The Spiritual Discipline of Journaling
Have you ever had thoughts about how nice it would be to keep a diary? If you’re like me, then you have! When I was a teenager at boarding school I sometimes read novels about girls (the dreamy type) who recorded all their thoughts about life, their hopes and their fears, in secret journals. The daily entries would begin something like this:
“Dear diary, I couldn’t wait to confide in you tonight. The most dreadful (or wonderful) thing happened!...” I thought it would be such an interesting and useful thing to note down my daily doings, and record all my impressions about life. It would be so interesting to read my diary many years later (perhaps as a grandmother) and be able to travel back in time to the 1970s. But if you’re anything like me, you never had the self-discipline to actually do it. No, my teenaged diary-writing career never went past the nice thoughts, I’m afraid.
But in subsequent years, after I came to believe in Christ, I could see that there was another – and much better – way to use a diary. This was as a spiritual record of what I was learning – from my daily bible readings; from the way God brought blessings into my life through His shaping of circumstances; and from my struggles with sin. I did make some promising starts – for a week or two – but soon found that whenever (a few months later, for instance) I re-read what I’d written I was ashamed of myself. How could I write such self-absorbed nonsense? I asked. Page after page revealed flowery descriptions of how unsure I felt, or how sorry I felt, or how ecstatic I felt, depending on what had happened in my life at the time. So, I did what you would probably do: I ripped those pages out, burned them, and began again. And again... And after I began to properly appreciate the biblical teaching about God and ourselves, I think I gave up on diary-writing completely. My conclusion was that the less I thought about myself and my feelings the better: let the objective truths of God’s Word do their work as I focused more on God and His thoughts.
Examples for Christian Journals
However, more recently, I’ve come across a number of Christian writers who’ve become really good examples – and inspirations – in the matter of keeping a spiritual journal. It seems to me that as long as you understand some important theological truths, such as who you are (a miserable sinner) and who God is (a holy and gracious Father who forgives sinners) then what you will write in your journal about your daily lessons and experiences will be worthwhile (and will even bear re-reading). Women like Elisabeth Elliott and Susan Hunt, and of course one could go back to the godly Puritan ministers, all show how to write helpful and edifying things in their diaries. And in his chapter on journaling as a spiritual discipline, Donald Whitney explains, in detail, how to do it. I’ve been quite excited by this chapter. Let me share some of his ideas with you.
Whitney’s definition of the exercise is worth repeating. It is an introduction to what he goes on to explain:
A journal ... is a book in which a person writes down various things. As a Christian, your journal is a place to record the works and ways of God in your life. Your journal also can include an account of daily events, a diary of personal relationships, a notebook of insights into Scripture, and a list of prayer requests. It is where spontaneous devotional thoughts or lengthy theological musings can be preserved. A journal is one of the best places for charting your progress in the other Spiritual Disciplines and for holding yourself accountable to your goals.
A better awareness of ourselves
One of the greatest uses of journaling, Whitney writes, is developing a better awareness of ourselves. This is for the purpose of healthy self-examination, not simply self-absorption! If we write down how we reacted to an event, a piece of news, a difficulty in a relationship with someone, then we are very often better able to gauge where sin lies in our attitudes and motives. This may prompt us to confess this sin to God, and ask for His forgiveness. (It may be helpful to write down our confession as well). We can also see, by looking back, whether we’ve made any progress against our sin. And, if we’re still concerned about the possibility of too much focus on self, the way we have written our thoughts will often reveal whether this is the case. Did these recorded thoughts lead in the direction of honouring God, or toward our own peace of mind, or comfort? Did they ask: have I loved others enough? – or rather, who did wrong to me and how did they do it?
A spiritual journal can be especially helpful when we’re going through a particular crisis or difficulty in our lives. Susan Hunt’s True Woman contains the story of one woman for whom keeping a journal was an important anchor. She was married to an alcoholic husband, and throughout her trials her church wisely advised her and gave her every kind of practical help. The elders worked valiantly with her husband, and were, in her words, “faithful and diligent elders who were not afraid to do the tough work of shepherding.” They helped her financially until she could get a job, explained things to her children; they prayed and prayed and prayed. And they continued to pray. They also tried to fill the void in her children’s lives by giving them male attention and role models. And she was assigned an elder’s wife who was given the responsibility of discipling her through the difficulties. Here is what this woman wrote:
At our first meeting she (the elder’s wife) gave me a journal and encouraged me to record my journey. She explained the urgency of spending time with the Lord each day. My Bible and my journal were my lifeline over the next few months, and they continue to be my daily companions in my pilgrimage. When the separation began, my stress level was so high that I was on an emotional roller-coaster. Many days I did not see or feel God’s presence, but I knew He was there ... journaling helped me stay focused on Him and his Word.
Here are some of the things she wrote in her journal:
April 22: “I thought it would be hard to go to church alone today, but God met my need through loving brothers and sisters in Christ. An elder and his wife opened their home and invited the children and me to lunch.
April 29: The Lord is dealing with me about judging others and about my temper. I asked Him to show me myself, and He opened my eyes to some ugly sin. I have been so focused on my husband’s sin that I tend not to see myself as I really am. I pray that God will forgive me and help me turn from my sin.
May 4: ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). It is so reassuring to me to know that even at a time of uncertainty God will not leave me.”
Lessons such as these are priceless treasures.
Helps meditate on the Scriptures
Journaling also helps us meditate on the Scriptures. The reason for this is simple: note-taking always makes us concentrate better, and disciplines us to think in a more orderly way. It stops us zooming off into daydreams. As Whitney describes: “Sitting with pen and paper in hand also heightens my expectation of hearing from God as I think on Him and his words in the passage before me. I always listened better in school when I was taking notes. I’m the same way with hearing a sermon: I listen more attentively when I’m writing down the more significant thoughts of the message. The same principle transfers to journaling. When I record in a journal my meditations on a passage of Scripture, I can follow more closely the still, small voice of God as He speaks through the text.”
Helps in our prayer
Then there is the matter of our communication with our Lord. Writing in a journal helps greatly in prayer. You know how difficult it is sometimes to convey what you mean, even to a close friend. You’ve found it’s much more effective to write down what you wanted to say – writing gave you time to choose your words, and gave an outlet to the strong emotions or thoughts that were burning away in your heart. It’s the same with our prayer to God. Journaling your prayers is a great idea – and I must say, I’ve found writing in a journal in the last few weeks has given my prayers a much better focus. It has even helped me work out what it was I wanted to ask God, and what I should ask Him. And Scripture shows us this too. As Whitney notes in another place, David’s psalms are a model for the prayers we might write in a journal. In the psalms David gives full vent to his hopes, fears and longings to God. He confesses his sin and shouts his joy. And – something I love about the psalms – David frequently moves, as he writes, from sorrow or anxiety to a state of joy and trust. He does this by reminding himself, in prayer, of what great things God has done for him in the past, or of the promises God has made and will never relent from. We too can do this in prayer, as many a faithful saint before us has done. And looking back on our prayer will help build our faith in thankfulness for God’s subsequent answers.
Remembering thoughts better
Writing in a journal also helps clarify our thoughts so that they can be more useful – both at the time of writing and later on. You could say that journaling is a record of our quiet times – of the lessons from them in particular. Whitney tells that what he records from his quiet times is useful in later conversations, in counselling, encouraging and evangelism. Of course, writing them down means we remember the thoughts better, and they won’t be useful to us later if we don’t remember them. Now, he’s a pastor, and you might be thinking – he needs to be more spiritual, keeping a record of his thoughts and all that – and as a pastor of course he’s going to be having conversations about the gospel and counselling people. That doesn’t apply to me (eg a woman at home) nearly as much (if at all). Don’t you believe it! We are all responsible for our fellow-Christians’ spiritual welfare, and that includes us women. There are many situations in which the words of a wise woman may be more helpful than anyone else’s. Think of the lonely widow, the chronically-ill mother, the wayward teenage girl. If you’ve been carefully recording what the Lord has taught you over time, you’ll have a real store of treasures to pass on.
Lastly, a journal is such a helpful way to record our progress in keeping spiritual goals – especially the major goal of putting off our sin. Christians throughout the centuries have used their journals for this purpose. Perhaps two of the best-known are Jonathan Edwards and his contemporary, George Whitefield (both 18th century ministers and evangelists). They recorded resolutions to achieve certain measures of obedience in their lives – and every day, wrote down whether they had been faithful in those areas or not.
Edwards wrote: “Concluded to observe, at the end of every month, the number of breaches of resolutions, to see whether they increase or diminish, to begin from this day, and to compute from that the weekly account my monthly increase, and out of the whole, my yearly increase, beginning from new-year days.”
An example of this process was a January 5 entry: “A little redeemed from a long, dreadful dullness, about reading the Scriptures. This week, have been unhappily low in the weekly account: – and what are the reasons of it? – abundance of listlessness and sloth; and, if this should continue much longer, I perceive that other sins will begin to discover themselves.”
George Whitefield gives a list of the kinds of goals he was aiming at in his journal. These included fervency in prayer; regularity of prayer; consideration of how any chosen action or word might glorify God; zeal; humility and cheerfulness in his daily life. Perhaps this sounds somewhat eighteenth centuryish? But you could be doing the same thing – adapted to your twenty-first century situation. Is your besetting sin eating too much? Gossipping? Anger? Excessive anxiety? Are you slothful in prayer or bible reading? Consciously decide to make no more provision for the flesh. Work out where temptation lies in your daily path, and resolve in your mind that you’ll avoid doing anything which makes it easier for you to succumb. Determine to take steps to put off these “deeds of darkness”, and make some goals to put on the “armour of light” (Romans 13:12). Write your goals in a journal, and prayerfully keep at them. You will be able to look back over the weeks and months and check your progress.
How you can do it
So how should one go about keeping a journal? What methods are there? This is a question Whitney answers well, with some interesting practical suggestions. The most obvious way is to buy one of those journals with blank pages that are readily available in bookshops – I’m sure you’ve seen them. Some are handsomely bound; others have bible texts written on each page, or headings such as “Prayer Requests” or “Insights from Scripture”. Many Christians prefer to use everyday notepaper, or lined refill. Whitney himself likes this, as he can keep all his writings in a small ring-binder, and keep loose pages in the places he might be reading or meditating, writing down insights whenever they come. This might be in his study, his car, or at home. He finds by keeping spare pages in his bible and briefcase he is never without opportunity to record thoughts, impressions, observations, items from conversations wherever he might be at the time.
One of the most interesting of Whitney’s suggestions is to use the computer to write down his thoughts and insights. Technology has made it so easy to switch from one program on the screen to another; and simply to bring up your “journal” file while you are working away at your desk on something else, should you think of an idea, has lots of potential for people (many of us included) who spend much of their day at or near a computer screen. Of course, there are privacy issues to consider, and your journal is probably going to be something between you and the Lord. Keep that in mind if you have youthful “hackers” in your house! Whitney quite often writes his journal on the computer, then prints it out and files it with his other pages in his ring binder: he finds it is neater, and it suits him because he types faster than he can write by hand.
Some of Whitney’s closing thoughts are important in connection with the practice of this spiritual discipline. He reminds us that we don’t need to be natural or expert writers to find it profitable. It is a useful exercise at any level we are able to involve ourselves with it. And whatever our spiritual state – full of joy or low and discouraged – it will be worthwhile to record what we are learning from the Lord. But it also requires persistence: the novelty of the idea will wear off. Sometimes we seem to be learning nothing special. While we don’t have to be writing every day, we will have to push through this barrier in the end if we are not to give up altogether. Plan for persistence. And if you’ve never done it before, be assured that you must start journaling in order to experience its value. Whitney quotes the story of an Irish Presbyterian pastor who began a journal, which he called “A Diary of God’s Dealings with a Most Unworthy Sinner” in the 1880s. This man, Thomas Houston, tells how actually making a start convinced him how valuable the practice was. I will end with his words:
For a considerable period I have been resolved on keeping a register of the dealings and providences of my Heavenly Father towards me, but, what through want of what I considered a fit opportunity, and through what was, I fear, a greater cause, spiritual sloth, I have hitherto neglected it. When I first began to think of this subject, various objections appeared to me to lie against diary writing altogether. It would give room for spiritual pride; it led persons to measure themselves by themselves; and as it is not easy to determine between the motions of the Spirit and the natural outworkings of the unrenewed conscience or the artifices of the Deceiver, there is a danger of forming incorrect judgements. These and other reasons kept me a length of time from determining for the thing. Of late I have got over these objections entirely, and am now of the opinion that such a record may be of much service to an individual to furnish him with matter for prayer and self-examination, and to be a monument to God’s faithfulness.
How about recording God’s faithfulness in your life?