I have always had an ambivalent relationship with the “daily devotional” genre of writing. On the one hand, I appreciate the value of taking time for quiet and reflection each day and for those whose writing is an attempt to help with this (in fact, I will be trying my hand at devotional writing later this year!). It’s not always easy to know how or where to begin if you want devote more sustained attention to being quiet and listening for God’s voice. Help on the journey is not, I suppose, to be spurned too quickly or carelessly.
On the other hand, most of the devotional writing I have encountered has struck me as pretty light and theologically suspicious fare, truth be told. It is often extremely individualistic, extremely selective with Scripture, and, shall we say, exegetically creative? It almost always leaves me with the impression that my most important priority at the outset of a new day ought to be, well, me—or at least my relationship with God.
I wish I could say that reading Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling has changed all that. But it hasn’t. In fact, it has reinforced a lot of my suspicions about the devotional genre in general. It can be a tricky thing to be critiquing someone’s devotional writing or the “messages from God” they received during times of prayerful quiet—especially when the practice is borne out of a difficult period of life. But I found Jesus Calling to be highly individualistic, highly subjective, and highly sentimental.
I should say at the outset that Sarah Young seems like a very sincere, committed follower of Jesus. It is very obvious from observing her life’s trajectory thus far—time spent at L’Abri, an eight-year period doing missionary work in Japan, studies in Biblical Studies and counseling—that a lifelong commitment to God and to people animates much of what she does. And her claims for this book of reflections are, to be fair, modest and honest: the daily entries are personal journal reflections submitted for public consumption in the hopes that they will help others achieve a “deeper experience of Jesus’ presence.” Her intentions are certainly good and worthy of affirmation.
But from the perspective of an incurably skeptical rationalist, the daily offerings can seem a bit vapid. Here’s a sample from August 13:
Learn to enjoy life more. Relax, remembering that I am God with you. I crafted you with enormous capacity to know me and enjoy My Presence. When My people wear sour faces and walk through their day with resigned rigidity, I am displeased. When you walk through a day with childlike delight, savoring every blessing, you proclaim your trust in me, your ever-present Shepherd. The more you focus on My Presence with you, the more fully you can enjoy life. Glorify Me through your pleasure in Me. Thus you proclaim My Presence to the watching world.
I do not doubt that there are people—many people, perhaps—who would find this to be an inspirational way to start their day. But I am not among them. In this entry and throughout the book, God is consistently portrayed as being interested in little more than ensuring that the reader is sufficiently aware of his constant love and understanding and affection. At times, Jesus Calling reads like one giant attempt to convince the reader that (s)he is OK and that God loves her/him. A good and necessary thing for some? Maybe. But one looks in vain in this book for any sense that God might have priorities that go beyond the reassuringly therapeutic or that the way in which Jesus sometimes (often?) calls is uncomfortable, jarring, and painful.
Maybe that’s OK. One shouldn’t, I suppose, look to very specifically and personally crafted devotional/inspirational writing for robust theology. And for those requiring daily assurance that God loves them, is pleased with them, is near to them, is watching over them, delights in them, understands them, and has a glorious plan for their life, this book might be a worthwhile investment. But for those expecting more from a book with a title like Jesus Calling—that something of the difficulty and countercultural nature of hearing (and following) Jesus’ call might be conveyed, for example—I would suggest looking elsewhere.