He was one of our regulars for leading the congregation in a time of prayer. After many years of service, some things become second nature. He’d get to the front, open his Bible, and share a passage and a few thoughts in his lilting Irish accent (still around decades after moving to Canada). Then, he prays.
This particular day, he made a passing reference that made me sit up a little straighter. As he shared about the passage he’d read (a Psalm, if memory serves), he casually mentioned it. His journal. That word always gets my attention, but even more so when it coincides with a time of prayer, devotion, and studying the word. This man, a lot thinner now and a little less hale than in years past, using a journal to record decades of time spent with his God.
I needed to know more.
I’ve only recently begun to fully appreciate the habit of journalling. Day One, like Timehop and Facebook, started to bring older journal entries to your attention each day. It’s been a pleasure to read through my thoughts from 3,4 years past. I went through a period of regular journalling, but it's not been a habit that stuck. I’ve long had a struggle with regularly keeping a journal, but this feature has sold me on the value. Enough to kickstart the habit once again.
The value of a journal (or diary) has been touted for a long time. Franz Kafka put it this way:
In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.
But even more intriguing is the idea of having the same resource available for one’s personal Bible study and devotional time. My habits of study over the years have been very consistent, but I don’t have much to show for it. Ok, growth, maturity, and changes in my thinking are all results of consistency in my devotional time. But I want something I can dig into, to review and feel afresh how I’ve been changed by God’s Word.
And so the concept of Bible journalling is a fascinating one for me. And I don’t think I’m alone here.
If there's a theme that is popular in recent years, it's reading the journals & diaries of famous people of the past. Many of us enjoy the insight we get from reading the private and personal thoughts of people like Anne Frank, C.S. Lewis, and Mozart. And for Christ-followers, the same is likely true for theologians of centuries past.
One great example is the diary of Jonathan Edwards. As one of the most influential theologians on the North American church, Edwards was a prolific writer. And one whose thoughts often started in his personal journal. His well known 70 resolutions were jotted down first in his diary, as a young man.
Reading through his entries, you can see the man forming on the page in front of you. His convictions, captured on paper, were honed and shaped as he let the thoughts come out through the pen. As Edwards steeped his days in Scripture and meditated on what he found, his journal captured the effects of his focus.
How sweet it must have been in his later years to look back on the most formative time of his life.
Let's define this thing
How do you actually adopt journalling into your devotional time? If you look online, a quick search will result in plenty of people who adopt the practice of sketching or drawing in their Bibles as a part of their devotional process. In fact, you can even purchase Bibles made for that express purpose.
However, although that can be a healthy practice for some and results in some beautiful artwork, I would not call it Bible journalling. If we look at the definition of journal, it's strictly used as a noun, not a verb. But the act of keeping a journal is this:
A daily record of news and events of a personal nature; a diary
As such, let's define the habit of Bible journalling as recording the thoughts and events of one's devotional time. Where as this current modern habit involves creating art, or at the very least, creating artful highlights of passages that resonate with the reader, I define Bible journalling as writing. Period.
Even when you stick with the diaristic written form, there is room for variety. Let's consider a few different ways to approach this.
The simple diary
This would be the most basic form, the easiest to get started with. During your time of devotion, you could write down the passage(s) you're reading, note any verses that jumped out at you in your reading, record questions that come to your mind, and list out the things and people you're praying for.
I myself have adopted this practice in 2016. I tend to write my journal entry at the end of my devotion. For those who enjoy such things, here is my exact process:
- I keep a separate journal in Day One titled Bible study
- each new entry is stored there from my morning or evening devotions
- I record the passage(s) of Scripture I read for the day
- when a specific verse resonates, I add it as a blockquote, copying and pasting it directly from my Bible app if I'm reading on my phone, or using the iOS share sheet (even when I'm reading one of my physical Bibles, I'll tend to highlight important verses on my phone, then bring them over to Day One)
- I'll note any topics that caused me to pause and meditate (while a lot will go on in my head, I merely make a note of the fact and list the bare details)
- last, I'll often note specific prayers that came to mind, specific people or ministries that were on my mind
This is a very simple practice and, again, easy to get started. From here, one could build on the habit if desired.
Another approach to take is to have some very high level questions to consider as one enters into the presence of the Divine. They may look like this:
- what does this passage tell me about God Himself?
- what does this passage tell me about myself?
- how will this affect how I live today?
Fold in the every day
Combine the act of journalling your Bible study with your every day life. Record the events of your day(s) and what you're studying with the express purpose of identifying how the Word is shaping the way you live, the way you react to different situations and people in your life.
This approach could take more time. A lot more. But reflection is usually worth the effort.
Build a reference system as you go
Another great aspect of this habit is what you build when doing it. A journal for your devotional time could be a simple stream-of-consciousness diary. Or, it could be a reference system that build as you go, a resource for your studies.
Using a digital tool like Day One, a person could use tags to build up a reference system of notes based on passages of Scripture and various theological topics. Of course, if you're a pastor you would likely already use Logos or something of the like. But for many of us, that’s overkill.
As I mentioned before, I use the Bible Study app from Olive Tree. And while it’s great for reading, highlighting passages, and storing commentaries, dictionaries, and multiple translations, it’s system of notes and tags leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve thought more than once about using Day One for this use.
No matter the tool, a little planning and systematization added to your devotional time could result in a resource that you can continue to use as you walk with Christ.
Why would I do this?
John Calvin, in his preface to his tome Institutes of the Christian Religion, said this:
I count myself to be among those who write as they learn and learn as they write.
That’s it right there. Writing is one of the highest forms of human effort. It shapes our thinking, sharpens our thoughts. It gives you a far greater awareness of self, which leads to a more successful life (a big statement, but a true one).
The benefits of writing are multifaceted and long lasting. As well, due to our nature, we tend to remember the best about the past rather than the worst. Nothing beats having deeply buried memories brought back to the surface. This is the highest value of any type of journal. How much more one that tracks our journey of faith?
It’s easy to get down about your relationship with God. We never do enough to be considered right and holy (thanks to Jesus, we don’t have to meet that unreachable standard) and we often focus on the lack of progress. But although the road of sanctification can be slow and painful, we do progress. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of where we were, so we can feel good about where we are, and even more so, where we’re going.
That’s the beauty of a journal.