Few Christian books have sold as well and been shared as widely as Sarah Young’s devotional Jesus Calling. It has inspired a number of spinoffs, including Jesus Lives, Dear Jesus, Jesus Calling for Little Ones, Jesus Calling Bible Storybook, Jesus Calling: 365 Devotions for Kids, and Peace in His Presence. Altogether, they’ve sold more than 25 million books worldwide.
Recently the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association named Jesus Always, Sarah’s follow up to Jesus Calling, as its 2018 Christian Book of the Year. Given the widespread influence of her books, which is only growing, it seemed time to address some concerns directly on my own blog. (This blog is way longer than my normal posts. If you wish to leave a Facebook comment or send an email, please read the post in its entirety first so you have the full content.)
I’ve hesitated a long time to write about Jesus Calling, because I don’t want to send the wrong message. I’m not saying God doesn’t or can’t speak to you or others through it. He can speak through whomever He wants to, however and whenever. For example, many people have told me they learned about God’s love for them for the first time while reading The Shack. The author puts words in God’s mouth, is a universalist, and effectively denies Hell, and yet I believe God can use a book in people’s lives despite serious errors. (See my lengthy article on The Shack and my shorter blog on Paul Young’s book Lies We Believe About God.)
But how can I argue with my friends who say God used The Shack to deepen their walk with Christ? All I can say is, there are things in the book I don’t believe are true to God’s Word—and there are things in Lies We Believe About God that definitely contradict Scripture.
Now, my reservations with Jesus Calling are NOT that I believe the book is full of heresies. No doubt, there’s much that is valid and true. But I think there are still cautions that need to be shared. What concerns me is the basic premise of someone actually recording words of Jesus that they believe God has spoken to them, but which don’t appear in Scripture (even if most of them don’t contradict Scripture). That’s what I’ll focus on in this blog.
For those not familiar with the format of the book, each entry of the devotional has a message written as though Jesus is speaking directly to the reader, followed by a list of related Scripture references. (Some recent versions include the actual biblical text, which is definitely an improvement.)
In the introduction to Jesus Calling Sarah Young writes,
…I began to wonder if I could change my prayer times from monologue to dialogue. I had been writing in prayer journals for years, but that was one-way communication: I did all the talking. 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. I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believed He was saying. I felt awkward the first time I tried this, but I received a message. It was short, biblical, and appropriate. It addressed topics that were current in my life: trust, fear, and closeness to God. I responded by writing in my prayer journal.
My journaling had changed from monologue to dialogue. Soon, messages began to flow more freely, and I bought a special notebook to record these words. This new way of communicating with God became the high point of my day. I knew these writings were not inspired as Scripture is, but they were helping me grow closer to God.
I have continued to receive personal messages from God as I meditate on Him.
The biggest problem with Jesus Calling is very simple: Jesus did not speak these words. If these were His words, then Jesus Calling would be Scripture, which is by definition the words of God. So if it’s not (and it isn’t) on an inspired and trustworthy level like Scripture itself, then it’s making a false claim. In fact, regardless of whether it’s biblically sound, it’s an entire book built on falsehood.
Tim Challies addresses the fact that in the early printings of Jesus Calling, Sarah Young acknowledged her profound debt to the “Two Listeners” who wrote the book God Calling. That has now been removed from the introduction, but it doesn't change the fact that God Calling influenced her deeply. Here's one of many troubling passages from God Calling:
How often mortals rush to earthly friends who can serve them in so limited a way, when the friends who are freed from the limitations of humanity can serve them so much better, understand better, protect better, plan better, and even plead better their cause with Me.
In other words, look to dead people for guidance and help. I remember vividly the negative effect God Calling had in churches. As Tim notes, “This book [God Calling] was unorthodox both in its writing and in its content and in many ways more closely resembles the New Age movement than orthodox Christianity. Still, Young says it ‘became a treasure to me.’”
The fact that this book had such a profound impact on her is concerning.
When Sarah writes, “I decided to ‘listen’ with pen in hand, writing down whatever I ‘heard’ in my mind,” she is taking her subjective sense of God speaking to her and trusting that her words to readers are actually, in some sense, God’s Words. This is putting words in His mouth, and incredibly dangerous. It’s like The Shack in that regard, where different members of the trinity are quoted as saying specific words. But while Paul Young at least acknowledged he was writing fiction, Sarah Young appears to claim that her words are given to her by Jesus.
She goes on to explain, “I have written from the perspective of Jesus speaking, to help readers feel more personally connected with Him. So the first person singular (‘I,’ ‘Me,’ ‘My,’ ‘Mine’) always refers to Christ; ‘you’ refers to you, the reader.”
Now, Sarah tries to balance this by writing, “The Bible is, of course, the only inerrant Word of God; my writings must be consistent with that unchanging standard.” I appreciate that, and of course I agree that’s true for any author, me included. We should all be like the Bereans, evaluating what we read against Scripture (Acts 17:11). So we write what we think honors God and is in keeping with His word. However, we should always know that inevitably we will say some things that are not what God would actually say. Why? Because we are flawed and imperfect and our words are not God-breathed, as Scripture is.
I’m certainly in favor of Sarah or anyone else journaling what they believe God is speaking to them as they read Scripture. But I’m not in favor of publishing it for others to believe these are words God is speaking to them. If someone wrote a book attributing their own words to Bill Gates, Tom Brady, Chuck Norris, or Julia Roberts, what would happen? In addition to the lawsuits, no one would trust the author.
If personal pronouns attributing the author's words to Jesus weren’t used, and instead Sarah said “These are thoughts God brought to my mind,” then you could evaluate what she has written in light of Scripture. But Jesus Calling is simply written from Jesus’ perspective, as if they’re direct quotations from Him, which is radically different. And when people read it, many of them actually respond, even if subconsciously, as if these ARE the words of Jesus.
I have a friend who loves Jesus Calling and says she reads it just as she would read a book by me or anyone else, realizing the words are Sarah Young’s, not the perfect words of Jesus. But of course when it is supposedly Jesus speaking the words, many readers who aren’t biblically grounded will naturally think “Jesus is speaking, and I need to believe what He’s saying.”
So yes, some people no doubt realize these are not the words of Jesus, but that’s easy to forget when the premise is (and the use of the personal pronouns indicate) that this really is Jesus speaking, not merely a flawed human author.
Very few Christian authors claim to speak words directly from God, and if they do make this claim we are right to be wary. Sure, all of us writers share our particular interpretations of what Jesus said. But Sarah appears to be making a greater claim by saying me and mine and I as though channeling Jesus, rather than quoting His words from the Bible.
It’s fine to have teachers who say, “This is what I think the Bible means.” It can be helpful as long as we’re careful to use discernment and evaluate the teaching based on Scripture. But this is looking at something outside of the Bible as if it were the word of God, and some sort of further insight from Jesus. Hence, whatever the author’s intention, it becomes equal to God’s Word, or even a substitute for it.
God warns us sternly, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you” (Deuteronomy 4:2, NIV).
Revelation 22:18-19 says, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.”
“Prophecy” is not merely prediction; it means “speaking words from God,” or what the speaker claims are words from God. How do we add to God’s Word? One way is by claiming that the words we say are His. No matter what else we might say, if we go beyond quoting Scripture, and say other things that we claim to be from God, then we’re equating them with Scripture, and thereby adding to God’s Word. Effectively, we’re also taking away from Scripture by denying its sufficiency and demeaning its exclusive authority.
Sarah writes in her 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.”
“Yearned for more” seems to indicate that what God has revealed in His inspired Word is not enough. And it’s not enough for readers either, or they wouldn’t need to go to her to hear what “Jesus” says.
But God’s Word has no substitute. It is sufficient, of a different nature than anything else. “But [Jesus] answered, ‘It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
James Montgomery Boice once said that the real battle in our times would not be the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture, but its sufficiency—are we going to rely on the Bible or will we continually long for other revelation? In Jesus Calling we see this so clearly. Young teaches that though the Bible is inerrant and infallible, it is insufficient. It was not enough for her and, implicitly, she teaches that it cannot be enough for us. After all, it was not reading Scripture that proved her most important spiritual discipline, but this listening, this receiving of messages from the Lord. It is not Scripture she brings to us, not primarily anyway, but these messages from Jesus.
The danger with books like this is that readers could think, “Reading and studying God’s Word isn’t as dynamic or interesting or personal as reading what Sarah writes.” Yet Scripture encourages us to go deep in studying and contemplating God’s Words, and to find our greatest pleasure in them:
“Like newborn infants, desire the pure milk of the word, so that you may grow up into your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2, CSB).
“When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart's delight” (Jeremiah 15:16a).
Psalm 1 talks about the righteous person who delights greatly in God’s Law. Likewise, we need to make sure our primary delight is in Scripture—not a particular writer, pastor, or teacher. A good test for readers of Jesus Calling is, “Am I motivated to spend more or less time in God’s Word after reading this?” In other words, does it drive you toward Scripture in a deeper and more serious way, or does it leave you feeling as if you’ve heard what you need to from God and received all the inspiration and peace you need for your day?
To be clear—I don’t think there is anything wrong with devotionals (I’ve written a number of them myself), provided they point us back to God’s Word as our primary source of strength, encouragement, correction, and direction. There are plenty of wonderful ones out there, from classics like Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening to modern books like Joni Eareckson Tada’s A Spectacle of Glory and Tim Keller’s God's Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs. Another excellent choice is the ESV Devotional Psalter, which pairs each of the 150 psalms with devotional content written by Dane Ortlund.
But these devotionals are distinctly different from Jesus Calling, in that they never claim to be the words of Jesus except when directly quoting Scripture. The author’s comments, like mine in all my books, are in no sense presented as the actual words of God.
In an interview with the New York Times, Sarah writes, “I agree that revelation has ceased in the sense that the Bible is complete. However, what I am doing is devotional writing, and I do so by asking Jesus to guide my mind as I spend time with Him—to help me think His thoughts.” This sounds to me like Sarah wants to affirm the Bible’s uniqueness, yet at the same time believes she is writing out the thoughts of God with such confidence that she can put her words into the mouth of Jesus.
We live in a day when biblical literacy is at an all-time low. The next book that fans of Jesus Calling read which claims to be words from Jesus may be mostly false, not true. Some will probably have the discernment to see where it contradicts the word of God, but many or even most people won’t. Sadly, very few people today are deeply immersed in Scripture. That’s the reason for my concern.
Another concern is that the “Jesus” Sarah presents in her book frequently has a very one-sided message. That can leave readers with a lopsided view of Jesus, one which doesn’t fully appreciate the depths of His character. And whether consciously or subconsciously, the messages we read in books do shape our view of God and our worldview.
In her response to the book, Kathy Keller, wife of pastor and author Tim Keller, writes,
Ms. Young says near the end of her introduction: “I have found themes of His Peace becoming more prominent in my writing. I’m sure this tendency reflects my personal need. However, when I get to know people, I find that most of them also desire the balm of Jesus’ Peace.” No doubt.
But is that all that God wants us to hear from him? Only messages of peace and comfort? Ms. Young thinks so (and says so, in the introduction), and her messages are consistently filled with that theme. Yet if you take even a very simple read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, like the one devised by Robert Murray M’Cheyne, you will find yourself encountering a complex, transcendent God, one who is holy, mysterious, righteous—not a tame God. He does promise his peace, deeply and profoundly, but there are many other things that God has said that we need to hear, or he wouldn’t have given us the whole Bible.
We should believe all that Scripture says about Jesus—whether it is palatable and makes sense to our finite little minds or not. He’s all the things the Bible reveals Him to be, including judge, friend, shepherd, and master. His attributes aren’t a smorgasbord for us to choose what we want and leave the rest untouched.
Jesus spoke some of the harshest words of condemnation in Scripture. The gentle, compassionate Jesus is also the Jesus who drove the merchant-thieves from the temple and spoke condemnation against self-righteous religious leaders. His less popular qualities so outraged people that they nailed Him to a cross.
We must look at the complete Jesus revealed in Scripture, lest we remake Him in our image, with His only attribute love or peace. By seeing Him in His holiness and love, His truth and His grace, we’ll learn to see the fullness of His beauty.
So whether or not you agree there are shortcomings and dangers with the Jesus Calling books, let’s all agree to dig deep into Scripture, making it our primary source of delight, joy, strength, encouragement, and yes, peace. Then, and only then, will we have the discernment to read other books as secondary and fallible, and only God’s Word as primary and infallible. If you’re going to quote Jesus (and I hope you do!), use the words He actually said, not the words He is portrayed as saying in Jesus Calling, or any other book.
Here are some articles that offer what I think are some valid cautions. I don’t agree with everything every one of them says (and some of them overlap with others), but as a whole I think most of their concerns are noteworthy:
Some commenters on Facebook have wondered if I don’t think God still speaks to us today. I absolutely believe God speaks to His people. I believe He speaks to me daily, though it is never with an audible voice. First, He speaks to me through His Word. He also speaks to me through other people. He speaks to me through His creation which testifies to His attributes. And though He’s never done so, He’s certainly capable of speaking to me audibly, with a voice from Heaven.
But none of this is my issue with Jesus Calling. I am not saying at all that God never speaks to His people today. What I am saying is that I and other people are flawed, and our understanding of what God is really speaking to us through His Word and other people and creation and life circumstances can be quite different than what God actually says in his word. The Bible is inspired in ways that “inspirational books and sermons” are not. It is utterly unique. And I am arguing that we should remind ourselves of that.
Several people mentioned that pastors when they preach are using words to teach people what God thinks and says. That is true to a degree, but they are or should be basing their arguments on the very words of God revealed in the biblical text they are preaching. Their words interpreting Scripture are distinctly different than the Word of God itself.
So that we are comparing apples with apples instead of oranges when it comes to sermons and the book Jesus Calling, suppose your pastor said, “Every word I say to you is from Jesus, so it is absolutely true and infallible.” Wouldn’t we rightly challenge that premise? If pastors said, as some (though thankfully few) actually do, after sharing their opinions, “Thus saith the Lord,” we would likewise object.
Suppose your pastor said, “For the next 40 minutes everything I say is actually not from me, but these will be the words of Jesus He revealed to me this week. So when I speak to you I am giving you Christ’s own words. I will speak in the first person on behalf of Jesus, starting now: ‘I love you, forgive you, and accept you. I am not here to judge you, but embrace you. I…’”
How would you respond?
I think if you understand this you will realize there’s really no comparison between pastors and writers giving their interpretations and Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling. 99% of pastors and writers are speaking on behalf of themselves in regard to Jesus. Sarah Young is speaking on behalf of Jesus Himself.