(Originally printed in the Spring 2011 Issue of the MCOI Journal)
Stephen, a book reviewer who hopes to unite Biblical truth with God-honoring imagination,
To all the readers of a little hardback that was the Christian bestseller of 2010,1 and with hopes they will understand I seek to support a real and true relationship with Jesus Christ,
Grace and peace to you! Yet, might I honestly ask some questions about this book?
In her introduction to Jesus Calling, author Sarah Young writes that she knows these devotionals do not equal Scripture’s importance. Nevertheless, she writes in the first person “as” Jesus, and doesn’t attempt to find any precedent in the more-sure Word to seek God’s words that way.
Instead, her main reason seemed to be that doing this is what she needed and what helped her. It works for me; so, therefore, it’s right and will also always work for all other Christians in the same way.
While sharing her life story of learning, church-planting, and counseling, Young admits, “I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more” (p. XII). That statement implies she’s already read the Bible—been there,-done-that—and knows everything in it; and therefore, she is ready to move on to something “more.” For Young, that supposed superior method includes “waiting quietly in God’s Presence, pencils and paper in hand, recording the messages they received from Him,” (p. XI), as once did two anonymous authors of another book titled: God Calling.
But does the actual Word of God recommend doing this? Why does Young seem to expect “His Presence” (p. XII) to speak new words? Scripture says the Holy Spirit’s job is to show us Christ and His Word—which is thoroughly sufficient for our needs (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Why desire more?
In Ephesians 1, the Apostle Paul’s loving letter to a new church, he prays not that they would find new wisdom, but rather, that they would have “… the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints” (v.18, ESV), through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Paul’s prayer is in effect: Jesus, open their eyes to the amazing salvation and spiritual riches You’ve already purchased for them!
Young does credit the Bible as “the only inerrant Word of God” (p. XIII), but only after explaining how her wish for more led her to listen to “receive personal messages from God” (p. XII) and to sense special intimacy with Him. But why not focus on God’s already-revealed Word? “My writings must be consistent with that unchanging standard,” (p. XIII) she says; and that reminder is welcome. But why write messages ostensibly from Jesus—either for ourselves or for others—at all? I know I haven’t mastered the Bible in any “101 course” and now am ready for supposedly superior “personal messages!” But even if Young had mastered Scripture, why does she ignore the Bible’s Gospel narrative: The one true, holy God sent His Son to save sinners? Ignoring that truth actually weakens how we comprehend His love and promises, which is contrary to Young’s stated goal.
“My writings must be consistent with that unchanging standard.” Are they? Might we test this book’s teachings in love and with the already revealed Word, the same way we must do with the teachings of any preacher or writer who claims to speak for God?
Allegories are helpful, and here is mine. This purported letter from a certain famous literary character follows Young’s suggestion that people should “listen” and “record these words” (p. XII). Of course, my example breaks down only because Jesus is an actual Person. But what if Mr. Darcy were real?
You may have heard such different accounts of me so as puzzle you exceedingly. But though I am absent from you today, my heart ever returns to think of you and anticipate greatly when we will reunite. Permanent happiness shall be ours, with passions (that) were stronger than our virtue. And now as I plan to return from London in a fortnight, know that my love remains with you. You may not know how this began; neither did I, for I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. … I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun. Do contemplate my return and think of me in return, for it is our quiet times together I treasure the most.
Very truly yours,
Your Mr. Darcy
This could be the next great literary success: Mr. Darcy Calling with daily devotions “from” Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy himself—brooding and mysterious, owner of Pemberly, hero of Jane Austen’s classic book Pride and Prejudice! In fact, actual quotes from Pride and Prejudice itself—the parts where Mr. Darcy was talking—are in the above letter as I personally sought to “listen” to him, to relay his “personal messages” to you, gentle reader. My past experience with Pride and Prejudice allows me to know what Mr. Darcy wants and what he’s daily thinking about: You, and how much he desires your company.
Of course, yes, Pride and Prejudice is the only source for learning what Mr. Darcy did and said, what we know about him from his creator (the actual author), and also what is mysterious about him. But don’t you feel like you want to know more than that? Like you want his actual presence?
Now to explain a few issues that many Austen book purists will take with my approach:
1. Pride and Prejudice was not intended to be read this way. The only sure record we have of Mr. Darcy’s nature and what he does is the book itself!
2. The italicized quotes do not place what he said in the rightful contexts.
3. Mr. Darcy’s dialogue takes place in completely different settings than in a “personal message” to you, “My Darling.” Sometimes he was talking with Elizabeth Bennet—his actual love!
4. Pride and Prejudice is not meant to be read piecemeal. It has an overarching storyline.
5. Elizabeth Bennet is not found in the 365-devotional volume Mr. Darcy Calling. Her role and Mr. Darcy’s courtship of and eventual marriage to her are integral to the story. You can’t just hijack a real person (again, imagine he’s real) and “listen” for “personal messages” from him to another.
6. The alleged quotes in italics give lip-service to the original book, but they are useless and even contradictory additions. For example, Mr. Darcy does not endorse “passions … stronger than … virtue.”
And if I have let errors—such as minor plot disparities, or misspelling Elizabeth Bennet’s last name with two Ts instead of one (which I haven’t)—slip into this “personal message,” I could say: “Oh, why should those trifling oversights get in the way of having a personal relationship with Mr. Darcy or my own qualification to speak on his behalf?”
Seriously, I hope no one who respects Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice would decry these six critical points as ignoring a need to have a “personal relationship” with Mr. Darcy. Why? It is because this particular “Darcy” is fabricated—based on partially remembered quotes from the book. It gives lip-service to the book—such as the character’s name and origins and some traits—but the very existence of this product implicitly says: Austen just didn’t say enough to help. Now it’s my turn.
How might Jesus feel to hear His wonderful Word so dismissed? Moreover, can one say he or she wants a personal relationship with Christ, and then decide not to listen to what we know He said; or (even with good intentions) listen to someone else who wasn’t listening carefully enough to His Word?
Weakened, Ignored Or Omitted
“My writings must be consistent with that [the Bible’s] unchanging standard.” I’m not sure if Young understands what a vital goal that is. Back in Old Testament days, Israelites were commanded to put to death those who “prophesied” something God didn’t say (Deut. 18:20). 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 for “personal messages” from God is Biblical. She simply assumes it is, starts to listen, and doesn’t even explain how it is God’s alleged words to her 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 exposing and denouncing this. However, He never promised He would work through such a method.
Yes, of course, He could do this. But the fact God could do many things is not proof He has or will. Even a VeggieTales2 episode portrayed this well: God could turn Larry the Cucumber into a chicken; but as Bob the Tomato once reminded Larry, God only does what He wants to do. Scripture tells us how God has revealed what He wants us to know about Him: Scripture alone.
Even if God had chosen to reveal “personal messages” to those who “listen” today, those messages must be consistent with His already-revealed Word. Otherwise He is a liar, and not the loving, truthful God He promised He is.
But despite claiming to give credit to Scripture alone as being inspired, Jesus Calling’s author frequently treats the precious, revealed Scripture in a very casual and cavalier fashion throughout these 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 even the Bible as a whole.
The first woeful result: This weakens the power and implications of Scripture’s promises. For example, Jeremiah 29:11 is a wonderful prophecy from God about how He promised to remember the Israelites 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 Israel, but He also fulfilled it. She portrays the “promise” as not only narrowly personal, but also pathetic. Instead, 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 not unusual for evangelicals to repeat God’s promises without their contexts—contexts which are actually what render His promises even more powerful and encouraging. Why quote only partially? We treat no other book or writer like this. Is it more loving to Jesus only to listen to parts of His more-sure promises? How does 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 (which is 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. (p. 177)
Is this all just a pack of lies? No. But has Jesus really said this in this order? The answer also is, “no.” Young italicizes the “I chose you …” to indicate its Biblical origin and cites the reference (Ephesians 1:4) along with others. But she ignores the fact that in context, Paul was writing (Ephesians 1:3-10) about a Christian’s salvation from spiritual death thanks to the fact that “…Christ died for our sins … was buried … was raised on the third day …”: The Gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-4)! 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: 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 Young ignores what God has truly said (whether intentional or simply carelessly), her pep talk is neither loving nor encouraging. Whatever her intentions, this becomes a lie-by-omission and a unique path that isn’t as unique as it is legalistic.
This leads to a third and last tragic result of Young’s attempts to speak on Jesus’ behalf: Jesus Calling omits the Gospel. This is perhaps the worst omission in the book: I could not find, in the 365 devotions, a discussion let alone an emphasis on how “… everything written about me [Jesus] in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44) and “…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners …” (1 Tim. 1:15). Jesus did not come just to show a better way to live or give us His special “peace” and “Presence” to help in our troubles and then leave us completely on our own with no power to employ His advice (any self-help speaker could do that). Instead, Jesus fulfilled the more amazing promise: He died for “… the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2) to reconcile them and His Creation (Romans 8:21-23) to God the Father and is alive to fulfill His promises and empower us to do His will found in His Word.
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 only true-life Jesus (John 17:3). Any other “Jesus” ends up being only a solution for personal problems and a balm for one’s soul during quiet times. Any other Jesus is not the actual Savior Who saves us—not just from little failings and imperfections, but from our hatred of God, and does all things for God’s glory.
Any professing Christian book ignoring the Gospel is not offering “more” love or a bonus-feature love; rather, it is no true love at all.
Relationship Through Truth
My goal is not to be a mean “divider-of-the-brethren” 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 already-revealed Word. And is it really loving, both to the true Jesus and to our Christian brothers and sisters, to act as though we have managed to reach some spiritual plateau to search for “more” and listen for more “personal messages” from Him?
Let us say I come home today after work and reunite with my loving wife. Then she tells me about her day, what thoughts she had, what goals she accomplished, anything she has done or hopes to do. What if I nod politely, telling her (and others later) how much I appreciate what she says—but then go off by myself in a quiet room and write down in first person “more” of what I thought she would say to me, even while using half-remembered phrases she did say?
This approach is too close to some of the rhetoric I have heard from those who say they want “relationship” but don’t want to worry about all that truth-and-doctrine stuff. I just want to know the real Jesus, they say, and all this learning theology and doctrinal facts gets in the way.
Fortunately, Young does not say that. But she also never reminds us that true love for someone does not come apart from careful, grace-based, intentional listening to what that person actually said about himself. One can memorize facts about a person without loving or being in a close relationship with him; but one cannot truly love someone apart from caring and loving what that someone has revealed about who he really is.
A possible 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 to 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 the love for others in Christ—that 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? Absolutely, Jesus does promise rest (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 (Colossians 1:21-22). That is a greater story, which brings a far greater love for the true 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 true Jesus. And He calls us to love truth and honor His precious Word—the same Word that Peter said is “more sure” (1 Peter 1: 16-20) even than Peter’s incredible experience on a mountaintop.
All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
E. Stephen Burnett is an aspiring novelist, community journalist, and online columnist. His hope is God’s grace and glory will help him honor Him in all things. That includes SpeculativeFaith.com (a team blog to explore Christian visionary fiction) and YeHaveHeard. com with its debunking of Christian myths. He also enjoys reading and spending time with his wife in their central Kentucky home