by Ivan Mesa
A glance through history reveals many men who kept journals: Ludwig van Beethoven, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Madison, Captain Cook, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan. Some notable Christians include Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Andrew Bonar, David Brainerd and, in our own day, John Piper. As I reflect on journaling, there are seven reasons why men should journal:
(1) To keep a record of life’s journey. In journaling one can remember the mundane, recall the funny, and not forget the humbling, painful, formative events of life. Pete Hamill, in his introduction to Edward Robb Ellis’ diary, explains: “The diarist has one essential goal: to freeze time… This day will never come again, but here, in this diary, I will have it forever.” Diarist Andi Ashworth reminds us that with a journal “we have a notebook in which to be a student of life.” It is one thing to remember the general contours of life, but a whole other thing to remember with specificity the dialogue, the smells, the laughs, and the tears.
(2) To have a tangible account of God’s blessings. We do not want to be like Israel and “forget” God and all He’s done (e.g., Judges 8:34; Ps. 106:21; Hosea 8:14). One of the beauties of corporate worship is coming together as God’s people to recite what God has done. D. A. Carson is right: “Believers who spend no time reviewing and pondering in their minds what God has done, whether they are alone and reading their Bibles or joining with other believers in corporate adoration, should not be surprised if they rarely sense that God is near.” Journaling is another means of “pondering . . . what God has done,” of tangibly recording God’s unwarranted grace in my life. The words you write will either serve to spur you on toward greater faithfulness or they will be a haunting reminder of an ungrateful life.
(3) To serve as a reminder of the long-term sanctification process. We all need constant reminders that we don’t become holy overnight; it takes time and holy sweat (cf. Phil. 2:12, 13; 1 Tim. 4:15). Many know of Jonathan Edwards’ 70 resolutions and imagine a life of continual Edwardsean highs, but few realize how often he wrote of deep discouragement and defeat. George Marsden notes that Edwards “record[ed] many days of lows, ‘decays,’ and lengthy times of inability to focus on spiritual things.” In Edwards’ Diary we glimpse a more honest picture: “I find, by experience, that, let me make resolutions, and do what I will, with never so many inventions, it is all nothing, and to no purpose at all, without the motions of the Spirit of God.” Edwards learned to depend on God’s grace. Journaling can serve as a mirror: it reminds us of resolutions we have made and broken, and how desperately we are in need God’s enabling grace to obey and honor him.
(4) To aid in prayer and meditation. Focused, meditative reading can be difficult in our age of text, tweet, and post. After reading two or three pages of an article or book, Nicholas Carr admits, “I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” Journaling allows you to slow down and focus your thoughts, to unplug and disconnect as you pray and meditate on the Scriptures.
(5) To practice the writing craft. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, argued that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field. While there are obvious qualifiers and exceptions to this rule, it is a helpful acknowledgment that for the writer there’s no better way to improve than by writing—plain and simple. Whether you desire to write for a public audience or simply write for writing’s sake, keeping a journal is a wonderful way to fine-tune and hone the writing craft.
(6) To keep a collection of odds and ends. In journaling you are able to save quotes, articles, even undeveloped thoughts, and use them for a future sermon, lecture, or blog post. Personally, I’ve shifted this benefit on to Evernote in recent months. But journaling still is my favorite means of collecting odds and ends of my own writing. You can track your thinking, see how it develops over time, and have the benefit of having your thoughts on paper. John Piper, summarizing Augustine, says it well: “I count myself as one of the number of those who learn as they write and write as they learn.”
(7) To be an enduring gift to posterity. Andrew Bonar, famously remembered for memoirs of his friend Robert Murray M’Cheyne, also maintained a journal. Bonar outlived his friend by over 50 years, yet never lost his childlike humility. Even at 82-years-old he wrote as an inexperienced disciple before God—prone to discouragement in ministry with death about him, yet pleading for greater zeal in service to the Lord. Although he probably never set out to do so, Bonar’s diary has encouraged countless believers toward greater devotion to Christ. Don Whitney observes that the goal of journaling over a lifetime ought to “build a monument to God’s faithfulness.” He then adds that your last entry will “most likely . . . introduce your great-grandchildren to your life and faith and to influence them for Christ’s sake.” Journaling is a way to tell your story and in your own words, to challenge and instruct your children and grandchildren, friends and neighbors, and to serve as a clear monument to God’s faithfulness.
A Warning and Encouragement
A word of caution though—even good things can be misused and perverted. There may be times when you should not journal. D. A. Carson, reflecting on how the bronze snake that God used to deliver his people later became an idolatrous snare (Num. 21:4-9; 2 Kings 18:4), warns of a similar danger lurking around a couple of our spiritual disciplines. He warns that even properly motivated spiritual aids have the potential to slide into the “triple trap” of legalism, self-righteousness, and superstition. “That is the time to throw away your journal” (emphasis mine).
With a proper perspective and a right heart before the Lord, journaling is and can be a great blessing. Of course, one can be a man just fine without journaling, but I wonder what men in previous generations gained in journaling that today’s men have lost?
Ivan Mesa is an M.Div. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and a member of Clifton Baptist Church. He is a lover of words, books, and life. You can follow him on Twitter.
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