A few days ago a good friend of mine told me of his growing concern about Sarah Young’s incredibly popular devotional, Jesus Calling. This book has captured the attention of a wide audience since it was released in 2004 and has reportedly sold more than 15 million copies. My friend, who has been reading it for several years, recently came across some controversy online regarding the author’s authenticity and the orthodoxy of the devotions she has written. It made him uneasy enough that he stopped reading the devotional altogether, concerned it may be distorting the true Gospel of Jesus.
I have not used the book as a devotional personally but my wife has. She’s read it for years (that’s her dog-eared copy of the book in the big photo above) and shared from it in her jail and recovery ministry work. She has also shared entries from the book with friends and family, including me. The few devotions I’ve looked at seemed great, though I wasn’t reading them with a critical eye for theology at the time. It is with that level of personal exposure and bias that I began reading through some of the critical articles and videos that my friend had shared with me about the book. It seems there are a number of questions being raised, largely around Young’s decision to write in the first person from Jesus’ perspective. Is she putting words in Jesus’ mouth? Is she claiming to have heard from Jesus, or to be channeling Jesus? Is she claiming that her words are inspired? Is she claiming that God’s Word is not enough on its own? Is her theology unsound? Is she corrupting the teachings of Jesus as found in the Bible? And so on.
Rather than engaging with the critics’ arguments, I decided to start my search for answers by taking a close look at the book myself. There were two areas of concern that I wanted to explore. First was its premise and intention; what is the book trying to accomplish and what does it say about itself? The second area was its content; what is the book actually teaching to its readers?
Scripture & Art
I should mention up front that I hold a high view of Scripture, believing that the Bible is the perfect and only standard of spiritual truth; it is the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God. I believe all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly within its pages. So as much as I may have been biased toward Jesus Calling at the outset of my research, I was fully prepared to denounce it wherever I found it in contradiction with God’s Word.
At the same time, when it comes to artistic domains such as music and creative literature I tend to leave plenty of room for grace. Obviously, if something is clearly in opposition to what the Bible says we need to reject it outright; Scripture is the supreme authority on any matter on which it speaks. But there are many important questions on which Scripture is silent. And there are also many ways to state a truth without necessarily losing its essence. The forty or so authors who wrote the Bible over the course of 1,500 years certainly found ways to express the same basic truth in different ways. So when ideas are communicated by people—especially the eloquent and creative expressions of poets, authors, and musicians—I tend to be generous when I am interpreting their works. We worship a God Whose ways are so much higher than our ways (Isa 55:8-9) that the fullness of His Truth cannot be entirely captured within the walls of man-made doctrine (Ecc 8:17). A God who can be fully and exhaustively understood by human beings is not worthy of our worship (Job 26:14)!
It’s especially important to keep this sense of balance in mind when it comes to incredibly popular works like Jesus Calling that reach a wider audience that includes many seekers and non-believers. We certainly don’t want to tickle the ears of a dying world with a heretical false gospel that ultimately endangers their salvation. And at the same time, we need to be mindful of our witness and not broadcast our insider family bickering to the world at large. There are a lot of lost and hurting souls just trying to get through life—people who need to hear about Jesus’ love and saving grace—and they are not helped by hearing us argue over tertiary matters of theology. What Jesus taught was shockingly simple; love God and love people. So when we criticize works by other Christians we need to ask ourselves if we are truly guarding the Word of God against heretical distortion, or if we might be criticizing something of redeeming value that we don’t personally like or understand. We fallen humans are too often prone to chop the tallest tree down to size to make our tree seem taller. So it’s important that as Christians we check our motives. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35.
But I digress. Back to the book!
The Premise & The Approach
In the introduction to Jesus Calling, author Sarah Young gives us some personal background on herself. It seems she not only has years of experience in ministry, she also has formal theological training, having earned a master’s degree in counseling and biblical studies from Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis. So she should have a good grasp of the theological concepts she is sharing in this book. And I think that’s reflected in the introduction where she talks about her journaling changing from a monologue to a dialog, saying, “Of course, I knew my writings were not inspired—as only Scripture is—but they were helping me grow closer to God.” And she later adds, “The Bible is the only infallible, inerrant Word of God, and I endeavor to keep my writings consistent with that unchanging standard. I have written from the perspective of Jesus speaking, to help readers feel more personally connected with Him.”
So far, so good. She is not claiming to be channeling the literal words of Jesus, as if she were a modern-day apostle under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Rather she is acknowledging the authority of Scripture and has simply chosen a literary device—that of phrasing her devotions from the perspective of Jesus speaking—as a way to present the truths of Scripture to the reader in a new way. I don’t see this as necessarily heretical or inappropriate, as long as the reader understands that the words they are reading are Sarah Young’s and as long as those words align with what Scripture teaches.
The heuristic technique of taking a familiar passage and reading it in a different person or voice is used every week by pastors giving Sunday sermons. And it’s very Biblical to pray the Psalms, where you take a Psalm and rephrase it as a personal prayer to God. And perhaps the biggest example of this sort of personal interpretation of Scripture is the Message translation of the Bible in which Eugene Peterson literally restates the entire Bible in his own words. In the introduction of Jesus Calling, Young explains this is basically what she is doing.
However, I did notice something interesting. In comparing the physical copy that my wife owns (which is at least 10 years old) to the edition found online, I noticed some parts of the introduction have been edited. In the older version Young states, “The practice of being still in God’s presence has increased my intimacy with Him more than any other spiritual discipline, so I want to share some of the messages I have received.” But in the newer edition, that sentence has been edited to instead end with “…so I wanted to share some of the writings I have gleaned from these quiet moments.” Changing “messages I have received” to “writings I have gleaned” could have been in response to some of the controversy that has been raised. I’m not sure. Here one could give Young (or her publisher) the benefit of the doubt and assume the text was edited to provide clarity. Or one could assume nefarious motives and suspect it was edited in an attempt to blur the lines of a heretical theology. Without evidence to the contrary, and considered within the context of the book as a whole, I am going with the former interpretation. I think this devotional presents itself clearly as Sarah Young’s writings about her time spent seeking God, not teachings on par with Scripture itself.
That said, I can see where a warning about this book might be merited. The literary device Young has chosen could be a bit dangerous in that it makes it easy for some readers to mistake Young’s words as coming directly from the mouth of Jesus. Some readers may never take the time to read the introduction or may forget about it over time. So it’s incumbent upon the reader of Jesus Calling to bear in mind that while what they are reading may contain a lot of truth, it does not carry the authority of Holy Scripture. This is true of any devotional, really, and based on what she wrote in the introduction to the book, I don’t think Young would disagree that it applies to her as well.
Examining The Content
This brings me to the second area I wanted to look at, which is the actual content of the devotionals. What is this book teaching and what does it say about Jesus? Does it align with Scripture? Is it’s emphasis on Christ? Here the workload of the careful reader increases exponentially because each entry needs to be assessed on its own. This is, again, true for any devotional. And, short as they are, I certainly don’t have the time or inclination to assess each of Jesus Calling’s 365 entries. But I will take the time to dig into one of them and then spot-check a few others. Let’s look at the devotion for my birthday, March 18 and see if there is scriptural support for it.
Each sentence contains either a truth claim or a directive. So I’ve approached this entry line by line, working out what I think each statement means and then researching Scripture to see if I could find any passages that support that meaning. And it turns out I was able to find plenty:
I tried to be careful not to pull any verses out of context, but I’m not perfect and there is ample room for interpretation. So I’ve linked each passage above to BibleGateway.com in case an enterprising reader wants to check my work. I’d welcome a dialog or any corrections on my proof texts. In addition to the verses linked above, I also came across this passage in Jeremiah that seemed to me to support the overall meaning and spirit of the March 18th devotion:
But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.
To me, this particular entry is a beautiful expression of biblical truth. That doesn’t mean Young’s entire book is sound, of course. One would have to check every entry to know that for sure. But I did browse a dozen or so entries and saw nothing that raised any red flags for me. So while critics have raised questions, I personally find Jesus Calling to be scripturally sound, Christ-focused and reverent. I think the author gets it right on the big theological themes and the essential elements of our faith that C. S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity”. If you were to use this devotional every day for a year you would not come away with a higher view of yourself or of author Sarah Young. You would come away with a higher view of the biblical Jesus, and a better understanding of your relationship to Him. And I consider that a sign of a great devotional.