Lessons from Journaling

by Greg Wiens

After reading my Thursday Thought last week on journaling, a friend asked if I would unpack how I practice the habit of journaling: what I have learned and how I have been consistent for forty years. 

Let me first state that journaling is a habit of supreme importance in my life. Journaling impacts not only my spiritual life but also my mental, emotional, and creative life. Of all my spiritual habits, without exception, journaling has produced more fruit than any other practice. And I would say the same for all the other areas as well. I think this is because journaling incorporates so many different aspects of my life, as I will explain in a moment. 

Having said how important journaling has been for me, let me quickly add that journaling is not for everyone. I have known many people who have been great thinkers who never journaled. I am not sure why journaling has been so important in my life, but not necessarily for others. I am sure it is in the way I process and grow. 

Let me further say that one must be careful not to turn journaling into some mechanistic record of events. I would call that a diary. A journal is so much more than just recording events that happened the previous day.

Journaling can’t be done legalistically either. There have been times when I have gone for weeks, maybe even a month, with little to write or think deeply about. As I have written elsewhere, I don’t feel guilty; I feel hungry. Usually, if I don’t journal for a week, I do feel like my life is missing something. I feel as if I am running from one event to another with little center giving direction to my life. 

This is because journaling keeps me living at a deeper level. Journaling gives me a deeper perspective on everything else in my life if it is done right. I find as I journal that I live more intentionally.

So what does journaling look like for me?  Journaling usually involves five elements: Scripture study, mental processing, emotional processing, confession, and prayer. I don’t necessarily sequence through them in any order, but most of them find a way into what I regularly record.  When I started four decades ago, I intentionally tried to ensure each element was a separate part of my journal.  But that became too rigid for me, and now each of these elements morphs into the others, as you will see.

Scripture study is usually a part of what I am processing. For decades I would read through the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation at my own pace. It might take me two or three years to make it through the entire Bible, but that was fine because I wasn’t on a race, no one was grading me, and it didn’t make any difference how much I read in one setting. I usually read it through a different translation each time. I might spend weeks wrestling through a thorny passage. Or, if MK and I were reading a book that referenced a passage, I might spend some time reading the surrounding context for a few days. Sometimes, I would simply disagree with a passage and write how it didn’t make sense to me. I would struggle with passages and then wonder why I struggled with a certain passage. This often led me to think about my mental or emotional schemas or barriers that kept me from growing or understanding. 

Mental processing is an important element that frequently finds expression in my journaling.  I may write things that I wonder about. Like this week, it was “Why the sand at Anna Maria Island does not get hot in the sun, while the sand at Melbourne beach does?”  As stupid as this sounds, anything that bothers me, I write down. If there are perplexing problems in my personal life, relationships, ministry, or whatever, I write them down and try to think deeply about them from different angles. Often, I don’t solve them immediately, but a solution comes when I am not even thinking about it. Which often is in the middle of the night.  

Frequently, I write down the dreams which I had the previous night. Certain dreams may have bothered me for one reason or another. I literally taught myself to fly (in my dreams!) through this process. You laugh, but it works very well. 

By the way, the sand on Anna Maria Island has a much higher quartz content in it than the sand in Melbourne, which causes it not to retain heat from the sun like other sand!

Speaking of things that bother me, Emotional processing plays a dominant role in my journaling. I write down what I felt the day before or what I noticed others feeling. I try to understand why I felt the way I did or why others felt as they did.  I don’t just try to justify my own feelings, but without judgment, I try to find the origin or cause of my feelings. 

For example, when MK and I get into a disagreement or misunderstanding, instead of reacting to her, I journal about it. Sometimes through my journaling, I resolve the issue and let it go. Other times I can formulate what I want to say to MK without all the baggage which was originally attached to it because of my journaling through it. Still, at other times, I realize I have been a selfish little boy and need to apologize. My emotional processing in journaling has strengthened all my relationships with my family, friends, associates, and even enemies.

This is where Confession comes into my journaling. I confess everything here, even though it may take a while for me to confess it to the offended party. Most often, I first come to confess in my journal to my Lord, then outwardly to others. As I have authentically gone through these processes, God shows me where I am wrong and what I need to do about it.

Prayer is woven through all the preceding elements. When I am confused, I ask God for guidance. Or when I need insight or just time to talk with God, I do so as I journal.  Sometimes, I may write my prayers in my journal. Sometimes I just pause and talk to Him. This kind of prayer is like an ongoing conversation I have with God. I am thinking, feeling, and confessing with him, so prayer in this context is truly an ongoing conversation with my creator, who is the creator of the universe.

Lastly, here are a few nuts and bolts of journaling. For 30 years, I journaled in expensive logbooks, which I still have. On the first line, I would write the date and then a few things I was monitoring, like weight or exercise. Then launched right in. For the last decade, I have been journaling using software (Day One) on my iPad. It took me a couple of months for my thoughts to flow as smoothly typing as they had previously with my handwriting. What I love about digital journaling is that I can search for anything within the last 10 years that I have journaled about in an instant.

It is password protected.

I am often asked how long I journal; well, how long does it take you to eat? I usually eat at consistent times but spend radically different amounts of time eating because of what I am eating. In the same way, I start my day journaling at the same time, but I may add things throughout the day. This is another reason I like having it on my iPad, which is usually with me. Sometimes I journal very quickly, like under five minutes.  At other times I may spend an hour because I have the need and the time available.

As I mentioned last week in my TT, the biggest hurdle for me to overcome was writing for posterity. I finally had to come to grips with this if I was going to be brutally honest in my journal. That is why I told Mary Kay to have them burned when I die. There is some ugly stuff in my journal, but it was stuff that I needed to process and work through; writing it down helped me to do so. 

I write my TT for others, but I journal for myself.

I start out most days in the morning with the word “Yesterday,” and then I continue to write what comes into my head.  I may write things I thought from yesterday or something that happened which caused me to feel a certain way.  I do write about events, but only as these events foster thoughts or feelings which I need to process. 

Recently, I visited my father, who is almost 94 and now living in an assisted living center. I experienced him as a grumpy old man, which is something I never want to become.  I am afraid I will follow his footsteps. So I ask myself, “how do I keep from getting there, and how did he get there, and what can I do to help him out of it?” This is how and why I journal.

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