Brandy Bagar-Fraley on Read God’s Words, Then Write Your Own

Image: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash
Image: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Three crows bickering on a rooftop against the sunrise, reads my journal entry from July 22, 2019. Lord, how obnoxious I am!

Aside from a list of prayer requests, that is the entirety of the entry for that day. Out of context, it makes no sense. But reading those two sentences now whisks me back to that sticky summer morning. The trio of argumentative crows on my neighbor’s roof are cawing and fighting, oblivious to the sky painted in lavender and gold behind them. Observing them, I see myself in their behavior, my complaints and natterings stark against the backdrop of God’s extravagant love. I jog home, unsettled, to write about the experience.

The practice of writing down my spiritual observations puts me in good company. Christians have been compelled to write about God and to God since the earliest days of the church. Although much of the church’s writing over the years has been to reflect God to the wider world, Christians have also long written to and about God privately.

Prayer journaling transcends denomination and background. Throughout history, both ordinary and prominent believers have approached private journaling to God as a matter of great spiritual import. Fiery Puritans Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards used their diaries to chronicle their sins and halting progress in holiness. John Wesley inherited his journaling practice from his devout mother, Susanna. C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed emerged from personal reflections he kept after the loss of his wife.

The motivations for this practice varied. Puritans often journaled as an attempt to grow in holiness. John Beadle, an English clergyman in the 1600s, believed that diary-keeping was a way Christians might practice for the account they must ultimately give to God of “all of our wayes, and all of his wayes toward us.” Trappist monk Thomas Merton believed that the act of writing without witness or audience permitted the honesty and transparency required to come before God.

Journaling remains popular today. In the secular world, it has flourished as a therapeutic tool and a path to wellness-based self-empowerment. In our digital age, many young professionals have found that paper planners and journals help them avoid getting “sucked into their devices.” And Christians still write, too. Bible journaling, which emphasizes process as much as product and invites believers to encounter Scripture through annotation, illustration, and embellishment, persists in popularity among believers. In 2020, many Christian book publishers saw journal sales rise significantly during the pandemic.

But such practices should not be confused with the process that compelled Jonathan Edwards to lament in his journal, “how soon do I decay! O how weak, how infirm, unable to do any thing of myself!” The rich and complex tradition of Christian private writing not only chronicles an individual’s relationship with God, but also challenges the writer to reflect on that chronicle and grow in holiness.

As a record of relationship, writing as a spiritual practice is more than a list of annotations or a purely self-reflective practice. Rather, it serves as a recollection of God’s presence in an individual life at a particular time in a particular place, and of the writer’s presence or absence in relation to God.

When Christians write about God’s unique presence in their lives, they are obeying God’s command to record what they have seen (Rev. 1:19) and engaging in an embodied act of remembrance that mirrors others in Scripture: the stack of stone on stone, the sip from a cup, the bite into bread. Throughout the Old Testament, God constantly commands his prophets to write down his words that they may remember them (Is. 30:8, Jer. 30:2, Hab. 2:2).

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Source: Christianity Today