For some of us, the idea of keeping a journal is a romantic notion that sounds appealing: a quiet moment in the day where we plumb our thoughts, express what we’re thinking and feeling, and record significant moments and milestones. For others, keeping a journal seems burdensome and unnatural, one more thing that we have to do in our already overcrowded day. The simple truth is that, properly undertaken, the practice of keeping a journal can be a powerful tool for overcoming difficulties that we face in our spiritual formation. It is neither a particularly romantic practice nor does it have to be a burden.
For now, consider these four reasons why journaling is considered by many to be central to spiritual formation.
- Keeping a journal causes us to pay attention to our thoughts, words, and deeds. Attention is a scarce resource. Not only do each of us have a long list of tasks for which we are responsible, but even when those tasks are done (or temporarily laid aside), an infinite sea of entertainments tempt us to endless half-conscious distraction. Days surge by and we wonder what happened to the week. The act of keeping a journal wakes us up. Before we can make a brief record of the day, we have to stop for a moment and pay attention to the thoughts, words, and deeds that have occupied us. We bring them forward so that we can name them. We measure their worth and weight. And most importantly, we see them against the backdrop of the character and commands of the Lord whom we love. If the goal of spiritual formation is to follow Jesus into the good life, how do we know if we are actually following him unless we are paying attention?
- Keeping a journal frees us from the tyranny of our present feelings. Through the course of an ordinary day our mood rises and falls like the tides. At any moment, we may feel tired, joyful, angry, peaceful, discontented, energetic, or anxious. All such feelings are half-truths, driven both by internal and external forces we only dimly perceive. Our moods powerfully influence our choices and our interactions with people. The act of making a brief record gives us the potential to examine our moods and to see them as the ephemeral things they are. We will not always feel the way we do now, so we savor contentment, gratitude, and joy and we patiently endure sadness, frustration, and anxiety, knowing that each shall soon pass. We are given the grace of laying this part of ourselves before the throne of God in prayer, giving our honest selves to him no matter what our mood. This same practice also helps us to watch for long seasons of anxiety, sadness, or anger, allowing us the opportunity to seek help to heal and rise.
- Keeping a journal enables us to extend our memory beyond the present. One of the greatest virtues of a journal is look back over it to see the path we’ve taken. Our memory is a poor recorder and even the past few hours are lost to us unless we attend to them. The journal helps us to live more richly in the present moment because we see the present in the context of the moments that have come before. We feel the weight of time that has brought us to the now. We have a sense of where we’ve been and what has brought us to this place.
- And finally, keeping a journal is a way to tell ourselves the truth. Such a practice helps us to sift among the flood of events, choices, moods, and moments for the coherent story God is telling in our lives. Our memory is less a flawless recording of past events and more a story we construct for ourselves. The act of keeping a journal must be undertaken under the watchful eye of Jesus. We can’t trust our memory if we see every thought, word, and deed through the lens of our own self-worth (which is often either over-inflated or ridden by guilt and shame). Instead, by the light of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, we prayerfully seek the truth about our thoughts, words, and deeds. We hear God’s blessing on those things we have done well and we know God’s forgiveness as we repent of evil thoughts, hurtful words, and sinful actions. We see ourselves as we are and offer that person to God as a living sacrifice.
Whether you’re new to the idea of keeping a journal or you’ve tried before and lost the habit, I would encourage you to try again and to persist in this powerful practice. Here’s a very short primer on how to keep a journal that can be completed in a few minutes a day while reaping tremendous benefits. Remember to start small and see what fruit God will bring forth from your efforts.