“Remember these commands I give you. Keep them in your hearts. Write them down and tie them on your hands and wear them on your foreheads as a way to remember my laws.  Teach these laws to your children. Talk about these things when you sit in your houses, when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you get up.Deuteronomy 11:18-19 ERV
The concept of journaling for spiritual growth is not unique to our modern times. God told his people in ancient times to write down his commands so that they could keep them in their hearts. In the Middle Ages, artists in monasteries would create illustrations to supplement the Scriptures as a way to add context or create an emotional connection through visuals. Centuries later, using notebooks and diaries to chronicle a spiritual journey has even become its own industry.
And yet, despite the fact that written creative expression is on the rise thanks to the increasing popularity of bullet journaling, it’s not uncommon for those of us who keep a faith journal to take God out of this process entirely.
How does this happen? In short, this irony is a result of relying on writing for emotional expression and relief, to the point where we neglect to bring our thoughts, feelings, troubles and desires to God in prayer. When this occurs, our quiet times with God become more self-absorbed thought exercises than special times where we actually commune with him and set spiritual goals.
This is not meant to disparage all types of journaling. There are lots of methods appropriate for all sorts of situations and purposes, and the benefits of writing out our emotions and experiences are well-documented. Our goal is merely to differentiate between creative or emotional expression, and writing to supplement or document your spiritual growth and pursuit of God.
Spiritual journaling requires spiritual discipline. Ultimately, what to write in a spiritual journal comes down to answering the following questions for yourself, which should set you up for a great time in prayer with God:
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Answering these questions for yourself should allow you to deepen your reading and application of the Scriptures, and give you a lot more to talk about with God when you go out to pray to ask him for help.
What is the condition of my heart?
This is why the Holy Spirit says, “If only you would listen to his voice this day!  Don’t make him angry by hardening your hearts, like your ancestors did during the days of their rebellion, when they were tested in the wilderness.  There your fathers tested me and tried my patience even though they saw my miracles for forty years they still doubted me!– Hebrews 3:7-9 TPT
Hardening our hearts while listening to God’s voice (i.e. the Bible) essentially means reading scriptures with no intention of applying any of them. It’s an easy trap to fall into: we read the Word while totally oblivious to the sins and life challenges that are doing a number on us internally. If we’re not careful, we will begin to see the Bible as something of a textbook instead of the living and active Word of God (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Spiritual journal writing can be either helpful or harmful in this regard. In my experience, just because I’m taking notes and writing down my thoughts and feelings doesn’t necessarily mean I’m planning to apply what God is trying to tell me in my Bible study. Journaling my emotions has the potential to push me further down the rabbit hole of my own feelings if I spend more time thinking of myself than God.
Instead of using up all your ink lamenting, try limiting yourself to brief answers to the following questions before you read, but after you begin with a brief prayer:
- What 2-3 sins are making me feel guilty, and what led to them?
- What 2-3 positive emotions am I feeling, and what helped me feel them?
- What 2-3 negative emotions are burdening me, and why am I feeling them?
When creating your spiritual journal entries, try limiting yourself to answering these brief questions, and start looking for God’s answers to jump out at you from the pages. Then practice taking those emotions to God in prayer. This spiritual practice will help transform your journaling into a powerful tool for your spiritual life.
Is my heart wandering?
 This ignited my anger with that generation and I said about them, ‘They wander in their hearts just like they do with their feet, and they refuse to learn my ways.’  My heart grieved over them so I decreed: ‘They will never enter into the calming rest of my Spirit!’ ” Hebrews 3:10-11 TPT
I started journaling in high school, when I started writing raps and poetry to help put to words what I was feeling. It’s something I keep up with to this day, and I greatly enjoy the freedom of expression that comes with this creative process.
Upon reflection in preparation for this article, however, I realized it’s very rare for me when I engage in this exercise to write anything to or for God. My emotions come out, but they stop on the paper.
Writing poetry (and in turn, spiritual journaling), is an excellent way to become self-aware and explore the ways our hearts may be wandering from God. But on its own, journaling is not something that can meet my needs spiritually, because I receive nothing back from the pages. When my heart is wandering away from God, God longs to guide me home through scriptures and prayer.
As you read the Bible, take time to write how you see your heart wandering.
- How have you seen yourself drift from God?
- What people, hobbies, jobs, etc distract you from God?
- What do you need to let go of in your life to refocus on God?
Then, make sure to talk to God about the answers to these questions in prayer.
What can I learn about God?
Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders.Psalm 119:27 NIV
The psalmist above stresses the importance of meditating on who God is and the great things he does.
Two questions I always ask in my journal while I read the Bible are:
- What is God telling me through the Scriptures?
- What do I learn about God from this passage?
Answering these questions helps me focus on God more than my emotions or worries of the day.
No matter how many times we read the Bible, there is always something new for us to learn about God. Take some time in your journaling to write down a new characteristic or quality about God, and reflect on what that implies for your life. If you have a hard time with writing, you can draw or doodle out qualities you see in God, too.
How can I put the Bible into practice?
I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws.  I hold fast to your statutes, O LORD; do not let me be put to shame.  I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.Psalm 119:30-32 NIV
God expects us to obey what we read. I can fulfill my religious duty by reading and journaling, but not really do anything to follow or obey what I read. Writing down specific ways I can obey the Scriptures in relationships and situations in my life is very helpful.
I also find it helpful to take the notes that I wrote in my journal with me when I go out to pray. When I pray I can then use them to guide and remind me what to talk to God about. You can also write down scriptures in your notebook in a creative way or with visuals or drawings. This will help you retain it both while you are praying and throughout the day.
It may also help you to write down scriptures that can help you with certain parts of you heart. For example, these can be:
- Redefining scriptures – scriptures that change your mind about topics like prayer, worry, or being loving
- Breakthrough scriptures – scriptures that help you overcome sins or character issues that you have had difficulty with like pride, selfishness, or bitterness. Having these scriptures written down in your notebook are good “toolkits” to help God change the way you think (Romans 12:1-2).
It is important when asking ourselves questions and journaling thoughts and feelings, to do so in the context of the scriptures we are reading. If we focus on circumstances and what we are feeling about ourselves, we can easily forget God and stop listening to what he is telling us.
Using our spiritual journal as a tool to help us turn to God in prayer will lead us to grow closer to God, instead of growing more self-absorbed and indulgent in our feelings.