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This course will address key challenges and provide a practical format for the habit of spiritual journaling. These practical insights are designed to reduce the burden of journaling, providing a helpful discipline for believers to grow in their walk with God and reflect on past victories and challenges.
The content from this course is drawn from the Lifehacks Bible from Zondervan, who retains the copyright and all rights related to the text of this course.
Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He serves as an elder at Grace Hill Church in Herndon, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter.
1 Hear me, Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
2 Guard my life, for I am faithful to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; 3 have mercy on me, Lord,
for I call to you all day long.
4 Bring joy to your servant, Lord,
for I put my trust in you.
5 You, Lord, are forgiving and good,
abounding in love to all who call to you.
6 Hear my prayer, Lord;
listen to my cry for mercy.
7 When I am in distress, I call to you,
because you answer me.
8 Among the gods there is none like you, Lord;
no deeds can compare with yours.
9 All the nations you have made
will come and worship before you, Lord;
they will bring glory to your name.
10 For you are great and do marvelous deeds;
you alone are God.
11 Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
12 I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
I will glorify your name forever.
13 For great is your love toward me;
you have delivered me from the depths,
from the realm of the dead.
14 Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God;
ruthless people are trying to kill me—
they have no regard for you.
15 But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and have mercy on me;
show your strength in behalf of your servant;
save me, because I serve you
just as my mother did.
17 Give me a sign of your goodness,
that my enemies may see it and be put to shame,
for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.
A spiritual journal is a tool for self-reflection that allows us to cooperate with the Spirit to make sense of the deepening work he is doing in our soul.
For thousands of years people have read the book of Psalms and been moved by the psalmists’ words as they plea, pray and praise God. But as much as these psalms have blessed generations of readers, the one who likely benefited the most was David, who is believed to have written approximately half the psalms. Writing down our reflections, as David often did, so that we can examine and ponder over them can be a powerful tool for spiritual growth.
The Bible does not mention spiritual journaling, but certain books of the Bible (e.g., Psalms, Nehemiah, Jeremiah) record prayers, personal life events, reflections on Scripture and other themes often associated with the practice. A spiritual journal is a tool for self-reflection that allows us to cooperate with the Spirit to make sense of the deepening work he is doing in our soul. If you’re interested in spiritual journaling, consider these tips and benefits:
You don’t have to be a writer — Many people avoid journaling because they don’t consider themselves writers. But a spiritual journal is written for an audience of two: you and God. Proper grammar, spelling or style is inconsequential. No one has to ever read — or even know about — your journal.
Your way is the right way — Good news! There is no such thing as “doing it wrong.” If you find the practice helpful, just do it your way. You can choose your own schedule, your own style and your own topics to write about. Feel free to experiment to discover what works best for you.
You can write whatever you want — Write about whatever the Spirit inspires in you. For instance, you could record your successes and struggles in being obedient to Christ, your fears, your joys, poems or songs you’ve found or written, or lessons learned from Scripture reading.
You benefit by reviewing your writings — You only get half the benefit from writing in your journal; the other half comes from reading what you’ve written in the past to remember forgotten insights and gauge your spiritual growth.
Keeping a spiritual journal can be a healthy and useful means of self-reflection. A spiritual journal is a tool for self-reflection that allows us to cooperate with the Spirit to make sense of the deepening work he is doing in our soul.
5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
8 Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.
David tells us to “pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” (Ps 62:8) The primary way we can pour out our hearts to God is through prayer. But many Christians also find that keeping a spiritual journal helps them express their deepest thoughts and feelings to the Lord.
However, if you’ve started a spiritual journal (see section, “How to Keep a Spiritual Journal”), you might find there are times when knowing what to write about becomes a challenge. If you find yourself with the spiritual equivalent of “writer’s block,” it could help to use a tool frequently used by authors: writing prompts.
When you need something to write in your journal, consider finishing one of the following 20 prompts:
Writing prompts can help us overcome the challenge of knowing what to write about in our spiritual journals.
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession.”
More often than not, we don’t need new evidence as much as we need to be reminded of what God has already done.
“People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed,” said the English critic Samuel Johnson. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of faith.
Faith describes our internal state of trust in God. As we experience God’s faithfulness, we learn to trust him even more, increasing our faith. But more often than not, we don’t need new evidence as much as we need to be reminded of what God has already done.
This was especially true for the Israelites, for whom Moses frequently had to provide reminders. In this chapter we find Moses once again admonishing them: “Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession” (Dt 14:2).
How do you remind yourself of what God has done for you? One useful tool is to keep a “faith-builder” journal, an ongoing record of how God has been faithful that will inspire you to greater faithfulness. Here are a few recommendations for getting started:
Create lists of “catch-up” reminders — Think back over your life at the events that have increased your faith and trust in God. Start with your childhood or teen years (even if you didn’t become a believer until later) and list at least five things you now recognize as signs of God’s faithfulness. For every five-year period of your life, try to list at least five items. Continue the process, including as many events as you can recall — whether big or small until you reach your current age.
List your struggles — God allows the testing of our faith to sanctify us (see Jas 1:2– 8; 2:14–26). Keep a section in your journal where you can document such tests of your faith. Later, after the crisis is over, go back and write an “after-action report” about how God brought you through the trial.
Look to others — We can increase our faith by seeing how God is working in the lives of others. Consult the answered prayer list from a prayer journal and write down some of the most inspiring examples.
Using a journal to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness can help increase our faith.
20 Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, 21 to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar 22 as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
We often fervently ask God for healing or deliverance, but when it comes, we quickly forget what we’ve received.
After the Jewish people were saved from destruction, Mordecai recorded “these events” (presumably much of the account in the book of Esther) and sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes.
Mordecai wanted the people to celebrate this event every year and to “observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Est 9:22). Mordecai understood the importance of the people collectively being reminded of what God had done for them. We often fervently ask God for healing or deliverance, but when it comes, we quickly forget what we’ve received. One way we can combat this forgetfulness is by creating a “remembrance journal,” a tool for remembering all that God has done for us, our family or our church community.
Here are a few tips for getting started:
Jumpstart by backdating — Choose a time period (such as six months or two years) and list all the answered prayers that occurred during that time frame. Put them in chronological order and add them to the journal.
Write for the future — When composing your entries, remember to include details that will make them accessible for future readers. Your remembrance journal might be read by family or church members decades or even generations from now. They should be able to identify whom the journal is about and what exactly God had done.
Remember to remember — Make a point to add entries regularly. Schedule reminders on your calendar to take stock of your prayers and identify how God has responded.
A remembrance journal can be a useful tool for helping us remember all that God has done for us and those we love.
14 While they were bringing out the money that had been taken into the temple of the Lord, Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law of the Lord that had been given through Moses. 15 Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan.
16 Then Shaphan took the book to the king and reported to him: “Your officials are doing everything that has been committed to them. 17 They have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the supervisors and workers.” 18 Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.
19 When the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his robes. 20 He gave these orders to Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Abdon son of Micah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: 21 “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the remnant in Israel and Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that is poured out on us because those who have gone before us have not kept the word of the Lord; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book.”
Commonplace books were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing or copying information into a notebook.
In the course of paying out some of the temple money one day, Hilkiah the high priest (cf. 2Ch 14:9) found a copy of the Book of the Law of the Lord. The implication seems to be that the Scriptures had been lost until this occasion. King Josiah was rightly grieved to find that this unintentional ignorance of God’s Word had caused him to fail in following the Lord’s commands.
In our present age there isn’t much likelihood, at least for those of us in Western cultures, of the Word of God being completely lost or even going unread. A more pressing concern is that, overwhelmed by the riches of commentary on Scripture and the Christian life, we fail to take advantage of the wisdom and insight available to the church.
To avoid this fate, we can adopt a practice that was popular in the sixteenth century: creating a commonplace book.
Commonplace books were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing or copying information into a notebook. They were essentially scrapbooks filled with items such as proverbs, prayers and sermon quotes, and they were used by readers as an aid for remembering useful concepts or wisdom they had learned. They became widely used “because literate people were discombobulated by the flood of information that the printing press had unleashed on them.”
A commonplace book is similar to an “external brain” (see the section “Create an External Brain”), though narrower in scope and function. The commonplace book is primarily a tool for collecting information produced by others, while your external brain system should include both your commonplace book as well as the various resources you create for yourself (e.g., prayer lists).
One method for creating a commonplace book is to use a hybrid paper-electronic system. Collect information by writing the material on a 3×5 or 4×6 index card and then use a computer scanner or an optical character recognition (OCR) application to transfer the cards into an electronic format. This method allows you to experiment and find the format (paper or electronic) that works best for you.
A commonplace book is a time-tested tool for helping us to remember and retain information.
1My son, do not forget my teaching,
but keep my commands in your heart,
2 for they will prolong your life many years
and bring you peace and prosperity.
3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Then you will win favor and a good name
in the sight of God and man.
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
8 This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.
9 Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
10 then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine.
11 My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
and do not resent his rebuke,
12 because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.
13 Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
14 for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
15 She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
17 Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.
19 By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,
by understanding he set the heavens in place;
20 by his knowledge the watery depths were divided,
and the clouds let drop the dew.
21 My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight,
preserve sound judgment and discretion;
22 they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.
23 Then you will go on your way in safety,
and your foot will not stumble.
24 When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
25 Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked,
26 for the Lord will be at your side
and will keep your foot from being snared.
27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to act.
28 Do not say to your neighbor,
“Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
when you already have it with you.
29 Do not plot harm against your neighbor,
who lives trustfully near you.
30 Do not accuse anyone for no reason—
when they have done you no harm.
31 Do not envy the violent
or choose any of their ways.
32 For the Lord detests the perverse
but takes the upright into his confidence.
33 The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked,
but he blesses the home of the righteous.
34 He mocks proud mockers
but shows favor to the humble and oppressed.
35 The wise inherit honor,
but fools get only shame.
All our efforts at increasing wisdom and understanding are futile if we do not remember insights long enough to apply them to our lives
The book of Proverbs could be summarized in four words: “get wisdom, get understanding” (Pr 4:5). This theme recurs throughout the text and is usually accompanied by a complementary command: Do not forget these teachings (see Pr 3:1).
All our efforts at increasing wisdom and understanding are futile if we do not remember insights long enough to apply them to our lives. This is why Proverbs is emphatic that we remember them by keeping these teachings close (cf. Pr 3:1,3).
Yet how much understanding has slipped through the cracks of our memories? We might recall hearing a profound quote in a sermon or highlighting a penetrating passage from a longforgotten book, and yet we cannot remember the wisdom that was conveyed. What we need is an “external brain” to supplement our faulty memories.
Like the commonplace book, an “external brain” is a system for collecting and reviewing data that we might otherwise forget. We usually have some form of external brain system for mundane information, such as tax receipts kept in a filing cabinet. By creating a system specifically for spiritual formation, though, we can ensure that wisdom and understanding are never “out of [our] sight” (Pr 3:21).
Your external brain needs three things:
An “external brain” can aid our efforts to increase wisdom and understanding.
1Here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites when they came out of Egypt by divisions under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. 2 At the Lord’s command Moses recorded the stages in their journey. This is their journey by stages:
3 The Israelites set out from Rameses on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. They marched out defiantly in full view of all the Egyptians, 4 who were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them; for the Lord had brought judgment on their gods.
5 The Israelites left Rameses and camped at Sukkoth.
6 They left Sukkoth and camped at Etham, on the edge of the desert.
7 They left Etham, turned back to Pi Hahiroth, to the east of Baal Zephon, and camped near Migdol.
8 They left Pi Hahiroth and passed through the sea into the desert, and when they had traveled for three days in the Desert of Etham, they camped at Marah.
9 They left Marah and went to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there.
10 They left Elim and camped by the Red Sea.
11 They left the Red Sea and camped in the Desert of Sin.
12 They left the Desert of Sin and camped at Dophkah.
13 They left Dophkah and camped at Alush.
14 They left Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink.
15 They left Rephidim and camped in the Desert of Sinai.
16 They left the Desert of Sinai and camped at Kibroth Hattaavah.
17 They left Kibroth Hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth.
18 They left Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah.
19 They left Rithmah and camped at Rimmon Perez.
20 They left Rimmon Perez and camped at Libnah.
21 They left Libnah and camped at Rissah.
22 They left Rissah and camped at Kehelathah.
23 They left Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher.
24 They left Mount Shepher and camped at Haradah.
25 They left Haradah and camped at Makheloth.
26 They left Makheloth and camped at Tahath.
27 They left Tahath and camped at Terah.
28 They left Terah and camped at Mithkah.
29 They left Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah.
30 They left Hashmonah and camped at Moseroth.
31 They left Moseroth and camped at Bene Jaakan.
32 They left Bene Jaakan and camped at Hor Haggidgad.
33 They left Hor Haggidgad and camped at Jotbathah.
34 They left Jotbathah and camped at Abronah.
35 They left Abronah and camped at Ezion Geber.
36 They left Ezion Geber and camped at Kadesh, in the Desert of Zin.
37 They left Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor, on the border of Edom. 38 At the Lord’s command Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor, where he died on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.39 Aaron was a hundred and twenty-three years old when he died on Mount Hor.
40 The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev of Canaan, heard that the Israelites were coming.
41 They left Mount Hor and camped at Zalmonah.
42 They left Zalmonah and camped at Punon.
43 They left Punon and camped at Oboth.
44 They left Oboth and camped at Iye Abarim, on the border of Moab.
45 They left Iye Abarim and camped at Dibon Gad.
46 They left Dibon Gad and camped at Almon Diblathaim.
47 They left Almon Diblathaim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, near Nebo.
48 They left the mountains of Abarim and camped on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho. 49 There on the plains of Moab they camped along the Jordan from Beth Jeshimoth to Abel Shittim.
50 On the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho the Lord said to Moses, 51 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, 52 drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. 53 Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.54 Distribute the land by lot, according to your clans. To a larger group give a larger inheritance, and to a smaller group a smaller one. Whatever falls to them by lot will be theirs. Distribute it according to your ancestral tribes.
55 “‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. 56 And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.’”
Because we don’t often know what events will be significant in our own life story when they are happening, it’s helpful to make an effort to intentionally document the stages of our journey.
We’ve all heard the old saying, “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” It’s trite but true: We often don’t even know where we are in life because we are only vaguely aware of what has happened in our past.
To track where they were, the Israelites documented the stages of their journey as they came out of Egypt. The events might seem unimportant to us now. What does it matter that they left Dophkah and camped at Alush? But God wanted them to record it in a book that would last for eternity. Because we don’t often know what events will be significant in our own life story when they are happening, it’s helpful to make an effort to intentionally document the stages of our journey. Here are a few practical suggestions to get you started:
Write it down — Choose a format you will use frequently, such as a handwritten journal, a text document on your computer, or a sheet of paper that can be added to a binder. The important consideration is not the format but that it is easily accessible and something you will want to return to.
Keep it simple — Use a standard format that is simple, yet suggestive. For instance, you might note the date, a few details about the event and add a marker that provides some context. In this example, the 32 is the age of the person making the entry: 7/10/15 (32) — Had knee surgery at Memorial Hospital, performed by Dr. Rodgers
Fill in the gaps — Add an entry for every birthday you’ve had. Then add entries for important events that occurred between each birthday. Use appointment books, photo albums or other reminders to jog your memory.
Document spiritual milestones — Add baptisms, answers to prayers, dates when friends and family come to Christ and other noteworthy spiritual events.
Search for patterns — Over the years, as you review your timeline you’ll begin to notice patterns that you might have overlooked. Events that seemed so trivial that you almost didn’t include them will have led to profound changes. Using the entries as reminders, give a prayer of thanks for what God has done.
Using a timeline can help you see how God has led you through the stages of your journey.
“Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits”
Journaling is a powerful tool for self-reflection.
Quote for reflection — “The logic of this practice is inevitable once men have felt the urge to become moulded in heart and life to the pattern of Christ. No one will keep a record of his inward groans, fears, sins, experiences, providences and aspirations unless he is convinced of the value of the practice for his own spiritual progress.” — Maurice Robert
Definition — Journaling is a powerful tool for self-reflection that allows us to cooperate with the Spirit to make sense of the deepening work he is doing in our soul. (See “How to Keep a Spiritual Journal” section)
Meditate on the following passage — “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps 103:2).
Evaluation — Journaling is the use of paper-based or electronic tools for capturing information that is essential for your spiritual formation. Journaling isn’t a discipline required by Scripture, of course. But it can be helpful in the task of self-reflection and in preventing you from forgetting insights, experiences or knowledge that have led or can lead to Christian maturity. If you don’t already have a journal, consider some of the benefits you can gain from using such a tool.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, journaling can be a helpful tool for collecting valuable information related to your spiritual formation.