I finish a new journal about every four months. In fact, I make use of two different journals at all times—one for my personal life and one for work—just so that I can keep those two parts of my life separate. My wife says I’m crazy. I tell her it would be worse if I didn’t journal so much.
Christian history is full of devoted note-takers. John Wesley said he began journaling “to take a more exact account of the manner in which I spent my time, writing down how I had employed every hour.” Jonathan Edwards, another great theologian, was at first too poor to buy paper, but he found journaling so essential that he literally stitched journals together using scraps of paper left over from the family business (making ladies’ fans). C.S. Lewis, as a young man at Oxford, journaled more than a quarter of a million words between 1922 and 1927.
Yet many people today might be tempted to think that Twitter feeds and Flickr streams contain all the documentation they would ever need for chronicling their past, and that the day of the journal is dead. With those realities in mind, I would like to offer four reasons that journaling is as important for Christians in the 21st century as it ever has been.
Journaling adds RAM to your brain.
Want to decide what you think about deep, pressing questions like, “How should the Church relate to the culture?” Well, that’s not a conversation you’re going to finish in an afternoon. You may not finish it in a decade. And if you leave it to your memory to keep track of all you’ve read, heard and thought, your reflections on the issue will almost necessarily remain shallow. Journaling allows a person to maintain a constant stream of thought, over months or years, without forgetting any of the epiphanies they have had along the way. Our increasingly post-Christian society desperately needs the kind of nuanced Christian reflection, which can only result from such intentional contemplation.
Journaling helps build emotional intelligence.
I begin my daily devotional time by asking myself, “What are the three emotions I’m feeling right now?” Then I ask, “What circumstances have led to these emotions, and what are the implications of the Gospel for the way I’m thinking and feeling about those circumstances?” You could do such a thing without journaling. But you probably won’t. I once read that Americans, for all their creativity and innovation, have the emotional IQ of toddlers. Keeping a close watch on my emotions by chronicling them every day has paid indescribable dividends toward changing that.
Journaling makes prayer easier.
God evaluates prayers based not on whether they are eloquent but whether they are earnest and humble. At the same time, there’s no reason for adults to be reduced to constantly praying: “God, you’re so good. I … Father God … I just love the … the way you’re so God.” For many people, written prayers have been a first step toward talking to God the way we talk to everyone else: in full, coherent sentences. They also give you a beautiful record of the conversations you’ve had with the Lord.
Journaling lets you see what God sees (over the long term).
People of different denominations, confessions and traditions may have slightly different understandings of how one becomes a Christian. But Christ gave us only one way to know whether we have in fact become Christians: fruit in our lives. Paul described the fruits of the spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” And while it’s possible to be deceived by a quick burst of respectable living, or brought to despair by a string of terrible decisions, the easiest way to be reassured that the Spirit has taken up residence in your heart is to watch for long-term trends. Journaling is an invaluable way of assessing whether there’s an unmistakable, God-sized difference in your soul over the long term.
Everyone journals differently. For my part, entries do not usually contain lots of information about what I’ve done that day. They record important ideas or questions that crossed my mind. I have also developed the habit of writing down funny quotes from my wife in the front cover and listing the books I’m reading in the back cover. These adjustments and add-ons make perfect sense for me. Whatever strategy and style your journaling takes, though, it is a discipline which has the capacity to help deepen you personally, intellectually and spiritually. Make it an aid, not a chore, and it will change the whole way you operate.
Ben Stevens works for Greater Europe Mission in Berlin, Germany. Keep up with him at twitter.com/benwstevens.