Note: Originally wrote this in an email and decided after all that effort it might as well become a blog post too. 😉 As such it’s not the most accessible post I’ve ever written, but hopefully it will be of some use to someone. Maybe I’ll come back and pretty it up later. Argument assumes a commitment to the truth of Christianity and the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture.
A friend of mine asked about the hit book Jesus Calling. I had not heard of it, but decided to read the introduction since it was so popular. What I read tells me all I need to know; I would encourage anyone interested to read that much and then walk away. Below is a quick but heady summary of objections to the premise of the book. (Ha! This might be considered my first book review. But it’s not.)
The author (Sarah Young) is describing personal encounters with Christ, which at best makes this part of the Christian mystical tradition, but does not rule out far worse things including modern liberal theology and New Age spirituality. She truly believes Christ is speaking to her, and that is a big deal. It specifically raises questions about God’s relationship to creation and the status of ongoing revelation.
On the first point, God’s presence, Scripture teaches that God is both imminent and transcendent, near to each one of us and yet utterly “other,” with thoughts that are too high for us. Erasing either side of that tension is disastrous. He upholds all of creation but is distinct from creation. He is omnipresent, and His Spirit indwells believers, but Young is pointing to a different kind of presence where Christ is actually there with her. The Bible tells us that Jesus is in His resurrected body mediating for us before the Father in heaven, and the hope of the nations is that Christ will one day return. So what could it possibly mean to say the second person of the Trinity is here now? And why wouldn’t the promised Comforter be enough special presence of God in our lives? How does she know Christ is specially with her then and now? Just a feeling of inner peace and certainty in her soul.
We’ll come back to that.
On the second point, revelation, we have an even more serious problem. We believe with Paul that all Scripture is God-breathed, and that the words of the text are the very words of God. Young may say that her words from God aren’t on the same level as the ones the Apostles received, but why not? Isn’t the whole point whether or not God has spoken? God reveals Himself in many ways, not the least of which being nature. I can even accept that fallen man is a source of divine revelation in this general sense as God’s image-bearer. But when we move from God speaking metaphorically through images, actions, situations, and laws to God speaking actually, literally to individuals, we’ve made a huge leap. Wherever God speaks, He speaks authoritatively and without error. Therefore we should be very, very careful about what we mean by God speaking.
But then she isn’t talking about an audible voice, so how is God speaking to her? From page XII, “I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day.” Scripture is not enough, general revelation is not enough…she wants God to speak directly to her. She receives “a message” in the form of her own words, Scripture applied to her life from her imagination of what God would say. It is this feeling, this intuition that is the source of God’s words. For all her longing, she ends up with neither the actual words of God nor the metaphorical revelation of God but her own feelings dictating what she wished God had said. She then accepts them as if God did say them. This is essentially basing doctrine on personal experience, and it is and has always been dangerous. Church history is full of destructive examples.
Along these lines, there is the issue of using visualization as a method of spiritual warfare (page x). We pray in faith, and God hears us and has promised to act, but visualization is nothing more than the power of positive thinking. This confirms my suspicion that the only thing separating this book from New Age spirituality is faith in Christ alone. Oprah would have no problem with this book as long as you allow Jesus to be one of many representatives of the Divine. But if you do insist on the supremacy of Christ, you’ve wound up not in biblical Christianity but in modern liberal theology a la F. D. E. Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher redefined faith as a feeling of absolute dependence on God, and made intuition the foundation of all doctrine. That’s what I’m seeing here. She is exegeting her feelings and her imaginations and claiming they are from God. While she may keep the content of God’s “messages” within Scriptural bounds, her method is toxic, and by accepting this book we uncritically accept this method.
Books like this are widespread in evangelicalism, and they feed our natural and good desire to commune with God. But I’m afraid in the end they cross a line and undermine our understanding of who God is and how He speaks. They lead us away from Christ as He is and into the liberal arms of Christ as we want Him to be. As I read church history I notice that we have a long track record of allegorizing and spiritualizing Bible passages that seem either wrong or incomplete to us. I think Young is doing just that, using the real, personal ministry of the Spirit as an excuse to add to the words of God which fail to speak to her daily circumstances in an emotionally fulfilling way.
I wish the Church would make a point of weeding these out before the problem gets worse.