Is Jesus Calling?

Sarah Young and Jesus Calling

Sarah Young practices ‘listening prayer’. It is a technique she describes in her bestselling book Jesus Calling, which has sold over 9 million copies in 26 languages. This book is the 5th bestseller for the first half of 2013 and for all books, not just Christian books. Through it all, the author maintains a low profile, partly due to physical disabilities, and thus is relatively unknown.

Listening prayer is where a person hopes to hear messages directly communicated from God. Sarah wondered if she could receive messages during times of prayer. She hoped God would talk to her personally. And it began to happen. And yes, she believes that Jesus is really and actually speaking with her. She prays and He answers. She prays then listens; and this for many years.

As she hears she journals what she hears and after a number of years she published some of what she heard, decades of messages. Many are encouraged and comforted by the messages and as sales of books demonstrate, she has a growing audience. Many now, thousands, are taking up the practice.

Not that Christians have not thought, and over the centuries, that God will and does speak to them. This I must say has happened to me on at least two occasions. I did not hear a voice as much as I had a clear sense that God told me something. And both times I responded, did what I thought I was told to do, and sure enough subsequent experience confirmed that God had spoken. Neither time however was I listening, rather it just happened in the course of events and had nothing to do with a time of prayer.

Richard Foster, who champions contemplative prayer or meditative prayer, defends Young’s practice. What Young does is the same as or quite similar to what so-called Christian mystics practice – deep meditation and contemplation Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, and many others practiced and experienced something close to what Young does.

Sarah Young describes what she does as meditating on Scripture and then waiting quietly to hear a reply and when she does hear she writes down what she heard or is placed on her heart. The words/messages are not revelatory in the sense of prophecy or fortune telling; the content of the messages are fairly ordinary and biblically based.

The Bible plays a major role in Sarah’s life and she firmly believes it is the inspired revelation of God, however, and it is a huge however, she wanted more. And she got more and has come to rely on these communications, the encouraging directives from the Creator, as she likes to say.

When Young journals the words spoken by Jesus they are written in the first person and Jesus is the person speaking. It is not, “Jesus said,” rather it is, “Focus on me.” Whatever Jesus says she writes down and the journal, the book, must then be as authoritative as the Bible, almost a fifth Gospel. If this is not so then Jesus Calling is a false writing, an imitation, albeit very clever, of the revelation of God. The error then is a large one and similar to the Course in Miracles supposedly communicated by Jesus to Helen Schucman in the 1970s. Schucman’s Jesus dictated profoundly spiritual concepts to her, which she wrote down, and one of the most successful new age cults was born. Schucman’s Jesus bears little resemblance to the biblical Jesus, unlike Young’s Jesus, but could this make the counterfeit even more difficult to detect?

The problem for many is that nowhere in Scripture does God promise to speak individually to believers nor answer prayer by speaking directly to the one praying. This is the critical point. What I discovered in my decades of ministry is that if you want to hear things from God you will, eventually. But the communication is not from God however real and spiritual that communication might be.

John 10:27 is quoted by proponents of Young’s book as proof that Jesus speaks directly to His ‘sheep.’ “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” To hear is to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The literal application of “hear” does not work here. It is the Holy Spirit who indwells the believer at conversion who “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). An instruction for believers to listen for the actual voice of Jesus is foreign to the New Testament writings.

Sarah Young has experienced much self-described difficulties in her life and writes wonderfully well of her loving connection with who or what she thinks is Jesus. Apparently she was been comforted and encouraged as a result. And the book sales are phenomenal, and again I cannot help but be reminded of Helen Schucman and the Course in Miracles.[1] As I study Jesus Calling I do see a difference in the two books. Young’s book is far more biblically Christian than Schucman’s, the difference if clear and there is in me a temptation to embrace Young’s claim to be hearing the voice of Jesus. But it will not work. There is neither biblical precedent nor warrant for quieting oneself, praying, and then listening to hear Jesus speak. This is perhaps the most serious and dangerous counterfeit to be found in the broad spectrum that is Charisma.

[1] Wikipedia’s article on the Course in Miracles will be quite enlightening.


Pews – What good are they?

The young seminarian could not help but make fun of the pews. There are eighteen of them all together, nine rows separated by an aisle down the center. Made of good solid hardwood with a blondish coloring, the old fashioned seats need some tending to but otherwise they do their job. Two generations of Christians have taken their accustomed and cherished places to worship God in those very pews. Have they outgrown their usefulness?

My young friend would never have pews in his church. No, he would arrange things where people could see and talk to one another without craning their necks. His idea was to employ either a square or circle configuration. This is how it is done now, he informed me. Pews have been out a long time now I guess.

I nodded and smiled thinking maybe he was right. I’m older now and not as up on the trends. Maybe we are Miller Avenue Baptist Church of Mill Valley, California have not moved along with the times and our failure to adapt contributed to our having a rather smallish congregation.

In defense however, I pointed to the young man that in our lovely fellowship hall, we call it Spangler Hall after the father and son who built it back in the early 1950s, we have several arrays of couches, not new ones of course, but serviceable. Here Sunday after Sunday our church family enjoys a very nice lunch together and often spends hours being in and enjoying each other’s company. Couches okay, the pews, well, he was sure they would have to go in any case.

The seminarian never came back again, probably because of the pews; still I could not help but think about what he said. Pews – what good are they really?

During the hay days of the Jesus People Movement, 1967 to 1972, we Jesus Freaks rarely saw the inside of an actual church building, rather we were on the streets, in the parks, at the beach, on a hillside, by a river, or a bay, in homes, and we worshipped God all right. Buildings with pews were what the old folks had and it was boring and lame, or so we thought.  Early on in my ministry I was considered a real innovator; here I was though thinking the pews may be a problem. So I began to wonder whether it was my duty to ask the congregation to do away with them.

After that thought ‘I woke up’ so to speak. Wait a minute here; I may be old but I have not lost my good sense. What is it that we are doing in our Sunday morning services anyway? With that question things started coming back into focus for me. Deep down I knew that we are to worship God first and foremost. If I have to be watched by and watch the people all around me, I will be distracted and have trouble turning my eyes on Jesus. But in the pews I can see the communion table, which reminds me of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus; the candles on that table are burning, which remind me of the call to prayer; the pulpit, where the Gospel of Christ is presented; and the cross behind that, and I can think again of the cost of my salvation. Then, too, the words of the expositor, preacher, worship leader, and choir concentrate my thoughts on my Lord and Savior – and this goes on in front of me, right in front of the pews. Yes, people are all around me, and there will be plenty of time for fellowship following, yet my heart’s desire is to think about my God, both who He is and what He has done, at the appointed time of worship.

If the pews went, what else might be considered fuddy duddy? Maybe the piano? What about the cross? After all, that old rugged cross, it might offend someone. The organ, we haven’t had an organist in ages anyway; I suppose it ought to go. Communion table; who even understands what that is all about. Yep, it will be better to go along with what is new and be considered cool by the young crowd. That way we would be on the cutting edge. Wow. Just think.

Nope, the pews are staying.