In the introduction to her book “Girl, Wash Your Face,” Rachel Hollis tells the reader, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.” It’s a message that resonates with many women.
At this writing, Hollis’ book has spent 24 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. She operates a wildly successful website and has 55,000-plus YouTube subscribers, 600,000 Instagram fans, and more than 1 million Facebook followers. In a YouTube video that has received almost 200,000 views, Hollis’ message of self-reliance and positive thinking dominates from start to finish:
Other people don’t get to tell you what you can have. Someone else doesn’t get to tell you who you can be. … Anything you want for yourself, you have to do for yourself. … You are capable of anything you set your mind to. … Maybe you were given this mountain to show other people that it can be moved.
The video includes clips of Hollis living out that message in her own life as she travels around speaking to crowds of exuberant, arm-waving women who seem to be finding in her the inspiration to conquer their own mountains.
But what of the woman who can’t begin to climb the mountain, much less move it? What of the woman who knows that the thing she wants most is forever out of her reach, no matter how much she plans and works and tries? What of the woman whose situation is beyond her power to change, control, or leave it?
I know women who have experienced the incomparable joy of discovering they are carrying a child, only to have that child die a few weeks or months later.
I know women who deeply desire to have children but have been told they will not, and women who have carried children to term only to have them die shortly before or after birth.
I know women who suffer from chronic pain, incurable illness, and severe depression.
I know women who long to marry and have children but don’t know if they ever will.
I know women whose husbands have died, women whose husbands have left them, and women whose children won’t visit or speak to them.
I know women who suffer from devastating guilt over the consequences of past decisions, decisions they wish they could go back and change because of the harm they have done to others.
Sometimes even washing your face seems an impossible task. Alisa Childers, writing for The Gospel Coalition, observes that “Hollis is a self-proclaimed Christian, and the book is published by Thomas Nelson (a Christian publisher). References to the Bible, Jesus, her faith, and Christianity are peppered throughout the book.” Yet Childers notes that, time and time again in the book, Hollis doesn’t invoke her faith as the source of her strength, but herself:
In all these scenarios, the answer is always something like picking yourself up by your bootstraps and striving and trying and running a marathon and getting therapy and reciting mantras and reading a good blog post (she may be on to something there) and seeing a guru and drinking wine and not drinking wine and relaxing and taking a vacation and keeping the promises you make to yourself. Anything but surrendering your life to Jesus and placing your trust in him alone.
Childers says that the book left her “exhausted” and that what she really needs is rest, the kind that comes of “grasping the good news of who I am in Christ.”
That kind of rest can be found on every page of a new book from Emmanuel Press called “He Restores My Soul.” The book is a collection of writings by female authors on some of their own immovable mountains — burdens of everyday life, truths that aren’t easily escaped, and sufferings that no amount of determined planning and careful execution can remove. They are what Christians often call “crosses” because they are the effects of our own sinful nature and the evil and fallenness of the world around us.
The book is organized around Psalm 23, with each chapter drawing its theme from a verse of the psalm, and includes essays by Federalist authors Mollie Hemingway, Heather Smith, and Katie Schuermann, among others. (I wrote a chapter, too.)
Schuermann, who also edited the book, writes in the opening chapter about her realization that after a long period of productivity, accomplishment, and purpose, she felt empty, distracted, and disconnected from God. It was a dark period of her life, one from which she eventually emerged, but not because she decided to wash her face, get up, and get on with things.
Instead, Schuermann says, her heavenly Father came after her, picked her up and brought her back into the fold. That same theme is shared in slightly different ways by each of the writers in “He Restores My Soul.” As in Psalm 23, it is not the sheep who out of their own determination and ingenuity find the still waters, green pastures, righteous paths, bountifully set table, and overflowing cup, but rather, their Good Shepherd who leads them to and provides those things.
Pamela Boehle-Silva, a registered nurse and a deaconess in The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, writes in her chapter, “I Remember You,” of her mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s Disease. Boehle-Silva’s description of her mother’s increasing struggles with memory and awareness, and her own feelings of anger, frustration, and grief, is raw and heartbreaking. There is no fixing this situation, no moving this mountain.
Yet Boehle-Silva is able to find rest, not in her own strength, but in her Lord’s:
God uses grief, even doubt, to turn our lives upside down so that we can recognize His love and mercy to us revealed in the Man of Sorrows, Jesus Christ the crucified. Jesus takes on our brokenness, bleeding our wounds and shedding our tears, all the way to the cross. This is the great paradox: Christ’s suffering and death brings life to us. His suffering redeems us from our sinful brokenness, thereby restoring us fully to Himself. Instead of explaining suffering, God shares it with us. And by His wounds, truly, we are healed.
While “He Restores My Soul” offers much in the way of Christian comfort, it never suggests that being a Christian ensures an easier, more successful, more prosperous, and productive life. Far from it. There is comfort to be found in these pages, but also tension. The stories don’t end neatly, with all the loose ends tied up and the writer running a victory lap. Instead, there is an ongoing acknowledgement that life is a series of struggles that will never be fully resolved this side of heaven.
That doesn’t mean that books like “Girl, Wash Your Face” have nothing worthwhile to say. It’s good to wash your face, make a plan, and take responsibility for your life. But at some point, those things fall short. Then what?
If the idea of another self-help book leaves you feeling tired before you have even turned one page, try some Jesus-help instead. Pick up “He Restores My Soul” and hear about a God who says that you are enough not because of what you do, but because of what he has done for you in Christ.