Rachel Hollis’s book, Girl, Wash Your Face, showcased among the top 10 bestselling books in America for the majority of 2018, and is now sporting over 10,000 Amazon reviews (80% are over 5 stars). Its sequel is #13 on Amazon.

On top of this, Hollis herself is the wildly successful owner of her own business empire, including motivational speaking, event planning, communications, and branding.

I’ve wondered, as an author and a woman: What is it about Rachel Hollis that makes her the “dark chocolate” of hundreds of thousands of Christian women? What does she satisfy—or at least claim to?

What should Christian women do about desire?

When my children were young and my life looked like a paper towel commercial, I experienced some intense inner combat. I loved motherhood and my children. Cherished its profound, intricate value.

Yet like my mommy-paunch, my desires felt smushed, concealed, and artfully dressed for the sake of a greater vision. “Worthy sacrifice” was (accurately) mentioned by writers I followed.

But (could I have told the truth then?)—I did possess a desire to achieve. My bookshelves and journals tell the story of my exploration of desire, popping out like a muffin top.

Whether I stayed at home or worked (I did both), Christian standards felt like they needed more teeth, more sturdiness to compete with not only women’s desires, but the biblical picture of women.

In the past, I have associated desire or ambition with selfishness. Vanity. A lack of concern for others. Loving myself more than my family. Or straight-up obnoxious. I associated dreams with not placing myself beneath authority, God’s and otherwise (though my husband is the loudest cheerleader of all as I charge forward).

Every one of those concerns are legit, healthy, reverent fears.

But occasionally, my fear of forgetting my family, or being a you-know-what, or letting my own sin show itself for exactly what it is, I have banished God-given desires and dreams to the same place. Maybe in exchange for a crock pot and other more reasonable undertakings.

“Dream smaller” for the kingdom of God?

Our five-plus years of living in Africa delivered CPR to a part of me that wanted to live for something bigger than myself and even my home. Finally—robust work for a visionary female.

Surely God hadn’t given women strength or ambition as only a cross to bear? One teary night, I remember questioning if my daughter needed to dream smaller for the kingdom of God.

I’d heard for so long about the goodness of sacrifice I’d personally felt guilty for any kind of ambition or desire. Desires the kingdom of God asks of me.

I have thought of God as wanting women to be strong, but not too strong.

Shauna Niequist writes,

What I’m circling ever nearer and nearer to is agency. Or maybe authority: owning one’s life, for better and worse…

In my experience, our culture teaches men to do this quite well. Women, it seems, have a much trickier time with it. It’s only quite recently that women have been permitted to ask these questions, and we’re just getting the hang of it.

And Christian women, desperate for a bigger dream, are willing to listen to even the person with the slightest theology say, “Crush it. Kill your lies and get out there.”

Hollis is ready to trumpet it. And she’s over-the-top fantastic in endearing array of traits. She’s that relatable, side-splitting best friend. Despite the just-right imperfection of her Insta feed and her writing, the rest of us with spit-up on our yoga pants can see the ways “Oh, she’s like me!”

And perhaps she is that friend a few steps down the road, or at least in a pair of fresh pants. She’s so stinkin’ entertaining and cute and cool (would you believe the descriptor “hipstian” came up in a Time interview?).

We Christian women are burning the jumpers and appliqued sweatshirts of the past in exchange for skinny jeans and tats. Hear us roar!

But aside from the super-cute wrapping, Hollis is saying what women want to hear.

You can be whoever you want to be. Because the only one stopping you is you. And I can show you what to do about that.

But is she right?

Looking at a few real women

Every one of us does womanhood differently. But note this. Being a woman of God didn’t mean biblical women like Miriam or Deborah or Jael or Esther shied away from bold leadership.

So I consider the word used to refer to Eve’s creation as “helper” in Genesis, ezer. In its 21 usages in the Old Testament, 16 refer to God. In nearly every occurrence, ezer refers to a military ally—all referring to men.

A military ally isn’t particularly dainty. She doesn’t use her role in the authority structure to hide in passivity, to avoid confrontation or conflict.

The Proverbs 31 woman is decisive and protective, making decisions about real estate, running her own business, crazy-industrious and perceptive. She’s a bit of a warrior-woman all on her own: “Strength and dignity are her clothing” (verse 25); “her arms are strong for her tasks” (verse 17).

Even our own Christian stereotypes can’t suck this out of God’s definition of womanhood. (Though I still fully believe and choose to arrange my life in what I believe to be God’s order, placing myself beneath my husband’s authority.)

These are the adjectives I scrawled to describe Deborah, a “Mother in Israel” (5:7), based on Judges 4-5. Hollis pings some of these within us:

  • boldness
  • courage
  • mightiness
  • “charging the hill”
  • confidence
  • perseverance
  • charisma
  • unshaken trust
  • decisiveness
  • leadership

Um. Do these describe my womanhood?

I definitely “charge the hill” when it comes to dishes. I am certainly bold when my child leaves a fingernail clipping on the table. I’m decisive when I want kids to cease screen time.

But fear is much more magnetic.

365 devotions for your marriage on the days you feel like it (and ones you don’t).

Fierce: Think higher with your strength

But I’ve got to ask. As women, do we get strength and ambition wrong? Does Rachel Hollis?

The rest of the world tells women to seize those dreams in the name of self, in some Tower of Babel revisited.

And frankly, I don’t think Hollis’ heroes—ourselves—are anywhere near big enough. A robust theology needs a robust God to go with it.

Otherwise, it’s a self-salvation project, with self as God. Hollis’s theology, it has been observed, is essentially “try harder.” And for your own ends.

And that, friends, is Hollis’s anti-Gospel theology.

Hollis does encourage that we’re made for something more. But it’s your version of more … When I’m in charge, I can live whatever life I want … Ambition looks like you living in a way others won’t so you will have a life others can’t.

Sacrifice and ambition are for that life you’ve always wanted, if I’m reading her right. Among her 10 daily resolutions, for example, include her refusal to fly anything other than first class.

But this view of sacrifice flies in the face of Philippians 2:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who … emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant …

See, I hear Jesus offering us a version of ambition washed not just in the face or from pet lies, but in blood: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25, emphasis added).

If I’m accepting my yoga pants and crock pot out of timidity or lack of courage? That’s a problem. But whether I’m toting a laptop or a diaper bag, my ambitions are in service of One.

As Dave Harvey asserts in Rescuing Ambition, “Ambitions are like a blowtorch. God ignites them, he points them in the right direction, and eternal work gets done. God’s work in God’s way for God’s glory. Why burn for anything else?”

Strong for so much more

The fortitude of biblical female leaders was for God and His purposes. It wasn’t for selfish ambition or conceit (Philippians 2:3-4). Or so they could pick up a better Louis Vitton bag.

It wasn’t because they needed to prove something or have something, or generally achieve superiority or a “beautiful life”—apart from the innate grace of a sweaty, bloody, cross-carrying version.

It wasn’t so they could say “You’re not the boss of me.” Or be enslaved by a bottomless pit of desires.

Jen Pollock Michel, in Teach Us to Want, does recall the Tower of Babel as a metaphor:

We are hell-bent on making a name for ourselves. Sinful desire has a cruel way of leading us out of God’s kingdom to Babylon, where we impertinently define good and then demand that God provide it on our terms. Those desires are neither trusting nor surrendered, and they lead us into the land of exile.

She continues,

We can easily make a god who is…committed to the achievement of our plans. This god will never ask us to relinquish our desires; he’s as intent upon our self-sovereignty as we are.

Hollis encourages a misled theology, persuading us to seize all the good on our own. To feed lies themselves—like “You are what you have.” “You are what others think of you.” Or even “You are what you do.”

Will I believe God to provide me what He determines “good,” even if it leads to my own death?

Girl, your strength isn’t for you

As Christians, we must diverge from Hollis. The ethos of the kingdom of God is one where the greatest among you is your servant.

It seems that in Hollis’s opinion, our schedules as women shouldn’t be hijacked by others’ needs: “Is your schedule populated by things that will make your life better, or is it dictated by everybody else’s wants and needs?”

If, like her, mothering at home isn’t in your “wheelhouse” like “giving keynote speeches, crushing it on social media … and planning live events where a thousand women fly in from all over the world to be inspired,” then don’t. “If you’re inconvenienced for someone, it should be with the expectation that will be reciprocal.”

(This is the part where I look at Jesus and say something clever. Like, “Whaaaat?”)

Friends, women can’t pursue strength to dominate or grab, any more than men should.

Courage and leadership, from Joan of Arc to Mother Teresa, is for a chance to wash more feet (John 13:14). To do what is gross and exhausting and loving and beautiful—not in name brands or resume, but by allowing Jesus kingship whether He leads through the laundry room or the boardroom.

We get you, Rachel. You’ve hit on something Christian women want, though we haven’t always had the courage to speak it.

But may we never use God’s tools of desire and ambition for any kingdom but His.

Girl, find your inner lion. For His sake alone.

Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), is planned to release March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.