We bid farewell to the “20-teens” with a question from Kevin, still a teen, an 18-year-old listener who has a brand-new Bible and a great question for you. “Hello Pastor John! My parents just bought me a new ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition for Christmas. It has a full blank page between each Bible page.” A lot like Jonathan Edwards’s Blank Bible, sounds like. “I’m truly delighted to have it and to begin using it. I’m hoping it helps me reflect more on God’s word and to be more consistent about spending time with him. The hang-up is this: I’ve never written in my Bible before. So having blank pages for notes is brand-new territory for me. What should I write down? Should it be a place to document my current discoveries? Would it be useful to look back on how God was working in my life — a spiritual diary of sorts? Should I date my entries? Stuff like that. How would you go about doing this, Pastor John?”
Kevin, you are about to embark on something astonishing. It could absolutely change your life in very profound ways. The word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces to the division of soul and spirit, bone and marrow. It searches out your heart, the hidden things you don’t even know are there (Hebrews 4:12). It’s full of liberating, sanctifying power (John 17:17). Nothing else will be as transforming in your life as the word of God pursued in regular, disciplined, focused, prayerful ways through this process of writing down what you see in God’s word, so I’m very excited for you.
So let’s get a few nitty-gritty things out of the way, and then I’ll mention four things that I think will give solid foundation and guidance for this practice of journaling.
Four Quick Tips
Yes, date your entries. Later, you will see amazing correlations between what you saw on a date and what God was doing in your life at that time.
Use a pencil, not a pen. You need to be able to erase and correct. So get an automatic number two pencil with 0.5 lead — not 0.7 — 0.5. It needs to be tiny enough to fit a lot on the page, and it needs to have an eraser. So decide on the size of your margins and fill up the space in between.
Here’s something you may not have thought of: Create an overflow system for when you want to write more than can fit on a page. I would say, start a notebook. It might be paper. I did this forty years ago. I call them “sermon gardens” because I heard somebody say that, and it was a spiral binder: “Sermon Garden #1,” “Sermon Garden #2.” It’s just where I jotted down ideas that I had seen, because I didn’t have one of those journaling Bibles.
“You will perceive more because of your writing. You will learn as you write, and you will see as you seek to say.”
Or it might be a word processor document. And name it “Journal Bible Overflow #1,” and then number the entries inside it as one, two, three, and so on. So, when you leave the blank journaled Bible page and go to your overflow, you correlate it with notebook number one, entry number one, so 1.1 or something like that.
So those are my nitty-gritties. Get those out of the way right away. Now here are my four suggestions for foundation and guidance, and I’ve thought of a way to put them in four Ps: perceive, present, preserve, plan.
Paul said in Ephesians 3:4, “in reading this, you can perceive” — here’s my first P — “you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ” (my translation). This is astonishing. Just think of it: God has ordained that by the ordinary human activity of reading, the human mind can penetrate into the mystery of Christ. It is a work of God in our minds. The Spirit must be doing a decisive work in our minds and hearts, but reading is the human means that God has appointed for how that work happens.
What I want to add to that statement of Paul is that there are eyes in the tip of your pencil. These eyes cause your reading to detect so much more. John Calvin said with Augustine, and I say the very same thing, and I think you’ll probably wind up saying it too, “I count myself among the number of those who write as they learn, and learn as they write.” That’s exactly what you’ll find: that as you write, you see. As you write, you learn. I promise you this: you will find that writing does not just record what you see; it increases what you see, what you perceive. So here’s what I would write:
1. I would write paraphrases, in your own words, of the verses that arrest your attention. That will force questions. Trying to paraphrase it will force questions about meanings of words and phrases and how things connect with each other.
2. Write those questions down.
3. Write possible answers to your questions.
4. Write arguments that favor one answer over the other.
5. Write the insights that come to you as you wrestle with these questions and these answers.
There’s a lot more, but that’s enough to get you started with great fruitfulness. So, the first reason for writing, for journaling, is that there are eyes in the tip of your pencil, and you will perceive more because of your writing. You will learn as you write, and you will see as you seek to say.
Ecclesiastes 12:10 says, “The Preacher [that’s the author of Ecclesiastes] sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.” So, what did he do in his journal? What did he do? He sought, it says. What did he seek? He sought words. He did not just write the first words that came to his head, right? He sought. A word came to his head and he said, “No, I’m going to seek another word.” He paused — he ransacked his experience and his memory for special words.
“God loves to give fresh sight and wisdom to those who long to share his wisdom with others.”
What kind of words? Words that delight. Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” That means they really are pleasing. These words are pleasing. When somebody says them at a right moment, at a right time, in a right way, they’re just like a great meal. Somebody said a word, and it felt and tasted so good. They create a good effect in the hearer. So, do this: Pause and seek a better word, a better phrase — one that surprises and awakens and causes a kind of pleasure. Yes, even in your own mind — even if it shocks and rebukes.
But there’s another trait he said the words are supposed to have. He said, “Uprightly he wrote words of truth.” So, strive to write with words that are true and beautiful. And yes, I am suggesting that you not just write for yourself. I know that may sound a little odd, maybe even a little presumptuous. Imagine a person or a group, a wife, a child, a husband, whatever. This is Kevin we’re talking to, so don’t imagine a husband. Imagine a wife who is going to read what you write, or a group of people, and write for them too. God loves to give wisdom to those who plan to share his wisdom. Let me say that again: God loves to give fresh sight and wisdom to those who long to share his wisdom with others. So that’s why I use the word present.
Psalm 103:2 says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” So inevitably, it seems to me, we forget things. There are thousands of blessings God will bring into your life every month of your life — millions every year — and you will not remember most of them. It’s impossible to remember millions of blessings that God brings into your life. You can’t even see them when they’re happening sometimes.
I take this to mean: Remember all kinds of benefits. And journaling is one way to do that. Remember what he has taught you. Write it down. Peter said he wrote his two letters, his two epistles, to help people remember what the Lord had taught (2 Peter 1:13; 3:1). We need written reminders. The Bible is a witness to the fact that we need written reminders, so create them for yourself.
All I mean here is: Choose ahead of time what you’re going to be reading for the week or the month or the year. If you intend to write regularly, you won’t be able to comment on lots of chapters.
For starters, perhaps pick a short book like Colossians or Philippians, and plan to read a section a day and write about it as I suggested above. And then you’ll learn from experience how your reading and your writing flow together.
So I’m excited for you, Kevin. Francis Bacon said, “Reading makes a full man; conference [conversation] makes a ready man; writing makes an exact man.” The world suffers today way too much from ambiguity and carelessness and inexactness and imprecision. But writing makes a penetratingly perceiving man, and a creatively presenting man, and a worshipfully persevering and preserving man, and an exact man. And we need that.