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In the world of self-help, a genre to which Americans are peculiarly addicted, Rachel Hollis is suddenly ascendant — her diminutive figure bolstered in six-inch heels, her flawlessly high-lighted hair extensions framing her bright, inviting smile. She is the with-it cream at the very top of an already fulsome pitcher. Her enthusiastic “Girl, You Can Do It!” inspires millions of women to reach deep into their pockets and plunk down their money with a restless hope. Whether they wash their faces and take their lives unapologetically into their own hands or not, her message of self-actualization and self-improvement is hitting the discontented, anxious, middle-class suburban woman like a tuning fork — just the right note and just the right moment.
Unhappily though, in a gospel of radical independence, Hollis casts a this-worldly vision, a utopia contingent upon the actions and motivations of the individual. In so thrusting the woman evermore upon her own powers of self-realization, she not only obscures the spiritual weakness of the human person, the grievous nature of sin and the need for eternal salvation, but deepens the self-oriented isolation of women that is already endemic to American culture.
Stop Lying to Yourself
In a kaleidoscope of carefully crafted social and traditional media platforms, Hollis delivers a clear message: “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”1 All the excuses you might make for your unhappiness are just that — excuses that you can and must overcome on your way to greatness. “You are more than you have become,” she writes. “That’s what I want to tell the women who write to me asking for advice. It might be tough to hear, but that knowledge is followed by this sweet truth: you are more than you have become, and you are utterly in control of what you do with that knowledge.”2
Figuring out who that is, is the first step. You must orient yourself in reality. Who are you now? It is “impossible to go somewhere new, to become something new, without first acknowledging where you are” (emphasis in original).3 The trick is to confront the various lies you’ve told yourself, or been fed by society and the media — a nebulous cultural phenomenon Hollis frequently blames for the troubles faced by the average American woman. In Girl, Wash Your Face she deals with the destructive lies she believed and then demonstrates how she overcame them. Part memoirist, part cheerleader, she delivers up a smorgasbord of common sense.
“Have you ever believed that you aren’t good enough? That you’re not thin enough? That you’re unlovable? That you’re a bad mom? Have you ever believed that you deserve to be treated badly? That you’ll never amount to anything? All Lies. All lies perpetuated by society, the media, our family of origin, or frankly — and this is my Pentecostal showing — by the Devil himself.”4
Each of her own struggles is paired with suitable advice for the reader. After she, at the age of 14, discovered the dead body of her older brother, she did the hard, therapeutic work to deal with that trauma. If you have similarly suffered from abuse and trauma, go to therapy and get well. When she had developed the compulsion of emotional eating in the wake of a strained paternal relationship, she told herself that she was worth more, and so gradually replaced that habit with distance running. If you are unhappy with your unhealthy weight, begin to work towards small exercise goals and cut out one favorite food for a month. As a working mother, she often found herself judged by stay-at-home moms. If you are insecure about your mothering, stop comparing yourself to the mothers at the school drop-off. Instead, make friends with the women who particularly intimidate you. When she suffered from Bell’s palsy as a result of stress and overwork, she learned to schedule rest by writing it into her calendar. Whatever your particular vice, in other words, face it head on, stop making excuses for yourself, and take active steps to overcome your dysfunction. Happiness is within your grasp. It just takes hard work.
The active search for temporal happiness is the drum beat of her conferences and the bulk of the examples in her books. Aim high in your financial goals because being poor is stressful. Shape your body through diet and exercise because being overweight is unhealthy and you won’t be happy about yourself. Seek out people who will help and encourage you on your quest to become a better version of yourself because you need help on your way. You have no reason to settle for unhappiness, which, she hastens to qualify, means “discontented, unsettled, frustrated, angry — any number of emotions that make us want to hide from our lives instead of embracing them with arms wide open like a Creed song. Because happy people — the ones who are enjoying their lives 90 percent of the time—do exist. You’ve seen them. In fact, you’re reading a book written by one right now.”5
Indeed, happiness — defined by you — is an obligation you owe to yourself. As you cope with the lies that have held you back, you may turn your attention to what Hollis calls your “What if.” She writes, “That what if? That’s your potential knocking on the door of your heart and begging it to find the courage to override all the fear in your head. That what if is there for a reason. That what if is your guidepost. That what if tells you where to focus next” (emphasis in original).6 The “what if” is not just a useful tool for clarifying your desires, it is the key to unlocking the unique potential you are morally obligated to enact not just because you owe it to yourself, but because the world is impoverished without you.
Embrace Your “What If”
Hollis nowhere claims to be a theologian, but when she writes and speaks about human potential, her voice takes on a religious fervor. In Girl, Stop Apologizing she explains, “Our potential — the potential that resides in every single one of us — is our gift from our creator. What you do with that potential is your gift back to the rest of the world. The worst thing I can imagine is that you might die with that potential still untapped inside of you.”7 Discovering that gift and then exploiting it is the key not just to earthly happiness, her promise extends to the life to come. In a podcast episode with Ed Mylett, the two discuss what it will be like to die and go to heaven. Mylett explains, with the murmured assent of Hollis,
I have this kind of really strong belief that guides my life, which is that when I’m gone [the Lord’s] gonna introduce me to the man I was born to be, the destiny version of me, the one he made in his image and likeness, the one that I was capable of becoming. And he’s gonna say, “Ed, meet Ted.” And Ted’s my identical twin, the ultimate possible version of my life. Ted helped all the people, travelled the world, had the memories, had the moments, did the things with his children, made the contributions, felt about himself the way he wanted to, did all the things on earth he was born to do as Ted. My dream is that when I meet that ultimate version of me, we’re identical twins. And Ted says, “Man, I’ve been watching you all my life. I’m proud of you. You did it all, brother.” And I say, “I’ve been chasing you all my life, Ted.” And he’ll say, “You caught me.” To me, heaven is that when I’m gone I meet that person I was destined and born to be, the one I’m capable of, and we’re identical twins. Hell would be, we meet each other and we’re total strangers. And I don’t want to die having not become the man I could have been.8
In short, to be created in God’s image is to be born with a certain kind of potential that takes human effort to realize. Sin is the choice taken, either consciously or unconsciously, not to enact the individualized ideal. The moral imperative of achieving this ideal is clear. If you were created with a divinely ordained lack that it is your destiny to overcome, not to do so would be grievously wrong. Hollis hints at the sinful nature of this failure to enact your potential in Girl, Stop Apologizing:
Can you imagine if 25 percent more of the world, or 15 percent more or even just 5 percent more women decided to embrace their what if? Can you imagine if they stopped allowing the guilt or shame that comes from not being a certain way or a certain type of woman to squash their potential? Can you imagine the exponential growth we’d see in everything from art to science to technology to literature? Can you imagine how much more joyful and fulfilled those women would be? Can you imagine how their families would be affected? How about the community? How about other women who see their success and are inspired and emboldened by it and use it as a catalyst to spark change in their own lives? If that sort of revolution were to occur — a revolution of what if — we would change the world. In fact, I believe we can change the world. [Emphasis in original.]9
But how can you accomplish this ideal vision? Practically, the process is not that hard. By searching your own heart and inclinations, you will discover certain passions and dreams that remain unrealized. “These dreams you have for yourself are not silly; they are the road map to your divine calling!”10 Hollis shows how to narrow down scattered aspirations into a focused list and how to build toward each goal in turn. Small incremental steps build strength and confidence that in turn increase happiness, contentment, and the desire to keep pushing toward the final goal, the recognition of your true, heavenly, potential self.
Hollis believes in a God who creates the individual, and that creation is, though embryonic and unrealized, good. God sets the caterpillar on the leaf, and then it’s up to that caterpillar to transform herself into a butterfly. The caterpillar can’t decide to be something else. Rather, she must discover what it means to be herself: “I believe God loves each of us unconditionally, but I don’t think that means we get to squander the gifts and talents he’s given us simply because we’re good enough already. A caterpillar is awesome, but if the caterpillar stopped there — if she just decided that good is good enough — we would all miss out on the beautiful creature she would become” (emphasis in original).11 The woman who sits on her couch, wasting her life, owes it to herself and the cosmos to stand up and run her personal marathon.
Jesus Can Save You from Your Potential
In 2 Corinthians Paul describes some of the sufferings he and his co-laborers endured as they brought the light of the gospel — which is the “glory of Christ, who is the image of God” — to a darkened world.12 This gospel, he says, is like a treasure kept in a jar of clay. It lives in the body and soul of the believer so that “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”13 He goes on to describe the kind of heavenly body that is waiting for the believer. “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heaven. For in this tent,” that is the human body, “we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.”14 The Christian is transformed from one kind of person into another, and that process seen from this side of the grave is full of a certain kind of striving, the anxious and difficult work of sanctification, of being made into the image of Christ, who is the glory of God.
The first step for this kind of transformation is to seek ardently after the Kingdom of God. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,” says Jesus.15 As the Scriptures unfold, the believer discovers that of all the things that are added, the most precious is Christ Himself. He Himself is the goal. The tension between a desire for a perfectly remade body described by Paul, and the charms of this life, war within the heart of the Christian. A restless discontent with this world and yet an unwavering trust in and dependence on Christ to bring about His righteousness are the hallmarks of true Christianity. The critical ingredients are radical dependence on Christ and the complicated and often painful interdependence of Christians who are, though it is hard to see this truth with human eyes, mystical members of Christ’s body.
Radical dependence is grounded in a reality that, though created uniquely by God, each metaphorical caterpillar exchanged the beauty of flight for the entrapping mire of sin. Sin is not simply a matter of failing to enact a potential self. Sin is the creature saying to the Creator, “I have no need of you.” Radical independence is the usurping, ubiquitous, fracturing choice of a humanity that rejects God. In response to this choice, God in Jesus came in human flesh to restore creation, to reconcile the individual to God, and to remake for Himself a fellowship of believers who seek His righteousness. Rather than each woman changing the world by privileging her desire over everything else, which is the recapitulation of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, Jesus restores the cosmos to Himself at the cross, reconciling men and women to the satisfaction of His perfect love.
Trying harder, digging deeper into the desires of the human heart, and grasping for an insubstantial, unrealized potential may produce some temporal satisfaction, but they will not lead any person into the kingdom of God, the only place where true joy is to be found. Girl, seek after Jesus, and all these other things will be added to you.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016) and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace, a blog on Patheos.com (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/preventingrace/).
- Rachel Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018), xi.
- Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face, xvi.
- Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face, xii.
- Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face, xii.
- Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face, 5.
- Rachel Hollis, Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals. (New York: Harper Collins Leadership. 2019), xiii.
- Hollis, Girl, Stop Apologizing, xxi.
- Rise Podcast with Rachel Hollis, episode 102, “Finding a Bigger Dream with Ed Mylett,” June 25, 2019, https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/rise-together/rise-podcast/e/62147556 (time mark approximately 57).
- Hollis, Girl, Stop Apologizing, xiv.
- Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face, 132.
- Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face, xv.
- 2 Corinthians 4:4. All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- 2 Corinthians 4:7–10.
- 2 Corinthians 5:1–3.
- Matthew 6:33.