The WHY and HOW of Journaling
Updated: Sep 19
Editor's Note: Read the second installment of this series on journaling, "The WHY and HOW of Journaling: Part 2."
The day I asked my wife to marry me I handed her a black, handwritten journal that I’d been writing to her for a number of years. My entries didn’t begin with “Dear Megan,” but “Dear Wife,” as I knew God had set Megan aside for me, but I just didn’t know her name yet. When Megan opened up her journal on our engagement, she found prayers, notes to her, and details of my days waiting for her.
I’ve been handwriting in a journal for as long as I can remember, at least twenty years. While I’ve been more consistent in some seasons than others, journaling has always played an important role in my spiritual and intellectual journey. I can confidently say journaling is a habit, one I find deep satisfaction from on a daily basis.
If you consider yourself a writer or artist or introvert the odds are you’ve dabbled in journaling at least once before. Some of you may not be daily journalers, and that’s okay. Some of you tried it, liked it, but got discouraged. “I journaled for 10 days straight...and it was great…and then I got too busy...and then I lost the journal.” My goal here is not guilt you or tell you my way is the only way to journal, but to simply share with you why and how I journal. Perhaps these reflections will stir you on to considering this discipline.
For today, the Why: I journal to Process, Pray, Ponder, and Preserve.
Next time: The How.
My first journal was a Mickey Mouse-themed journal that I bought at Disney World when I was around 12. I still have it. It’s fun to re-read my entries about what we did on that day, what rides we conquered, and who I met.
As a way to process what I did the day before or what I plan to do tomorrow, I journal about it. When I look back on twenty years of writing, I see that God has blessed me with many joyful and exciting days from marrying my wife to packing my seven earthly belongings and moving to Kentucky. Strangely enough, writing about these events as they approached helped me prepare for them. Writing about them after they took place, helped me understand their significance and how they were changing me.
Of course, twenty years of journaling reveals that God has brought storm clouds as well. Although I’ve sought to live this Christian Drama faithfully, I’ve made many painful mistakes and received the brunt of others’ painful mistakes. I’ve chronicled numerous seasons in which I feel confused and anxious about what just happened or what I’m supposed to do next!
Of all my entries, though, I tend to return to the ones drenched from the storm. I find comfort there. Why? I believe it’s where God shows his kindness most clearly and my growth most dramatically. If you’re human you suffer, so I know my pain very well could be used to relieve someone else’s. Capturing these seasons in writing or pictures prepares me to share God’s comfort when the time comes.
I always address my entries with “Dear Father,” though I’m not sure when I started doing this.
These two words transform my daily reflections to prayers to my Heavenly Father. I naturally follow the acronym A-C-T-S: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, though depending on time sometimes I deviate.
Writing my prayers, helps me stay focused on the task: conversing with God. When you write, you’re forced to think through what you’re going to say before you say it. The (more) permanent nature of writing compels me to choose my words and thoughts more carefully.
Framing my journal entries as prayers also help me when I begin processing a painful or frustrating event. If I’ve followed my ACTS pattern, by the time I get to asking God for help, I’ve already spent time praising him for who he is: sovereign, loving, gracious, wise! I’ve confessed my sin to him, which swiftly reminds me that I have many areas in which I need to grow. I’ve thanked him for his expected and unexpected gifts, which already starts putting my discouragement in context.
By the time I starting asking God for something, I usually find my mindset has shifted. I’m not saying prayer immediately washes away the pain, anger, or confusion, but at the very least, I find myself better prepared to ask for what I need, which is often far different from what I want.
Twenty years of entries reminds me that often what I need most are the storm clouds.
My journal functions as a landing zone for ideas, quotes, plans. Since I read often, I come across quotes that I don’t want to forget, so I write them down in my journal. (I place the life-changing quotes in the front.)
After I jot down the quotes, I will often dissect them statement-by-statement or phrase-by-phrase, eventually making application to my life and calling. This dissection and application often takes visual form. I’ll draw stick figures, charts, story charts, whatever helps me see what’s dancing in my head.
While writing my thesis, I processed the many complex ideas by illustrating them in my journal. I then digitized many of them and inserted them into my work.
Lately whenever an idea comes to mind, I’ll draw a light-bulb on one of the blank pages and then jot down my idea.
February 2018, I had a light-bulb moment when I had family up to our home in Lake Arrowhead. Out of nowhere, a series of images marched into my mind, demanding I capture them now, or maybe never! The only thing I could do was dash to my journal, and for the next hour or so write and doodle, write and doodle. The end result was the how and why of Stage & Story.
I also use my journal to ponder Scripture. In the Psalms, David writes, “[B]ut his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2). Over the last twenty years, I’ve worked through much of the Old Testament and New Testament with my journal next to me. If I’m working through a section of Scripture (maybe three to five chapters), I’ll write down the verse(s) that stand out to me.
Sometimes my meditation will look more like formal Bible study: outlining the passage, noting themes, tracing the author’s argument. Other times, I will simply write down how the passage points me to Christ or reveals an area of sin or encourages me.
I’ve never faced a house-fire, but If we ever do, I plan to grab my wife, the children (whether they are ours or not), and my journals. At first this sounds awfully arrogant (and perhaps it is!), but I think of it more like this: my journals are my story. I mean what are we without memories?
My journals capture not only what I’ve done, pondered, dreamt, wrestled, but more significantly what God has done: in me, my family, my church, the Church. It is a perspective on God’s Drama. Albeit, it is just one very narrow perspective from the stage, looking up and around at what our brilliant and wise Dramatist-Director is doing and has been doing.
My long term plans for my journals are simple: pass them onto my children, and hopefully, their children’s children. It’s much less that my journals have captured brilliant ideas and much more that they have recorded glimpses of a loving and creative God at play with me. “Come,” I hope my journals say, “what you’re looking for is found in my friend and Lord, Jesus.”
NEXT TIME: Four easy steps to starting journaling!
Dane Bundy is president of Stage & Story and principal of the secondary school at Providence Academy, a classical Christian school in Johnson City, TN.