Why Do You Journal?

The following is a transcript of the audio.

A listener named David in Bristol, Connecticut writes in: “Pastor John, over the years, the desiringGod.org website has published a few excerpts from your decades of personal journals. For you, what exactly is the purpose of journaling in the Christian life?”

I think about journaling in two pretty distinct ways, although they overlap. Number one is the diary kind of journal keeping. That means that you come to the end of your day and you take a few minutes and you narrate your life. You just write down the important things that happened during the day and maybe some comments about them. And each day you sum up what happened. And I think if you reflect on God’s hand in all of that, this can be enormously valuable as a record of God’s faithfulness and a record of your own failures and successes for your own humility and encouragement. For example, Psalm 105:5 says: remember the wondrous works that God has done. Well, goodness, gracious. How many thousands of wondrous works in my life that God has done have I forgotten? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were recorded and periodically I could dip in and remind myself of God’s wonderful kindness to me over the years. Or in another Psalm 78:7 it says: Do not forget the works of God. So remember and don’t forget. So yes to the diary kind of journaling for at least those kinds of reasons. Here is the other way to think about it. This is mainly the way I do it. Journaling is a kind of thought notebook for the purpose of insight, clarification and insight preservation. This is not so much for recording what is going on in your life as what is going on in your head and your heart. Not as if they are separable. In fact, most of my discoveries of head clarification and heart clarification are because of things I am going through as a dad or a husband or pastor or friend or something like that.

Now, of course, there are every manner of combination of those two ways of seeing journaling, life narration and thought preservation and clarification. I see what I do mainly in the second category, but very often it is life issues that prompt the insight. So let me just say a word about those two things: clarification of thought and preservation of thought. Not everyone is like me in this regard, but I think more are than know it. I think namely writing out your thoughts helps you know what you think. In fact, I have gone so far to say sometimes: I don’t know what I think until I write it down. My mind is so muddled until I start to sort it out on paper or on the screen. Almost everything working almost everything worth thinking through is more complex than I can hold in my head all at once.

They say Einstein, I read this a few years ago and I thought, yeah, there are people like that. They say Einstein’s genius was that he could hold an idea in his mind for days and continually look at it from a hundred different angles. Well, not me. As soon as I am on the third angle the first one is starting to fade away and the connections between two and three and one are becoming so many and so tangled and interwoven, everything is becoming an absolute jumble in my head. I have to sit down and write out the first thought, then the second thought, then the third thought. And, amazingly, while I am writing out one, two and three, the connections between them become clearer and I can write those down and then those connections create other connections and pretty soon I am thinking things I never would have begun to think had I not tried to put this down on paper. I was just been lost in one big forest of muddle trees. So idea or thought clarification is a huge reason for journaling in a thought notebook. And I would stress here that most of what I am talking about here is Bible. I am talking about what is the meaning of this passage. How does this passage relate to my marriage? How does this work with my daughter, with my sons in their situations? It is not this kind of random, theoretical stuff I am taking time to write about.

Calvin wrote in the preface to Institutes: I count myself to be among those who write as they learn and learn as they write. And I say: Me, too. So idea clarification is a huge reason for journaling for me.

And then this last point: preservation. What a sad thing that God would illumine your mind one morning while you are having your devotions so that you saw something you had never seen before and it had a wonderful implication for worship and for life and the next day you could not remember what it was. That is bad stewardship of Holy Spirit illumination. And journaling is one way of preserving the gifts of God. And I will just add one more thing. I think it is of huge significance for people in leadership to do this. Not only do leaders need to know clearly what they think, they need to say clearly. They need to express in clear and compelling language what they have thought. I think that is the essence of leadership. Think clearly about the future of your organization and the biblical foundations of it and then articulate with compelling, clear, beautiful language the vision for the institution.

Francis Bacon — I can’t remember where I first heard this, but I checked it out online — Francis Bacon wrote: Reading makes a full man. Conference — and he means conversation — makes a ready man. And writing makes an exact man. Exact meaning, exact. He uses language with precision, which is the opposite of fog. Leaders that lead with fog are doing a disservice to their organization. They are going to drive their boat into an iceberg. But leaders whose mind is clear and who can express their ideas with precision and clarity steer the ship in the wonderful, lucid air of truth and openness. So I count journaling one of the most important habits in my life.

Thank you Pastor John! And thank you for the very good question David. If you’d like to ask Pastor John a question please email it to us at askpastorjohn@desiringgod.org. If you keep your question as brief and to the point as you possibly can, I will be very grateful. And of course we especially appreciate and welcome follow-up questions that come to mind after you listen to a previous episode in the podcast. Well we hear a lot of talk these days in Christian circles about idols. We may think of golden calves and paganism. But what does contemporary idolatry look like today? I’ll ask Pastor John that question tomorrow.

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