Book Review: Jesus Calling by Sarah Young
I first became familiar with Sarah Young’s book, Jesus Calling, about two years ago when the wife of a church elder (former church) recommended the book as a wonderful devotional tool, and said that it would be helpful for any believer at any level of maturity. I was struggling with a number of spiritual issues, so I decided to peruse the book to see if it would be a good devotional tool for me. When I started reading excerpts from the book, what I found was disturbing because each section was written as if it were actually God speaking directly to the reader. Not only did I find this to be, at best, presumptuous, but it also illustrated what I believe is one of the major errors in Christian pop culture: a low or distorted view of God that often results in a distorted view in the value and sufficiency of Scripture. I decided then that this book wasn’t for me, but I didn’t think much about it until recently, when I noticed how many people were quoting the book and recommending it to their friends. I decided that I wanted to do more detailed research to try and understand what was so alluring about this book. What I discovered was far worse than my initial impression of the book. I learned that the author wasn’t simply attempting to use a clever, literary technique to make the book more personal to the reader. Sarah Young actually believed that these “devotionals” were direct, specific messages that she received (and continues to receive) from God when she quietly waited with pen and paper. When we see the following types of phrases or comments, a major red flag should be raised:
- “…I wanted more than just the Bible…”
- …I just didn’t feel close to God by reading the Bible…”
- “…more than just scripture…”
The Sufficiency of Scripture
Before I begin to review the book, it is important to review the basis for Christian faith and practice. The consistent message in both the old and new testament is that God has graciously given us his revelation in the form of the scriptures in order to provide us all that we need to establish and maintain right fellowship with God and with other believers. Here is what God’s word has to say about sufficiency of his revelation:
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3: 14-17 [ESV]
While there is significantly more testimony in scripture about its own sufficiency, and books could be written on this subject alone, I think that 2 Timothy 3:14-17 makes it clear that scripture is all that is needed for a fulfilled and complete life in Christ.
Unfortunately, the author of Jesus Calling, and the authors of the book that inspired her, reject the Bible’s claim of sufficiency, as will be illustrated in the review.
Sarah Young claims that her direct, audible communication from Jesus is not on par with Scripture (not inspired or not authoritative), yet she clearly claims that she is communicating the specific messages that she receives from Jesus and she writes in the first person as if she is Jesus actually speaking to us. She doesn’t even attempt to suggest that these messages are simply her own conclusions as she reads scripture, but rather when she eliminates all other influences & distractions and waits for a message. It would be quite different if she were simply summarizing what she learned after her quiet times of reading scripture and prayer, but this claim of direct revelation from Jesus is another thing altogether.
Millard J. Erickson states:
“…God himself is the ultimate authority in religious matters. He has the right, both by virtue of who he is and what he does, to establish the standard for belief and practice. With respect to major issues he does not exercise authority in a direct fashion, however. Rather, he has delegated that authority by creating a book, the Bible. Because it conveys his message, the Bible carries the same weight God himself would command if he were speaking to us personally.” [emphasis added] (Christian Theology, Millard J. Erickson, volume 1, pp. 245-246)
Erickson’s statement summarizing the authority of Scripture rightly concludes that God’s direct communication to man is always authoritative, is wholly contained in the Bible and is in fact His personal message to each and every person. This fact makes Sarah Young’s position about her writings untenable. It is inconsistent with the basic theological understanding that God’s communication to man is always authoritative.
In fact, Sarah Young’s claim of receiving direct, audible, word for word communication from Jesus goes even beyond the doctrine of inspiration. Dr. John Battle of Western Reformed Seminary:
“Verbal inspiration means that the process of inspiration applies to the very words used in the biblical books. It does not mean that God mechanically dictated the words of the Bible, but that those words express the thoughts that God intended, and, being correctly interpreted, are free from errors of fact, doctrine, or judgment.” (Theology I: Revelation and Theological Method, Western Reformed Seminary, Dr. John A. Battle, Th.D.) [emphasis added]
In order to accept her claim that these messages come directly from Jesus, yet also accept that they are not inspired or authoritative, we must turn off our basic, God-given ability to use our minds. We are expected to completely ignore one of the fundamental principles of logic, the principle of noncontradiction (“x” can’t be both “x” and “not x”). If she says that Jesus is speaking to her specifically, then by its very nature, it must be divine, inspired & authoritative. It can’t be a direct message from Jesus and not authoritative. Her claim of specific, verbal, direct revelation from Jesus even goes beyond how God says he gave His Word to the prophets:
20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 1 Peter 1:20-21 (ESV)
The doctrine of inspiration, says that God speaks to man through the Holy Spirit, and that it is inerrant, divine & authoritative: in other words, Holy Scripture. Given this understanding of the nature of God’s communication to man, we must acknowledge that anyone who claims to a receive direct, specific communication from Jesus is either giving us new, authoritative truth (scripture) or is making a false claim (false prophet). It can’t be both “x” and “not x”:
God’s spoken words to man = x Scripture = y A spirit speaking to Sarah Young = z
If x=y and z < y, then z can never = x.
I’m not intentionally trying to be harsh by using the term “false prophet”, I’m just calling it what scripture calls it. By the way, I don’t agree with some book reviewers who state that, at least it is doctrinally sound. If Mrs. Young claims that it is directly from God, yet it is not authoritative, then it can’t be from God and it can’t be sound. Much of it is esoteric, vague, mystical, man-centered exhortations from which one has difficulty determining any practical meaning & at the worst, it’s gobbledygook. Either way, it’s a poor substitute for simply reading the Scripture, or even a clear, simple explanation of the Scripture. Somehow, evangelical pop culture has embraced the idea that calling something a “devotional” frees it from basic scriptural and theological standards.
When any person claims to be writing/speaking direct words from Jesus, the believer has but two options:
1. Accept what they are saying as directly from Jesus and add them to the bible
2. Reject what they are saying altogether, for God has made it clear that if anyone claims to be directly speaking His words (prophesying: to reveal by divine inspiration), they are either truly God’s source for communicating to us or they are false. The scripture doesn’t give us any other options, regardless of that person’s good intentions.
If we believe that the Bible is sufficient & complete as it claims (2 Timothy 3:16), then we must choose number 2 above as the only proper response to this book.
Similarity to Eastern Mysticism
At the heart of eastern mysticism (new age movement) is the idea that subjective experience is reliable and that there is no objective truth. Eastern mystics would say that what is true for you doesn’t mean that it’s true for them or for all people. They would elevate their experience over objective truth virtually every time. In a similar fashion, Sarah Young has elevated her experiences over the Scriptures.
Sarah Young’s conversion experience that she describes in her book sounds nothing like anything that I understand about conversion as it’s taught in Scripture. There is nothing about acknowledgement of her sinfulness, of God’s perfect provision in His Son, Jesus Christ, nothing about trusting Him and Him alone as her Savior, nothing about repentance, nothing about Jesus taking her place on the cross, etc.
“Suddenly I felt as if a warm mist enveloped me. I became aware of a lovely Presence, and my involuntary response was to whisper, “Sweet Jesus.” This utterance was totally uncharacteristic of me, and I was shocked to hear myself speaking so tenderly to Jesus. As I pondered this brief communication, I realized it was the response of a converted heart; at that moment I knew I belonged to Him.”
I know of no example in Scripture even remotely resembling anything described above and certainly no example of “involuntary response” except from those described as being possessed by demonic entities. Granted, she may have left out the theological details of her conversion to focus simply on the experience alone, but even if this is the case, it further illustrates her unhealthy emphasis on experience over the objective truth of God’s word.
One of the more eye opening “experiences” that she relates is the following:
“One morning as I prayed, I visualized God protecting each of us. I pictured first our daughter, then our son, and then Steve encircled by God’s protective Presence, which looked like a golden light. When I prayed for myself, I was suddenly enveloped in brilliant light and profound peace. I lost all sense of time as I experienced God’s Presence in a powerful way. I had not sought the experience, but I received it gratefully and was strengthened by it.” [emphasis added]
The similarity to eastern religion (visualization, encircled/enveloped in golden light, losing all sense of time, involuntary actions, etc.) cannot be ignored and should be, at the very least, alarming.
Around the same time as the “prayer” experience mentioned above, Sarah Young says that she began reading the book God Calling, by “…two anonymous female “listeners”…” as they are described. Here is her description of their practice which resulted in the writings that became God Calling:
“These women practiced waiting quietly in God’s Presence, pencils and paper in hand, recording the messages they received from him.”
Here is what the two anonymous women have to say about their experiences: (God Calling, The Voice Divine, p. xiv):
“But with my friend, a very wonderful thing happened. From the first beautiful messages were given to her by our Lord himself, and every day from then these messages have never failed us.
We felt all unworthy and overwhelmed by the wonder of it, and were encouraged day by day by him personally, when millions of souls, far worthier, had to be content with guidance from the Bible, sermons, their churches, books and other sources.” [emphasis added]
“Always, and this daily, he insisted that we should be channels of love, joy and laughter in this broken world.” [emphasis added]
“Totally unexpected interpretations of his own words were given.”
“An adverse verdict on seeing visions of himself, which we had hitherto thought granted only to the saintliest and, most strongly stressed of all, the immense power given to two souls praying together in close union and at one in their desire to love and serve him.”
Just as the “anonymous listeners” demonstrated their low view of scripture in the passage above, Sarah Young described how, in the same manner as the “anonymous listeners” and with the same dissatisfaction with the scripture, she received her messages from Jesus:
“I knew God communicated to 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. It felt awkward the first time I tried, but I received a message.” [emphasis added]
She later says that the messages soon began flowing more freely. She also says that:
“…these messages were not inspired as Scripture is, but they were helping me grow closer to God.”
The question must be asked: if these messages are directly from Jesus, but they are not inspired, what are they? If they aren’t inspired, why should anyone accept her claim that they are from Jesus or have any value at all? As I have already concluded in this review, it is impossible for Jesus to deliver a message that isn’t authoritative.
Is it possible that there is a different source for these messages? I would suggest that the manner in which these “messages” are communicated is suspiciously similar to what eastern mystics would describe as channeling. Here is a description of channeling by Rick Branch from the Watchmen Fellowship:
“Simply stated, Channeling is the process whereby a human host claims to enter into an altered state of consciousness thereby allowing a spirit entity or alien being from some distant physical or spiritual realm to take possession of their body and give instructions to New Age believers.
This altered state can be in varying degrees of control. Some channelers will have complete control of their body and simply speak the message of the spirit guide. Others will completely loose consciousness, entering a deep trance as the message is given from the entity. Upon their return to consciousness those who enter the deep trance state will remember none of the message. A third group of channelers will often remain conscious but will voluntarily yield control of their body for the purposes of allowing the entity to use their hands for writing messages. This form of Channeling is more commonly known as Automatic Writings.”(http://www.watchman.org/profile/chanpro.htm) [emphasis added]
While the experience that Sarah Young had may just be the imaginations of a delusional woman, the similarities between her experiences, the experiences of the “anonymous listeners” of God Calling, and the practice of channeling should certainly cause concern on the part of biblically sound believers.
Sarah Young (and the “anonymous listeners”) has shown quite clearly that she rejects the sufficiency of scripture and has been compelled by voices/forces unknown to add to the scripture in order to have a more fulfilling Christian life. By rejecting the sufficiency of Scripture, Sarah Young rejects the wisdom of Psalm 1:
1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
On this basis alone, this book should be avoided. Just as disconcerting is the occult-like nature in which she receives these messages, yet she somehow expects believers to accept these as coming from Jesus himself and as being the key to a deep, fulfilled Christian life.
On the contrary, the scriptures are sufficient and infinitely more valuable for intimacy with God, for they contain everything needed to be equipped for every good work.
Here are a couple of additional reviews of the book that I think are worth reading:
From Sola Sisters: Warning About Popular Book “Jesus Calling”
From Michael Horton via The Whitehorse Inn Blog: Review of Jesus Calling
A response to Sarah Young’s book can be found here: Another Jesus Calling by Warren B. Smith (I haven’t read this book, so this is not necessarily an endorsement, just another possible resource)
A new article by Ruth Graham published in the Daily Beast, provides very insightful analysis of the phenomenon around the book “Jesus Calling”. In the article, The Strange Saga of Jesus Calling, Ruth Graham articulates how Thomas Nelson publishers has recognized the New Age implications of how Ms. Young received “these messages”. Instead of operating with integrity by pulling the book, they engage in what I would call deception by revising the introduction to remove Ms. Young’s references to her inspiration by the book “God Calling” and her experiences of “channelling” these communications that she receives. Thomas Nelson even goes so far as to ask Ms. Graham not to use the word channelling in her article about the book. You see, there’s just too much money being made by Thomas Nelson to pull this atrocious book from the shelves.