More than almost any other Discipline, journaling has a fascinating appeal with nearly all who hear about it. One reason is the way journaling blends biblical doctrine and daily living, like the confluence of two great rivers, into one. And since each believer’s journey down life’s river involves bends and hazards previously unexplored by them on the way to the Celestial City, something about journaling this journey appeals to the adventuresome spirit of Christian growth.
Although the practice of journaling is not commanded in Scripture, it is modeled. And God has blessed the use of journals since Bible times.
EXPLANATION OF JOURNALING
A journal (a word usually synonymous with diary) 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.
Woven throughout this fabric of entries and events are the colorful strands of your reflections and feelings about them. How you respond to these matters, and how you interpret them from your own spiritual perspective, are also at the heart of journaling.
The Bible itself contains many examples of God-inspired journals. Many psalms are records of David’s personal spiritual journey with the Lord. We call the journal of Jeremiah’s feelings about the fall of Jerusalem the book of Lamentations.
As you read this chapter, think prayerfully about joining these and others of God’s people who have taken up the penned Discipline of journaling “for the purpose of godliness.” Remember, the goal of becoming more like Jesus should be the main reason for beginning any Spiritual Discipline, including this one. With that fresh in your mind, consider the words of the United Kingdom’s Maurice Roberts about journaling.
The logic of this practice is inevitable once men have felt the urge to become molded in heart and life to the pattern of Christ. No one will keep a record of his inward groans, fears, sins, experiences, providences and aspirations unless he is convinced of the value of the practice for his own spiritual progress. It was this very conviction which made it a commonplace practice in earlier times. We suggest the practice should be revived and something needs to be said in its defense.1
VALUE OF JOURNALING
Using a journal not only promotes spiritual growth by means of its own virtues, but it’s a valuable aid to many other aspects of the spiritual life as well.
Help in Self-Understanding and Evaluation
In Romans 12:3 we’re encouraged to have a balanced self-image: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” Journaling is certainly no guarantee against either conceit or self-abasement. But the simple discipline of recording the events of the day and noting my reactions to them causes me to examine myself much more thoroughly than I would otherwise.
This is no minor point or small need in our lives. A more God-centered theologian never lived than John Calvin, yet even he wrote on the first page of his monumental Institutes: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.”2 Through the knowledge of ourselves and our condition, he explained, we are aroused to seek God. A journal can be the means by which the Holy Spirit shows us areas of sin or weakness, the emptiness of a path we have chosen, insight into our motives, or other things that can transform the journal page into an altar of seeking God.
At an 1803 meeting of the “Eclectic Society,” where evangelical ministers of London met each week to sharpen their minds and deepen their fellowship by discussing theological issues, Josiah Pratt noted the value of a journal in self-examination.
The practice of keeping a diary would promote vigilance. The lives of many are spent at a sort of hazard. They fall into certain religious habits: and are perhaps under no strong temptations. They are regular at church and sacrament, and in their families. They read the Bible and pray daily in secret. But here it ends. They know little of the progress or decline of the inner man. They are Christians, therefore, of very low attainments. The workings of sin are not noticed, as they should be, and therefore grace is not sought against them: and the genial emotions of grace are not noticed, and therefore not fostered and cultivated. Now, a diary would have a tendency to raise the standard to such persons by exciting vigilance.
One of the ways the “progress or decline of the inner man” can be noted through journaling is by the observation of patterns in your life you’ve not seen before. When I review my journal entries for a month, six months, a year, I see myself and events more objectively. I can analyze my thoughts and actions apart from the feelings I had at the time. From that perspective it’s easier to observe whether I’ve made spiritual progress or have backslidden in a particular area.
Journaling is not a time for navel gazing, however. Nor is it an excuse for becoming self-centered at the expense of a needy world. Writing on the Puritans and their relationship to society, Edmund S. Morgan cites an entry from the journal of a Godly young man during an illness from which he died in the late 1600s. In it the young man evaluates whether he had shown sufficient love to others. Then says Morgan,
The fact that many Puritans kept diaries of this kind helps to explain their pursuit of social virtue: diaries were the reckoning books in which they checked the assets and liabilities of their souls in faith. When they opened these books, they set down lapses of morality with appropriate expressions of repentance and balanced them against the evidences of faith. Cotton Mather made a point of having at least one good action to set down in his diary on every day of the week.
Used appropriately, instead of drawing us more into ourselves, a journal can actually become a means of propelling us into action for others.
Whitney, Donald S. 1991. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
We have just completed a 13-Part Study of Donald Whitney’s classic book, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. It is available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Lesson Subscription Service. It is also available on Amazon