We may think of journaling as a bit archaic—maybe even Victorian. I certainly did when my then-boyfriend suggested we start one together.
But church history shows us that journaling does not belong to a particular time or place or age. It has been useful to Christians of all ages for thousands of years—and still is, despite the technology that threatens it. Journals are as diverse as their authors, each writing for particular reasons and benefits, though there is a common theme.
Looking at examples from the last 2,000 years can illuminate the benefits of journaling in the 21st century.
Four Journaling Christians
In North Africa, around the year 400, Augustine produced his Confessions. Often considered an autobiography, it’s equally a retrospective journal of his life. Augustine records his childhood, youth, and conversion in incredible detail, giving us a glimpse into late-Roman life, but also the hindsight that allows us to clearly see God’s providence. This was deliberate, leading him to praise: “Allow me to speak in the face of your mercy” (1:7).
Augustine’s drive was adoration. The record of his life was a device that fueled gratitude for God’s tender care and saving grace.
2. Katherine Hamilton
The late 1600s in Scotland were a time of national turmoil. But for Katherine Hamilton, duchess of Atholl, the big events in her life were largely spiritual. Her diary is a bare sketch of her physical life, with weeks or months between entries. But it is a topographical map of her soul, recording the highs and lows in her walk with God—from her conversion right to the end of her life. Everything from sermon notes to self-examination to prayers is recorded, creating a tool that fostered accurate self-awareness, encouragement, and trust in the Lord as Hamilton looked over his past faithfulness: “Least [sic] I forget the goodness of God to me . . . I think best to mark it down” (May [?], 1690).
Journaling brings things into focus we would otherwise miss.
The journal wasn’t only for her, though. She deliberately wrote it so that when she died, it would remind her husband of God’s kindness.
3. Maggie Paton
Maggie Paton’s move to a small Pacific island with her new husband, John, thrust her into cultural and emotional isolation. Though her Victorian letters to family are warm and honest, her journal records feelings that she didn’t even share with her mother and sisters.
Some of our feelings are too heavy for others to bear, or too urgent to wait for fellowship. So alongside practical observations of ministry, culture, and family, Paton poured out joy, grief, and lament, releasing it to the Lord. In a place of great loneliness, journaling became a catalyst to fellowship with God. She wrote that she must get near to Christ in order to be “happy or useful” (October 13, 1870). Journaling facilitated that.
4. Jim Elliot
Three years after World War II ended, Jim Elliot began a journal his junior year at Wheaton. At first, it was a way for him to establish consistency in his personal devotions: “to be written from fresh, daily thoughts given from God in meditation on his Word” (January 17, 1948).
In a place of great loneliness, journaling became a catalyst to fellowship with God.
Over time, wrestlings in prayer, self-examination, and details about mission work also found their way into the book. Struggles to discern God’s will, especially regarding marriage, are also strong. Elliot’s record ends in December 1955, days before his martyrdom. The journal had been one instrument that brought Elliot to that ministerial culmination, as his deliberate, disciplined thought and habits formed someone determined to discover and do God’s will regardless of the cost.
These four examples show a few benefits of journaling. There are many more reasons we can take it up. Maybe, like Jonathan Edwards, we want to record resolutions for accountability. A diary can be a place to etch daily hopes and fears and longings, as Ann Judson did in Burma 200 years ago. Maybe a journal is somewhere to keep life events and our interpretations of them, like Heinrich Bullinger did in Reformation Germany. Or perhaps a journal is a place to record prayer requests—and their answers—encouraging confidence in this means of grace.
Creating a record of one’s spiritual condition can, over time, document growth and victory over sin, or patterns of failure that need repentance and remedy. Journals can facilitate setting and meeting goals.
Journaling Leads to Praise
Satan is always eager to take something good and twist it. No wonder journals can be places where narcissism, clinical or otherwise, breeds. They can draw our gaze away from Jesus, to our own pride, issues, or obsessions. That is why prayer should always accompany journaling, and we must evaluate the purpose and fruit of our records. If journaling doesn’t help us grow in grace, then it’s probably best to rely on our phones to keep track of our lives.
If journaling doesn’t help us grow in grace, then it’s probably best to rely on our phones to keep track of our lives.
For Christians, the primary purpose of journals has never been to record activity or emotion. Instead, they’re places for wrestling through issues, clarifying thinking, and for spiritual examination, confession, and resolution. Journaling brings things into focus we would otherwise miss. This is true regarding our own failures and needs, but also God’s kindness and work in our lives.
That is why, for Christians, journaling will lead to more than insight and thoughtfulness. It should also guide us to a clearer view of God’s providence and sustaining grace. Journaling should lead to praise.