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Sarah Young (lL) with daughter Stephanie

Sarah Young: The Story of God’s Hand on My Mom’s Life

By Stephanie Elizabeth van der Westhuizen, Sep 19, 2023

Sarah Young, the author of “Jesus Calling” and other well-known devotional books, has recently entered the glorious gates of heaven after a long and difficult battle with cancer. Though she will be remembered by many as one of the most influential Christian authors of her time, I am blessed to remember her as my mom.

You may have read one of the many articles detailing her life and writing career that were published shortly after her death. So why should I bother to write another article to add to the collection? It’s because she would have wanted to make sure that in the process of celebrating her life and accomplishments, we place even more emphasis on God’s gracious work in her life and how He chose to use her books. So, I want to endeavor to tell her story with that in mind. The way her books changed thousands of lives and eventually sold over 45 million copies is a modern-day miracle, not unlike the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 hungry followers with a boy’s small lunch. That’s the story that we, as her family, want to make sure gets told.

A Search for Truth

Sarah, my mom, was born in 1946, as the second of four siblings. Though she is so well known for her vibrant faith in Jesus, she did not become a Christian until later in life. She was a very gifted student, blessed with an intelligent mind and a thirst for knowledge. She attended Wellesley College and pursued a degree in philosophy, hoping to discover truth and purpose, but found nothing that answered these questions to her satisfaction. She became quite disillusioned with the pursuit of truth, and if you had asked her then if she ever saw herself believing in God, she would have laughed.

But God pursued her despite her wayward life and her attitude toward Him. You may have heard the story that during this time her brother asked her to read Francis Schaeffer’s book, “Escape from Reason,” and Jesus began tugging on her heart as He showed her real truth for the first time, through the words of that book. She travelled to L’Abri and committed her life to Jesus while she was there. Another big moment in her journey of faith was the evening she sat through a live performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” The words leapt off the page as she understood that they prophetically pointed to Jesus and the salvation He would bring the world, and she knew she needed to know Him more.

Marriage, Family, and Missions

She decided to attend Covenant Seminary, which is part of the Presbyterian Church of America, a Reformed denomination of the evangelical Church. There she earned a master’s degree in counseling and biblical studies. While there, she met her husband, Steve Young, who had grown up on the mission field in Japan and was headed back there after graduation from seminary. They married in 1977 and left for Japan as missionaries.

I was born in Tokyo in 1979, and my brother, Eric, was born in Nashville in 1982, between their first and second terms. While in Japan, she attended language school and became quite adept at the difficult language of Japanese, all the while helping my dad with mission work and raising her kids. As a mom of young children myself, I can only imagine how difficult this time was for her—a new believer, a new mother, trying to do mission work in a new and totally foreign country. These difficulties and the lack of opportunity for using her counseling degree in Japan led my parents to consider moving their missionary work to another country.

In 1987, my family moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and we stayed until my parents decided where we should go next. While we were there, my mom attended Georgia State University, and earned another counseling degree, expanding her counseling skills further. They decided to move to Australia, following an invitation from the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. Here there would be plenty of opportunity for Japanese ministry, as well as counseling opportunities for my mom.

A Deepening Pursuit of God

During this difficult time of decision making and transition, my mom began to pursue spending longer times with God, praying, reading Scripture, and journaling. Quiet morning hours spent with Jesus were becoming her lifeline to deal with the stress of our lives, and I would wake up every morning to find her doing this.

In 1990, we made a giant move across the world to Melbourne, Australia. My parents began a Japanese language church and my mom helped by teaching Sunday school and teaching English through “Friendships in English.” She also began her counseling ministry, which turned out to be much more of a spiritual battle than expected, with many of her clients being spiritually and sexually abused women. Her heart to help these women heal was heroic, and the effort and energy she poured into this ministry was taxing.

It was during this time that she found that switching her journal writing from a monologue to a dialogue (where she would write from her perspective and then God’s perspective back to her) brought her comfort, encouragement, and strength to continue her ministry. She began to experience the presence of God during her quiet times in a way she never had before. Her head knowledge of God was becoming heart knowledge as well.

During the eight years we spent in Melbourne, my mom began sharing her journal writings with other people when they needed encouragement. One of the people she encouraged the most with her writing was her mother, Elizabeth Kelly, or “Nani” to us grandkids. Nani had been suddenly widowed in 1996 while we were in Nashville for a year of furlough, and my mom’s writings became vital to her journey through grief. I still remember the day mom handed me a floppy disc to print a copy of the first 365-day collection of her journal writings from my school’s computer lab, that she wanted to give to Nani. Though none of us ever suspected that this would one day become a best-selling book, I do remember the gravity of that moment, handing her the still-warm stack of papers, wondering how God would use them. Nani was always my mom’s biggest fan, and encouraged her to keep writing and to pursue publication until Nani passed away in 1999. Thanks to the encouragement of Nani and her friends, my mom continued to work on and improve her manuscript until she was ready to submit it for publishing.

A Diagnosis and a Pivot

In 2001, as empty nesters, my parents moved from Melbourne to Perth, Australia, with an invitation to start another Japanese language church there. Sadly, only a month after this move, my mom began to experience a variety of symptoms first diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, then later as Lyme disease. She went from being an active lover of the outdoors (especially walking on the beach) to being mostly home-bound due to increasing fatigue, flu-like symptoms, vertigo, and food and skin allergies. All of these symptoms would worsen and become unbearable if she tried to go out of the house or do much physical activity. Despite this, she continued to try help in the ministry of the new church plant as she could, and continue her counseling. This was a disappointing time in her life. In addition to her body refusing to heal, she heard back from the publishers to whom she sent her manuscripts, and all had turned her down.

Finally, in late 2003, after she had completely given up hope that her book would be published, she was contacted by Integrity Publishers and told that they would like to publish her book. It turns out that her manuscript had been circulating among friends in Nashville, and that it had eventually ended up in the hands of an editor’s wife. This was the first sign that God was in control of when and how He was going to use her book. As is often the case with God, His timing and ways were not what we expected, but the trial of waiting that my mom endured helped us see that this book of hers was in His hands.

The first edition of “Jesus Calling” was published in 2004 with little fanfare, with the hopes that it might sell 10,000 copies. The offering of her manuscript as a completely unknown author at this time felt like a meager lunch of loaves and fish, and we only hoped that it would sell enough to keep the book in print. Little did any of us know that God would multiply her humble offering in the magnitude that He did, and continues to do today. Her loaves and fish were definitely turned in an extravagant feast that would point people all over the world to Jesus and to His Word—the true bread of life!

A Ministry of Writing and Prayer

Ever since this first publication, my mom found it far more meaningful to pray that each reader would draw closer to God through her books, rather than to worry about how many books had sold. As time went on and her health worsened, her ability to participate in traditional missionary work and counseling decreased. However, God provided her with a new ministry, which was to continue writing and to spend hours in prayer for her readers. She was an amazing prayer warrior for her readers, friends, and family.

The second sign that God was working through her books in His ways and not hers was that it became commonplace to hear readers report that what they read on a certain day was exactly what they needed to hear, that it applied perfectly to their particular circumstance. It happened to us, as her family members, to friends, and to strangers around the world. Even in the last days of her life, my family was amazed that her writing was incredibly applicable to what we were going through, ministering to each of our hearts in the ways we needed. How is this possible? According to my mom, it was merely God orchestrating the way her books had been written, and His guidance of a certain person to read a certain page on a certain day. It was God’s hand on her books.

Though she sought to find physical healing through prayer and a multitude of medical treatments, it eventually became clear that God’s plan for her did not include healing from her physical ailments. Time and time again, she would try a medical treatment that promised hope, only to be disappointed with a lack of improvement. This rollercoaster ride of hope and disappointment characterized the last 22 years of her life, and our lives as her family. Despite this, she never lost her faith, and she never doubted that God loved her. She herself saw that her years of suffering and physical discomforts were vital in allowing her to write in a way that spoke to other people who were going through their own hardships.

While still living in Perth, my mom was able to write “Dear Jesus” and “Jesus Today” before she and my dad retired from overseas missions in 2013. They settled in Nashville, where my mom enjoyed having a bright sunroom that allowed her feel like she was outdoors since she could not go outside much. Anyone who knew my mom knows that sunroom. It was where she entertained friends, played games with grandchildren, enjoyed her quiet times, and spent hours writing and editing her books. During her years in Nashville, my mom attended Christ Presbyterian Church when her health allowed, and she enjoyed the fellowship and friendship she found in her Sunday evening small group, while my dad continued church planting and ministering to the Japanese community. He helped start the multicultural church, Crossroads of the Nations, in 2016, and still pastors it today.

The third sign that God was in control of her books was the massive increase in their sales, with little marketing effort. My mom went from being a completely unknown author to a household name in a few short years. She published two more successful books in Nashville, “Jesus Always” in 2016, and “Jesus Listens” in 2021. She had to turn down many an interview or speaking opportunity due to her health problems, and chose to live a much different life than the average bestselling author. She was comfortable saying no to chasing the approval of others, and to the fame, spotlight, or financial gain she could have had from her books. My parents gave generously to non-profits and other ministries, never living extravagantly themselves. The way my parents navigated her fame and finances impacted me greatly, and they taught me what it looks like to “lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” (Matt. 6:19-21)

A Heartbreaking Farewell and a Legacy of Faithfulness

My mom’s health problems became even more worrisome when she was diagnosed with a form of bone marrow cancer called Myelodysplastic Syndrome at the age of 70. This diagnosis came with a three-to-five-year survival time, and caused her to have worsening anemia that eventually required regular blood transfusions, and on and off chemotherapy. For the first several years, it seemed like MDS wasn’t as bad as we had been told. But by the end of 2022, the disease had progressed significantly and we began to worry that her time was short. In early August 2023, we found out that her MDS had now turned into Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a much more aggressive form of cancer. In a few short weeks, she was taken to heaven, leaving us heartbroken yet rejoicing that she was finally with the One she wrote so beautifully about, and that she was no longer a captive of her broken, earthly body.

Over the years, I’ve been asked a variety of questions about how and why my mom had this particularly special gift of hearing from God directly. I’ve always maintained that her ability to “hear” God was no different from what any of us as God’s children have access to. Any time we are going through difficult circumstances and ask God questions like, “What should I do about this situation?” or “What are you trying to teach me through this?” we find ourselves looking and listening for answers from God in the same way she did. My mom became exceptionally devoted to spending time in prayer, in deep study of the Bible, and in memorizing huge swaths of Scripture to guide her through her tough circumstances. What made her different is that she, being a very gifted writer, wrote down what she learned during these times in beautiful, uplifting ways that communicated God’s truths to anyone who read them.

No, her books are not prophetic, they are not infallible, and they are not a replacement or upgrade of the Bible—she was always clear about this. Her books are the starting point to drive you to the God she knew and loved so well, to motivate you to find Him in the Bible. We were amazed to hear the hundreds of stories of people becoming Christians after reading her books, and I believe it’s partly because she showed them how beautiful and attractive a relationship with Jesus could be, and it was a sweet aroma to those who did not know it could be that way.

Thank you, Mom, for dedicating your life to showing us that it can be that way.

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