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Book Review: Jen Hatmaker’s Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” So wrote Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, in a scholarly article about the funeral sermons of Christian women. When she penned that phrase in the 1970’s, I bet she never imagined it would capture the imagination of generations to come. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find the sentiment on mugs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and more.

This sentiment captures Jen Hatmaker’s personal evolution in her newest book, Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire: The Guide to Being Glorious You.

I grew up around well-behaved women. They were mostly suburban church moms who didn’t drink, never cussed, and sang in the Christmas cantatas. Do not get me wrong for one second: I loved them, my mom’s and grandma’s friends, the consortium of bonus moms who helped raise me. But, seriously, they behaved…. The women in my life were all smart and capable, but they rode in the passenger seat. My world was comfortably maintained by Men in Charge…. I never met a rule I didn’t like, and I was prepared to grow up and behave better than any girl had ever behaved, which was my version of ambition.

Hatmaker is a brilliant writer. From the opening pages of the book, I felt like she could have been curled up across from me on the sofa, bringing her cheeky wit and no-nonsense advice that had me laughing out loud and seriously pondering my life again and again. She reminds me of a modern-day version of Dear Abby and Erma Bombeck all wrapped up into one: vulnerable, straightforward, funny, and just seeking the best for women in general.

And yet.

What I came away with after reading Fierce was a mishmash of self-inspired theology that, when taken as a whole, creates a worldview very different from the one found in Scripture.

It’s one of accepting yourself and working, working, working to make yourself and the world around you a better place. As we will see, this is not only bad for women, but it’s also exhausting in its endless list of to-do’s. I’d say let’s just give the book a pass and go on our merry way, but with almost a million followers on social media (and 88 of my very own friends following her, as I found when I looked her up!), we must address her teaching. Like the Bereans of Acts 17, we will receive the message and examine the Scriptures to see if what she says is true.

The book is divided into five self-reflective categories. Who I Am, What I Need, What I Want, What I Believe, and How I Connect. Answer them well or answer them poorly—either way you’ll end up with a worldview. So it’s important that we take these questions seriously and find biblically sound answers for each one of them. Let’s dig in.

Who I Am

A self-professed “hippie-dippy, Big Love Jesus Type,” Hatmaker begins the first section of her book with insights into who we are. She even has a chapter that unabashedly proclaims I Am Exactly Enough. “God loves you and me like a crazed, obsessed parent who will never shut up about us.” Our inmost being, she continues, “is a masterpiece of divine creativity, and whatever you discover in mining the depths of your soul, it is a great and glorious good for the world and was always meant to be. You are loved and lovable; this is my spiritual thesis” (11).

Whoa. Slow down a minute. God’s love is only part of the news, and to be clear, it’s the good news. But the good news is only really good when we realize how bad the bad news really is.

So, what is the bad news? Hatmaker would say it’s not embracing who you really are. Quoting Brene Brown, she notes, “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness” (7). She even says this sense of self-awareness “provides an anchor no matter the waves or wind” (7). Wow. Biblical allusions to wilderness moments (Matt 4:1-11) and waves and wind (Matt 14:22-33) aside, that just isn’t true.

Scripture paints a much different picture.

The bad news is that we love our sin (our “authentic selves,” if you will) and deserve death for our rebellion. Paul quotes the Psalmist when he delivers the bad news in Romans 3:11-12:

There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands;

there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned away,

they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good,

not even one.

To make things worse, the prophet Jeremiah says we can’t even be honest with ourselves about this information. We lie to ourselves and to others about how bad we really are. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer 17:9).

Hatmaker fails to deliver this bad news. Scripture tells us who we are, and we are not mostly good people who just need to acknowledge our weaknesses, believe and belong to ourselves, and then embrace the great and glorious good inside of us. We’re liars. We’re sin lovers. We’re rebels against a holy God. Yes, we are capable of goodness, but doing good will never be enough to make us right with a holy God.

Apart from God, any attempt at self-revelation or self-improvement is likely to have a hefty dose of self-deception with a touch of self-righteousness thrown in for good measure.

Richard Lovelace notes, “‘Feeling good about yourself’ is a primary goal of popular psychology, but for biblical religion, it is at best a way station on the road to knowing God and, at worst, a deceptive trap. Only by fixing our attention on God can we accurately know ourselves—both the graces he has given us and the depth of our needs.”[1] Coming to know the greatness of God and the depth of our needs can be terrifying. Scripture rightly terms it the fear of the Lord. (Deut 10:12; 1 Chron 16:25; 2 Chron 19:7, 9): the beginning point of wisdom and knowledge. (Psa 111:10; Prov 1:7 and 9:10).

Now that we have the bad news on the table, we can take a look at the good news. The good news is that when we respond in faith and baptism to Jesus, we not only get adopted into the family of God (Eph 1:4-6), we get the forgiveness we so desperately need (Eph 1:7), and the power to do life as we should with the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14).

When viewed through the lens of the fullness of the Gospel, the tools that Hatmaker recommends now take their proper place.

Things like Myers Briggs, Strength’s Finder, Enneagram, and the Jung personality test can be very helpful. I have used these myself and encourage my students to utilize them as they seek to understand how God made them and how they can grow in grace and holiness. Her description of Mega Women (those wired to lead and live large), Modest Women (those thriving in a quiet, private life), and Mezzo Women (those who fall somewhere in between the two) rightly highlight the unique strengths and beauty of our moms, sisters, daughters, and friends (25-27).

And her chapter entitled I Am Strong in My Body addresses the “long, brutal war” women have waged against their bodies. Many passages are especially poignant as she describes her own struggle with body image. “I’ve breathed the toxic air of extreme dieting, unrealistic goals, media misrepresentation, and self-loathing for too long… So if I may be your sister in this space, I would love to find our way out of this chronic unhappiness. It steals too much” (39). Amen to that.

These self-assessment tools and Hatmaker’s advice about healthy body image are valuable, but they are no substitute for the fundamental, salvation-level kind of revelation that only God can do. After telling us that we can’t trust our hearts, Jeremiah says, “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind” (Jer 17:10). God can show us who we are, what is in our hearts, and what we need.

What I Need

So what does Jen Hatmaker think women need? Goodness. In fact, we don’t just need goodness, we deserve it. “You deserve goodness. Full stop… Fierce self-compassion says unequivocally, ‘I deserve goodness, and so does everyone else… it is your birthright and claim’” (60, 63, 64). She then ties this to her notion of who we are and who God is.

We were created with divinity in our marrow. We are holy vessels meant for love and goodness. Everything about us was made for glory. I do not for a millisecond subscribe to the notion that God somehow profits off our losses or arranges great heartache as some showing of tough love. He has no hand in abuse, exploitation, or harm because he is incapable of evil. He is love and only love; there is no shadow side of Jesus (66).

Our internal monologues (and we all have them!) about who we are, who God is, the meaning of this life, and the future have the power to shape our attitudes and actions. When Hatmaker asserts that God could not and would not “arrange heartache” or that Jesus is “love and only love,” she is setting us up for disillusionment, confusion, and anger when suffering inevitably comes. She continues her definition of love in her chapter on connection, and we get a clearer picture of her hermeneutic (the attempt to make sense of all of Scripture) when she describes love.

Loving people just makes sense to me. I am unable to separate policy, theology, rhetoric, theories, or interpretations from the people they affect. I lack all objectivity. I evaluate the merit of every idea based on how it bears upon actual people… And to be very clear, I believe loving people fits perfectly under the umbrella of loving God, so when “loving God” results in pain, exclusion, harm, or trauma to people, then we are absolutely doing the first part wrong. It is not God in error but us (91).

To be clear, Hatmaker has decided that when she comes up against a teaching in Scripture that offends her human notions of loving people, her opinion wins. Would her words be a comfort to Job? Does she know more about love than Jesus? Is she more merciful than God? God allowed Satan access to Job’s children, everything he owned, and eventually Job’s health (Job 1:12, 2:6). Jesus says that following him involves a personal death (Matt 16:24-26), and once we rise to live for him, he guarantees that we’ll be hated by the world with lots of trouble thrown in for good measure (John 15:18-20; 16:33). Paul tells the Corinthian church not to be deceived and to face this hard truth: there are many people who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11) so they should watch their behavior.

Hatmaker’s very definitions of love and evil are vastly different from what I find in Scripture.

When Paul writes that “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13:6), he’s not talking about an Oprah-esque “speak your own truth” with a little “t.” He’s talking about the truth with a big “T”: Jesus as the eternal Word of God. This big “T” truth is revealed to us in Scripture, sets us free from the bondage of sin, and allows us to walk in the light apart from evil.

I suspect that Hatmaker truly wants women to love themselves well. I want this too. We cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we hate ourselves. But words have power, and since we all have a running commentary in our heads, we’d better be sure it aligns with God’s revealed truth. Insisting that we deserve goodness sets us up to suffer poorly and get angry at God when we do.

What I Want

In a nutshell, Hatmaker wants all women to live their dreams and choose what they say “yes” to with care. As someone who has failed to choose her yesses well in years past, I appreciate this reminder. And even though her chapter of living our dreams reads like a mix of cheerleader-level frenetic one-liners mixed with a hefty dose of contempt for patriarchy, I found her enthusiasm contagious. “Dear reader, YOU HAVE ONLY ONE LIFE TO LIVE!” she yells. “Got a dream? Show up for it” (113, 115).

Like Timothy, each of us should “fan into flame the gift of God,” remembering that “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:6-7). We should make the most of every opportunity, remembering that our dreams are not just for the here-and-now: we are laying up treasures for an eternity (Eph 5:15-16; 1 Tim 6:18-19). Within the Christian worldview, dreams have gravity, meaning they should expand well beyond ourselves. Our dreams bear eternal weight.

What I Believe

I Believe in Spiritual Curiosity. Thus begins Hatmaker’s explanation of how her beliefs in orthodox Christianity (my words, not hers) have been challenged and how she has “grown” in her faith. In particular, she documents how she and her husband, Brandon, embraced LGBTQ theology after two years of careful examination.

With the benefits of an adult brain, a broader range of experiences, and a departure from my echo chamber, I can say without question: my beliefs have been challenged. Everybody, relax. Katy, bar the door! A bit of good news: virtually every spiritual person has his or her beliefs challenged over a lifetime. Also good news: the Bible suggests this path is called wisdom and maturity and growth… not heresy and backsliding and unfaithfulness. Let’s go ahead and take hyperbole out of this discussion (147-48).

Okay, on the one hand, all healthy living things grow. This is true for the natural world and for humans. It’s also true in the spiritual realm. Paul says that when we come to Christ we are infants who should grow into maturity (1 Cor 3:1-2). On the other hand, false teaching has always been a particularly powerful problem for the people of God. Look at ancient Israel and the first-century church. Both have taken the cultural values around them and integrated them into their faith.

We should always beware into what we are growing.

When Josiah became king at age 8, Israel had become so much like the surrounding culture that they had vessels of worship for Baal and Asherah in the temple of the living God while their Book of the Law was stuck away in a closet (2 Kings 22-23). They thought everything was A-Okay until the priest dusted off the scrolls and started reading. They were shocked when they read of God’s punishment that awaited them for what they had been doing. And they repented. Hundreds of years later, many of Paul’s letters to the churches dealt with Christians who thought they were obeying God when they were really just acting like the world: committing sexual sin, stealing, being greedy, getting drunk, and gossiping, among other things (1 Cor 6:9-11). When we bring our assumptions, our worldview, or our hard questions into the light of Scripture, we must align ourselves with what we find there, not the other way around.

Oh, that we would all continue Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians so that we would have “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation,” so we can know Jesus better on his own terms.

How I Connect

I Want to Connect with Honesty and I Want to Connect without Drama. These two chapters are some of Hatmaker’s strongest. She notes, “We love truth telling except when we don’t, we practice it except when we don’t, we require it except when we don’t” (183). She talks a lot about creating a healthy family environment where husbands, wives, and children can tell the truth to one another in love. Her advice on family meetings is one that all of us raising kids should consider. No caring parent wants their child to bear alone the burden of secret sin; no marriage can withstand a failure to communicate over weeks, months, and years. The ironic thing is that for most of Fierce, Hatmaker conflates honesty in her Christian walk with bending Scripture to her own notions of equality, justice, love, and evil. If God is who he says he is, then wouldn’t he get to contradict me and my notions of what is true?

Quoting extensively from Cloud and Townsend’s books, Boundaries and Safe People, Hatmaker encourages the reader to consider removing herself from “relationships or scenarios that are consistently one-side, manipulative, disingenuous, self-sunk, irresponsible, untrustworthy, unsafe, overly critical, or flat-out mean” (199). I have used Boundaries with many women in discipleship groups and have seen firsthand how practicing healthy boundaries with our parents, friends, children, and even technology, can be life-altering.

And yet.

As I finished Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire, I thought that almost any woman would be drawn in by Hatmaker’s gregarious, honest, funny, girl-next-door writing, so it makes me sad to see her present little more than self-help advice with a Jesus stamp on it. It grieves me that she mentions, again and again, how she “matured” and “grew” to accept the lifestyles of the LGBTQ community as aligned with Christian faith.

If God is who he says he is, then wouldn’t he get to contradict me and my notions of what is true?

Rosaria Butterfield, former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University, notes how dangerous Hatmaker’s teaching really is. The stakes are life and death.

If this were 1999–the year that I was converted and walked away from the woman and lesbian community I loved—instead of 2016, Jen Hatmaker’s words about the holiness of LGBT relationships would have flooded into my world like a balm of Gilead… Maybe I wouldn’t need to lose everything to have Jesus. Maybe the gospel wouldn’t ruin me while I waited, waited, waited for the Lord to build me back up after he convicted me of my sin, and I suffered the consequences. Maybe it would go differently for me than it did for Paul, Daniel, David, and Jeremiah. Maybe Jesus could save me without afflicting me. Maybe the Lord would give me respectable crosses (Matt 16:24). Manageable thorns (2 Cor 12:7)… There is no good will between the cross and the unconverted person. The cross is ruthless. To take up your cross means that you are going to die… We die so that we can be born again in and through Jesus, by repenting of our sin (even the unchosen ones) and putting our faith in Jesus, the author and finisher of our salvation.[2] 

To be sure, Christ seekers and Christians throughout the ages have asked hard questions and come to very different conclusions than Hatmaker. In the landscape of Christian writers today, thoughtful readers would do well to clarify what the author is writing about when they use words like love, evil, belonging, or redemption. Those who find themselves facing doubts have much more reliable sources than Hatmaker available to them in their quest for answers. Consider Alisa Childers’s new book, Another Gospel: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity, or Rosaria Butterfield’s Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert for starters.

Well-behaved women may seldom make history in this age, but we have a God who is keeping a record for all eternity (Rev 20:12, 15).

He numbers all our days (Ps 139:16), counts all our tears (Ps 56:8), and remembers all our labors of love (Heb 6:10). This world isn’t worthy of the persevering, anonymous, faithful women (and men!) of God, and one day we’ll all gather to celebrate how our faith has been made sight (Heb 11:38-40). Instead of crafting a faith in our own image, we can look to the historic Christianity found in Scripture with great assurance and hope. The Jesus found there can stand up to our doubts, concerns, and questions, making us more fierce, free, and full of (Holy Spirit) fire than anyone else ever could.

[1] Lovelace, Richard. Renewal as a Way of Life (Wipf and Stock, 2002), 19.

[2] See Rosaria Butterfield “Love Your Neighbor Enough to Speak Truth.”

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