Some today view journaling as a sentimental token of a bygone age. For others, it’s a distraction from getting things done amid our frenetic pace of life. As one who has kept a journal for many years, journaling has been an invaluable means of grace in my Christian walk and a practical discipline with many benefits.
Here are seven quick reasons I commend the practice.
1. To keep a record of life’s journey.
In journaling one can remember the mundane, recall the funny, and not forget the humbling, painful, formative events of life. Pete Hamill, in his introduction to Edward Robb Ellis’s diary, explains: “The diarist has one essential goal: to freeze time. . . . This day will never come again, but here, in this diary, I will have it forever.” Likewise, diarist Andi Ashworth reminds us that with a journal “we have a notebook in which to be a student of life.” It’s one thing to remember the general contours of life, but a whole other thing to remember with specificity the dialogue, the smells, the laughs, and the tears.
2. To have a tangible account of God’s blessings.
We do not want to be like Israel and “forget” the Lord and all he’s done (e.g., Judg. 8:34; Ps. 106:21; Hos. 8:14). One of the beauties of corporate worship is coming together as God’s people to recite what God has done. D. A. Carson is right:
Believers who spend no time reviewing and pondering in their minds what God has done, whether they are alone and reading their Bibles or joining with other believers in corporate adoration, should not be surprised if they rarely sense that God is near.
Journaling is another means of “pondering what God has done,” of tangibly recording his unwarranted grace in my life. The words you write will either serve to spur you on toward greater faithfulness or will be a haunting reminder of an ungrateful life.
3. To serve as a reminder of the long-term sanctification process.
We all need constant reminders that we don't become holy overnight; it takes time and holy sweat (cf. Phil. 2:12–13; 1 Tim. 4:15). Many know of Jonathan Edwards’s 70 resolutions and imagine a life of continual Edwardsean highs, but few realize how often he wrote of deep discouragement and defeat. George Marsden notes that Edwards “record[ed] many days of lows, ‘decays,’ and lengthy times of inability to focus on spiritual things.” In Edwards’s Diary we glimpse an honest picture: “I find by experience that, let me make resolutions, and do what I will . . . it is all nothing, and to no purpose at all, without the motions of the Spirit of God.” Edwards learned to depend on God’s grace. Journaling can serve as a mirror: it reminds us of resolutions we’ve made and broken, and how desperately we need God’s enabling grace to obey and honor him.
4. To aid in prayer and meditation.
Focused, meditative reading can be difficult in our age of texts, tweets, and posts. After reading two or three pages of an article or book, Nicholas Carr admits, “I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” Journaling allows you to slow down and focus your thoughts, to unplug and disconnect as you pray and meditate on the Scriptures.
5. To practice the writing craft.
In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field. While there are obvious qualifiers and exceptions to this rule, it reminds us writers that there’s no better way to improve than by writing. Whether you desire to write for a public audience or simply for writing’s sake, keeping a journal is a wonderful way to fine-tune the writing craft.
6. To keep a collection of odds and ends.
In journaling you can save quotes, articles, even undeveloped thoughts, and use them for a future sermon, lecture, or article. Though I’ve shifted some of this benefit on to Evernote in recent months, journaling is still my favorite means of collecting odds and ends of my own writing. You can track your thinking, see how it develops over time, and have the benefit of having your thoughts on paper. John Piper, summarizing John Calvin, says it well: “I count myself as one of the number of those who learn as they write and write as they learn.”
7. To be an enduring gift to posterity.
Andrew Bonar, famously remembered for the memoirs of his friend Robert Murray M’Cheyne, also maintained a journal. Bonar outlived his friend by more than 50 years yet never lost his childlike humility. Even at 82 years old he wrote as an inexperienced disciple before God—prone to discouragement in ministry with death about him, yet pleading for greater zeal in service to the Lord. Although he probably never set out to do so, Bonar has encouraged countless believers toward greater devotion to Christ through his journal.
Don Whitney observes that the goal of journaling over a lifetime is to “build a monument to God’s faithfulness.” He then adds that your last entry will “most likely . . . introduce your great-grandchildren to your life and faith and to influence them for Christ’s sake.” Journaling is a way to tell your story; to challenge and instruct your children and grandchildren, friends, and neighbors; and to serve as a clear monument to God’s faithfulness.
Warning and Encouragement
Let me add this word of caution, though: even good things can be misused and perverted. There may be times when you should not journal. Carson, reflecting on how the bronze snake that God used to deliver his people later became an idolatrous snare (Num. 21:4-9; 2 Kgs. 18:4), warns of a similar danger lurking around a couple of our spiritual disciplines. He warns that even properly motivated spiritual aids have the potential to slide into the “triple trap” of legalism, self-righteousness, and superstition:
(a) in your mind you so establish journaling as the clearest evidence of personal growth and loyalty to Christ that you look down your nose at those who do not commit themselves to the same discipline, and pat yourself on the back every day that you maintain the practice (legalism);
(b) you begin to think that only the most mature saints keep spiritual journals, so you qualify—and you know quite a few who do not (self-righteousness);
(c) you begin to think that there is something in the act itself, or in the paper, or in the writing, that is a necessary means of grace, a special channel of divine pleasure or truth (superstition).
“That,” Carson concludes, “is the time to throw away your journal” (emphasis mine).
But with a proper perspective and a right heart before the Lord, journaling is and can be a remarkable blessing. Why not give it a try?