Good journaling is not just an exercise in introspection, but a pathway for joy — and a powerful tool in the hands of love.
Perhaps you’re sold on the potential spiritual value of the discipline of journaling, but you just don’t know how to get going, or keep going.
Make It Yours
It can be helpful to hear that there’s essentially no wrong way to go about it, and no real rules for it, but that it’s something you can really make your own. Be as creative as makes you comfortable. Embrace variety and mix it up as much, or as little, as you prefer. Don’t be locked into one way of doing it, and don’t be suffocated by someone else’s paradigm.
So to help you get going, or keep going, on journal-keeping as a spiritual discipline for the glory of God, the good of others, and the deepening of your own joy, here are five additional pieces of advice for flourishing in this endeavor.
1. Keep It Simple.
Journaling is a gift for the long haul. The flash-in-the-pan attempt has limited value. And so an important practical for journaling is keeping it simple enough that you can keep coming back.
“Journaling is a pathway for joy and a powerful tool in the hands of love.”
Be modest in your plans for frequency and length of entries. If your expectations are too involved and complex, then you’ll be less likely to continue over time. If your only paradigm for journaling requires half an hour or 45 minutes, then you’ll be much less likely to develop the habit than if your expectation is, say, five minutes.
If you’re just starting out, or just coming back to the practice, don’t try to go from zero to sixty, but take baby steps with regularity. One idea for getting the momentum going is to try writing something very short daily during devotions, even just one sentence. “Whenever I seem to be content with needlessly long lapses in making entries,” says veteran journaler Don Whitney, “I discipline myself to write at least one sentence per day” (Spiritual Disciplines).
2. Don’t Catch Up.
Even those of us who don’t typically think of ourselves as perfectionists can find its magnetic force messing with our journaling radar. It’s easy to fall into the mindset that our journal must contain all the major events, thoughts, and feelings of our lives to really be a journal at all. But that is simply not the case.
The best of lifelong journals are “incomplete” in that they can’t possibly hold everything of significance, or even close — and if their keeper thought they did, then he would have given up long ago. As Whitney writes, journaling “is not a burden from God to document your entire life; rather it is meant to bless you and be a means of joy and godliness.” It need not be an exhaustive record of your existence. It must not. It can’t.
3. Take God Seriously.
Vital to making your journal serve your spiritual vibrancy is saturating it with Scripture and permeating it with prayer. As often as seems natural, make it Godward, not only with specific texts from the Bible, but with carefully crafted prayers. Journaling and private prayer can serve as the thermostat for setting our gauges of seriousness about Jesus and his providences and our relationship with him.
But don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t expect that your records and reflections on life will one day be sought by the general Christian public. It is very likely that no one else will ever read your journal. Better if they don’t. The best of journals are just for yourself and God, without constantly looking over your shoulder to think about what someone else would think if they were reading it. Settle the issue in your own heart now, and write for your own good. Don’t alter the course of a lifetime’s worth of private journaling just in case someone reads it someday.
Also, not taking yourself too seriously means holding at arm’s length your intuitions about and your interpretations of God’s providences. Take Scripture with the utmost seriousness, but proceed cautiously when you think you “hear God’s voice” or see his direction through various timings and circumstances. Be slow to let one dramatic flurry of journaling inspiration direct a major life decision without carefully testing it over time and in community.
4. Bring the Gospel.
Those Christians who flourish in journaling not only pursue prayer, and meditate on Scripture in general, but seek to apply the gospel with specificity to their fears and frustrations, their highs and lows, their joys and sorrows. When you open your journal harrowed, try to follow the path of the psalmists and close with hope.
“Journaling is not a burden from God to document your entire life, but a means of joy meant to bless.”
Make 2 Corinthians 4:8–9 come to life as you fill the white space with words. When you feel afflicted, rejoice you’re not crushed; when perplexed, drive away despair; when persecuted, remember you’re not forsaken; when struck down, know you will not be destroyed.
Your journal is a venue for freshly preaching the gospel to yourself, in your particular circumstances, without parroting the canned lines of truth you’ll default to without pausing to think it over and write it out. Capture in your own words what you’re truly feeling, and then look for God’s words that meet your need. Tailor-make the application for today.
5. Stay with It.
Even when you make it yours and keep it simple and don’t bother catching up, there’s still the need for perseverance in the long haul. When the newness wears off and your energy for journaling feels low, remember that it’s natural to come against a barrier like this whenever forming a helpful new habit. Ask for God’s help to press through the drag, for “the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11), for “all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29).
Often the hardest part is simply sitting down and turning that rusty internal crank to begin letting the words run. But once the door is open, O how the stream can flow.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.