This book is going to be big. Huge, even. Its predecessor has sold well over 10 million copies and more than a decade after publication has no less than 6 editions on the list of Christian bestsellers. Today, at last, comes the long-awaited sequel, releasing to great fanfare—a million-copy first printing backed by a huge $300,000 marketing spend. One way or another you will come across this book and so will most of your friends and neighbors. You will see it on Amazon, in Costco, in airport bookshops, and perhaps even at your church’s book table. It’s Jesus Always, Sarah Young’s sequel to Jesus Calling.
Like Jesus Calling, Jesus Always is a little book—just 4.4 by 6.3 inches—and like Jesus Calling contains 365 short daily devotions. What makes Young’s little books distinct is her big claim: Her name is on the cover, but the words come from Jesus.
I would like to offer a review under just two headings. First I will introduce her little book, then I will discuss her big claim.
The Little Book
Young introduces Jesus Always by telling about some of the difficult circumstances she has endured in recent years, most notably a disruptive long-distance move and a medical condition that has flummoxed doctors and kept her housebound. Yet through these trials she has found joy in God and his Word. “Dear reader, as you make your way through the pages of this book, I long for you to embrace the Joy of a close relationship with Jesus. He is with you at all times, and in His Presence there is fullness of joy.”
Here is the complete text of one day’s devotion (January 2):
I am your Joy! These four words can light up your life. Since I am always with you, the Joy of My Presence is continually accessible to you. You can open up to My Presence through your trust in Me, your love for Me. Try saying, “Jesus, You are my Joy.” My Light will shine upon you and within you as you rejoice in Me, your Savior. Ponder all I have done for you and all that I am to you. This will lift you up above your circumstances.
When you became My follower, I empowered you to rise above the conditions in your life. I filled you with My Spirit, and this Holy Helper has limitless Power. I promised that I will come back and take you to be with Me in heaven—that you may be where I am forever. Whenever your world is looking dark, brighten your perspective by focusing on Me. Relax in My Presence, and hear Me saying, “Beloved, I am your Joy!” (Psalm 21:6, Philippians 4:4 in the NKJV, John 14:3)
This devotion, a fair representative of the other 364, displays a few characteristic traits:
- The capitalized words (Joy, Presence, Power) represent experiences she wishes for the reader to have in and through Jesus.
- The italicized passages are drawn directly from Scripture.
- The first-person pronouns indicate the voice of Jesus.
- She often includes a few words to breathe or whisper as a form of prayer: “Take a few deep breaths and whisper My Name,” or simply, “Jesus,” or, “I trust You, Jesus,” or, as in this devotion, “Jesus, You are my Joy.”
- She often includes commands or suggestions for the reader followed by associated promises: “Ponder all I have done for you and all that I am to you” for “This will lift you up above your circumstances”. Or, “Relax in my presence” and you will “hear Me saying, ‘Beloved, I am your Joy!’”
The back cover copy explains the book’s major theme, “Jesus Always invites you into a new way of living—embracing a life of joy.” It “explores the promises of joy in scripture—promises of life abundant, life to the fullest, life brimming with joy.” So, through 365 2- or 3-paragraph devotions, Young speaks in the voice of Jesus to call on her readers to trust God and to find joy in his presence.
The Big Claim
The big claim in her little books is that the words come to the reader from Jesus through her. At least, that was the claim of Jesus Calling and, as far as I know, it has not been retracted. Instead, it has been removed. If you are enthusiastic about Jesus Calling or wondering about Jesus Always, this is the one claim you must face head-on. You cannot treat Jesus Always as just another Christian book when Young herself claims it is so much more.
Let’s back up. In early editions of Jesus Calling, Young was forthcoming about the origin and nature of her book. She described being inspired A.J. Russell’s old work God Calling to become a “Listener” who hears and records messages communicated by Jesus. What Jesus spoke she wrote down and published as Jesus Calling. She was clear: She wrote in the voice of Jesus not as a literary decision but because she truly believed that she was serving as a kind of conduit for revelation from God. This was an audacious claim that set apart Jesus Calling from almost every other Christian book before or since. But this bold claim was quietly removed from later editions of Jesus Calling and is altogether missing from Jesus Always.
Not surprisingly, Young’s claim caused a great deal of concern among Christians with a high view of Scripture. Kathy Keller’s critique was representative when she pointed out that if Young “had only used ‘He’ instead of ‘I’ in her book, about half of my objection to it would be gone. However, in publishing these as messages she received from ‘listening to God,’ she has left us in a quandary.” Why? Because when “words are attributed directly to Jesus … then they have to be received on the same level as Scripture, or she has put her own thoughts into the mouth of Jesus.” Exactly so. If Jesus Calling was actually spoken by Jesus, it carries much greater authority than if it was not. Even if this does not equate it with the Bible (a claim Young disavows) surely it at least elevates it above other Christian books.
Jesus Always is almost indistinguishable from Jesus Calling in its tone, its theme, and voice. The only difference is that Young did not include her claim that these messages originated with Jesus. Yet there is no reason to think that she has stopped her “listening.” There is no reason to think she believes these devotions are anything less than messages from Jesus. This generates at least a couple of problems.
The problem of imperatives. What do we do with the book’s imperatives? On January 7 Young writes, “Post reminders of My Presence in your home or car or office” and “Be creative in finding new ways to turn your thoughts toward me.” Here’s the quandary: Are these commands from Jesus or are they suggestions from Young? If she is writing from her own perspective like any other author, it’s simple to tell and she might say something like, “I suggest you post reminders of God’s Presence in your home or car or office.” But when the voice is Jesus’s we are left wondering if and how we must obey. On January 9 we read, “Remind yourself of this glorious truth frequently, whispering ‘Jesus, You are my Treasure. In You I am complete’.” And on August 6, “When planning and problems are preoccupying your mind, turn to Me and whisper My Name.” Again, do we need to do these things? Are these words from Jesus or mere suggestions—perhaps even helpful suggestions—from one Christian to another? The source makes all the difference in the world.
The problem of voice. Then there is the problem of voice. The Bible contains thousands of words spoken by Jesus and he speaks with a distinct voice. But the Jesus of Jesus Always sounds very different from the Jesus of the gospels of Matthew or John. So what do when we don’t recognize the voice? Jesus didn’t ever say anything like “Seek to live in the present moment, where My Presence awaits you continually. Refresh yourself in My nearness, letting my Love soak into your innermost being” (January 10). No sentence he ever uttered reminds me of this: “Taking time to bask in My Love-Light, soaking in My radiance, can enhance your awareness of My Presence (July 21).” My point is not that those things are necessarily wrong, but that they sound like a very different Jesus from the Jesus of the Bible. If this is truly Jesus, why has his voice changed so substantially? Am I not right to be concerned, to be hesitant to grant Young the benefit of the doubt that she has actually heard from Jesus and recorded his words?
I believe Young and her publisher anticipated these concerns and have attempted to head them off. I say this because the “About the Author” section contains unusually in-depth information about Young’s background and beliefs. We are told she believes that the Bible is “the only infallible, inerrant Word of God” and that she “endeavors to keep her devotional writing consistent with that unchanging standard.” We read also that, “Sarah is biblically conservative in her faith and reformed in her doctrine.” We learn that she has a master’s degree from Covenant Theological Seminary, is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, and serves with her husband as a missionary with Mission to the World, a PCA mission board. This section goes to unusual lengths to establish that Young is a conservative Christian who holds to the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible while subscribing to Reformed theology.
Yet we are not told what these letters from Jesus actually are and how they fit within a robust doctrine of scripture. We are not told how her new revelation is consistent with reformed theology (which, after all, has much to say on these matters). We are not told how she can be both A and not-A. This stacking up of theological adjectives does little to allay my concerns. To the contrary, it only furthers them.
My foremost concern with Jesus Always, then, is not so much what Sarah Young says, but what she believes about what she says. Her claim is nothing less than that she speaks the words of Jesus on behalf of Jesus. This is the boldest claim of any Christian book I’ve ever read. It is a claim any reader needs to weigh and evaluate before spending a year with its author. It’s a claim that is very difficult to defend and even more difficult to prove.
For other resources on Jesus Calling, all of which apply to Jesus Always, consider:
- Matt Slick: Book Review of Jesus Calling
- Michael Horton: Review of Jesus Calling
- My own 10 Serious Problems with Jesus Calling