Continued from part 1: a review, with careful questions, of Sarah Young’s bestselling Jesus Calling.
Real promises: weakened, ignored or denied
“My writings must be consistent with [the Bible’s] unchanging standard.” I’m not sure if Young understands what a vital goal that is. Back in Old Testament days they used to stone men who “prophesied” something God didn’t say. Now some believe the gift of prophecy Paul discussed with the Corinthians is identical — and that is a related issue, but Young does not even try to prove her “listening” to God is Biblical. She simply assumes it is, then starts, and doesn’t even explain how it is that God’s words to her will also apply to readers; I’m confused!
Of course, if God had promised He would communicate more with His people using impressions during quiet times, I wouldn’t be criticizing this. However, He never promised He would.
Yes, of course He could do this. But the fact that God could do many things is not proof that He has or will. Even a VeggieTales episode portrayed this well: God could turn Larry the Cucumber into a chicken, but as Bob the Tomato reminded Larry, God only does what He wants to do. Scripture tells us how He has revealed what He wants us to know about Him: Scripture alone.
Even if God had chosen to reveal new things to “listeners” today, it must be consistent with His previous revelation. Otherwise He is a liar, and not the loving, truthful God He promised He is.
But despite giving credit to Scripture alone as being inspired, Jesus Calling’s author treats the precious, revealed Scripture in a very casual and cavalier fashion, frequently throughout the devotions. Her partial quoting of verses, often mixed with her own opinions of what Jesus was telling her that particular day, bypasses the context of each passage, and the whole Bible itself.
The first woeful result: this weakens the power of Scripture’s promises. For example, Jeremiah 29:11 is a wonderful proof of how God promised to remember the Jews even during their exile (which He Himself had promised and carried out because of their disobedience). But Young quotes only that verse, apart from context, apart from the glorious encouragement that God not only made this promise to them, but fulfilled it. She makes the “promise” not only narrowly personal but pathetic. The only reason we know God will do the same for us — which is promised more directly in other Scriptures — is because He has a track record, a history.
It’s typical of evangelicals to repeat God’s promises without their contexts, which actually would render them more powerful and encouraging. Why quote only partially? We treat no other book or writer like this. Is it more loving to Jesus to listen only to parts of His more-sure promises? How would He feel about any of us salvaging His words from the page, or our own memories — anyone steeped in evangelical culture for years could do this — for our own goals, and not His?
Second, Young’s partial quotes of Scripture phrases frequently end up ignoring what God has already and explicitly said. At random (that’s another wrong way of reading any book, including the Bible!) I flipped to Young’s personal-turned-meant-for-others entry for June 18:
You are my beloved child. I chose you before the foundation of the world, to walk with Me along paths designed uniquely for you. Concentrate on keeping in step with Me, instead of trying to anticipate My plans for you. If you trust that My plans are to prosper you and not to harm you, you can relax and enjoy the present moment.
Is this all just a pack of lies? No. But has Jesus really said this, in that order? Also no. Young italicizes the “I chose you …” to indicate its Biblical origin and cites the reference, along with others. But she ignores the fact that Paul was writing (Ephesians 1: 3-10) about a Christian’s salvation from spiritual death thanks to Christ’s death, redemption of us and resurrection: the Gospel! Instead she misappropriates this phrase as if it’s only about a Gospel result: following “paths designed uniquely for you.” This both weakens the actual promise and ignores the core truth: that only through the Gospel of Christ’s grace and forgiveness of our sins do we have any hope of staying on His paths for us. Because of this ignoring what God has truly said, whether intentional or simply careless, Young’s pep talk is neither loving nor encouraging. Despite her intentions, it becomes a lie by omission and a “unique path” that isn’t so unique as legalistic.
That leads to a third and last tragic result of Young’s attempts to speak on Jesus’ behalf: Jesus Calling implicitly denies the Gospel. This is perhaps the worst lie of omission in the book: in 365 devotions, Young never finds time to emphasize how Jesus came to Earth to fulfill the Law and die to save from sins. He came not just to show a better way to live or give us His special Peace and Presence that help in our troubles — any self-help speaker could do that. Instead Jesus showed the more amazing love: He died for His people’s sins to reconcile them and His creation to God the Father.
Any book that bypasses that — as if expecting someone else to take care of that tangential, trivial part of the Bible — does not help point people to the true-life Jesus. This “Jesus” ends up being only a solution for personal problems and a balm for one’s soul during quiet times. He’s not the actual Savior Who saves us not just from our little failings and imperfections, but from our initial hatred of God, and does all things for God’s glory.
Any professing Christian book ignoring that is not offering improved love, or bonus-feature love, but no real love.
Relationship through truth
My goal is not to be a mean “watch-blogger” type, or to act as though any imaginative portrayal of Jesus or creative work is an assault on the truth of Scripture’s sufficiency. As a fiction author myself, I’ve written “dialogue” for Jesus, and even imagined what He would say to a man who somehow visited the New Earth before he died! But all artistic endeavors, all imaginings of what Jesus would say or do in a particular situation, must be grounded in God’s actual Word. And is it really loving, both to the real Jesus and to our Christian brothers and sisters, to act as though we have managed to reach some spiritual plateau and received new words from Him?
Let us say I come home today after work and reunited with my loving wife. Then she begins telling me about her day, what thoughts she’s had, what goals she’s accomplished, anything she has done or hopes to do. What if I nodded politely, telling her (and others later) how much I appreciate what she says — but then go off by myself, in a quiet room, and wrote down what I thought she would say to me, even while using half-remembered phrases she did say?
This approaches too close to some of the rhetoric I have heard from those who say they want “relationship” but don’t need to worry about all that truth-and-doctrine stuff. I just want to know the real Jesus, they say, and all this theology and learning facts gets in the way.
Fortunately, Young does not say that. But she also never reminds us that true love for a person does not come apart from careful, grace-based, intentional listening to what he actually said. One can memorize facts about a figure without loving him or being in a close relationship, but one cannot love a person apart from caring and loving what he has said about what he is like.
Objection: But I’ve been in so many churches where everyone is all about dry facts and figures about Jesus. What I really need is rest in Him and have His peace, not just more things to do and truths to know about Him, “doctrine” without love. Why are you picking on this book?
Yet any professed “doctrines” about Jesus also become lies by omission, if separated from love for others in Christ — the same love the Father showed us by sending Him to redeem us.
Therefore, I would simply ask: how does correcting for lies-by-omission with more of the same help fix the problem? Jesus does promise rest, absolutely (as in Matt. 11:28). But the best rest we can receive in Him is because He has forgiven us — not just for stressing out or failing to believe His promises to help guide us, but from our rebellion against God Himself.
That is a greater story, and a far greater love, for the actual Jesus Christ.
Christians shouldn’t oppose creative re-presenting of His truth, either in fiction or nonfiction, including devotional books. But we must love the real Jesus. And He calls us to truth, and better honor His precious Word — the same Word that Peter said is “more sure” (2 Peter 1:16-20) even than Peter’s incredible experience on a mountaintop.