Over the past decade or two, journal-keeping has been viewed in some quarters as a spiritual exercise, right up there with Bible reading and prayer. I realize that keeping a journal can be very positive, just like gardening or exercise or baking cookies, but it is not a spiritual duty or the key to super-spirituality. In fact, it may very well be a snare.
Let’s consider the subject of journal-keeping first. If a person is writing about the birds they are observing or recording the weather patterns or tracking the garden blooms or listing all the books they have read and what they thought of them, then hats off to them and their journals. If a mom is recording all the funny things that her kids do or say each day, all to bless them when they grow up, well done. I have no beef with that. If a person wants to be a writer and commits to writing a stimulating piece each day to hone her writing skills, kudos! All of that kind of journal-keeping is as good as bee-keeping, which is very good indeed.
However, some folks have a different bent when it comes to their journal. They view it more like a diary, a place to vent, a means of uncorking or brewing over things and introspecting. They write down their inmost thoughts, desires, temptations, hurts, disappointments, and you get the idea. High-school and college-age girls can get started on this and fill pages with lonely, romantic blather. This is not healthy or wise.
Why do I think it isn’t healthy? Because many of these inmost thoughts, etc. should be ignored, not immortalized into safekeeping in a journal. Were you tempted to be envious of your best girlfriend? Ignore it and let it go. Were you downright envious? Then confess it and let it go. If you don’t want God writing these things down in His journal, don’t write them down in yours. Are you disgusted at how much your neighbor is imposing on you? Why on earth would you want to write that down? Are you feeling lonely and dejected? It would be healthier to forget about yourself and think about someone else. This kind of journal writing just gets you to focus on you, you, you and your feelings, feelings, feelings.
Second, spending hours reflecting on yourself is not wise. Dumpster diving in your soul only makes you feel worse. The Holy Spirit’s job is to convict us of sin, righteousness and the judgment to come, and we should allow Him to do His work without interference.If you set aside time each day to write about what a worm you are, then you are not wise. God already knows it, you already know it, so why dwell on it? Set your mind and heart on things above!
When my kids were growing up, we told them never to write anything down that they would not mind someone (anyone) reading. That included notes at school (we taught them not to write them or pass them for others) or diary writing. How many times have we all heard horror stories of diaries being broken into? Notes being confiscated by the teacher? I believe it is wrong of parents to break into their kids’ diaries and read what’s going on unless there is strong warrant for it. Far better for parents to get their kids to talk to them rather than write it all down and lock it up in a diary.
But back to journaling as something spiritual. Some think of journaling as part of their daily spiritual exercise, and if they fail to do it, they feel they’ve flubbed up and backslidden. Some write down their prayer requests and the answers to their prayers. This can be good as long as it is okay if it falls into someone else’s hands. In other words, as long as the prayers are not too private. I can think of plenty of prayer requests that I wouldn’t want published.
Some may write down what their spiritual struggles are and how they’re progressing. Again, as long as it isn’t written in such a way as to focus on the struggle rather than on Christ, I suppose it could be valuable. If you write about what you are learning each day as you read the Word, then fine. I commend you. But don’t view it as an inspired assignment from God. Consider it a hobby, something you do for pure enjoyment. Don’t think that you are being super spiritual about it.
History has its journals of sinners and saints. Some, even some of the saints’, are atrocious. Whitefield’s journal, for example, has some great stuff in it, and some that I just can’t stomach. In fact, many years ago when I tried to read it, I gave up mid-way through because I couldn’t take reading about how well his preaching went or what a wretched sinner he was. I believe in his mature years he regretted publishing the journal, which means he was a better Christian than his journal represents. At least I hope so.
Some of David Brainerd’s journal is lovely stuff, but some of it is self-absorbed and super-pious. His work with the Indians was great; his work with the journal . . . not so much. The Puritans were big on self-examination, and I think they sometimes took this too far. As much as I admire them, I have had to lay aside some of their stuff because of their heavy emphasis on introspection, which can lead to doubt and unbelief. We don’t have to try to impress God with how sinful we are; He knows. We are to look away from our sins and look to Christ.
Think about the writings of St. Paul. He wrote for others, and those others are still being edified after all these centuries. He didn’t write pages about his inner feelings, but mentioned them in passing, to the edification of all. He didn’t gloat or fall into self-pity (or if he did, he didn’t record it for us). He didn’t go on and on about his wrestling with pride or lust. Thank God for that!
My suggestion is this: if you have a journal for your eyes only, then destroy that thing. Get rid of it. Burn it. Be done. If your kids have journals that could cause them extreme embarrassment, then encourage them to do the same thing. And start disciplining yourself to record more edifying material. Then your descendants can treasure what you leave to them. Write each page for others, not to glorify yourself, but to show gratitude to God.
Finally, if you’d like an example of this kind of writing, take a look at Anne Bradstreet’s journal. She left her poetry and a collection of pithy sayings for her children (at her son’s request). For those who love to write, use the habit of journal-keeping to edify others. Don’t embarrass yourself or them by over-sharing.