How shall we hear Jesus Calling?

Two recent articles from two radically different publications—Christianity Today and The New York Times—have revisited the phenomena & controversy that is Jesus Calling. Several months back I presented a review of the book to our church after I began to see an increasing number of copies in the hands of church members. At the time I knew nothing about the book. In fact, I assigned myself the review so that I could gain a better sense of what our people were reading and thinking. Since I didn’t want to be affected by other prominent reviews (see here and here) I resisted the temptation to read what others thought of the book.

By now the chief objections are well-known: writing as Jesus (in the first person) creates the impression of authoritative revelation, the paradoxical assertion that the words are from Jesus but that they shouldn’t be considered inerrant, the implication that Christians need something more than Scripture, etc. These objections have been clearly and, I think, convincingly articulated so there’s no need to rehash the arguments here. But at the risk of appearing to pile on I’ll add a few issues I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.

1) The formative influence of God Calling for Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling. Young recounts that her reading of the devotional book God Calling “dovetailed remarkably well with my longing to live in Jesus’ Presence” and that, as a result, she “began to wonder if I, too, could receive messages during my times of communing with God.”  Learning of the significant influence that God Calling had on her, we should note that not only has Young imitated the method of the anonymous “listeners” (i.e. the co-authors) but she appears to have imbibed of the same spirit. Consider the following excerpt from God Calling in the chapter entitled “The Voice Divine”:

We felt all unworthy and overwhelmed by the wonder of it, and could hardly realize that we were being taught, trained and 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 mine]

Perhaps Young doesn’t pity those of us who must “settle” for guidance from the Bible but there can be little doubt that she shares something of the sentiment. By her own admission she desires “something more” than God’s communication to her through the Bible. Admittedly, all Christians will know something of this discontent with mediated revelation (see #2) but we must still caution (and encourage) those who would diminish the inestimable value of Christ’s word in pursuit of Christ’s person. The written word of God provokes spiritual hunger but it is also the means by which God graciously offers satisfaction and delight in Christ and his finished work (see Psa 19:7ff; 119; John 5:39-40; 14:21, 23; 2Cor 3:18; 4:6; 2Pet 1:2-4).

2) We should desire more. Young is right to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture but her testimony fails to affirm Scripture’s sufficiency. This strikes me as an intractable problem in light of Scripture’s inerrant claims to sufficiency but since this matter has been addressed in other places I’ll pass over that here. What I haven’t seen, however, is the acknowledgment that Young’s dissatisfaction is reasonable and, in a certain sense, even right. By this I mean that the all-sufficient, inerrant word speaks to the unfulfilled desire of abiding in the presence of Christ. The psalmists sang of future pleasure & satisfaction (Psa 16:11; 17:15), the apostles spoke of our hope (Rom 8:23-25; Titus 2:13; Heb 10:23; 1Pet 1:13), and Jesus himself expresses his desire for his disciples to be with him where he is (Jn 17:24). More could be said about the nature of this “inconsolable longing” but our point is that a biblical balance must be struck between affirming our hunger for something more and acquiring comfort and satisfaction while we wait. Young doesn’t achieve this balance in her testimony or writings.

3) The diminution of the Holy Spirit. We have a penchant for confessing the Trinity even as we practically deny the doctrine in our life & witness. The myopic clamoring for Jesus’ presence is often symptomatic of a deeper problem–dissatisfaction with the presence of the Holy Spirit. How quickly we forget that the Jesus we seek is the same one who claimed that it was to our advantage for him to go away so that the Holy Spirit could take his place (Jn 16:7). Had anyone else made such a claim we would consider it near blasphemy. We must go back to the inerrant word. It can’t be coincidence that John’s account of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples contains more about the Holy Spirit (and the Trinity) than any other passage of Scripture (Jn 14-16). Surely the comfort that Jesus offers through the presence of the Holy Spirit must be accounted for when we engage the devotional aspirations recorded by Young. Otherwise we have the unenviable task of exalting Christ even as we ignore his Gift.

It’s easy to see why Jesus Calling has resonated with so many Christians but I think the book will prove to be an unhelpful diversion in the long run.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Lead pastor at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. A student of one book.

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