Jesus Calling and the policing of theology

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Cover of "Jesus Calling" | Image via amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Calling-Enjoying-Peace-Presence-ebook/dp/B003IYI7I2)

Cover of "Jesus Calling" | Image via amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Calling-Enjoying-Peace-Presence-ebook/dp/B003IYI7I2)

Cover of "Jesus Calling" | Image via amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Calling-Enjoying-Peace-Presence-ebook/dp/B003IYI7I2)

Cover of “Jesus Calling” | Image via amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Calling-Enjoying-Peace-Presence-ebook/dp/B003IYI7I2)

Jesus Calling never should have been a best seller. The small daily devotional book put out by Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson in 2004 had an unknown author, a cheesy premise, and the bad luck of entering a very saturated market–hundreds of devotional books are published every year, and very few go on to sell like hotcakes.

This one did. Jesus Calling (subtitled “Enjoying Peace in His Presence”) has sold over 15 million copies since its publication. It has spawned an enormous line of spinoff products, from kids’ devotionals to journals to an app you can buy for $9.99. You can even sign up to be a Jesus Calling ambassador if you loved the book and want to promote it “to people in [your] community, church, and online through social media.” Silly, yes. But is it harmful?

That’s what some Christian leaders have been arguing. In the introduction, Young lays out the book’s format: “I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believed He was saying.” Many Christians observe a daily devotional time and make these kinds of notes in their journals, writing what they hear God say to them either in prayer of through the Scripture. The book, then, reads like a daily invitation from Jesus to ponder something new: “Come to Me with a teachable spirit, eager to be changed,” we read on January 1st. “A close walk with Me is a life of continual newness.” (Young is at least traditional in her capitalization of pronouns referring to God.)

An author using her voice as a stand-in for God’s is troubling to a number of Christian leaders. Last year, the bloggers at Sola Sisters, a website founded to “sound a warning to today’s church” about New Age-adjacent beliefs, wrote “what is being described by Sarah Young is an extremely occultic practice” and called it “divination.” Self-described “former New-Ager” Warren B. Smith wrote a book called Another Jesus’ Calling in which he set out to reveal the unorthodox practices behind Young’s book. In her 2014 piece on the controversy that erupted over Jesus Calling, Ruth Graham noted that even the publishing house was on the hook: the introduction has been altered, and “Thomas Nelson refers to the book as ‘Sarah’s prayer journal,’ emphasizing that Young is not claiming to speaking for Jesus.”

But it was blogger and pastor Tim Challies who has had the largest axe to grind with Young. He has written several posts about the book–a 2011 review, a take on her children’s version of the book later that year, and a 2014 critique after Graham’s piece was published. Then, yesterday, he published a post outlining 10 Serious Problems with Jesus Calling. The problems weren’t anything new–she claims to speak for God, the book has undergone revision, her practices are occultic, etc–and neither was his conclusion, which was a sweeping condemnation of the book as “dangerous” and “leading people away from God’s means of grace.”

This is where Challies and I diverge. While I can see why some people would dislike and critique the book for its unique voice, and while I don’t personally like the book, I think it’s a net positive that the book exists and has been a tool through which many people have gotten closer to God. Should we be careful about what we read? I’m not convinced. I tend to side with my friend Karen Swallow Prior when she says “books should be promiscuously read.” (This does not reflect her position on this book, which I do not know.) Theology policing is a job best left to the Holy Spirit, and then to people who we know. (It’s also unfortunate that much theology policing comes from men in positions of power and is directed toward women, creating a powerful gender dynamic that does more harm than good in the church.)

There is a difference between criticizing a book and calling it “dangerous,” and I think criticism ought to be fair game. But once we call something “dangerous,” we are precluding it from offering any good, and we are saying that our interpretation–our particular slice of Christianity–is the “right” one.

I was talking with a friend of mine recently and he brought up the gospel passage (in Matthew 16 or Mark 8) in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” The disciples gave Jesus a list of names: Elijah, John the Baptist, a prophet. “Who do you say I am?” Jesus asked. At this point, the disciples had been with Jesus for quite a while. They weren’t new to Him, and they knew Him well. Yet until that moment, Jesus had never asked them who He was. There was no theological policing going on–the discipled loved Jesus and knew Him, and they didn’t have to have exactly the right ideas about Him to follow Him.

Jesus Calling has its problems, to be sure, but to my mind those are much more about the spate of products made out of a cash cow for a publisher than whether its author’s theology aligns perfectly with the Reformed Church as interpreted by a handful of bloggers. If the book is dangerous to some readers, let them come to that conclusion on their own. And in the meantime, Jesus is calling.

  • Thank you so much for your thoughtful engagement with this book. I’ve not read it, but it is a phenomenon within my faith community, as it seems to speak to a particularly evangelical, perhaps especially charismatic brand of Christianity.

    And that’s how I read Young’s claims. In my Pentecostal church, it is not uncommon to “receive words from God” and communicate them for the edification of the congregation. While this may chafe against other denominational understandings of the Gospel, to dismiss the whole process as “divination” is asinine.

    I truly appreciate, too, your critique of theological policing. As Sarah Bessey wrote, “there is no more hateful person than a Christian who thinks you’ve got your theology wrong.” And how sad that is. Jesus people, as petty and divisive as any other group, if not more so.

  • Bernardo

    Since there is no god, theology is simply too many words about fuzzy nothingness. Put your proofs of said god in the space below:

  • Craig

    Mentioning that the Sola Sisters wrote a critique of Jesus Calling undermines your accusation several graphs later about the gender dynamic of theology policing. It’s not like Sola Sisters are the only women in the evangelical world who have blogs and write about theological issues.

  • “the book.. “dangerous” and “leading people away from God’s means of grace.”

    Are you saying the Bible is clearer?
    “Execute my enemies” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    What could possibly go wrong?

  • Fran

    Jesus verified at Matthew 16, when asking his disciples who they thought he was, that he was the Christ and the Son of God, and not God himself. God, his Father, also confirmed that fact at Jesus’ baptism by God’s own voice from the heavens (Matthew 3:17), calling him his Son and beloved.

  • Bernardo

    Historical Jesus studies have been afoot for only about 200 years. Before that the lack of education and communication in the global world prevented a thorough review of this fellow Jesus so called son of God.

    Blind faith based on the musings of a few elderly gentlemen of the first and second century CE, and promulgated by a few “elite”, white male Europeans is no longer acceptable. Please review the following before making any more judgments.

    1. Historical Jesus Theories, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm — the names of most of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the titles of their over 100 books on the subject.

    2. Early Christian Writings, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/
    — a list of early Christian documents to include the year of publication

    3. Historical Jesus Studies, http://www.faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
    — “an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context…

  • Bernardo
  • You realize that in the section you are quoting, Jesus is telling a parable a story, and in that particular quote you are using, Jesus is quoting a character in his story? Do you also know that Christopher Hitchens once said it’s best to keep an open mind about God? Exact quote: “So it’s best to keep an open mind and be agnostic.” His quote does go on to say that that position is a cop out, but he did write the exact words I quoted. See how you can make things sound just the way you want them to when you quote out of context? Nothing can go wrong, right?

  • I could, but why bother? Do you really think my arguments and proofs would convince you–or that your counterproofs would convince me? Why start again the same cycle of debates most of us have seen go on at endless other websites? We know all of the arguments that will be made before it even starts, and it convinces absolutely no one on either side of the debate. It’s tiring and pointless. Two comments: (1) I know my journey to belief didn’t start with an argument in an internet comment section, and I doubt your journey to nonbelief did either. (2) I’m always curious why someone who thinks that God is a mythical, dead, irrational, and stupid concept would bother to spend his time reading sites like religionnews.com and commenting on stories about a popular religious devotional. It seems like you could find better uses for your time.

  • Yeah, because people who lived 1800+ years after a person would obviously know more about that person than his contemporaries and near contemporaries would. That, I don’t accept your seeming premise that education and communication didn’t exist until about 200 years ago. That’s absurd to anyone with even a moderate understanding of history. Also, the early church spread into places like Africa (Ethiopia has some of the oldest and earliest Christian communities around, and St. Augustine lived in Hippo–in today’s Algeria), and it spread far east as India. Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament was from Turkey. Your statement about white male Europeans merely reflects your own cultural biases. But nice try.

  • I know I should stop, but every time I read this post it makes me laugh. “You can’t trust those crazy old white, male, European elites who lived back in Jesus’ time, but you should totally trust these elderly, white, male, European elites write articles about Jesus over 1800 years later…they’re totally legit…”

  • I’d like to add an importanmt point: Sarah Young preaches a false gospel several places io Jesus Calling. For example the July 3rd devotion:

    “I have acquitted you through My own blood. Your acquittal came at the price of My unparalleled sacrifice.”

    When someone is acquitted they have been declared innocent. They did not commit the crime. If we have been acquitted, why did Jesus die to pay the penalty for crimes we never committed? Jesus did not die to acquit us, He died to pay the penalty for our sin—our breaking God’s law. We are not innocent. We are guilty, and Jesus’ blood redeemed us. He paid our penalty so that we can go free.

    A false gospel means avoid this book.

    I have just released a book called “RUN! It’s Jesus Calling” that tests Jesus Calling against scripture. It fails at every point. Even the scriptures associated with each devotional are used to mislead people away from the real Jesus.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1517766869

  • Alison

    I’m a stickler for theology, but I don’t have a problem at all with these books, although I resisted them at first because they were just too popular. I find them very comforting, although I can see how they would not be for you, Laura. In reading the scripture she posts with her writing, she is doing nothing more than putting it in her own words, something preachers have been doing for millennia.

    With regard to how the publishing companies are abusing their power by trying to make more money off of something good, I find that repulsive. It is very much what the publishers for the Left Behind Series did when they were at their peak in popularity. Even a Left Behind video game. Ick!

  • David Cordes

    Jesus Calling does speak, affirm and bless many of us who spend our devotional time seeking the Lord, His comfort and presence. In, by and through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, I pray over, through and at the conclusion of my devotional time: much as how I read My Utmost For His Highest. For those fearful bloggers out there, I spend far more time reading my Bible (NIV), in worship at Church (ECO Ptesby) and with my small group then devotionals. So chill. Trust the Church universal; Jesus knows His children and He won’t leave any of us behind. Theology and doctrine are vitally important but I trust His Word, His Holy Spirit and the fellowship of His Church. Peace now. Pray for Paris. Amen.

  • Bernardo

    Mike,

    Instead of moaning about the situation, read the studies about the historic Jesus that involve rigorous historic testing of all the passages of the NT. Then you might change your mind.

    Some places to start: http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=Crossan_Inventory

    http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html

    Professor Gerd Ludemann’s studies published ih his book, Jesus After 2000 Years.

    The references reviewed at earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html and earlychristianwritings.com

  • How can God speak, other than through us? If any religion isn’t renewed it will die. Supporters of the status quo should recall that Jesus was a revolutionary. Why would anyone in the grip of the Holy Spirit not report on the experience?

  • Linda

    The reason we are declared ‘acquitted’ is because we are judged through Jesus. And since Jesus was without sin, then we are seen as without sin as our sins have been covered by the blood of Jesus.

    1 John 1:9 – If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us [our] sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

    Our sins are washed away!

    We don’t deserve it, but when we come to him, turn to him, confess our sins, and follow him, we are acquitted. Declared innocent. Not that we deserve it, it’s a free gift for all those who turn to Jesus.

    Ephesians 2:8-9 – For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God:

    When we wear the righteous robe of Jesus, we can walk with God. We can hear his voice.

    My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. John 10:27

    This is something we as Christians can all learn to do, to hear to listen to his voice. Many, like Sarah Young, do this do this…

  • Linda

    The ending of my note above was truncated…

    I was saying…. Many people do this (hear God) through the word. Ask any preacher or author who writes or speaks God’s truth. And you don’t have to be famous or well known to hear God’s voice.

    In fact, I have to ask, why do we try to play church without his voice? without his loving spirit? without his word? May we all commit to seek his voice through his spirit and truth. (and word.)

    As for Nelson making money. Seriously? Publishers have to make money to stay in business. Or, they go out of business. What a silly complaint.

    Personally I love Jesus Calling. And I love Jesus! May we all walk in His spirit and truth and all stay connected to his word.

  • Hi Linda, thanks for your response.

    We need to be sure we are using words correctly. What you are describing is imputed righteousness. To be acquitted means it has been determined we never committed the crime. In the context of what we’re talking about, that means we’ve been declared to never have sinned. That simply is not true, and no where in scripture does it say or imply this.

    What scripture says is that we have been redeemed (the penalty for our sin has been paid). That is the judicial aspect of salvation. We did sin (so we cannot be acquitted, because that would be a lie). Because of this Christ paid the penalty we’ve earned. If we are acquitted, there is no need to pay the penalty, there was no sin, and thus was no need for Christ to die on the cross.

    We’ve been redeemed, but we still have a criminal record. That’s why Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. God then looks at us He sees the righteousness of Christ, not the sinners we are by nature.

  • As with your reply, I need to continue in with a second part…

    You reference John 10:27, which is a verse that is commonly used to support hearing God speaking. However, that is taking this verse out of it’s context (verses 25-31). The context is that of salvation and people (Jews in this case) who do not believe. What Jesus is saying is that the elect will hear Christ’s call to salvation (Romans 8:29-30). There is nothing here that supports hearing Jesus speak to you in a way as claimed by Sarah Young.

    In addition to being the author of “RUN! It’s Jesus Calling” (I’d be happy to send you a copy) I am a missionary/pastor. I don’t prepare by sermons or Bible studies by listening to God’s voice in my head. I “listen” to His voice in scripture. Scripture tells us to be in the Word, it never tells us to be still and listen for God to speak to us. (Acts 17:11; 1 Tim 3:14-17; Psalm 1; Joshua 1:8; others)

    Finally, I assume your comment about making money was for someone…

  • Alison:

    If you get a chance, may I recommend reading a copy of “RUN! It’s Jesus Calling.” In the book I randomly select scripture used by Sarah Young and show that the way it is used in Jesus Calling takes it out of context and imposes a meaning on the referenced scripture that is not Biblical. The use of scripture does not mean the person or book referencing that scripture is good or Biblical. Satan used scripture to temp Jesus in the desert… and he uses scripture all the time to lead us away from Christ our Savior. That’s why we need to be like the Bereans and test what is being said against the truth of scripture.

    Also, we need to be careful using our feelings (comfort for example) to judge whether something is scriptural and true. The Bible never tells us to use our feelings as a test, but to test everything against scripture. You can find testimonies online by people who have been “helped” by the Satantic bible. But that does not make it a good book.

  • Hi David:

    Yes, Jesus knows His children, but the question we need to ask is does He know us? Does He know me? The one statement we never want to hear Jesus say is, “Sorry, I never knew you.” (Mat 7:21-23 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-IUXeq_0UA). Don’t put your trust in the church universal, reading the Bible, going to church, or participating in a small group. Many non-believers do those things and greater things (see Mat 7:21-23). Scripture tells us to test ourselves, to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor 13:5) and 1 John gives ten tests. All believers are told to do this. You are a believer, so you are commanded to do this also. (http://www.cbbc.us/spiritual-growth/test-yourself.php) And put Jesus Calling to the same test, as I did in the book “RUN! It’s Jesus Calling.” (It failed.)

  • Love this. Thank you for your insight.

    This verse comes to mind: “May your words always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

    Thank you for your carefully chosen words. They resonate with me, and I’m sure a lot of other Christians who desire not to get caught in the noose of the “right” denomination.

  • Tagen

    I love it. This guy is a non-believer seeking to spread his non-belief by demanding of others to provide proofs that he won’t believe! Hilarious! Thanks for the thoughtful review and for leaving this goofball’s post UP! It has made my day! 🙂

  • Steve,
    Very good discussion about Jesus Calling. You are right that we should not use our feelings to judge if something is correct or not. Jesus Calling is not about leading people to Jesus, it’s about leading people to their feelings…so misleading! I’ll take a look at your book. Thanks for taking the time to express truth to those who are being led astray.

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  • Staylyn

    I was an atheist until August 2015. God doesn’t call to everyone. I’m learning that. But when He does call you will know and you will come to know Him. I walked into a church an atheist (because He called me to Him and I could not deny it) and walked out saved. Good luck and I hope someday He calls you.

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  • L Johnson

    I would _never_ believe John Dominic Crossan about Jesus, over Jesus, instead of Jesus. Talk about threats: this man appeared on 60 Minutes about 20 years ago, and said angrily, in the most saber-rattlng way, that if Christians want to _allowed_ to remain Christians, we had _better_(!) _give up_ whatever distinguishes our faith from the other world religions! Which would be our God, His judgment, Jesus, His death, burial and ressurrection, his gospel of salvation, just for a start. Whats left: Santa Claus? Wait, I know: the Pope! I would say that his “scholarship” about the historicity of Jesus serves an “agenda”.

  • L Johnson

    Is Jesus _actually speaking_ in the book? If not, why would it not matter that He is not, unless we really believe that He’s the “Noble Lie”, however we wish to recreate Him? And if we do not believe that He is literally real, then why co-opt His name and put words in His mouth? Why pick on Jesus?

    But if we think He is really speaking in the book, why would he speak in disagreement with the other book, the only way we really know about Him in text, the Bible? And if we think we have the right to reconstruct Him, again, why Jesus?

  • L Johnson

    The faith of Jesus Christ is “renewed” by the Holy Spirit. It is alive. And contrary to something man-made that has to be reworked in order to _seem_ living, God does not change, and that’s part of the way He shows us He is real, living and is God. The Holy Spirit testified of the _same_ living Christ, the same One who walked the earth, was crucified, buried, resurrected, walked and ate and spoke with His followers, then ascended to His Father. No humanly created “God” makes Himself real the way our unchanging God does.

  • Why Jesus? Because by attributing words to Jesus, that gives those words authority… but, it is authority they don’t deserve. Jesus is God. When God speaks, we are to not only listen, but obey. So when a devotional book is written as though it is Jesus speaking (God speaking), that gives what is said in the book the authority of God. But, it’s not God’s word it’s Satan’s lies… Satan impersonating God in order to deceive people and lead them away from God’s true word, and away from His Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.