“I can’t have authentic communion with Jesus,” she came to realize, “mired in the trappings he begged me to avoid.” And so begins her repentance through reduction: a month eating only seven kinds of food; a month getting rid of seven possessions every day; a month praying seven times a day, and so on.
In March, my friend Mel handed me an unassuming brown book — 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.
“This book really messed me up,” she warned. “Are you sure you want to read it?”
It’s the account of a seven-month journey by Jen Hatmaker, a Christian writer, speaker and mother of five. “I can’t have authentic communion with Jesus,” she came to realize, “mired in the trappings he begged me to avoid.” And so begins her repentance through reduction: a month eating only seven kinds of food; a month getting rid of seven possessions every day; a month praying seven times a day, and so on. The categories are chosen based on her analysis of what, for their family, has become “just too stinking much” — food, clothes, possessions, media, waste, spending and stress. It’s “an exercise in simplicity with one goal: to create space for God’s kingdom to break through.” It’s a wonderful book that’s hilarious, humble and convicting. I dare you to read it and remain unmoved.
It brought to mind a fairy tale I loved as a kid, The Fisherman and his Wife. Today, it haunts me. It starts in a shack, but the wife would prefer a cottage. Innocent, right?
“Husband,” said the woman, “didn’t you catch anything today?”
“No,” said the man. “I caught a flounder, but he told me that he was an enchanted prince, so I let him swim away.”
“Didn’t you ask for anything first?” said the woman.
“No,” said the man. “What should I have asked for?”
What indeed. I am guilty of expecting a lot from God. A loving spouse? Well, yes. Children? Thank you. Maybe another house, this time with a garage? Good.
Jen Hatmaker reverses the fairy tale. Instead of continually asking for more, she slowly sheds the extra things that weigh so many of us down. It’s inspiring to watch.
Everything went well for a week or two, and then the woman said, “Listen, husband. This cottage is too small. Go back and tell him to give us a palace.”
I can come up with a good explanation for why it’s okay to read 7 in Starbucks. After all, we don’t splurge. I wear hand-me-downs. We drive an old car.
But living in pockets of Western affluence plays with your mind. I can relate to Hatmaker’s confession: “For years I didn’t realize [we were rich] because so many others had more.” My happiness is embarrassingly tied to what those around us have and to whether we’ve improved our circumstances over time.
Ron Sider calls us out on this, too, in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: “One of the most astounding things about the affluent minority is that we honestly think we barely have enough to survive in modest comfort.” Like the fisherman’s wife, I’m focused on more. And that means missing out on what God could do differently with the surplus, and with me.
“Husband, wake up and go back to the flounder. I want to become like God. I will not have a single hour of peace until I myself cause the sun and the moon to rise.”
Maybe some people can handle great wealth, and use it for great good. But most of us are closer to the fisherman’s wife. We live in a culture that prides itself on indulgence. We celebrate excess until we’re blind to both our privilege and our greed.
“What does it communicate,” Hatmaker asks, “when half the global population lives on less than $2 a day, and we can’t manage a fulfilling life on 25,000 times that amount? It says we have too much, and it is ruining us.”
While writing the book, the Hatmakers are busy adopting two children from Ethiopia. During the month on food, her three biological children throw out uneaten chicken fingers one night, because they were out of ketchup. Hatmaker cries for all of her kids — the ones still in Ethiopia, probably going to bed hungry that night, and the ones in Austin, Texas, “who will battle American complacency and overindulgence for the rest of their lives.”
“I don’t know who I feel worse for,” she says.
If there’s any hope in the original fisherman’s tale, the brothers Grimm don’t highlight it — perhaps only this: that with each request, the husband says to himself, “This is not right.” But he goes anyway.
In Alexander Pushkin’s retelling, the ending is redeemed. Once the fish revokes all their goods and glory, the couple finds a contentment in the shack that was elusive before.
Look over Jen Hatmaker’s shoulder, and there are even better signs of hope, a reawakening among Christians.
“Here come the radicals!” declares the cover story in Christianity Today (March 2013). Best-selling books by pastors like David Platt (Radical), Francis Chan (Crazy Love) and Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution) are “calling comfortable Christians to extreme discipleship.” And if the enormous popularity of all these books is any indication, the radicals have hit a nerve.
When I asked Ron Sider in an interview if anyone has picked up his mantle, he mentioned Claiborne. Many of the new radicals are the intellectual descendants of Sider, but not just of him — also of Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Søren Kierkegaard, Menno Simons and — oh yeah — God, who has some 2,000 verses discussing money management in his book.
But is a journey away from the American dream really radical, as Christianity Today wonders, or is it just basic Christian discipleship? It’s true that there are tensions within this movement. (Such as: Stage Your Own Mutiny by buying The 7 Experiment — Leader’s Guide and DVD set only $69.95.) But overall, I’m in. Sign me up. “We’re so conditioned to being the problem,” Hatmaker says, “that we’ve forgotten that we are actually the answer.”
There are wide, gaping holes between what we profess and what we possess, and grappling with those discrepances as Christians in this time and place is an important, and ongoing, task.
“What should I have asked for?”
To discover freedom from “more,” to be rescued from ruin, and to inherit Jesus’ understanding of what it means to be rich and blessed.
This article was originally published in CC's April 8, 2013 issue. Editor Angela Reitsma-Bick will be interviewing Jen Hatmaker at this year's Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.