Jen Hatmaker is a well-known author, blogger, and speaker as well as a mom to five kids, a leader in her church, and a TV personality. (Phew! I feel exhausted just writing all of that!) But in the midst of what looks like a “big life,” Jen strives to make faith-driven, countercultural choices to help her stay rooted. We spoke to Jen about the “big life” pressure that each of us may feel at times and what it looks like to chart a different course.
We live with the pressure to live a “big life”—to do more, be better, all the time. What’s the spiritual danger of settling into a “more, more, more” mentality?
I’ve certainly felt that never-ending quest for more. I’d start down that path of acquiring more or buying better, and it just didn’t satisfy. That’s the little hidden secret: the quest for more doesn’t really have a finish line. It just keeps going and going and going.
A few years ago, it really hit me: I felt it in my heart, I felt it in my soul, I felt it in my checkbook. It seemed like there was never enough—even though we had plenty. My life was sort of a constant low simmer of discontent. God, I prayed, I don’t know how to stop the machine; I don’t know how to get out of it.
That’s what led our family to do the 7 Experiment which was, essentially, an extreme fast. We identified seven areas of our life that felt so excessive. They were food, clothes, spending, waste, possessions, media and technology, and stress. In every single one of those areas, we could say, without a doubt, “We have too much of this.”
So we focused on each of those areas for a month and boiled down that specific issue to just seven choices. For example, for one month we ate the same seven foods. For another month, we wore the same seven pieces of clothing. We tried to say, Okay, God, we are going to fast from this and just see what you do. We’re trying to create some room for you to speak and for us to listen and obey. So we really had no idea what it would end up looking like. We just knew that we had to pump the brakes on “more” in order to hear God whispering through all the excess.
Your book describing that fast, 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, was published in 2012. Since then, how has that unique fast from excess had a lasting impact on your family?
It radically changed our lives. We realized that we’d just defaulted: we’d defaulted on the way we spent, the way we lived, the way we wasted, the way we accumulated. We’d never really looked it square in the eye. So for us, we have some lasting changes from 7 that will never be undone. The specific “fast” aspect of 7 was never intended to be permanent—but some of the tenets of it became permanent. We can’t un-know what we know now.
So, for example, God really moved us so that now we spend our money and give our money differently. And now we conserve differently—not just financially but also ecologically. Today we live on only a portion of what we make, and with the rest of it, we ask God, What would you have us do? Being generous is the most exciting thing I have ever done.
Along with “more, more, more,” we also battle the drive to be very, very good at everything. But as you’ve written, there’s a high cost to always trying to be more awesome. How do you resist that pressure?
With the advent of social media, we’re now all ingesting a version of life that really isn’t even true. We can carefully curate our online identities; we can only put up the beautiful and completely leave out the ugly.
We each take in a constant barrage of a really high-achieving, highly-perfect version of life that we think everybody else is living. Meanwhile we know—because we live in our actual lives—that we are clearly not perfect. It creates a perceived gap that we try to bridge, but the gap itself is not even real. Everyone is way more ordinary than they let on!
In a culture like this, we’re not going to accidentally slip into a healthy mindset; instead we’re going to have to actively work for it. We need to intentionally understand that what we’re receiving is not a real picture of humanity. We may need to cut down on the social-media intake, and we definitely need to surround ourselves with people who are speaking enough truth, enough genuine reality, into our lives that we’re able to maintain sanity.
Part of this struggle is the desire we often feel to be liked and to make everyone happy. You’ve resolved to let go of that pressure—to stop trying to make “Not My People” happy. What does that choice look like in your life?
We’re just insecure people, aren’t we? I grew up as a people pleaser—I needed approval and affirmation. I really struggled if anyone didn’t like me.
But I’m realizing that it won’t matter what I do, it won’t matter what I say, it won’t matter how I conduct myself—there will always be people who are just not going to like me. And I cannot care about that. I just can’t. If I’m bending who I actually am in a constant effort to please people (some of whom will never be pleased), then I’ll end up living a fractured, disingenuous life.
I want to be clear, though, that I am very open to receiving constructive criticism and counsel from people who know and love me. May we always be open to that. For me, the antidote to this pressure to make everyone happy is twofold: First, I hold onto the reality that I have God who loves me and always tells me the truth. And, second, I have my friends—the same friends who’ve been in my life for 15 years. They’re not “fans”—they’re just real friends. We live a real life here, together in our little town, and it’s safe for me to just be ordinary and to listen to what’s true and real with them.
As your platform has grown—books, speaking, your blog, your TV show—how have you kept yourself spiritually rooted? What choices help you center yourself in God?
First, it’s the reality that about 90 percent of our life as a family is just completely ordinary—and we’re intentional about that. I’m driving my kids to school, we’re sitting at soccer practice, I’m cooking dinner for kids who say they “don’t like it.” We’re going to church on Sunday, and we’re going to birthday parties for friends. To be honest, I actually hate the whole “Christian celebrity” thing. I detest it. It makes me feel uncomfortable and un-centered—and so we push back by choosing to stay small in our real life, and that’s what we do.
Second, it’s the friends who always have permission to speak into our life. We have this simple, small, ordinary church that we love. It’s the safest place on planet earth for me. And we have the same friends we’ve had for ages, and we study Scripture together. They can say to us any time, “You’re acting too big for your britches,” or “You’re losing your humility,” or “You’re letting your values shift.” They have carte blanche to say that to us at any time, and we have promised to listen. Because we know that we’re human—we’re not above it. (No one is.)
For so many of us, suffering is a wake-up call that forces us to take stock of our lives. Right now, you’re on a journey through suffering with your mom as she battles cancer. How has that experience had an impact on the way you desire to live?
We don’t have answers regarding my mom’s health, but what I can say from the messy middle we’re in right now is that I am certain that God is still good. God always feels good when your life is going well. And you suspect that you’re going to think he’s good in suffering—but you don’t know if you’ll actually have that certainty when suffering hits close to home. So for me, discovering that in suffering God‘s presence is as dear and comforting and good in the struggle as it ever was—and even more so—is a relief.
Suffering is no respecter of persons; it will sneak up on you right in the middle of life. You can’t plan your way around it. When your very closest people are sick and you don’t have any guarantees of the future, you really begin to understand that life is fleeting. You understand it differently. You understand it deeply. These days of ours are precious—they sift through our fingers so fast.
For me, my mom’s diagnosis has been a renewed call: slow down. Just slow down. God calls us to live out the portion of our lives in ordinary ways: love your people, love your family, enjoy your life together, bear one another’s burdens. None of these simple things are fancy—none of them are going to make headlines. And none of those things are fast; they’re all slow.
This life is not a race. So right now, as a family, we’re circling the wagons and we’re asking, What can go? What can we let go of so that we have more time for each other? I’m not great at it—I really have to work hard at doing it—but I am hearing the call, and I’m trying to listen.