In new book, Sarah Young of ‘Jesus Calling’ hopes Jesus is listening

A former missionary who shuns the spotlight, Young has sold 35 million devotional books since 2004. A million copies of her new book drop this week.

(RNS) — When Jesus calls, best-selling author Sarah Young is always ready to listen.

Reporters, however, can’t even leave her a message.

Young, whose insistence on privacy is legendary, shuns public appearances, does not talk to reporters on the phone and is rarely ever seen. Journalists seeking to interview the elusive Young, whose “Jesus Calling” brand of books have sold 35 million copies worldwide, according to her publisher, send an email and wait for a response.

Unlike many bestselling Christian authors, who promote their work through social media, videos and speaking engagements, Young, who suffers from chronic illness, stays out of the spotlight, content to write from her home in Tennessee and talk to outsiders on her own terms. 

Her lack of public platform has not hindered Young’s career, one of the most unlikely publishing successes in recent memory. She’s become a New York Times bestselling author, and her latest book, “Jesus Listens,” is out this week from Thomas Nelson. The first printing is 1 million copies.

As part of promoting the book, Young has written a series of biographical essays, one of which recounts the birth of “Jesus Calling.” In the 1990s, Young, a Wellesley College graduate, began writing a series of devotionals while working as a counselor and missionary in Australia.

During a particularly difficult stretch, she counseled a woman who claimed to be a victim of satanic child abuse — in the 1990s the so-called Satanic Panic had made its way down under — and she began writing in a new way, listening to God and “jotting down what came to mind” in her journals. She eventually turned those journal entries into a collection of devotionals entitled “Jesus Calling.”

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After a series of rejections, her book was published in 2004 and became a hit, spawning a series of gift editions for every age, a podcast, magazine and videos all inspired by Young’s words — all available on the author’s website.

Young spoke to Religion News Service in an email interview this fall.

Why the title “Jesus Listens”? What did you want to communicate? Were there challenges to writing in the first person?

My new devotional is titled “Jesus Listens” because it is such a blessing to know Jesus listens to every one of our prayers. He loves us perfectly and is constantly caring for us. I wrote “Jesus Listens” because prayer is such an important part of my daily life. Prayer connects us to God. The daily prayers in “Jesus Listens” are meant to be a starting point for other prayers — helping readers enjoy their time with Jesus and feel comfortable about bringing all their concerns to Him. “Jesus Listens” is written from the vantage point of readers praying to Jesus. They are devotional prayers: designed to lead readers into deeper, richer, more continual communication with God.

What is it like being a missionary who is also chronically ill? Has it helped you understand God differently? Has it opened up doors for you to minister?

I view my being a missionary, a writer and someone who suffers with a chronic illness as a package deal. As much as I would love to be healthy, I have received this “deal” joyfully. All of my devotional books have emerged from my weaknesses and struggles. I’m keenly aware of my inadequacy, and this keeps me looking to the Lord and His strength — seeking His Face. I look not only to Him but also to His Word for strength, help and encouragement. When I sit down to write, I always ask God to connect His infinite sufficiency with my utter insufficiency. So my health struggles help me rely on Jesus and work collaboratively with Him. When we were living in Australia as missionaries, I did quite a bit of counseling work. My awareness of my weakness helped me depend on God in this ministry and relate better to the women I was counseling.

How has the success of “Jesus Calling” affected your missionary work? What has it enabled you to do?

When I decided to write for publication, it never occurred to me that the book would have this type of success. I’ve made a concerted effort not to let the success of “Jesus Calling” change me. When the book released, I was living in Perth, Western Australia — the most isolated major city in the world. Moreover, Perth is on the opposite side of the planet from my publisher. Because of my isolated location and my chronic health issues, I’ve never been on a book tour. Though my name may be well known, my face is not. And Sarah Young is actually a very common name! As soon as “Jesus Calling” was published, I began praying for readers. Becoming a bestselling author has meant that I have a lot more people to pray for than I did at first! And that has motivated me to pray at length every day for readers of all my books. I consider this a sacred responsibility and a delightful privilege. My husband and I enjoy being able to contribute to a wide variety of nonprofit organizations. We especially like to support missionary work in other countries and church-planting efforts in the U.S. Book royalties have also helped our children and their spouses pay off their graduate school loans. Currently, we’re contributing to the college funds of our six grandchildren. Being able to give is a blessing and a source of great joy!

I suspect there are few Wellesley graduates who are devotional writers or missionaries. How did your experiences there shape your life? Do you still have any contact with your classmates from Wellesley?

I majored in philosophy at Wellesley. I was a non-Christian searching for truth. Each time I began studying a new philosophy, I’d get excited, thinking this one might end my quest. However, further study of each philosophy always revealed flaws. Eventually, I became disillusioned and concluded that there was no absolute truth. A few years later, though, my brother gave me Francis Schaeffer’s book, “Escape from Reason.” To my surprise, I found in this small book answers to some very big questions that I had considered unanswerable. So I decided to become a student at L’Abri, a Christian community in Switzerland begun by Francis and Edith Schaeffer. There, I found a wonderful combination of intellectual integrity and a caring Christian community. This was just what I needed, and I became a Christian while I was living at L’Abri. Finally, I had a solid foundation on which to build my life! I don’t have much contact with my Wellesley classmates now.

How has writing from the point of view of Jesus shaped your understanding of Christ?

When I first began writing from Jesus’ perspective, it was solely for my personal benefit — to help me draw closer to Him. Later, I realized that these writings could bless other people, too. In the introductions to my books, I emphasize that the Bible is the only inspired Word of God; it is the unchanging standard by which I judge everything I write. I want the writings in all of my books to point readers to the Bible. The Scripture references provided with each day’s readings are an integral part of the devotionals. Writing these books has deepened my relationship with Jesus and increased my love for Him immensely.

Why do your books speak to people?

My books tend to speak to different people in different ways, meeting them right where they are. I think that’s because the books help people connect with Jesus, and He meets us right where we are. The books are designed to help people connect not only with Jesus, the living Word, but also with the Bible, the written Word.

The past few years have been difficult for evangelical Christians — many of whom read your book. What do you think Jesus wants to say to the church in this hour?

I cling to Jesus’ words in John 16:33 — “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Also, I find comfort in God’s words to Isaiah in verse 41:13 — “For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.” Jesus has overcome the world, and He is always available to help us!

Someone recently asked me if I have any prophetic words to speak into these difficult times. I have no prophetic words, but the following verse speaks volumes to me: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). The Lord’s ways are often mysterious, and there are many, many things I don’t understand. So I pour my energy into trusting Him. I find it helpful to pray, “I trust You, Jesus” many times each day. This short prayer reminds me that Jesus is always with me and He is completely trustworthy.

It’s been nearly two decades since “Jesus Calling” was published. What has surprised you most about the last 20 years — and what do you hope the future will bring?

I have been astonished by the worldwide sales of “Jesus Calling” brand books — over 35 million! When “Jesus Calling” was first released, I told my husband that I hoped my publishers wouldn’t lose money on the book. I could never have imagined that so many copies would be sold! The most satisfying part of the success of “Jesus Calling” is hearing from readers sharing their remarkable stories! It’s both exciting and humbling to see some of the many ways God has used my books to help people.

Readers have told of how “Jesus Calling” gave them hope when they didn’t think they could go on. Those struggling with illness, death and grief have said the book brought them comfort in their darkest hours. People battling addictions have found courage in their struggle to break free. Others have become Christians in the process of reading the devotions. Many readers have said that “Jesus Calling” helped them develop a love for the Bible.

I give the glory for all of these things to our great God! I’ll continue to pray daily for my readers, and I hope that God will continue blessing and helping them through these books. 

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