Book Review: Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young
Here’s an out-of-left-field question: which book continues, at the time of this writing, to ride high within the “top ten” of Christian best-seller lists fifteen years after its initial release? If you guessed Jesus Calling by Sarah Young, you’re right. The longevity of this devotional’s success is no small phenomenon.
MERITS OF JESUS CALLING
Certainly some statements in Jesus Calling are sound and helpful. They might partially account for the book’s astounding success.
First, Jesus Calling reminds us that Jesus’ work on the cross is the foundation for being reconciled with God. Young teaches that Jesus’ substitutionary death and the imputation of His righteousness is the only means by which one can access God’s throne. “I died for your sins, that I might clothe you in My garments of salvation. This is how I see you: radiant in My robe of righteousness” (Feb. 28). Statements like this occur throughout the book.
Second, Jesus Calling warns readers against succumbing to false beliefs and idols that inhibit trust in Jesus. “Worship me only. Whatever occupies your mind the most becomes your god. Worries, if indulged, develop into idols” (Jan. 30). “Modern man seeks his positive focus elsewhere: in sports, sensations, acquiring new possessions. Advertising capitalizes on the longing of people. . . . I planted that longing in human souls, knowing that only I could fully satisfy it” (Feb. 12).
Third, Jesus Calling accurately describes the goal of the Christian’s life as being made fit by God for the life to come. “When I discipline you. . . . it is to prepare you for face-to-face fellowship with me throughout all eternity.” In the April 15 entry, there is this: “Instead of bemoaning the loss of your comfort, accept the challenge of something new. I lead you from glory to glory, making you fit for my kingdom.”
MISTAKES OF JESUS CALLING
If the positive elements mentioned above were the only principles found in Jesus Calling, there would be little reason for concern. The book, however, contains other features that ought to leave readers alarmed instead of assured.
The first troubling trait of Jesus Calling is Young’s decision to write “from the perspective of Jesus speaking.” Perhaps this perspective contributes to the book’s popularity. Unfortunately, it also places Young in a position of misleading her readers. By presenting her own words as those of our Lord’s, Young is attributing an unwarranted significance to them. While she gently affirms that “her writings are not inspired, as only Scripture is,” and that her goal is to “help readers feel more personally connected with Him,” her approach to writing can only result—however unintentionally—in preparing readers to be lulled into deception.
Second, while Jesus Calling acknowledges the value of the Bible, it considers Scripture to be only one of many ways that God reveals Himself. As Young writes, “I speak to you . . . through sights, sounds, thoughts, impressions, Scripture. There is no limit to the variety of ways I can communicate with you” (July 25).
While it is true that God may use different means to guide us, statements like this one are most unhelpful. Young makes no effort here, or elsewhere, to make a careful distinction between the authoritative and unerring Scriptures and fallible secondary means of guidance. She never makes clear that we can trust the Bible like nothing else.
Third, Jesus Calling promotes a simplistic and even misleading approach to having fellowship with God that doesn’t take trials seriously. It acknowledges their reality, to be sure, but it addresses them superficially. Young suggests that trusting Jesus instantly removes their full weight.
Many problems vanish instantly in the Light of my Love, because you realize you are never alone. (Apr. 9)
When you turn from your problems to my presence, your load is immediately lighter. (May 25)
Anxious thoughts meander about and crisscross in your brain, but trusting me brings you directly into My presence. As you thus affirm your faith, shackles of worry fall off instantly. (July 25)
Your mind is like a seesaw. As your trust in Me goes up, fear and worry automatically go down. (Aug. 10)
If My children could only recognize my presence, they would never feel lonely again. (Aug. 24)
In light of these statements, I wonder has Young ever reflected on the Psalms? The psalmist who cried out “How long, O Lord?” surely wished his problems would have vanished instantly, but they didn’t. They don’t for us either. Whenever we’re told that our griefs will “vanish instantly” if we only trust more, we are receiving instruction that is not far removed from the prosperity gospel. Such counsel is a form of pastoral malpractice.
Fourth, Jesus Calling contains other unhelpfully ambiguous statements:
Let My light soak into your mind and heart, until you are aglow with My very being. This is the most effective way to receive my peace. (May 31)
Let my love seep into the inner recesses of your being. Let my brilliant Love-Light search out and destroy hidden fears. (July 28)
Breathe slowly and deeply. Relax in My Holy Presence while My face shines on you. (Oct. 13)
Emotional and physical healing are enhanced by your soaking in the Light of My Presence. (Dec. 13)
If people seek to orient themselves to Christianity by reading Jesus Calling, they might be forgiven for being confused by the language contained in the sayings above—unless, after hearing it, they conclude that the Christian faith is a kind of spiritual equivalent to suntanning, soaking in a spa, or standing in a hot shower!
Even more, Jesus Calling also has some outright misleading statements. One such expression emerges from Young’s assumption that because the Lord will never leave or condemn his people, he will never be displeased with them. “I love you regardless of how well you are performing. . . . I love you with an everlasting love that flows out of eternity without limits or conditions…your accomplishment as a Christian has no bearing on my love for you.” (Apr. 19) Young captures a kernel of truth here.
Yet the real Jesus also says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (Jn 15:10). How does this statement factor into Young’s thinking?
Young misguidedly suggests that the Lord does not have conditions upon which His people’s increasing joy and obedience may be realized. But Jude says, “Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you eternal life” (Jude 21). Notice the emphasis on keeping ourselves in God’s love. In other words, believers can stray from God’s love in such a way that their fellowship with Him is marred, even if their relationship with Him is secure.
Another misleading statement of Young’s is her belief that because God has made us able to respond to Him voluntarily, He must remain in a state of passivity and inertness until we seek Him. “I risked all by granting you freedom to think for yourself. . . . I made you in My image, precariously close to deity” (Apr. 21). “Though I yearn to help, I will not violate your freedom. I stand silently in the background of your mind, waiting for you to remember that I am with you” (May 25). But Jude also states that God “keeps” us from stumbling and tells us that we are “kept” (vv. 1, 24). Somehow, Young manages to both absolve us of responsibility for keeping ourselves in God’s love, and rob us of the comfort of God’s promise to keep us. Her theology has the effect of cheating us at both ends.
While Jesus Calling may contain a few helpful thoughts about the centrality of the gospel, the danger of idolatry and the goal of sanctification, it also has too many erroneous statements to warrant any serious recommendation. For their times of quiet study, meditation and prayer, God’s people would be better off using a time-tested and rich resource like Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening. Even better is the Book through which the real Jesus calls us.