Sarah Young and Jesus Calling
Sarah Young practices ‘listening prayer’, in which she hears messages directly communicated from Jesus. 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 for all books, not just Christian books. Through it all, the author maintains a low profile, partly due to physical disabilities, and thus she is relatively unknown. She has experienced chronic physical difficulties for many years and writes inspiringly of her loving connection with whom or what she thinks is Jesus; the messages comfort and encourage her.
It all began with Sarah wondering 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 then listens, and He answers. This has been her experience for many years.
As she hears she journals what she hears, and after a number of years she published some of what she heard. Readers and prayer groups are encouraged and comforted by the messages, and as sales of books demonstrate, she has a growing audience. Many thousands are now taking up the practice of listening prayer.
The key question which must be asked is, who is speaking? Is it possible there is a clever demonic counterfeit here?
Over the centuries Christians have thought that God does speak to them. Richard Foster, who champions contemplative prayer or meditative prayer, defends Young’s practice. He has modeled his own recommendations for deep meditation and contemplation on what Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, and many others practiced and experienced centuries ago. What Young does is the same as or quite similar to the exercises of these so-called Christian mystics.
Sarah Young describes her own custom as meditating on Scripture and then waiting quietly to hear a reply from Jesus. When Jesus speaks she writes down what she heard or was placed on her heart. The words or messages are not revelatory in the sense of prophecy or fortune telling she insists; 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 than what the Bible offers. She indeed got more and has come to rely on these communications, the “encouraging directives from the Creator,” as she likes to say.
But there is a worrisome twist. When Young journals the words spoken by Jesus they are written in the first person with Jesus as the person speaking. It is not, “Jesus said,” rather it is, “Focus on me.” Since she purports to write down whatever Jesus says readers of her book must conclude that her journal is 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 a revelation from God.
Young’s error then is serious and similar to that of 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?
Young’s book sales are phenomenal, and again I cannot help but be reminded of Helen Schucman and the Course in Miracles. 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 is clear and I am tempted to embrace Young’s claim to hear the voice of Jesus. But it will not work. There is neither biblical precedent nor warrant for quieting oneself, praying, and then listening for Jesus to speak. This is perhaps the most serious and dangerous counterfeit to be found in the broad spectrum that is Charisma today.
The Jesus supposedly speaking to Sarah Young is very affirming and encouraging, but little else. The messages lack the doctrinal content of the real Jesus found in Scripture. In fact, when one orders one of Sarah’s books on Amazon.com one sees that those who bought Sarah’s book also like the books of Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen – purveyors of the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. Sarah’s Jesus is more like a warm fuzzy teddy bear.
Let me note that nowhere in Scripture does God promise to speak individually to believers or 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 the 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 as distinct from a false shepherd or a wolf; 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. There is nothing in Scripture about praying then listening for a response. It is surprising that so many do not know this. Churches across the country have “prayer” groups devoted to Young’s methods. It illustrates the fascination with feelings and direct experiences rather than seeking to learn what the Word of God actually teaches.
We are all hungry to know more of God and little by little we do grow up into the fullness of the stature of Christ. (see Ephesians 4:1-16) Following Jesus is a lifelong process and there are no short cuts. Quick and easy methods of “going direct” to the source can be addictive and difficult to disengage from. Christians, yet sinners and living in a sinful world, are pilgrims and the road is straight and narrow and often filled with pain and sorrow. God hears our prayers, does strength and comfort us, but speaks to us through the Scripture. That is enough for us. We do not need more. Eve wanted more and she got it, but it brought disaster upon her and all of us.