Journal As a Pathway to Joy
Maybe you’ve never thought of journaling as a spiritual discipline.
It’s seemed like something only for the most narcissistic of introverts, or cute for adolescent girls, but impractical for adults. What, me? Journal? I’m much too occupied with today and tomorrow to give any more time to yesterday. You might be right. Maybe your idea of journaling is too heavy on navel-gazing and too light on real-world value.
But what if there was another vision? What if journaling wasn’t simply about recording the past, but preparing for the future? And what if, because of God’s grace in our past and his promises for our future, journaling was about deepening your joy in the present?
Perhaps no single new practice would enrich your spiritual life as much as keeping a journal.
No Wrong Way
A good journal really is what you make it. It can be a document on your computer, or just a good old-fashioned notebook. It can be formal or very informal, have long entries or short ones, and be a daily stop or just where you pop in on occasion. It can be a place for recording God’s providences, peeling at the layers of your own heart, writing out prayers, meditating on Scripture, and dreaming about the future.
The goal is not to leave an impressive catalogue of your stunning accomplishments and brilliant insights for future generations to read and admire. Die to that before picking up your pen. The goal is the glory of Christ, not your own, in your ongoing progress in his likeness, for the expanding and enriching of your joy.
Even if many of the Psalms do read like divinely inspired journal entries, nowhere does Scripture command that we keep a journal. And as Don Whitney observes, “Jesus did not live and die for sinners to turn us into journal-keepers” (Spiritual Disciplines, 251). Unlike other spiritual disciplines, Jesus left us no model for journaling; he did not keep one.
Journaling is not essential to the Christian life. But it is a powerful opportunity, especially with the technologies we have available today. Many throughout church history and around the world have found journaling to be a regular means of God’s grace in their lives.
With the eyes of faith, the Christian life is a great adventure, and a journal can be greatly beneficial in ripening our joy along the journey. There is always more going on in us and around than we can appreciate at the time. Journaling is a way of slowing life down for just a few moments, and trying to process at least a sliver of it for the glory of God, our own growth and development, and our enjoyment of the details.
Journaling has the appeal of mingling the motions of our lives with the mind of God. Permeated with prayer, and saturated with God’s word, it can be a powerful way of hearing God’s voice in the Scriptures and making known to him our requests. Think of it as a subdiscipline of Bible intake and prayer. Let a spirit of prayer pervade, and let God’s word inspire, shape, and direct what you ponder and pen.
To Capture the Past
Good journaling is much more than simply capturing the past, but recording past events is one of the most common instincts in it. For the Christian, we acknowledge these as the providences of God. When some important event happens to us, or around us, or some “serendipity” breaks in with divine fingerprints, a journal is a place to capture it and make it available for future reference.
Writing it down provides an opportunity for gratitude and praise to God — not just in the moment, but also one day when we return to what we’ve recorded. Without capturing some brief record of this good providence or that answer to prayer, we quickly forget the blessing, or the frustration, and miss the chance to see with specificity later on how “‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far.” A journal also becomes a place where we can look back not just on what happened, but how we were thinking and feeling about it at the time.
But good journaling isn’t just about yesterday, but also about growing into the future.
To Build a Better Future
It’s one thing to think something in a fleeting moment; it’s another thing to write it down. As we capture in writing the careful thoughts we’re having about God and the Scriptures and ourselves and the world, those impressions are being stamped more deeply on our souls and changing us more in the short term and for the long run.
Journaling is an opportunity to grow into tomorrow. We can identify where we need change and set goals and pinpoint priorities and monitor progress. We can evaluate how we’re doing in the other spiritual disciplines we want to be practicing.
And the regular habit of journaling will help you to grow as a communicator and writer, as you practice getting your thoughts into words and onto the page. Your journal is your sandbox, where you can try your hand at daring metaphors and literary flair. It’s a safe place to take practice swings before stepping to the plate in public.
To Enrich the Present
Finally, but most significantly, journaling is not just about yesterday and tomorrow, but today, and our joy in the present. Here are three ways, among others.
Socrates overspoke, but was onto something, when he said the unexamined life is not worth living. While limited, there is an important place for introspection and self-examination in the Christian life. For one, it’s an opportunity for the Christian to learn “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). There is a time for examining self (2 Corinthians 13:5). Our tendency in journaling is to begin with self-examination, even though we want to move beyond it and see the gospel break in with fresh rays of hope.
An essential part of good journaling is not just self-examination, but getting outside yourself and being caught up in something great — in particular, Someone Great. When you’re sad or angry or anxious, let your journal begin with your heart’s state. Be honest and real, but ask God for the grace to get beyond your circumstances, however bleak, to finding hope in him. This is the frequent pattern in the Psalms: begin harrowed, end hopeful. Journaling is an opportunity to preach the gospel freshly to yourself, beginning where you are, without simply feeding yourself the canned lines of truth you’ll default to without pausing to think and to write it out.
Think of journaling as the handmaid of that vital Christian discipline called meditation. “Perhaps the most valuable contribution the discipline of journaling makes to the pursuit of godliness,” says Whitney, “is how it facilitates meditation on Scripture, especially the ability to intensify attention on the text” (254).
Take some juicy bit of gospel from your Bible reading, or a puzzling passage you’re stuck on, and let your journal be your laboratory of learning. Pose a hard question, propose a biblical answer, and apply it to your heart and life.
3. Disentangle, Draw Out, and Dream
Finally, as we journal, we’re able to disentangle our thoughts, draw out our emotions, and dream about new endeavors. The discipline of writing facilitates careful thinking, catalyzes deep feeling, and inspires intentional action.
Deep joy and satisfaction can come from getting our complicated and confusing thoughts and feelings into words on the page. Our heads and hearts carry around so many unfinished thoughts and emotions we’re only able to finish as we write them down. As praise is not just the expression of joy, but the consummation of it, so is writing to the soul. Writing doesn’t merely capture what’s already inside us, but in the very act of writing, we enable our heads and hearts to take the next step, then two, then ten. It has a crystalizing effect. Good writing is not just the expression of what we’re already experiencing, but the deepening of it.
It is a remarkable thing that God made a world so ready for written words, and designed human beings so naturally to write them and read them. And he made our minds such that we’re able to take thoughts further, and do so in greater detail, than our short-term memory can keep track of in the moment. When we write, we not only disentangle our thoughts, draw out our emotions, and dream about fresh initiatives, but we develop them.
Which makes journaling not just an exercise in introspection, but a pathway for joy — and a powerful tool in the hands of love.
For more practical advice on journaling, see the sequel to this article called Five Ways to Flourish in Journaling.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines (Crossway, 2016).