John Piper is a prolific journal-er in private — and many of you know that already. But why does he do it? Today we find out, thanks to this question from a podcast listener. “Pastor John, hello, my name is Danny. As a 19-year-old, I’m interested in starting a journal to track the outworking of God’s providence in my life. I know you have journaled for a long time. When did you start? Why did you start? How much time do you spend journaling each day? And why do you continue to do it today (assuming you still do)?”
The God Behind the Journal
I do still journal, but it might not be what people think. Let me begin by saying that behind my practice of writing in my journal are some huge assumptions that I should probably make explicit.
“Journaling, for me, is part of a constant quest to see Christ and know Christ and enjoy Christ and be like Christ.”
One is that the infinitely holy, wise, powerful, good, loving God exists. He created the world and everything in it, and he has absolute authority and rights over everything in the world, including me.
I am, by nature, selfish to the core and in rebellion against him. I am constantly prone in myself — my old self — to exalt myself above him and above others. God owes me nothing, but that I deserve his just anger.
Yet he sent his divine, eternal son, Jesus Christ, into the world to deliver me from the guilt and the power of this selfishness by dying in my place, bearing my guilt, providing my righteousness, rising again, and pouring out his Holy Spirit of repentance and faith on me.
I was brought out of darkness into light with a divine purpose over my life in order that I would prefer him over every earthly good, and be holy as he is holy, and shine in what I write and in what I think and in what I feel and in what I do. I am called to shine with the light of his glory in this world.
All of that is a massive set of glorious realities that I bring to whether or not I journal, which means that my whole life is devoted to seeking out ways, with God’s guidance and his word, of pursuing this holiness. I am pursuing this likeness in Christ — this shining, this reflection — of what he is. I looking for ways of pursuing him, of seeing him and clarifying what he’s like and keeping him before me as my daily satisfaction and peace and confidence. I do all of that in order to be conformed increasingly to his character and his ways.
Commanded to Obey
Over my life, I see not only glorious promises and works of God, but commands:
God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. (1 Thessalonians 4:7)
As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct. (1 Peter 1:15)
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
Journaling, for me, is part of a constant quest to see Christ and know Christ and enjoy Christ and be like Christ. I live to the glory of Christ.
Now, I would not have articulated my motives in journaling that way at every point in my life. That’s the way I think about it today. It’s interesting that Denny says he’s 19 years old. I think that I began journaling when I was 19 years old, as a sophomore at Wheaton College. I’ve been doing it on and off ever since.
Diary vs. Journal
There were seasons in the last 53 years of journaling when I felt a commitment to write something every day or every week. But by and large, I’ve never approached it that way.
“I can’t get clarity in my mind without writing.”
I’m not keeping a diary. Let’s make that distinction clear. My journaling is what I would call an occasional thought notebook — not a diary. You wouldn’t find there an account of my daily activities. I may have done that once or twice in fifty years, but by and large I’m not doing what John Wesley did: “Of morning until night, here’s what happened.” I think I began because I needed to sort out my thoughts.
In other words, I found so much confusion and uncertainty in my mind about so many things that it was very hard to know what to think or feel or do. That’s a great impediment to obedience. It’s a great impediment to glorifying Christ.
If you’re constantly confused about the Bible and how to apply it, then it will impede growth. I needed clarity about Bible passages. I needed clarity about the will of God and the pros and cons of various paths for my life. I needed clarity about relationships — for example, what they should look like. These relationships were friends, in the early days, a girlfriend or not a girlfriend, and now wife and children and grandchildren. I needed clarity about social issues and ethical issues.
Tracks of Thought
I was discovering, at age 19, what today I know to be a fact: I cannot get clarity in my mind about biblical texts or the will of God or relationships or ethical or social issues without writing.
I read somewhere that Albert Einstein could hold an idea in his head for hours and days and weeks at a time and come at it from a dozen different angles, probing and pondering. He could then relate all these various perspectives to each other until he got clarity about some massive insight.
Well, I cannot do that in my head. I lose the train of thought as soon as the tracks slip into two thoughts. Let alone 22 or 42 thoughts.
Those tracks of thought must split because there are various routes of analysis and angles by which you have to ask lots and lots of questions about an issue, whatever the issue is. You have to come at from so many different ways.
I can’t hold all that in my head and figure out how those angles relate to each other and what the stages of the arguments are and what the implications of one insight have to do with another insight. How can anybody except Einstein hold all that in your head?
Now of course, you don’t have to do this kind of thing in a journal. You can just do it in random notes, sheets of paper, documents. It can be scattered all over your computer, all over your desk, in your drawers, in your files. But that probably isn’t helpful.
Scattered insights that you can never find again are not helpful, which brings me to another reason why it’s good to journal. You want to keep everything in some kind of place or sequence or use an index or system or something so that you can cross-reference and file things.
When you look at Jonathan Edward’s notebook, it’s amazing. He didn’t have any computer or anything, and he’d say, “See number 1,235.” We look for things over the years, so I’ve tried to keep a little index at the end of each of these journal volumes.
This has been very good for my humility and thankfulness.
Frankly, I don’t like the John Piper of my early journals. He seems to me to be immature, self-absorbed, excessively critical. If you’re honest, your journal really does bear witness to your sins, even when you are talking about someone else’s sins. Maybe especially when you’re talking about someone else’s sins, which is humiliating. It really is.
“I’m not keeping a diary. My journaling is what I would call an occasional thought notebook.”
At certain points along the way, I knew where I was going. I knew this was going come back to bite me someday. I thought, “It’s just better to be real.” I mean, if Christianity and John Piper have any reality, there’s no point in trying to fake anything.
On the other hand, that very fact of humiliation causes me to be amazed at the mercy and the patience and the grace of God in Jesus Christ. God could have justifiably thrown me away at any time and my journals, my own journals, I think, would have been adequate evidence at the judgment day that he did me no wrong.
Sorting Through the Mess
Maybe I can make just a little clearer what I mean when I talk about sorting through relationships and ethical issues. This really does include my life. I’m not just talking in the abstract. I’m talking about my life, my family, my children, my wife, my workplace, my colleagues, my struggles in the ministry.
Over the years, there have always been crises in my life that have been very painful, as well as other experiences that have been exquisitely happy. I write about these. I try to sort through what’s wrong: Why is the marriage the way it is? Why are my kids the way they are? Why are things in Bethlehem the way they were? How are we doing at DG? Etc. — all kinds of issues that I’m facing. I needed to just sort it out.
When I say that my journal is a thought notebook for trying to get clarity about texts and the will of God and relationships and social and ethical issues, I don’t mean that to sound theoretical or abstract. Think very concrete, very personal, and often very painful.
It might put a whole different slant on the term occasional thought notebook or on journaling if I told you and Danny that journaling, for me, is often like going to see a personal counselor. I tell him all my problems, and seek his wisdom. The journal is the counselor’s office.
He lets me pour out my confusion, my feelings, and ideas about my problems. He listens very patiently. He’s totally silent. He waits for me, in silence, to pray. Then he leads me by the Spirit to passages of Scripture where I see Jesus more clearly and find hope and guidance.
So here is a word to Danny. Danny, we’re all so different. There’s no biblical requirement that anybody keep a journal, let alone any particular kind. There is a biblical requirement that all of us pursue a clear, transforming knowledge of Jesus, and that we walk in holiness. If journaling helps you get that clarity, and walk that walk, do it.