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.
First, there is the diary kind of journal-keeping. When you come to the end of your day, you take a few minutes and narrate your life. You write down the important things that happened during the day and maybe some comments about them. Each day, you sum up what happened.
“Journaling is one way of preserving the gifts of God.”
If you reflect on God’s hand in all of his faithfulness and your own failures and successes, it can be enormously valuable for your own humility and encouragement. For example, Psalm 105:5 says, “Remember the wondrous works that [God] has done.” How many thousands of wondrous works that God has done in my life 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? In another psalm it says, “They should . . . not forget the works of God” (Psalm 78:7). Remember and don’t forget. I say, “Yes,” to the diary kind of journaling for at least those reasons.
There is another way to think about it. This is mainly the way I do it. Journaling can be a kind of thought-notebook for the purpose of insight, clarification, and preservation. This isn’t so much for recording what is going on in your life as it is for what is going on in your head and heart. But it is 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 husband, or pastor, or friend, or something like that.
Now of course, there are all manner of combinations 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. 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 writing out your thoughts helps you know what you think. I have gone so far as 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 worth thinking through is more complex than I can hold in my head all at once.
“Leaders whose minds are clear . . . steer the ship in the wonderful, lucid air of truth and openness.”
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. I read this a few years ago and I thought, “Yeah, there are people like that.” Well, not me. As soon as I am on the third angle, the first one starts to fade away. The connections between two, three, and one become so many and so tangled and interwoven that everything becomes 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.
Amazingly, while I am writing out one, two, and three, the connections between them become clearer. I can write those down, 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 would have 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. I would stress that most of what I am talking about here is related to the 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 random, theoretical stuff I am taking time to write about.
Calvin (citing Augustine) wrote in the preface to Institutes, “I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.” Me too. Idea-clarification is a huge reason for journaling for me.
This is the last point: preservation. What a sad thing it is when God illumines your mind one morning while you are having your devotions so that you see 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. Journaling is one way of preserving the gifts of God.
Good for Leaders
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 wrote, “Reading maketh a full man; conference [he means conversation] a ready man; and writing an exact man.” 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 minds are clear, 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.