What you think about suffering–and how to deal with it–speaks volumes about your theology and your relationship with God.
It’s no wonder why Ann Voskamp has written her newest book, The Broken Way, to address this topic. Everyone is acquainted with grief and sorrow; everyone wonders at times, “Why is God doing this in my life?” The so-called “problem of evil” is certainly a popular and much-needed subject to discuss.
But the question is: Does Voskamp have the solution?
FOGGY LANGUAGE AND THE ISSUE OF PURPOSEFUL AMBIGUITY
Reading, studying, unraveling this book was much more difficult than I expected, and the biggest reason for my trouble was the way Voskamp writes.
Let me preface by saying that every author has a unique voice, and the style he or she chooses is usually a subjective, amoral decision. I wouldn’t ordinarily criticize a writer based on sheer opinion and taste. But sometimes–sometimes–the author’s language can actually serve to mislead and harm the reader.
I honestly believe that is the case in The Broken Way.
Throughout the book, Voskamp writes in such an ethereal, lofty, and metaphorical way that it leaves the reader hanging in the middle of the air, unable to find a solid ground of meaning. “What is she actually trying to say?” was the constant refrain in my mind, as I grappled with her statements (see a few below).
“The only way to abundant life is the broken way of risk.” (115)
“Maybe this is what real love feels like–a slight breaking of the heart, and a slight breathless surprise at finding yourself put back together into a kind of wholeness. Shalom.” (23)
“Isn’t the cross a sign of Christ believing in us, believing that the busted are to be believed in? Which feels unbelievable.” (82)
Unfortunately, context didn’t help me, as Voskamp rarely explains her confusing one-sentence platitudes. They are left up to our own interpretation, and when we think we’ve figured it out, it’s often with the awareness that another reader could easily take the same language and make it fit an entirely different meaning.
The most frightening thought I had while reading was that even an unbeliever could agree with the vast majority of the book. Voskamp’s claims about God, love, suffering, and helping humanity are not far off from those made by any theist who seeks after “world peace” and mankind’s happiness. They are not rooted in Scripture, but in her own thoughts as she dwells on various experiences and relationships in her personal life.
Is this foggy, ambiguous language accidental? Can’t be. Not only is it present throughout the entire 250+ page book, but Voskamp has used it in various other writings as well (including her previous bestseller, One Thousand Gifts). In fact, many people recognize her by her writing style–and love it.
Unsuspecting women are so captivated by her poetic imagery and poignant descriptions that they cannot discern the difference between truth and falsehood. As Voskamp tugs on heartstrings by focusing on stories of friends dying of cancer, familial and marital love, and “random acts of kindness,” she uses pathos–emotional appeal–to steer us far away from logos–logical (and in our case, biblical) thought.
Dare I propose that this ambiguity and pretty, poetic language on Voskamp’s part is purposeful? I can’t pretend to guess at her intentions, but she must answer to the way she misguides her readers into unbiblical, mystical, man-centered beliefs. As a female teacher selling her books and profiting from her “ministry” to women all over the world, she has a great amount of influence. She is accountable for every word she writes and speaks–just like all of us are.
Mysticism is a sneaky thing.
It doesn’t hand you a business card when it shows up in the book you’re reading or the teaching you’re following. It prefers to blend in, chameleon-like, hiding itself in plain sight.
It is antithetical to the teachings of Scripture, yet it can cover itself entirely with Christian-sounding words. It can even claim to care about the glory of God, all the while exalting man.
It is hateful toward your soul, yet it can talk to you in such a pleasing, loving voice, as though all it wants is your best interest–like the lying Serpent’s tongue.
If someone reads The Broken Way with anything less than a careful, critical eye, it is possible to miss the mysticism that covers nearly every page.
Here are three aspects of the book that reveal this dangerous teaching. Voskamp promotes:
1. Having a transformative, transcendental experience with God through objects and nature (pantheism).
Near the beginning of the book, Voskamp draws a cross on her wrist, and she continues to every day. It becomes more than just a marking–it becomes a esoteric passageway into a new level of spiritual transformation, a mystical act to somehow erase the scars of her past:
I reach for the pen on my nightstand, the way I’ve reached for ink to count a thousand ways He loves me, the way ink’s been the cheapest of medicines. But now–can the ink be lived, branded onto the skin, how could it leave the page and lead a way through pain? The ink would start right there on my scarred wrist, right where part of me wanted to kind of die, and not in the saving way, and somehow there is a good brokenness that grows out of every scar and wound we will ever suffer. Draw one line vertically down my wrist, right over scars. The question of evil and suffering is answered in the breaking of God’s own heart too. Draw another line horizontally across my wrist, breaking scar lines with cross lines. Our broken hearts always break His. (55-56)
She brings up the cross on her wrist repeatedly in the book, as though it is performing a “miracle” by being drawn there, making her more “cruciform,” more in the shape of the cross herself.
There are other examples of Voskamp interacting with God through the physical world: the way light glistens in a room, the movement of wheat in a field, the hands of a “Jesus” statue broken off from a Lord’s Supper sculpture… They all seem to speak to her about God personally, becoming “signs” of His love all around her (23), similar to pantheism which teaches God is found in everything. These “signs” dominate the pages–yet Scripture is scarce.
2. Repeating certain words or phrases over and over, giving them new, non-literal, flexible meanings.
Mysticism often uses words in a magical way, to conjure up certain feelings or sensations through meditation. We see Voskamp doing this throughout The Broken Way with a handful of terms that she uses, over and over, in any way she sees fit–freeing them to separate from their natural definitions and therefore emptying them of any real meaning.
The words she repeats continually are communion, intimacy, abundance, brokenness, cruciform, the Greek words koinonia, stego, eucharisteo, and a made-up one, re-membering (yes, with the hyphen). She often combines them in ambiguous ways that are removed from any literal, biblical, or linguistic meaning.
See if you can make sense of this one:
“If all of our bad brokenness begins with an act of forgetting, then doesn’t the act of remembering, then making Christ present by being broken and given, doesn’t that lead to koinonia, communion, which literally re-members us?
“Everything He embodied in the Last Supper–it is what would heal the body’s brokenness. Brokenness can be healed in re-membering. Remembering our union, our communion, our koinonia, with Christ. Re-membering heals brokenness.” (49)
While the words she uses aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves, she does not ground them in any Scriptural context but rather applies them out of context to her own emotional experiences. Koinonia, for instance, which is meant to be fellowship among believers through the Word and sacraments, becomes some kind of mystical union with all of humanity, through random acts of kindness.
3. Reaching new heights of spiritual insight and “intimate union” with God apart from His Word and the works of Christ.
Nearly every time Voskamp describes her moments of epiphany–when she suddenly realizes something that’s “true”–it’s not through reading or studying the Word. It’s through, you guessed it, experiences.
Experiences like introspectively interacting with nature, having casual conversations with her daughter, attending a funeral, counting kernels of corn, helping others… these become the source of truth and her “closeness” with God. Her so-called intimacy with Christ is characterized by sensual encounters that lift her up to a greater “wholeness” and “abundance”–utterly undefined.
It would be understandable if these things merely confirmed the truth of the Bible to Voskamp. But the Word is rarely ever quoted. When it is, it’s generally in the Message or some other loose “translation” (in other words, not truly God’s Word) and blended in with a host of other statements that have no origin in Scripture. While she briefly mentions Jesus’ death, it’s in a way that distorts the true gospel of Christ– replacing it with a man-centered “gospel” that any unbeliever could support (more on this later).
In Chapter 5, “Becoming the Gift the World Needs–and You Need,” the clouds begin to part and we begin to see with greater clarity what Voskamp is prescribing as our remedy for suffering.
She narrates the events of her 40th birthday with her family–how they went out on the town, not to sit down in a restaurant or shop, but to do acts of kindness for others. She calls this being the GIFT–Give It Forward Today. They visit a nursing home, give cookies to policemen, donate to a food bank, and randomly hand out money to strangers.
None of this involves sharing the gospel or inviting people to church. And she seems to forget the teaching from Christ that we shouldn’t boast about our giving:
“Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you… But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” (Matthew 6:2-3).
Surrounded by her storytelling are teachings from Voskamp, exalting the act of giving to others as the greatest good we could ever do in our lives. She writes, “Is there any word more powerful than giving? Thanksgiving. Forgiving. Care-giving. Live-giving. Everything that matters in living comes down to giving” (67). Put together with their “gift-blitzing” (75) adventure, we can see that the kind of “giving” she’s talking about is primarily humanitarian–but not specifically Christian.
Voskamp wants people to be happy, well-fed, and to feel loved; serving those basic human desires is, in her mind, equal to somehow making Christ and His presence known, even though the gospel and the Word are absent (69). She believes she and her family are communing with humanity in their “good deeds,” and even dares to compare this “communion” to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper!
Not convinced that this humanistic view of love and service is dangerous? Consider what she believes will “heal the brokenness” of the world. Keep in mind that the examples we’ve been given of acts of kindness are things like buying candy for kids:
There are people Giving It Forward Today, and don’t think that every gift of grace, every act of kindness, isn’t a quake in a heart that moves another heart to give, that moves another heart to give, that grows into an avalanche of grace. Don’t say this isn’t what a brokenhearted world desperately needs, don’t say it isn’t how to change a broken world. What if the truth really is that every tremor of kindness here erupts in a miracle elsewhere in the world? (72)
There’s no way to put this lightly. This is a dangerous, worldly, unbiblical teaching! The belief that if we just do nice things for people, that they will then do them for others, “passing on” the kindness, and that will be the “miraculous” way to change the world–that is exactly what non-Christians think we need. That humans and their good deeds can fix everything!
What about the gospel? What about the Spirit of God changing hearts, not through opening a door for someone, but through the faithful preaching of the Word, through lovingly teaching truth, exposing falsehood, doing the hard things?
What if the most loving, most impactful thing we can do for an unbeliever doesn’t put a smile on their face–but rather, a frown, or even a scowl? Maybe, contrary to what Voskamp thinks, smiles from the wicked aren’t always confirmation that we’re obeying God, but that we’re friends with the world. After all, wasn’t Jesus rejected by men? Didn’t He say we would face persecution?
I’m not against being kind and taking care of the material needs of others, especially the church. That is needed. But our number one priority is the soul, and that’s where true communion with God and transformation are found.
…ANOTHER FALSE TEACHING ABOUT THE TRINITY
If you’ve read my reviews before, you’ve noticed a pattern. Nearly all of these problematic books have a Trinitarian heresy in them somewhere. Here is Voskamp’s contribution, as part of her own commentary on Philippians 2:
This is profound mystery: God became emptied of God…. Jesus’ self-emptying hid His divinity but became the window through which we saw divine majesty. (94)
Yet another falsehood that somehow Jesus became emptied of God in His incarnation, that He needed to set aside His divinity in order to be fully man. We know that Jesus being fully God and fully Man is the orthodox teaching of Scripture and is in no way contradictory. But it seems like these authors prefer to express Jesus in the flesh as less-than-God–perhaps to make Him more “relatable”?
GOD BELIEVES IN US?
I gave this teaching its own section because it is one of the worst propagated by the book.
In Chapter 6, “What’s Even Better Than a Bucket List,” Voskamp tells the story of a time she was on an airplane and an “Orthodox Hasidic rabbi” gave her some spiritual advice. He told her, “Why do people always say it’s about having a strong belief in God? Who sits with the knowing that God’s belief in you is even stronger than yours in Him?” (83)
First of all, rabbis are not even Christians; they are Jews. Second of all–the idea of the Lord needing to believe in us is nowhere to be found in Scripture, but instead is an extremely man-centered teaching that dishonors our holy God.
She goes on to explain that “God’s mercies are new every morning–not as an obligation to you, but as an affirmation of you” (83). An affirmation of me? That I’m somehow worthy of His mercy?
Later in the chapter, one of Voskamp’s friends confirms that same false belief, by revising the story of Peter. She explains that somehow “Peter didn’t doubt Jesus in that sinking moment… Maybe Peter really doubted that Jesus–believed in him.” Voskamp herself goes on to add,
“Maybe it isn’t enough to believe in Jesus–maybe I have to believe that Jesus believes enough in me to choose me. If Christ has chosen me, can He not believe in me? Can I believe Jesus believes in me?” (85)
Not enough to believe in Jesus? Jesus believing in us? But the Word teaches that we are wicked sinners who could never merit God’s favor or mercy. Romans 9–and the rest of Scripture–completely refute the idea that we could ever be worthy enough to be chosen by God. It’s all by His grace and for His glory–and nothing good in ourselves!
TO GLORIFY MAN AND ENJOY USING GOD FOREVER
Ultimately, this book is man-centered at its core. The vast majority of its teachings about God and others revolve around man and his needs, rather than the glory of Christ.
The worst is when Voskamp approaches telling us the gospel. For instance, take a look at how she describes Jesus’ death and our justification:
“He died, and His death broke a hole in the wall of time and abundant life without became a possible new door for all of us to escape out of time.” (62)
“Jesus died of a broken heart.” (19)
“Justification by faith is ultimately a daily co-crucifixion that’s ultimately life-giving.” (96)
I don’t blame you if you aren’t even sure what those statements mean. Neither am I. But I can tell you that the Word mentions nothing about Jesus breaking a hole in time, or dying of a broken heart. He died because He laid down His life as a sacrifice for our sins.
And certainly, most certainly, our justification has nothing to do with us! Only Christ’s crucifixion, not ours, can justify us before the Judge of men!
Here are some more examples of her man-centered teachings:
- According to Voskamp, the “goal” of God is “intimate union” between Himself and humanity (and not specifically the Church). His glory is not mentioned. (48)
- “It’s the quantum physics of God: Your one broken heart always splits God’s heart in two.” (56) Can you find me a chapter and verse for that one?
- “God gives God so we can be the givers.” (70)
- “…no change in circumstances can change your life like meaning and purpose can. No certain place can give you abundant life like a certain purpose can…. life is about purpose and passion and meaning.” (91) So, life isn’t about Christ specifically? What about serving Him as our Lord?
- “I would read later that those who perform five acts of giving over six weeks are happier than those who don’t, that when you give, you get reduced stress hormone levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased endorphins, and that acts of kindness reduce anxiety and strengthen the immune system.” (73)
- “There is no life worth living without generosity because generosity is a function of abundance mentality.” (68) Everything is always about our abundance–not God’s glory.
IF MARTIN LUTHER WERE STILL ALIVE…
I’ll keep this brief. Whenever Voskamp quotes solid, Christian believers, pastors and theologians–such as Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Augustine, and Richard Baxter–utterly out of context to support her bad theology, I wish she realized how adamantly they would never give over their words to her use.
In fact, I’m pretty sure if Martin Luther were alive today, he’d publicize his renunciation of her teachings and insist she leave his name clear out of her book.
I’m not trying to be mean. But it’s a dishonor to those men to pretend that their theology in any way resembles Voskamp’s here. Don’t be deceived, sisters, just because you see their names in this book.
PLEASE EXCUSE MY DEAR ANN VOSKAMP
One last remark. I’ve read reviews others have written of Voskamp–of both The Broken Way and her previous work, A Thousand Gifts. And I’ve noticed an unsettling pattern.
In nearly every review, excuses are made by the author on Voskamp’s behalf–as though perhaps she doesn’t realize what she’s teaching, or that they could be misunderstanding her. In fact, a few insisted that surely Voskamp doesn’t mean what she says in the book. They overlook some of the glaring problems I’ve addressed here, to give her an overall positive review.
I’ve made it my goal (for God’s glory and the good of other women) to try to provide an honest, biblical analysis of the book, and while I’m certainly not perfect, I don’t apologize for anything I’ve written. I don’t think Voskamp is innocent of the claims she’s made. I think if she spent over 200 pages writing the book, then revised it, published it and sold it–and now, hasn’t recalled it or tried to “fix” any of her teachings–it’s safe to say that we can take her words at face value and assume she meant them.
I don’t intend to read bad motives into what she’s written; I can’t see her heart. But what is our standard here? Dare we lower our standard to anything less than the Word of God? That is my standard, and as far as I can see, this book falls far short–to the point of opposing the truths of Scripture and deceiving its readers.
We need to be careful lest, in an effort to be “nice,” we compromise and leave behind the rigorous test of the holy Word of God.
I believe The Broken Way contains some dangerous, deceptive teachings that women should avoid at all costs. For that reason, I rate it CHAFF.