus didn’t experience on our behalf. His obedience to death on the cross is the ultimate proof that we’re understood and loved by the God of the universe—this is the source of our delight, our moxie (Phil. 2:17; Heb. 4:15).
Second, there’s help for the here and now in the Holy Spirit (John 16:5–11), comforting us in the midst of the mess.
And third, there’s a loving Father who doesn’t give anything that isn’t good, even the mess itself (Jas. 1:12–18). We don’t have to wrangle our own delight out of our lives. And we don’t even have to sit around the table with others who know and understand our experiences. The Father isn’t only making the mess good; he’s the glorious good and delight within the messy wildness of our lives.
Jen Hatmaker. Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017. 224 pp. $22.99.