Although it came out in 2004, Sarah Young’s devotional has seen a steady increase in popularity over the last two years. Published by Thomas Nelson, Jesus Calling has to be one of the more popular devotionals today. While Challies reviewed it last year, I had not given it much thought until recently, when the radio station I listen to started reading excerpts from it every morning. I was understandably startled to hear Jesus speaking directly to me, through my speakers, on a daily basis.
If you are not familiar with it, Jesus Calling is a collection of transcribed messages that were given verbatim from Jesus to Sarah. As such, they are all in the first person from Jesus’ perspective. Here is a typical example (from the day I wrote this review):
(July 8) “When you seek my face, put aside thoughts of everything else. I am above all, as well as in all; your communion with me transcends both time and circumstances. Be prepared to be blessed bountifully by my Presence, for I am a God of unlimited abundance. Open wide you heart and mind to receive more and more of Me. When your Joy in me meets my Joy in you, there are fireworks of heavenly ecstasy. This is eternal life here and now: a tiny foretaste of what waits you in the life to come.”
Most of the book is relatively harmless, content wise. There are some minor issues where I would object to the actual content of the devotionals, but generally the book is so generic and positive that it stays out of serious theological ditches.
Except for the entire motive/method of the devotional. In the introduction, Young explains that before Jesus started giving her these messages, she used to simply read her Bible for her devotionals. But her times in prayer and in the Word were dry. She writes about that period of spiritual dryness in the introduction:
“I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day.”
So this started her quest. She began having her devotions in a quiet room, with her Bible, pen, and notebook, listening for the Lord to talk to her. She would then write down verbatim what she heard. And the messages began coming. She filled notebook after notebook, and this became the norm for her spiritual life. She writes, “This practice of listening to God has increased my intimacy with Him more than any other spiritual discipline.” Obviously, this is more powerful than simply praying and reading the word.
If Young’s story would have ended there, then I personally would probably question the legitimacy of her experience, and I’d have questions like “what kind of accent does Jesus have? British or American?” I’d like to think that I would keep those kind of questions to myself, and quietly move about my day.
But Young’s story doesn’t end with Jesus talking to her every morning. Rather, Young took what she perceived to be happening to the next logical step. If these messages she was receiving were indeed from Jesus, than surely they should not be reserved only for her. So she has formatted them into devotional form, edited them, added some italics to show references to Scripture, and the result is Jesus Calling.
To be clear, Young grants that this book is not Scripture…but she never explains how it is different from Scripture. She does grant that the content of Jesus Calling should be measured against Scripture—but that is true of Scripture as well. In the end, there is no substantial difference in how Young expects us to view Jesus’ words to her, than how we are to view the Bible. I mean, Jesus’ words to Sarah are literally packaged into a devotional, so that we can our devotionals from them every day. Nelson was even kind enough to include dates on each page.
As I said earlier, it is not that the actual content is heretical or anything. It does romanticize Jesus from a feminine perspective; He sounds like a female motivational speaker, always wanting to hold us close, in his powerful, wonderful, tender, presence. He always wants to give us peace as we seek his face in the morning, in the quiet, in the still of our hurried hearts. Don’t try to hide from him, because he will pursue us in tender but strong ways, until his beauty grabs hold of us and captures us and enthralls us. And so on.
It seems obvious to me that Young has projected her thoughts of what Jesus would say to her onto paper, as if it was Jesus speaking to her. If that is the case, she is making Jesus out in her own image, and the content certainly bears that out.
I do feel compelled to point out that I have met a number of women who love this book. I have talked to widows who used Jesus Calling to find comfort after their husbands died. I know of small groups that study this book. It has so many Scripture references in it, that it’s easy to start a daily Bible study simply by looking up all the cross references. And as I said, most of the content is harmless. I understand how if someone is able to get past what Young says the book is, and just pillage her cross references, this could be a helpful book.
But I can’t get past what she says it is. Underneath all of this is the fact that Young has recorded new revelation from God, spoken audibly to her, on a nearly daily basis, and now I am supposed to have my devotionals from God’s words to her. I just can’t get past that to the content of the actual words Jesus allegedly spoke.
And it is also worth pointing out that while the actual content of the devotionals is harmless enough, Sarah Young’s Jesus does not sound anything like the Jesus of the Bible. In the gospels, Jesus has a profound depth to him. His words can be mined for content, cross references, and prophetic implications. There is a richness and depth to his words that make them unlike anything ever spoken before. They have a way of convicting the heart, and showing God to the world. They are not merely human words.
Maybe that is what Young means when she says that her book is not Scripture. Maybe she just means that the Jesus she hears is not as profound as the Jesus of the Gospels. The normal charismatic distinction between this sort of word-from-the-Lord and Scripture is that Scripture is universal in application, while ongoing revelation is limited in intent to the direct recipient. But that out is not available here, as the book is literally packaged for us to read. And the goal is not for us to read it at the bus stop. But the goal is for us to read it for our devotions.
So Young’s Jesus may not have the depth of the Scriptures, but he should be the source of our devotions?
The entire book is troubling because it steers readers away from the sufficiency of Scripture. It teaches them that Bible reading is dry, but a personal word from the Lord is available. Young even writes, “the more difficult my life circumstances, the more I need these encouraging directives from my Creator.” I have been preaching verse-by-verse through Psalm 119, and that Psalm makes the point that the more difficult the circumstance, the more you need to rely on the truth of Scripture. It is evident that Psalm 119’s attitude about Scripture is exactly contrary to Young’s.
Thus, I find Jesus Calling troublesome, and would not recommend it. I grant that a person could read it without giving much thought to the introduction, and just take the devotionals as a clever way to talk about God from a new perspective. If that is the case, then go for it. But having made the mistake of reading the introduction, I just can’t go back. Every time I see it, I’m stuck on the fact that Young is selling these words as if they were God’s words. And that (as R. C. Sproul often says) “is a serious theological no-no.”