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July 07, 2014

I didn’t see this one coming. After over ten years of daily blogging, I tend to have a pretty good sense of which articles have the potential to cause a reaction and which articles have the potential to fizzle. I might have guessed that an article on why my family doesn’t do sleepovers would have attracted a few more readers than usual, but I wouldn’t have believed that in its first week it would be read by nearly 750,000 people. But it was, and I found myself wondering why.

I’ve spent some time reading through comments and responses to try to understand why so many people were interested in reading about sleepovers. Here are a few personal takeaways from the discussion.

1. Validation

I was surprised to realize how many parents are concerned about sleepovers and how many do not allow them. I think one of the reasons the article spread is that it validated a lot of people who had assumed they were on their own. That “Me too!” factor was important as parents realized they are not the only ones who have made the decision not to allow their kids to participate in sleepovers. On a very practical note, the sleepover discussion is binary—either you do or do not allow them, and that allows everyone to take a side. Taking sides generates controversy and controversy generates shares and clicks. Takeaway: There are a surprising number of people who do not appreciate or allow sleepovers.

2. Controversy

I would like to think that when someone writes, “Why my family doesn’t do sleepovers” or “Why my family loves sleepovers,” we do not take it as a personal affront. Articles like these can represent a helpful opportunity to sharpen our thinking, even if we do not change our position. We are never better or stronger than our convictions and face the life-long challenge of continually deepening those convictions. While I did receive a lot of very helpful feedback from people who agreed and who disagreed with me, there was also an awful lot of anger and bickering. Christians too often do poorly with controversy, even on relatively minor discussions like this one. We are quick to feel judged and slow to extend grace and understanding. If we aren’t careful, “Why my family doesn’t do sleepvers” quickly morphs into, “Why you’re a terrible parent and will ruin your children if you allow sleepovers.” Takeaway: We need to grow in our ability to deal well with controversy.

3. Experience

Perhaps the strongest theme I saw in all the comments and responses was this: Our decisions are inseparable from our experiences. I made it clear in my article that my childhood experience with sleepovers was part of the reason I dislike them. Meanwhile, I heard from many other people who essentially said, “I will never allow sleepovers because I was sexually abused during one” or “Sleepovers are great and I never faced any uncomfortable situations during one.” We are all products of our experiences and we necessarily parent out of those experiences. Parents who had difficult or tragic experiences with sleepovers tend to approach them differently from those whose experiences were only ever good. Takeaway: We do well to learn from one another, rather than assuming our own experience is universal.

4. Fear

Every parent makes certain decisions based on fear—the fear of what may happen if they make a poor decision. Sometimes we deny our children privileges out of a desire to protect them. We rate the uncertainty of a situation higher than the benefit of the situation. One of our foremost fears is making a poor decision that exposes our children to sexual abuse. For many people sleepovers introduce too much of the unknown and in that way plays right into the fear that we will put our children at risk. Takeaway: Sleepovers have a way of exposing our fears, and we respond in many different ways.

July 01, 2014

It is one of C.S. Lewis’ most powerful and most enduring illustrations: An ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. It is a vivid illustration and one that is simple enough to see in the lives of other people—those people who settle for lesser pleasures when the greatest of all pleasures awaits. But I, at least, find it far more difficult to see in my own life. You may find it just as difficult.

It is worth asking: What is your mud pie?

Is it money? You will never have a bank account rich enough to satisfy you.

Is it food? You will never have a meal filling enough to satisfy you.

Is it pleasure? You will never have a sexual experience gratifying enough to satisfy you.

Is it popularity? You will never have enough friends to satisfy you.

Is it stuff? You will never accumulate enough possessions to satisfy you.

Is it pornography? You will never find a person naked enough to satisfy you.

Is it control? You will never have enough authority to satisfy you.

Is it leisure? You will never have enough rest to satisfy you.

Is it success? You will never achieve enough to satisfy you.

It is freedom? You will never be lawless enough to satisfy you.

And in the light of all those questions and the certainty of the answers, let’s go back to Lewis.

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

June 30, 2014

I don’t watch a lot of movies these days, largely because it’s rare that I can find something that promises to reward me more richly than spending the same amount of time in a good book. That said, I do enjoy the occasional miniseries when I can catch it on Netflix or iTunes; I guess I find it easier to part with forty minutes than two hours. Even with that limited exposure there’s something I have observed and something that has spelled the end of my interest in more than a few shows: Rape is in.

I remember reading an article a few years ago where an entertainment writer was asking, “What’s next?” She wrote about how television and movies had ramped up the sexual content on the screen, first by way of innuendo and then by way of explicit display. She suggested that the next frontier might just be sexual violence, and it seems that she was right.

Recent articles at a host of publications have pointed this out, providing a long list of contemporary shows that have made rape a significant plot point: Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Scandal, House of Cards, Mad Men, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Bates Motel—and many more besides (including a new show called Tyrant that has several rape scenes in the opening episode alone). Sometimes this rape is shown explicitly or psuedo-explicitly, while other times it is recounted as a past event. But either way, this much is clear: Television has never been crueler to women than it is right now.

I have very little experience with most of the shows listed above. I try to screen my shows as well as I can (IMDB’s Parents Guide feature is my friend) and not even get into ones that tiptoe along the edge of morality or, even worse, go barging right past it. I have an extreme aversion to sexual violence and am so deeply affected by it that I simply have to avoid it in television or movies. But as I read these articles about rape and today’s programming, it seems that rape fulfills various plot functions:

  • Sometimes rape is used to explain why a character is the way she is. In these cases the rape is usually in the past and the viewers learn about it as a means to better understand a central character. This is apparently the case in House of Cards and The Americans.
  • Sometimes rape is used as a means of character development. If a bad man needs to be made even worse, rape fulfills that purpose and is typically shown in some detail. This is apparently the case in Tyrant and Game of Thrones.
  • Sometimes rape is used simply as a plot device meant to introduce dramatic tension, such as when the sweet and flawless character of Downton Abbey’s Anna Bates was raped, leaving the viewer to question whether her marriage would survive and whether her husband would find out and take revenge.

However it functions and however it is presented, rape is suddenly common in television programming. And it concerns me. It especially concerns me especially because so many Christians watch and enjoy these shows.

The area of Christians and the arts is one I do not write about very often, at least in part because when I have done so in the past, there is always a person way smarter than me and way better read than me who replies with an extensive theology and philosophy of art and an explanation as to why Christians need to explore depraved themes to find the redemption beyond them. There is a part of me that understands that. The worst Christian art is the Christian art that denies the obvious—that we live in world marred by all manner of depravity. Sexual violence is a sad, sick, and far-too-common fact of life in a world like this one. But does that justify its prevalence in programming? Does that justify us watching it? Does it justify it as a common theme in our entertainment?

As a family we have been reading through 2 Samuel and have just had to grapple with the sickening story of Tamar’s rape by her own half-brother (see 2 Samuel 13). This is a story of rape that God saw fit to include in the Holy Bible—one of several biblical portrayals of sexual violence. But when I look at it closely, I see a world of difference between it and television programming.

The most significant difference is this: It is not meant to be entertaining. When we thumb the remote and turn on the television, or when we open a browser and type in “n-e-t-f-l-i-x”, we do so to be entertained. When we open the pages of the Bible we do so to be changed. Within the great drama of Scripture, Tamar’s story serves not to entertain, but to inform and reform. It is sin told sinlessly. It avoids being salacious and being explicit. It displays the far-reaching consequences of David’s sin, it highlights the sickening idolatry of mankind, it explains some of the battles that will soon come. Best of all, it calls the reader to cry out for a Savior, another Son of David, who can fully and finally put an end to such horrors. It is a far cry from rape as a shocking plot twist meant to generate buzz, rape as character development when all else has failed, rape as the explanation for vengeance.

Here is what I wonder, and here is what we ought to be asking ourselves: If Christians won’t allow explicit scenes of sexual violence to keep them from watching television shows, what will? If scenes of rape are not over the edge, what is? If we won’t draw the line there, will we draw it anywhere?

The Bestsellers
June 29, 2014

Here is another entry in a series I am calling “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez) and Paul Young (The Shack). Today we look at the only bestselling book written by a alumnus of John MacArthur’s college and seminary.

Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Crazy LoveFrancis Chan was born in San Francisco in 1967, the son of Chinese immigrants. After professing faith at a young age, he attended The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary, graduating with Bachelor of Arts and Master of Divinity degrees. In 1994, he and his wife Lisa founded Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California. Though the church began with only thirty people, it grew quickly and within six years numbered over 1,500.

In 2005 Chan released a video titled Just Stop and Think that quickly went viral while also setting him up for the release of his first book: Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. Published in 2008, the book is a call for Christians to live an authentic faith, and it was marketed behind language like this: “Does something deep inside your heart long to break free from the status quo? Are you hungry for an authentic faith that addresses the problems of our world with tangible, even radical, solutions? God is calling you to a passionate love relationship with Himself. Because the answer to religious complacency isn’t working harder at a list of do’s and don’ts — it’s falling in love with God. And once you encounter His love, as Francis describes it, you will never be the same.”

Chan develops two substantial themes. The first is a painstaking self-examination to determine if the reader is truly saved. “A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.” The second theme is a radical obedience concerned more for future rewards than present comfort or prosperity. “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”

What may sound cliché after nearly ten years and a host of imitators was fresh in its time. “This book is written for those who want more Jesus. It is for those who are bored with what American Christianity offers. It is for those who don’t want to plateau, who would rather die before their convictions do.” At the time Chan was writing, many Christian leaders seemed to be leading people away from the centrality of the local church. Chan, though, wished to express his love for the church and wanted to draw people back to it. In an interview after the book’s publication he said

As a pastor I hear a lot of emergent leaders talk about what is wrong with the church. It comes across as someone who doesn’t love the church. I’m a pastor first and foremost, and I’m trying to offer a solution or a model of what church should look like. I’m going back to scripture and seeing what the church was in its simplest form and trying to recreate that in my own church. I’m not coming up with anything new. I’m calling people to go back to the way it was. I’m not bashing the church. I’m loving it.

Crazy Love served as a call for young Christians to live obediently rather than safely. It was a message that resonated with an entire generation.

Sales & Lasting Impact

By 2009 Crazy Love had sold 500,000 copies and was awarded the Gold Book Award; the following year it crossed the 1 million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold more than 2 million copies. It is now clear that Crazy Love was responsible, at least in part, for kick-starting an entire theme in the Christian world—the theme of living radically, but doing so while being grounded in the gospel. Bestselling books like Radical and Jesus > Religion develop the same topics, though with different emphases.

Since the Award

In 2010 Chan announced to his congregation (which now numbered several thousand) that the Lord was leading him in a new direction, though he was not yet certain what it was. He explained that he was weary of being an Evangelical celebrity and that he was concerned that within his church he heard the words “Francis Chan” more often and with greater excitement than “Holy Spirit.” After his resignation he spent several months in Asia before relocating to San Francisco where he founded a church planting movement geared specifically to the city’s poor. He continues that work today.

Chan followed Crazy Love with Forgotten God, a book about the Holy Spirit, and then with Erasing Hell, a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. In 2012 he teamed up with David Platt to write Multiply and to launch a discipleship movement. He has also written several books for children and travels extensively to speak at conferences and other events. While his influence crosses many demographics, his greatest popularity is among teens and young adults.

A Personal Perspective

My first exposure to Chan, at least to my recollection, was his “Just Stop and Think” video. I reviewed Crazy Love in 2008, shortly after its release, and expressed gratitude for it. Though I still think we need to focus on being ordinary Christians as much as we focus on being radical Christians, I understand how and why his book had such massive appeal, and especially among young people. While I have been a little bit concerned by some of the things Chan has said and done over the past few years, I appreciate his generosity (To my knowledge he has given away all or most of his book royalties which would now number in the millions of dollars) and his desire to escape the Evangelical celebrity culture.

June 27, 2014

James Dobson believes that children should not participate in sleepovers. The world has changed, he says, and has become too dangerous to allow your children out of your sight for so long. In his book Bringing Up Girls, he says:

Sadly, the world has changed in the last few decades, and it is no longer a safe place for children. Pedophiles and child molesters are more pervasive than ever. That is why parents must be diligent to protect their kids every hour of the day and night. …

Until you have dealt with little victims as I have and seen the pain in their eyes, you might not fully appreciate the devastation inflicted by molestation. It casts a long shadow on everything that follows, including future marital relationships. Therefore, parents have to think the unthinkable in every situation. The threat can come from anywhere—including neighbors, uncles, stepfathers, grandfathers, Sunday school teachers, coaches, music instructors, Scout leaders, and babysitters. Even public bathrooms can be dangerous today…

He believes the threat is so pervasive that parents should not allow their children to participate in sleepovers. I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing.

I agree with the nature of his concerns. Before my children were even old enough to ask, Aileen and I talked it through and decided we would not allow our kids to do sleepovers. Now let’s be clear: there is no biblical command that forbids them, so this was not a matter of clear right and wrong, but a matter of attempting to act with wisdom. We determined we would make it a family rule: Our children would not be allowed to spend the night at their friends’ homes. We believed they would face a particular kind of vulnerability if they found themselves alone and in bed outside our care, and we wanted to protect them from it. So they have stayed at their grandparents’ and have stayed with my sisters when we’ve visited the South, but they have not stayed at friend’s homes. (Note: My son is fourteen and we have now relaxed the rule with him, though permission is still dependent on circumstances.)

The reason we drew the rule so firmly was that it removes exceptions and explanations. We know ourselves well and realized that if we drew up a list of exceptions we would inevitably broaden that list over time. Not only that, but we did not want to have to explain to a family why we allowed our children to stay with others but not with them. So sleepovers were just taken right off the table without exceptions or individual explanations.

In this way I agree with Dobson that there is wisdom in avoiding sleepovers. But here’s where I disagree: that the risk is that much higher today than it was decades ago.

Aileen and I made our decision based largely on experience and observation of what happened around us when we were young. We made this decision because even in our youth—decades ago—we saw plenty of evidence of the dangers inherent in sleepovers.

When I was young I had some bad experiences with sleepovers. Nothing devastating happened to me, but I did learn that sleepovers bring a certain vulnerability and that children often behave foolishly in these circumstances. Before long my family came to know the local chief of police and he told us that if he had learned anything in his many years of law enforcement it was this: Don’t let your kids sleep over. As I got older I learned of several people I knew who had been taken advantage of during sleepovers, and it wasn’t a perverse father in most cases, but a predatory older brother or sister or cousin. Sometimes it was even the friend himself. The world was plenty dangerous back then and children were just as vulnerable, but somehow these things weren’t talked about as they are today.

As Aileen and I considered all of this and weighed it in our minds, we decided that the benefits of sleepovers did not outweigh the risks.

Denny Burk writes, “Parents must be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves when figuring out the best way to protect children from both. Moreover, parents will often have to pursue principles that might seem strange to the rest of the world but which are the only rational responses to very real and potential threats to children.” Burk believes we need to challenge the assumption of sleepover-as-norm, and I quite agree. Do not allow yourself to feel pressured into sleepovers simply because it is what parents have always done. Instead, consider the issues and come to a conclusion that is right for your family and your context.

I would be interested to know: Do you allow sleepovers? Why or why not?

Image credit: Shutterstock

June 25, 2014

There are certain topics I return to on a regular basis and, if you are a regular reader of this site, you know that one of those topics is pornography. I return to it again and again because I see the damage it is doing and I see the despair of those who are caught up in it. My goal for today is simple: I want to give you 7 good reasons you need to stop looking at porn right now.

1. The Cost to Your Soul

I want to begin here: With the cost to your soul. If you are consumed with pornography and unwilling to put this sin to death, you have every reason to be concerned with the state of your soul. God promises that if he has saved us we will gain new passions and new affections. We will have not only the ability but also the desire to replace sin with holiness, to replace immorality with sexual purity. If you have no sorrow for sin, if you have no real desire for victory, if time and again you recklessly choose your sin over your Savior, you need to ask yourself this: Do I love pornography enough to go to hell for it? If this sin continues to dominate your life, it may stand as proof that you do not have a saving, sin-slaying faith. For the sake of your soul, stop looking at pornography.

2. The Cost to Your Neighbor

Even those who know next-to-nothing about the Christian faith know this: Christians are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Just like Jesus, Christians are to esteem others higher than themselves and to place the concerns of other people ahead of their own. Of all people, Christians should know that pornography exacts a high cost of those who create it—the cost to their bodies, to their souls, to their mental well-being, to their dignity, to their future. A vast amount of the pornography you enjoy is created by people against their wills. The simple fact is, by watching porn, you are watching rape and deriving pleasure from it. You become a willing participant in sexual violence and you allow that actor on the screen to suffer for your pleasure. For the sake of your neighbor, stop looking at pornography.

3. The Cost to Your Church

At a time when the Christian church is crying out for more and better leaders, an entire generation of young men and women are infantilizing themselves by their dedication to pornography. They are in perpetual pornolesence, that period between the conviction of sin and the determination to do anything to stop it. In this time they constantly choose sexual immorality over God and their spiritual growth is stunted. For the sake of your church, stop looking at pornography.

4. The Cost to Your Family

There is scarcely a pastor ministering today who has not seen a family crumble and fall under the weight of pornographic addiction. Men are tearing apart their families for the sake of illicit pleasures; women are shunning the attention of their husbands in order to read or to watch what is forbidden and what seems to promise greater and easier satisfaction. Children are being exposed to pornography through the trails their parents leave behind. Fathers are inviting Satan into the home by their commitment to what God forbids and what Satan loves. For the sake of your family, stop looking at pornography.

5. The Cost to Your Mission

The Lord’s commission is an urgent commission because it is a matter of eternal life and death. Time is short and hell is forever, which makes the Christian’s business an urgent business. And yet so many Christians are distracted by something as evil and as wasteful as pornography. Their attention is arrested, their energy depleted, their usefulness undermined. Don Whitney says it well: “If there are any regrets in Heaven, they will only be that we did not use our earthly time more for the glory of God and for growth in His grace. If this is so, this may be Heaven’s only similarity with hell, which will be filled with agonizing laments over time so foolishly squandered.” For the sake of your mission, stop looking at pornography. 

6. The Cost to Your Witness

Christians are called to be different, to stand out from the rest of the world by their desires and by their behavior. Christians are to put sin to death and to display the power of God in removing and destroying all competitors. And yet so many Christians have had their witness shattered when the sordid truth comes out and when others learn that they profess faith in Christ on the one hand, and are consumed with lust on the other. Parents undermine the gospel they have been telling their children, pastors undermine the gospel they have been preaching to their congregations. For the sake of your witness, stop looking at pornography.

7. The Cost to Your Savior

By making light of pornography you are making light of the death of Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, you acknowledge in your profession of faith that the cost of forgiveness was nothing less than the death of God’s beloved Son. Jesus suffered and died for your sin. How can you, as a Christian, then toy with your sin and take it lightly? How can you cling to it? As Spurgeon says with his customary eloquence, “Sin has been pardoned at such a price that we cannot henceforth trifle with it.” For God’s sake, stop looking at pornography.

June 24, 2014

A few months ago I began a short series called “The False Teachers.” I wanted to look back through church history to meet some of the people who have undermined the church at various points. We looked at historical figures like Joseph Smith who founded Mormonism and Ellen G. White who led the Seventh Day Adventists into prominence, and we looked at contemporary figures like Benny Hinn, the prominent faith healer, and T.D. Jakes, who has tampered with the doctrine of the Trinity.

I will soon be starting a new series looking at The Defenders, Christians known for defending the church against a certain theological challenge or a specific false teaching. I will be focusing on modern times and modern issues such as inerrancy and Open Theism. But before I do that, I wanted to reflect on some of what I’ve learned as I’ve spent time considering false teachers and false teaching. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from false teachers.

False Teachers Are Common

The first and most fundamental thing I learned about false teachers is that we ought to expect them and be on the lookout for them. They are common in every era of church history. This should not surprise us, since the Bible warns that we are on war footing in this world, and that Satan is on full-out offensive against God and his people. And sure enough, history shows that whenever the gospel advances, error follows in its wake. When and where there are teachers of truth, there will necessarily be teachers of error. Perhaps the most surprising thing about false teachers is that we continue to be surprised by them.

False Teachers Are Deceptive

False teachers are deceptive. They do not announce themselves as false teachers, but proclaim themselves angels of light, people who have access to wisdom others have missed or misplaced. As Denny Burk says, “False teachers typically won’t show up to your church wearing a sandwich board saying, ‘I am a false teacher’.” Instead they begin within the bounds of orthodoxy and announce themselves only slowly and through their subtly-twisted doctrine. They turn away from orthodoxy one step at a time rather than all at once.

False Teachers Are Dangerous

False teachers are dangerous, and part of what makes them so dangerous is that they will affirm so much that is good and true. They will not deny all of the doctrines upon which the Christian faith stands or falls, but only select parts of it. They draw in the unsuspecting with all they affirm and only later destroy them with all they deny. There is an important lesson: We only know a person when he understand both what he affirms and what he denies.

False Teachers Are Divisive

False teachers cause division within the church and often cause division even among true Christians. Because false teachers tend to remain within the church, and because they claim to be honoring the Bible, they confuse true believers and drive wedges between them. Amazingly, it is often those who stand fast against falsehood who get labeled as divisive. The church often trusts a smiling false teacher ahead of a frowning defender.

False Teachers Give People What They Want

As Paul wrote his final letter to Timothy he warned that the time was coming when people would not endure sound teaching (and hence, sound teachers) but instead they would have itching ears and demand teachers who would satisfy this itch. False teachers do this very thing. Their concern is not for what people truly need, but for what people want. The concern of the Christian is the exact opposite—the gospel does not address what we want, but what we need!

False Teachers Are Not Innocent

False teachers know they are false teachers. This may not be true all the time, and perhaps some false teachers deceive themselves before they deceive others. But I believe most know who and what they are; in fact, I believe most know and delight in who and what they are. They are not naive people who have taken a wrong turn in their theology, but evil people who are out to destroy others. Their attack on truth is far more brazen than we may like to think.

False Teachers Cannot Tolerate the Gospel

False teachers simply cannot tolerate the gospel. At some level and in some way, they will always add to or subtract from the pure and sweet gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. They may affirm the Trinity or inerrancy or the deity of Jesus Christ, but they will never fully affirm the gospel of the Bible.

The Bestsellers
June 22, 2014

Here is another entry in a series I am calling “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez) and Paul Young (The Shack). Today we look at a controversial devotional work that has left an indelible mark on Christian publishing.

Jesus Calling by Sarah Young

Jesus CallingCompared to other bestselling authors, Sarah Young is a mysterious figure. Notoriously secretive, she has written a book that has sold in the millions, but to my knowledge has never spoken in public, has never appeared on television or radio, and has completed only the smallest handful of written interviews (and even then only through a publicist).

What we do know is that Young is American, was a 1968 graduate of Massachusetts’ Wellesley College, is married to a Presbyterian missionary, lived in Japan for many years, and has recently returned to America after living in Australia. Also, she suffers from significant health concerns related to vertigo and Lyme disease.

Thomas Nelson published Young’s first book Jesus Calling in 2004. Though sales were slow at first, the book began to hit its stride in 2008, tallying over 200,000 sales that year and growing year-over-year from there. To date it has sold over 10 million copies and has outpaced many better-known New York Times bestsellers. The Daily Beast, writing for their non-Christian audience, rightly referred to it as “The Evangelical Bestseller You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Jesus Calling is a daily devotional that contains a year’s worth of reflections on the Christian faith. What sets it apart from the thousands of other devotional works is not what Young says as much as the claim behind it. She claims that as she listens, Jesus speaks to her, and that these devotionals are his more than they are hers. Through them she promises a closer relationship with Jesus and a more tangible sense of his presence.

The first editions of Jesus Calling reference her indebtedness to A.J. Russell’s 1932 work God Calling which Russell claimed was prepared by two “Listeners,” women who received and recorded messages directly from God. This book was unorthodox both in its writing and in its content and in many ways more closely resembles the New Age movement than orthodox Christianity. Still, Young says it “became a treasure to me,” and that as she read it over and over

I began to wonder if I, too, could receive messages during my times of communing with God. I had been writing in prayer journals for years, but that was one-way communication: I did all the talking. 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. I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believe He was saying. I felt awkward the first time I tried this, but I received a message. It was short, biblical, and appropriate. It addressed topics that were current in my life: trust, fear, and closeness to God. I responded by writing in my prayer journal.

What she wrote in her prayer journal was later compiled into Jesus Calling and she makes a bold claim: “This practice of listening to God has increased my intimacy with Him more than any other spiritual discipline, so I want to share some of the messages I have received. In many parts of the world, Christians seem to be searching for a deeper experience of Jesus’ Presence and Peace. The messages that follow address that felt need.”

This excerpt from the reading for January 8 is representative of the daily devotionals:

Softly I announce my Presence. Shimmering hues of radiance tap gently at your consciousness, seeking entrance. Though I have all Power in heaven and on earth, I am infinitely tender with you. The weaker you are, the more gently I approach you. Let your weakness by a door to My Presence. Whenever you feel inadequate, remember that I am your ever-present Help.

Sales & Lasting Impact

In the first 3 years following its publication, Jesus Calling sold fewer than 60,000 copies, but then sales suddenly spiked so that it quadrupled its sales in year 4 and has nearly doubled every year since. It sold its millionth copy in 2010 and was accordingly awarded the Platinum Book Award. The publisher claims that the book has now sold more than 10 million copies in 26 languages. Not surprisingly, it has spawned many imitators which also claim to bring the voice of God to the printed page.

Since the Award

Despite the book’s massive success, Young has remained as mysterious as ever and has completed only a handful of interviews. She has continued to write other books, including a sequel called Jesus Today (which received ECPA’s Book of the Year award in 2013), and children’s titles Jesus Calling: 365 Devotions for Kids, and the Jesus Calling Storybook Bible. A host of gift editions, calendars and other related products have also sold in the millions.

While Jesus Calling has sold far beyond expectations and has been joyfully received by Christian readers, it has also garnered a significant amount of criticism for both its method and its message.

Not surprisingly, the primary concern relates to Young’s method and her claim that she speaks for Jesus. Many concerned Christians have pointed out that the Bible gives us no clear indicator that we can claim Jesus will speak through us (apart from the Bible) and that Jesus’ agency behind her words is unverifiable. Young implies that though the Bible is inerrant and infallible, it is insufficient. After all, it was not reading Scripture that proved her most important spiritual discipline, but this listening, this receiving of unmediated messages from the Lord. Thus the heart of the book is not the Bible, but these extra-biblical messages from Jesus. Some have pointed out with suspicion that the Jesus of Jesus Calling does not speak in the voice of the Jesus of the Bible, but in the voice of a middle-aged woman.

As for the message, Michael Horton says it can be reduced to one point: “Trust me more in daily dependence and you’ll enjoy my presence.” He goes on to point out that “Compared with the Psalms, for example, Jesus Calling is remarkably shallow. … The Psalms first place before us the mighty acts of God and then call us to respond in confession, trust, and thankfulness. But in Jesus Calling I’m repeatedly exhorted to look to Christ, rest in Christ, trust in Christ, to be thankful and long for a deeper sense of his presence, with little that might provoke any of this. Which means that I’m directed not actually to Christ but to my own inner struggle to be more trustful, restful, and thankful.” It is noteworthy that “The first mention of Christ even dying for our sins appears on February 28 (page 61). The next reference (to wearing Christ’s robe) is August 9 (p. 232). Even the December readings focus on a general presence of Jesus in our hearts and daily lives, without anchoring it in Jesus’s person and work in history.” The message of Jesus Calling is, thus, very different from the message of the Bible.

In her few interviews, Young has defended both her method and her message. Interestingly, the references to God Calling that appeared in early editions have since been removed and the word “messages” to describe the revelation she receives has been replaced with “devotionals” and other synonyms. But the book itself remains unchanged.

A Personal Perspective

I reviewed Jesus Calling in 2011 after seeing it rocket up the list of bestselling Christian books and it quickly proved one of my most-read reviews. I concluded, “Jesus Calling is, in its own way, a very dangerous book. Though the theology is largely sound enough, my great concern is that it teaches that hearing words directly from Jesus and then sharing these words with others is the normal Christian experience. In fact, it elevates this experience over all others. And this is a dangerous precedent to set. I see no reason that I would ever recommend this book.” I stand by those words today and believe the success of the book says a great deal about a lack of spiritual discernment among Christians.

June 17, 2014

I trust God with my soul. I do. I have no other hope in life and death but the confidence that I am in Christ for all eternity. I trust God with my soul, but for some reason have a much tougher time trusting him with the souls of my kids. I wonder if you can identify with the struggle.

I am convinced that God saved me by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. I did nothing to merit this salvation. There is nothing in me that turned God’s eye in my direction. There is no vestige of goodness that compelled him to look my way. I was not seeking him when he began seeking me. It was all of his grace without even the smallest bit of my merit. I added nothing to my salvation but the sin that made it necessary.

I believe all this about myself, but somehow find it more difficult to believe when it comes to my children. Now it’s not quite as simple as you might think: I have seen enough of my kids to know that they suffer from the same total depravity as their father. I know they have no merit to bring before the Lord. No, my problem is deeper than that, and a little more difficult to root out.

When it comes to my kids, I seem to want to believe that God’s action is dependent upon my action. I believe that for God to save my kids, I first need to do the right things. If I want God to save them, I need to cross the spiritual t’s and dot the spiritual i’s. And if I don’t, well, their salvation may just be questionable. When it comes to their eternal destiny, it’s like he isn’t looking to their good deeds, but to mine, as if they will be justified by my merit or condemned by my lack of merit.

I don’t actually articulate this, but I see it trying to manifest itself in my life.

I see it when family devotions subtly switch from a time of worshipping God to a means of twisting God’s arm: If I do family devotions every day, will you save them then? Or perhaps more clearly: If I don’t do it for a couple of days, are they still savable?

I see it when my decisions come from a place of fear rather than a place of confidence and when I determine that what is best for the kids must be what looks safest for them: If I choose this school or that league, could that somehow remove them from your grace? Will it all be my fault?

June 16, 2014

Sometimes I know what I believe about a moral issue, but I find my position difficult to explain or defend. It’s not that I don’t have convictions, but that I have difficulty explaining those convictions. I would imagine you sometimes struggle in the same way. I have enlisted an expect to help me look at one of these issues to see how I, as a Christian, can make the case. How can we make a case against abortion? How can Christians convince others that abortion is wrong? I asked my friend André Schutten for help. André is Legal Counsel and Ontario Director at the Association for Reformed Political Action here in Canada.

Arguments against abortion that are based on the Bible are important and simple to make, but ultimately require assent to the authority of God through his Word. Because most people deny such authority, we will leave aside the Biblical arguments and show how you can convince others through science, logic, history and human rights.

We begin with logic.

Logic

In his excellent little booklet, Pro-Life 101, Scott Klusendorf summarizes the pro-life argument this way: “Elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being. The rationale for that argument is clear and to the point:

  1. Intentionally killing an innocent human being is a moral wrong.
  2. Elective abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, elective abortion is a moral wrong.”

The issue is not nearly as complex as you might think. All it requires is proving the second premise. If the pre-born child is an innocent human being (premise #2), then elective abortion is always a moral wrong. This means that the only real issue to resolve in the abortion debate is: What is the pre-born? To quote Gregory Koukl, “If the unborn are not human, no justification for elective abortion is necessary. But if the unborn are human, no justification for elective abortion is adequate.” Always bring the discussion back to this question: What is the pre-born?

Science

What does science say about the pre-born entity? (As an aside, some Christians say we should just rely the Bible to tell others that abortion is wrong. They fail to see science for what it is: the law and revelation of God. The laws of gravity are God’s laws of gravity.)

Science tells us conclusively that there are four characteristics common to all pre-born children. (These are worth memorizing!)

  1. Complete. From the moment of fertilization the pre-born child is complete. All the information that needs to be there is there. It simply needs time to grow.
  2. Unique. The scientific evidence of DNA proves that the pre-born child is unique and genetically distinct from his or her mother. The pre-born child is not a part of the mother (like an appendix), but a unique entity inside his or her mother.
  3. Living. The laws of biology tell us that the pre-born child is alive because it is growing, developing, and undergoing metabolism and responding to stimuli.
  4. Human. The scientific law of biogenesis states that living things reproduce after their own kind. So, dogs beget dogs, cats beget cats, goldfish beget goldfish and humans beget humans. Not parasites or blogs of cells, but humans—complete and unique living human beings.

Science tells us unequivocally that the pre-born child is a complete and a unique living human being.

Back to Logic

So, you’ve looked to science and made the case for the humanity of the pre-born child. But your opponent says, “But the pre-born are different than the rest of us and so they don’t deserve the same protections that you or I do.” While the pre-born are, indeed, different, none of the differences are morally relevant.

Klusendorf has helpfully crafted a mnemonic to remember the differences between born humans and pre-born humans: SLED.

  • Size. The pre-born are smaller than born humans, but size doesn’t determine our humanity. Infants are smaller than toddlers, and toddlers smaller than teenagers, but all are human and all are deserving of the law’s protection.
  • Level of Development. The pre-born are less developed than born humans, but our level of development doesn’t determine our humanity. Toddlers are less developed than adults, but both are human and both are deserving of protection under the law.
  • Environment. The pre-born are certainly in a different place than born humans, but where we are doesn’t determine who we are. If we are human, we deserve the law’s protection no matter where we are.
  • Degree of Dependency. The pre-born are more dependent on their mothers than most born humans, but infants are just as dependent. Our dependency doesn’t determine our humanity.

Once we have demonstrated that the pre-born child is morally no different from born humans, we see that any alleged justification to kill a pre-born could only be right if the justification also works for killing a toddler. If you ever get stuck with a tough scenario (say, questions about poverty, privacy, or even conception through rape), “trot out the toddler.” That is, apply whatever justification your opponent has for abortion to the termination of a toddler. If it isn’t justified for the toddler, it shouldn’t be justified for the pre-born child. You can read more about this toddler tactic here.

So, let’s recap: You’ve demonstrated to your opponent that the pre-born child is a complete and unique living human being, despite four differences that are morally irrelevant. What happens if your opponent then says, “Yeah, maybe the pre-born child is a ‘human’, but it isn’t a person.” What then?

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