Is Christian journaling good or bad? Is it a 'spiritual discipline'? Is it part of 'spiritual formation'?

Lots of women and not a few men keep journals. Writers wouldn't be caught dead without a notebook of some kind to record the good quote, stray thought, or burgeoning story.

Some of the greatest known literature are from diaries: the Diary of Anne Frank which became a first hand account of Nazi Germany's oppression. The Diary of Samuel Pepys is another example of a man's private thoughts which became historical window which generations of subsequent people can now look through. The detailed private diary Pepys kept from 1660 until 1669 was first published in the 19th century, and is as Wikipedia states, "one of the most important primary sources for the English Restoration period. It provides a combination of personal revelation and eyewitness accounts of great events, such as the Great Plague of London, the Second Dutch War and the Great Fire of London."

We know what happened to Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted because Pliny the Elder's journal. Mark Twain's travel journal through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American travelers in 1867 became the best selling of Twain's works during his lifetime and one of the best selling travel books of all time. Diaries are wonderful sources for historical record and travel advice.

In the Christian spheres, Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, kept a diary and also wrote letters constantly. Those became his autobiography after he died. The great theologian Jonathan Edwards kept a journal. In it, he penned his famous 70 resolutions. As the pastors say at the Netherlands Heritage Reformed Congregation, "these resolutions were birthed out of his felt weaknesses and known deficiencies, not his personal attainments. They represent, therefore, his sanctified, biblically-conditioned aspirations."

Journaling has always been popular, for many different reasons, as we see above. Over the last few years, journaling for Christian reasons has made a comeback. Christians are told to keep track of thoughts in a journal. This activity is now variously called spiritual discipline, spiritual formation, or Christian journaling.

Is journaling good? Is journaling bad? Must I do journaling to "partner" with God in order to advance my sanctification? Does journaling aid the Holy Spirit? Let's take a look at the pluses and minuses of Christian journaling.

When I first started out as a babe in sanctification, I was involved in some hobbies of a visual nature. I was taking classes in bookbinding and paper arts. As a result, I was making a lot of blank books. I put them to use by extending my creative impulses into a spiritual journal with collages representing my thoughts and interpretations of various verses which had captured my attention. It was a way to keep thinking about certain verses, keep my hands busy, and satisfy my creative urges. Here is a sample.
In my case, the visual journals were an outgrowth of my devotionals. I'd read the word, think about the word, and respond to the word. As Compelling Truth explains about devotionals:

"Daily devotionals also teach us truth. When we spend time in God's Word, we gain wisdom and understanding. It has been said that the best way to recognize a counterfeit is to study the real thing. Satan is the "father of lies" (John 8:44). If we are not steeped in God's truth, we are more easily duped. When we know the truth, we experience freedom (John 8:32). Daily spending time with God is a way to worship Him. Time is a limited resource. What we spend our time on is an indication of what we value. When we spend time with God, we demonstrate that we value Him. We claim that He is worthy of attention and of praise."

So some people use a journal as a response to the Word in their daily devotions. Others use journaling to pray.

John MacArthur gives an example here of a famous Christian Henry Martyn and how he used his journal to pray. Martyn was a British-born man who became a Christian missionary in India.

"He arrived in India in April 1806, where he preached and occupied himself in the study of linguistics. He translated the whole of the New Testament into Urdu, Persian and Judaeo-Persic. He also translated the Psalms into Persian and the Book of Common Prayer into Urdu." (Wikipedia).

Martyn took a fever and died a mere six years later, but his efforts on the entire Indian continent were tremendous. He wrote in his journal, "Let me burn out for God." As stated, "Martyn compressed a lifetime of service into those six years."

So, many people use their journals as a prayer journal. They write out prayers, or keep track of prayer requests in their journals.They use their journal to remember their reaction to certain situations to keep the flame of fervor alive for that particular prayer.

In his sermon, Characteristics of a Fervent Prayer Life, John MacArthur said,

It reminds me of Henry Martyn when he went to India and went into the Hindu temple for the first time and was so shook by his experience that he burst into tears. He wrote in his journal he ran top speed out of that Hindu temple and wrote, "I cannot endure existence if Jesus is to be so dishonored."

He saw all of that as a dishonoring of Lord Jesus Christ, and that set him to prayer for the nation of India that the Gospel might be spread across that nation and God would not be continually dishonored there. … That's the kind of prayer that gets answered. Prayer generated by the Word of God, grounded in the will of God, characterized by fervency, realized in self-denial, identified with others, strengthened in confession, that depends on God's character and that pursues, ultimately, God's glory. That's how we pray.

That's how we journal, too.

Martyn's reaction to the deep paganism he encountered in India sparked a fervent response in his journal with a blazing, written exhortation to always pray for the people he was evangelizing.

Journals from others an be inspiring. Martyn had been deeply moved by reading the journals of David Brainerd, the Puritan missionary in North America who passionately labored among the Native Americans in the cause of Christ. Journals of old read by people today can be inspirational, moving, and catalyzing. We read how they struggled, how the Spirit used them, and for some of us the baton swings from their journal to our hearts as the Lord sets a fire in us. However, would the Holy Spirit had used Martyn's fervency if he had not kept his reactions contained in a prayer journal? Yes.

Eventually I left off the bookbinding and paper arts. You know how hobbies come and go in your life. But I was still left with a lot of blank books. While those lasted, I simply wrote down my thoughts about the verses.
In the journal above, I am trying to figure out from the Bible about the different resurrections.
The problem comes in the internal motivation for keeping a journal. The problem comes with the external impetus for keeping a journal. In today's atmosphere of increasing mysticism ('I'm not growing unless I hear from God') combined with legalism ('I've got to DO something to enhance my spiritual walk') we are now hearing from people that we must journal in order to hear from God. They say not only that is it a must-perform "discipline" but is in fact a two way street of communication with God.

Journaling should not be a method to keep track of what God says to you. We use the Bible for that. This is where journaling goes awry. Be aware: the line is very thin.

John MacArthur explains why the current definition of spiritual formation is false.

"In Christian circles, spiritual formation refers to more than mere academic instruction. Most often, it’s a reference to the dynamic means of sanctification. It deals with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit and the various methods He uses to bring about spiritual growth in our lives. It’s at this point things can become confusing.

On one hand, there are the time-tested, practical Christian disciplines we’re all familiar with—things like personal and corporate Bible study, worship, prayer, discipleship, and service. On the other hand, many of the leading voices in the spiritual formation movement stress the need for more intuitive interpretations of spirituality. They encourage believers to incorporate a wide variety of extrabiblical spiritual practices, such as contemplative prayer, silence, meditation, creative expression, [Ed Note: creative expressions such as praise dance & journaling] and yoga. In fact, some of the most popular methods of spiritual formation have been lifted from Catholicism, new age mysticism, or other religions and rebranded with biblical-sounding terminology. But any kind of subjective spirituality that draws your focus away from the Lord and His truth can have disastrous results, derailing your spiritual growth and cutting you off from God’s plan for your sanctification." 

Too often these days, the phrase "spiritual formation" or "spiritual disciplines" are code for man-made methods methods that delude us into thinking that if we perform them correctly that we will increase in spiritual formation and thus, sanctification. But sanctification is imposed on us by the Spirit and does not emanate from within us by what we do. Being enraptured by our own thoughts we'd put down in a journal does not sanctify us. It's just spiritual navel-gazing.

Compelling Truth explains:
The intent of Christian spiritual formation is to facilitate the Holy Spirit's inward transformation of our hearts, which is reflected through our outward behaviors ... Specific practices of Christian spiritual formation include disciplines such as prayer, meditating on Scripture, worship, study, and service. Some also engage in spiritual direction, or receiving spiritual counsel or mentorship. The methods used are modeled after the practices and behaviors of Christ and those of the early church.

Journaling then, is not a two way process. Journaling is for the disciple: to keep track of thoughts, response to verses, prayer requests, to mark personal growth, whatever edifies you. It in no way is partnering with God or hearing from God. We already heard from God and all that He wants us to know of Him is in the Bible (and He also revealed Himself generally in creation- but the goal of creation is to point to Christ, (Colossians 1:15-18).

The problems come not only when we're told that we must journal, but when we're told how. Personal thoughts and private responses then become externally imposed mechanisms and we become merchandise. Marcia Montenegro of Christian Answers for the New Age wrote about spiritual disciplines, including journaling,

Disciplines or Rules?
I also take issue with the concept of “spiritual disciplines,” a term from Roman Catholic monasticism which indicated a salvation by works. And I question the idea that certain Christians can define disciplines for other Christians. Since the Bible does not specify any specific practice as a “discipline,” then I think it is up to each Christian to discover from God’s living word which area he or she may need to focus on and at which point in their lives.

I do not see biblical validity for "silence and solitude" as disciplines.There is nothing wrong with silence and solitude, and I think they are of value at times, especially if one is praying or reflecting on God’s word. But I don't think the Bible supports doing these as disciplines. Moreover, “silence” is often a code word for “going within” in order to hear from God.

Other named disciplines include journaling, fasting, and stewardship. There is no prescriptive basis in the Bible for journaling or fasting as “disciplines” for Christians. There are biblical principles for stewardship of time and money, but is this a discipline? Christians are under grace; the Lord wants us to desire to serve Him, not live by imposed rules, or disciplines as defined by others.

When I ran out of handmade books,
I got a spiral bound notebook from the Dollar Store.

Where did all this journaling come from, anyway? Psychology. In his article, "Uses and Benefits of Journal Writing,"  Roger Hiemstra wrote,

"Journal writing as an instructional or learning tool in adult education has gained cogency during the past three decades. As early as 1965, psychologist Ira Progoff and his colleagues began seeing the value of personal journals in enhancing growth and learning. Progoff believed what he called an “intensive journal process” could “draw each person’s life toward wholeness at its own tempo. . . It systematically evokes and strengthens the inner capacities of persons by working from a non-medical vantage point and proceeding without analytic or diagnostic categories” (Progoff, 1975, p. 9)

Sure- it is good to record evolving insights, promote self-examination, keep track of questions. But the point is, none of that will sanctify you. It might be a response to sanctification, but it is not sanctification. Predators prey on our fears that we might not be growing, or we might not be doing the right things with our walk, engaging in the wrong activities. Here is a recent sales pitch about Christian journaling. You can see that the recent legalistic push to "journal" is already tiring us out.
Artist note: I have journaled off and on for years ... and now somewhat addicted to the "Moleskine" notebooks ... I am attempting a bit more creative means than just words on paper. photo credit: Bob AuBuchon via photopin cc

Are You a Journaling Dropout?
"Does the mere thought of journaling tire you out? Or does it conjure up spending time you don't have detailing overly "serious" thoughts and spiritual insights? Perhaps you've tried to keep journals in the past—prayer lists, irregular accounts of your spiritual failures and victories, letters to God about your deepest dreams. But let's face it: While journaling can be an amazing tool to help you record God's transforming work in your heart, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the process. However, I've discovered some creative journaling techniques that have blown me away with their ability to renew joy and intimacy in my relationship with God. So whether you're tired of your own humdrum attempts to journal, or if you've never given it a try because you don't think of yourself as a "writer," think again. Have I got some fresh ideas for you!"

I resent someone merchandising my private walk with a sales pitch. Anyway, that's just me. Do this! Do it this way! Or else! Pay money! Be blown away!

Artist note: Youth Haven Ranch was a great place to capture nature on my camera this past summer. The wild raspberries were perfect for trying macro photography. I love this quote by Thomas Moore. Taking photos and making art are very spiritual activities for me. I am in awe of God's creativity and His greatness when I am out walking around in nature and taking credit: marynbtol via photopin cc
Now to be fair, in that article one of the tips was to collect quotes from Christian authors, quotes that resonate with you. OK, fine, though remember that your sanctification comes by the Bible and the Spirit, not words from other men. But collecting quotes certainly seems OK. In another tip, the author advises us that some people benefit from a 'Creator's journal', by pressing leaves or making sketches of birds or flowers or trees, or photographing nature around us, to remind us of His power and creativity.

But from the same article, we read that her friend had just finished reading a book of dubious distinction and not to be recommended,

"Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala, and she was struck by his contention that a lot of churches in America aren't praying God-sized prayers. So a few years ago, I decided to jot down some "impossible" requests in my journal about everything from the speedy growth of my small group, to godly husbands for some of my single friends, to my desire to lead someone to Christ that year. God has answered each prayer in an amazing way."

Artist note: My "grandkids". These kids inspire me
everyday to live out my faith.
photo credit: marynbtol via photopin cc
God-sized prayers? Is there a measuring stick I can use to see if my prayers are the right size? People, every prayer is a God-sized prayer! When I pray for the salvation of someone, that is the HUGEST sized prayer of all, because without God it is impossible to be saved from His wrath! When I pray for my laptop not to break down, or for my corn not to hurt my toe, that also is a God-sized prayer, because I never forget that simply praying is an amazing miracle in itself. It is a further miracle that He listens. It is a further miracle that He answers! It honors God whenever we pray, if we do so in confidence and love and submission to His will.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 
(John 15:7)

Nothing in there about how big the prayers must be. And keeping track of these huge prayers tests God because the expectation of the journaler is that because they are "God-sized", then He will answer. You've crossed into dangerous territory, then.

Quite often, I read that journaling is an 'invitation" to God, or that engaging in it 'allows' God to do some kind of work in you. Like this:

Begin with prayer. Invite God to use your journaling experiences to draw you closer to Him and help you grow as a person. Ask Him to use your journaling to help you discover more about both Him and yourself.

So if I don't journal then I am not inviting Him into my private life? I won't discover more about Him? (where I can't do that anyway outside of the Bible). Where it is my experience that is the catalyst for growth, and not His word? Now here is THE danger. I do not grow by my own words on the journal page. To believe that increased sanctification comes by what I write is just an activity that circles the drain. Sanctification needs to come from without.

The key to determining if any activity helps or hinders my sanctification, journaling or not, is this: does it restrain the flesh?

Jonathan Edwards wrote down 70 resolutions in his diary, but that alone was not sanctifying. Edwards spent hours per day in the word, studying, worshiping, praying. He wrote the resolutions to help himself remember what kind of a Christian he wanted to be, and stayed in the Word as the energizing mechanism to move forward in it.

"A false paradigm of sanctification can't restrain the flesh. So while all paradigms or strategies of sanctification purport to restrain the flesh and make one holy, they don't do that any more than a false Gospel can save. It is critical that we understand and avoid false paradigms for sanctification. And one of those that is very popular today is called 'spiritual formation.' it is an imposing forms of mysticism and self-help and spiritual intuition imposed upon the Bible. You can go back to many popular writers not only in the modern times such as Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, but you can go way back to mystics in the Middle Ages who espouse the idea that there is some mystical intuitive capability within a person that causes him- if manipulated correctly- to rise in spiritual formation. This is not a biblical concept." (source)

Look how easy it is to gravitate from recording your own responses in a journal, to expecting to hear from God, to actually hearing from "God".

I'd quoted MacArthur way above. Here are exact cases of how and when journaling is "derailing your spiritual growth and cutting you off from God’s plan for your sanctification."

These three examples are people whose journaling went awry. Beth Moore sat in an empty cabin in When Godly People Do Ungodly Things", was the result. In her preface she states,
Wyoming, prayed, and waited to hear from God. She says she did, and the book, "

"This book represents one of the most unique writing experiences I've ever had with God. Unbenownst to me, He's been writing each chapter on my heart for several years. When the message for this book was complete, (in His estimation, not mine!) God compelled me to ink it on paper with the force of the Holy Spirit unparallelled in my experience. He whisked me to the mountains of Wyoming where I entered solitary confinement with Him, and in only a few weeks, I wrote the last line."

It sounds like she had a Philip whisking-away experience (Acts 8:39-40), and wrote inspired scripture, to boot.

Sarah Young opened her journal and expected to hear from God, invited Him, actually, and said she heard back. The book Jesus Calling was the result. (Do you detect a pattern here, these journaling experiences turning into books that make money for the author?)  Julia at Steak & a Bible wrote a review of Jesus Calling,

"This is a root problem of personal revelation — you cannot know for certain that the internal voice you are hearing is God, yourself or from the devil. So she purports to write what Jesus told her, but she had to vet those words to “ensure they are consistent with Scripture.” I have a better idea. Study the actual words of God that have already been given to us. I’m sure there is plenty more in the Bible to challenge, convict, teach and change each and every believer for the rest of their life on earth even without whispers in your mind. In my view, waiting and listening for the voice of God is a recipe for deception."

Journaling as a personal endeavor is fine, just watch out that you don't wind up like Neale Donald Walsch, author of "Conversations with God".

Source: From Matter to Spirit,
The Result of Ten Years' Experience in Spirit Manifestations
"In the spring of extraordinary phenomenon occurred in my life. God began talking with you. Through me. Let me explain. I was very unhappy during that period, personally, professionally, and emotionally, and my life was feeling like a failure on all levels. As I’d been in the habit for years of writing my thoughts down in letters...I picked up my trusty yellow legal pad and began pouring out my feelings. This time...I decided to write a letter to God. It was a spiteful, passionate letter, full of confusions, contortions, and condemnation. And a pile of angry questions....To my surprise, as I scribbled out the last of my bitter, unanswerable questions and prepared to toss my pen aside, my hand remained poised over the paper, as if held there by some invisible force. Abruptly, the pen began moving on its own. I had no idea what I was about to write....Out came....Do you really want an answer to all these questions, or are you just venting? ... Before I knew it, I had begun a conversation. ... and I was not writing so much as taking dictation.

This is known as channeling, or automatic writing, and it is occult. The same for Beth Moore and for Sarah Young. God is not taking their hand and writing down words.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 
(Hebrews 1:1-2)

Enjoy your journaling. I hope I've shown that there is a fine line in the practice. It can benefit you as long as you keep it for the right reasons and motivations. Ask yourself, 'does it restrain the flesh? Am I expecting a dialogue? Is this journal a response to my growth?' Journaling can all too easily veer toward a written expression of the mystical and unbiblical practice of contemplative spirituality.

Providence is the means by which we look back over the scope of time and see our growth. Some people need the journal as a visual reminder of where they'd come from. But doing journaling or not doing journaling doesn't hinder or help the Lord's Providential working in our lives. And thank goodness for that, for I am a sinful person, stumbling my way to the gates of heaven! All things will work to the good, because the Lord is in control.

"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
(Romans 8:28)
Further Reading:

Prayer in evangelism

A Book Review: Donald Whitney's "Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life" the Bible say about holy living

What are the Spiritual Disciplines?

Steps to Sanctification


  1. It's hard to believe you didn't get any comments on this, a great blog post.
    Good job on keeping the faith.

  2. You did a great job - thank You for this very balanced and accurate article

    1. Thank you Melina and silberlicht! I found an article that is really good, way better than mine, if you're interested. :O

    2. Thanks for the link to a very helpful and clarifying article.

  3. This is very timely for us. We heard a message yesterday at church from a lay person who brought together the latest WonderWoman movie, Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan women, and her personal experience with two-way journaling. Over the past two years we've been encountering more and more evidences that "New Age" influences under the guise of "Spiritual Formation" are showing up from the pulpit at our non-denominational church here in Baltimore Co., Maryland.


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